Two for Tuesday


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Confronting Industrialism


By Derrick Jensen


Some of the most important questions confronting us are: what should we do about this culture’s industrial wastes, from greenhouse gases to pesticides to ocean microplastics?

Can the capitalists clean up the messes they create? Or is the whole industrial system beyond reform? The answers become clear with a little context.

Let’s start the discussion of context with two riddles that aren’t very funny.

Q: What do you get when a cross a long drug habit, a quick temper, and a gun?

A: Two life terms for murder, with earliest release date 2026.


Q: What do you get when you cross a large corporation, two nation states, 40 tons of poison, and at least 8,000 dead human beings?

A: Retirement with full pay and benefits. Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide. Bhopal.

The point of these riddles is not merely that when it comes to murder and many other atrocities, different rules apply to the poor than to the rich. And it’s not merely that ‘economic production’ is a get-out-of-jail free card for whatever atrocities the ‘producers’ commit, whether it’s genocide, gynocide, ecocide, slaving, mass murder, mass poisoning, and so on.

Do we even care? We already know they don’t …

The point here is that this culture is clearly not particularly interested in cleaning up its toxic messes. Obviously, or it wouldn’t keep making them. It wouldn’t allow those who make these messes to do so with impunity. It certainly wouldn’t socially reward those who make them.

This may or may not be the appropriate time to mention that this culture has created, for example, 14 quadrillion (yes, quadrillion) lethal doses of Plutonium 239, which has a half-life of over 24,000 years, which means that in a mere 100,000 years that number will be all the way down to only about 3.5 quadrillion lethal doses: Yay!

And socially reward them it does. I could have used a whole host of examples other than Warren Anderson, who was playing on the back nine long after he should have been hanging by the neck (he was sentenced to death in absentia, but the US refused to extradite him).

There’s Tony Hayward, who oversaw BP’s devastation of the Gulf of Mexico and who was ‘punished’ for this with a severance package worth well over $30 million. Or we could throw another couple of riddles at you, which are really the same riddles:

Q: What do you call someone who puts poison in the subways of Tokyo?

A: A terrorist.

Q: What do you call someone who puts poison (cyanide) into groundwater?

A: A capitalist: CEO of a gold mining corporation.

We could talk about frackers, who make money as they poison groundwater. We could talk about anyone associated with Monsanto. You can add your own examples. I’d say you can ‘choose your poison’ but of course you can’t. Those are chosen for you by those doing the poisoning.

Civilization’s ability to overcome our native common sense

I keep thinking about one of the most fundamentally sound (and fundamentally disregarded) statements I’ve ever read. After Bhopal, one of the doctors trying to help survivors stated that corporations (and by extension, all organizations and individuals) “shouldn’t be permitted to make poison for which there is no antidote.”

Please note, by the way, that far from having antidotes, nine out of ten chemicals used in pesticides in the US haven’t even been thoroughly tested for (human) toxicity.

Isn’t that something we were all supposed to learn by the time we were three? Isn’t it one of the first lessons our parents are supposed to teach us? Don’t make a mess you can’t clean up!

Yet that is precisely the foundational motivator of this culture. Sure, we can use fancy phrases to describe the processes of creating messes we have no intention of cleaning up, and in many cases cannot clean up.

And so we get phrases like ‘developing natural resources’, or ‘sustainable development’, or ‘technological progress’ (like the invention and production of plastics, the bathing of the world in endocrine disruptors, and so on), or ‘mining’, or ‘agriculture’, or ‘the Green Revolution’, or ‘fueling growth’, or ‘creating jobs’, or ‘building empire’, or ‘global trade’.

But physical reality is always more important than what we call it or how we rationalize it. And the truth is that this culture has been based from the beginning to the present on privatizing benefits and externalizing costs. In other words, on exploiting others and leaving messes behind.

Hell, they call them ‘limited liability corporations’ because a primary purpose is to limit the legal and financial liability of those who benefit from the actions of corporations for the harm these actions cause.

Internalizing insanity

This is no way to run a childhood, and it’s an even worse way to run a culture. It’s killing the planet. Part of the problem is that most of us are insane, having been made so by this culture. We should never forget what RD Laing wrote about this insanity:

“In order to rationalize our industrial-military complex [and I would say this entire way of life, including the creation of messes we have neither the interest nor capacity to clean up], we have to destroy our capacity to see clearly any more what is in front of, and to imagine what is beyond, our noses. Long before a thermonuclear war can come about, we have had to lay waste to our own sanity.

“We begin with the children. It is imperative to catch them in time. Without the most thorough and rapid brainwashing their dirty minds would see through our dirty tricks. Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high IQs, if possible.”

We’ve all seen this too many times. If you ask any reasonably intelligent seven-year-old how to stop global warming caused in great measure by the burning of oil and gas and by the destruction of forests and prairies and wetlands, this child might well say, “Stop burning oil and gas, and stop destroying forests and prairies and wetlands!”

If you ask a reasonably intelligent thirty-year-old who works for a ‘green’ high tech industry, you’ll probably get an answer that primarily helps the industry that pays his or her salary.

Part of the brainwashing process of turning us into imbeciles consists of getting us to identify more closely with-and care more about the fate of-this culture rather than the real physical world. We are taught that the economy is the ‘real world’, and the real world is merely a place from which to steal and on which to dump externalities.

Does nature have to adapt to us? Or us to nature?

Most of us internalize this lesson so completely that it becomes entirely transparent to us. Even most environmentalists internalize this. What do most mainstream solutions to global warming have in common? They all take industrialism as a given, and the natural world as having to conform to industrialism.

They all take empire as a given. They all take overshoot as a given. All of this is literally insane, in terms of being out of touch with physical reality. The real world must always be more important than our social system, in part because without a real world you can’t have any social system whatsoever. It’s embarrassing to have to write this.

Upton Sinclair famously said that it’s hard to make a man understand something, when his job depends on him not understanding it.

I would add that it’s hard to make people understand something when the benefits they accrue through their exploitative and destructive way of life depend on it. So we suddenly get really stupid about the waste products produced by this culture.

When people ask how we can stop polluting the oceans with plastic, they don’t really mean, “How can we stop polluting the oceans with plastic?” They mean, “How can we stop polluting the oceans with plastic and still have this way of life?”

And when they ask how we can stop global warming, they really mean, “How can we stop global warming without stopping this level of energy usage?”. When they ask how we can have clean groundwater, they really mean, “How can we have clean groundwater while we continue to use and spread all over the environment thousands of useful but toxic chemicals that end up in groundwater?”

The answer to all of these is: you can’t.

First we must recover our sanity. Then we must act

As I’ve been writing this essay about the messes caused by this culture, there’s an allegorical image I can’t get out of my mind. It’s of a half-dozen Emergency Medical Technicians putting bandages on a person who has been assaulted by a knife-wielding psychopath.

The EMTs are trying desperately to stop this person from bleeding out. It’s all very tense and suspenseful as to whether they’ll be able to staunch the flow of blood before the person dies.

But here’s the problem: as these EMTs are applying bandages as fast as they can, the psychopath is continuing to stab the victim. Worse, the psychopath is making wounds faster than the EMTs are able to bandage them. And the psychopath is paid very well for stabbing the victim, while most of the EMTs are bandaging in their spare time.

And in fact the health of the economy is based on how much blood the victim loses – as in this culture, where economic production is measured by the conversion of living landbase into raw materials, e.g., living forests into two-by-fours, living mountains into coal.

How do we stop the victim from bleeding out? Any child can tell you. And any sane person who cares more about the health of the victim than the health of the economy that is based on dismembering the victim can tell you. The first thing you need to do is stop the stabbing. No amount of bandages will make up for an assault that is ongoing, indeed, one that is accelerating.

What do we do about this culture’s fabrication of industrial wastes? The first step is stop their production. Actually the first step is that we regain our sanity, that is, we transfer our loyalty away from the psychopaths, and toward the victim, toward, in this case, the planet that is our only home.

Once we do that, everything else is technical. How do we stop them? We stop them.

Derrick Jensen is Member of the Steering Committee of Deep Green Resistance. See more details. Read Derrick Jensen’s blog.


Posted in Activism, civil disobedience, conditioning, Consumerism, Corporate Crime, culture, Economics, Energy, Environment, Health, History, Psychology, Social Control, society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Breaking: Moguls Fear AI Apocalypse


By Jacob Silverman

Source: The Baffler

A funny thing happened on the way to the Singularity. In the past few months, some of the tech industry’s most prominent figures (Elon Musk, Bill Gates), as well as at least one associated guru (Stephen Hawking), have publicly worried about the consequences of out-of-control artificial intelligence. They fear nothing less than the annihilation of humanity. Heady stuff, dude.

These pronouncements come meme-ready—apocalyptic, pithy, trading on familiar Skynet references—grade-A ore for the viral mill. The bearers of these messages seem utterly serious, evincing not an inkling of skepticism. “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence,” Elon Musk said. “If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.”

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” said Stephen Hawking, whose speech happens to be aided by a comparatively primitive artificial intelligence.

Gates recently completed the troika, sounding a more circumspect, but still troubled, position. During a Reddit AMA, he wrote: “I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”

It’s easy to see why these men expressed these fears. For one thing, someone asked them. This is no small distinction. Most people are not, in their daily lives, asked whether they think super-smart computers are going to take over the world and end humanity as we know it. And if they are asked, the questioner is usually not rapt with attention, lingering on every word as if it were gospel.

This may sound pedantic, but the point is that it’s pretty fucking flattering—to one’s ego, to every nerd fantasy one has ever pondered about the end of days—to be asked these questions, knowing that the answer will be immediately converted (perhaps, by a machine!) into headlines shared all over the world. Musk, a particularly skilled player of media hype for vaporous ideas like his Hyperloop, must have been aware of these conditions when he took up the question at an MIT student event in October.

Another reason Silicon Valley has begun spinning up its doomsday machine is that the tech industry, despite its agnostic leanings, has long searched for a kind of theological mantle that it can drape over itself. Hence the popularity of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Any sufficiently advanced religion needs its eschatological prophecies, and the fear of AI is fundamentally a self-serving one. It implies that the industry’s visionaries might create something so advanced that even they might not be able to control it. It places them at the center of the mechanical universe, where their invention—not God’s, not ExxonMobil’s—threatens the human species.

But AI is also seen as a risk worth taking. Rollo Carpenter, the creator of Cleverbot, an app that learns from its conversations with human beings, told the BBC, “I believe we will remain in charge of the technology for a decently long time and the potential of it to solve many of the world problems will be realised.”

There’s a clever justification embedded in here, the notion that we have to clear the runway for technologies that might solve our problems, but that might also, Icarus-like, become too bold, and lead to disaster. Carpenter’s remarks are, like all of the other ones shared here, conveniently devoid of any concerns about what technologies of automation are already doing to people and economic structures now. For that’s really the fear here, albeit in a far amplified form: that machines will develop capabilities, including a sense of self-direction, that render human beings useless. We will become superfluous machines—which is the same thing as being dead.

For many participants in today’s technologized marketplace, though, this is already the case. They have been replaced by object-character recognition software, which can read documents faster than they can; or by a warehouse robot, which can carry more packages; or by an Uber driver, who doesn’t need a dispatcher and will soon be replaced by a more efficient model—that is, a self-driving car. The people who find themselves here, among the disrupted, have been cast aside by the same forces of technological change that people like Gates and Musk treat as immutable.

Of course, if you really worry about what a business school professor might call AI’s “negative externalities,” then there all kinds of things you can do—like industry conclaves, mitigation studies, campaigns to open-source and regulate AI technologies. But then you might risk deducing that many of the concerns we express regarding AI—a lack of control, environmental devastation, a mindless growth for the sake of growth, the rending of social and cultural fabric in service of a disinterested higher authority ravenous for ever-more information and power—are currently happening.

Take a look out the window at Miami’s flooded downtown, the e-waste landfills of Ghana, or the fetid dormitories of Foxconn. To misappropriate the prophecy of another technological sage: the post-human dystopia is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, will be published in March.

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Get Big or Get Out: Complex Systems and Reciprocal Ecocide


By Gary Gripp

Source: The Hampton Institute

For awhile now I have been saying that the complex systems which supposedly serve us actually serve themselves: they call the tune and we dance as directed. But I haven’t offered a whole lot of examples of what I mean. Now I would like to remedy that by offering some examples of how systems may interlock with each other and lock us into their individual and collective agendas. I will jump in – not at the beginning, but in medias res – the world I was born into, in the middle of World War Two.

At this time, the bomb factories were manufacturing great guns here in America thanks to a discovery made in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century by Fritz Haber. The Haber process, for which Haber received the Nobel Prize, is a way of turning atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which can in turn be used as a basis for making military weapons like bombs. Munitions factories built amazing industrial capacity during the war years, but then, finally, the war came to an end. With such industrial infrastructure already in place, but with the cash flow drying up, there was incentive within these corporate-owned businesses to keep all their interconnected systems of extraction, production, and distribution chugging along, which, thanks to the Green Revolution, they were able to do by cranking out artificial fertilizer, pesticides, and other agro-chemicals.

During these same war years scientist Norman Borlaug was developing hybrid strains of wheat and other grains that required intensive irrigation and just the kinds of artificial fertilizers that these erstwhile bomb factories were now turning out. And thus began a revolution in land use, a population explosion, and a movement of people off the land and into cities. The institution of the small family farm, where parents and children worked together to make a living off the land, would come to be seen as an archaic way of life, and American Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, would intone the new mantra of “Get big or get out” of agriculture. A later Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, would enjoin those still on the farm to “plant fencerow to fencerow,” getting rid even of kitchen gardens and the trees that acted as wind breaks and thermal insulation in order to maximize “efficiency” in this industrial model of the economies of scale. In this atmosphere of postwar boom-times, America’s once small-scale farming became large-scale agribusiness where giant machines, artificial fertilizer, hybridized seed, and imported irrigation water became the order of the day. This trend continues, as less than two percent of Americans now make their living farming, while genetic engineering is touted as a technological breakthrough that will “feed the world.”

Many, many systems are involved in this revolution that has changed the face of America in our lifetimes. Two cultural institutions that preceded this land-use and societal revolution are the corporation and the banks, and both these have served as important drivers to the way things played out on the ground and in people’s lives. What keeps the banks in business is the culturally established convention of interest on debt. Money is borrowed to accomplish some desired project with the understanding (in the form of a contract) that all the money would be paid back plus a large bonus to the lenders: interest paid on debt is a huge factor in our economic system and a driver of continual growth. The system imperative of interest on debt is in fact a pyramid scheme that requires new players to enter the game in order to keep this system going. Likewise, the corporation, with its imperative to earn profits for shareholders above any societal or other value, requires management decisions that maximize profits while minimizing costs and risks to that single class of people. And this imperative is also a driver of growth. The “get big or get out” injunction applies not only to farmers; it applies at nearly all levels of business.

Between them, Fritz Haber and Norman Borlaug are credited with allowing the human population to grow to twice the size that it could have without the intervention of the systems their innovations set in motion. A burgeoning population in turn drives all the systems to do more and more: more extraction, more production, more distribution, more consumption, along with more waste products coming out of each one of these systems of the global industrial economy. Add to this the revolution of rising expectations, where everybody wants to live in the lavish way we do, and you have a recipe for using up every last asset of a living planet, until it is stripped down to a lifeless cinder. This is the direction we are headed in, and we are not slowing this juggernaut down; in fact, it is accelerating, as we add more people, more systems, and more drivers to push us at breakneck speed, toward what?

But let’s go back and consider some other implications of bomb factories becoming a driver of industrial-style agriculture. We have built one hell of a lot of dams in the last half of the twentieth century in order to supply irrigation water to chemically-enhanced crops on machine-carved, corporately-owned land. Redistributing the natural flow of rivers has been less than a boon to fish populations, including migratory fish like steelhead and salmon. Runoff of nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers has created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and everywhere this form of agriculture (temporarily) flourishes. All the little scraps of land that were once saved for wildlife by the small farmer have been effectively removed in the name of efficiency. The relationship that the small farmer once had to the land is all but gone now, replaced by a relationship to massive machines, and to the banks. All those small farmers who have lost their land to the economics of giant-sized agribusiness have surrendered a life they loved for something far less satisfactory, and how much less satisfactory is attested to by many a farmer suicide-sometimes by drinking the poisonous chemicals used to saturate the land. And the land itself is now all but dead, its living topsoil blown and washed away, and what is left depleted of its living, soil-building organisms. When the organisms that build soil health are drenched with poisons and leached away, the plants that grow in this diminished medium are robbed of much of their nutritional value, including many of the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are so important to human health. Deprived of full nutrition, the health of the people suffers-as we now see all around us.

This is just a sketch of some the interconnected systems that impinge on our lives. I personally don’t see much opportunity here for human interventions that are going to make meaningful change, and the reasons for this are several. The systems we find ourselves entangled in all seem to share in the same imperative for growth, and this growth manifests in several ways. One way it manifests can be seen is in the growth of medium-sized corporations in global mega-corporations, through mergers, buyouts, and hostile takeovers, resulting in an ever greater concentration of power in the hands of a few. This is a trend that became evident in post-war America, and has only intensified in the years since-despite lip service to anti-trust laws designed to prevent monopolistic distortions of a market that calls itself ‘free.’ The explosion of the human population, from 1.6 billion at the twentieth century’s start to 6.1 billion at its end, is another obvious example of the growth imperative gone off the rails. What may not be so obvious is how feedback loops between our population growth and the complex systems in which we were – and are – entangled, have swapped roles as driver in the growth of the other; were, and are, mutually reinforcing causes, while also being mutually reinforcing effects, of synergistic runaway growth. I personally don’t see that we humans have the clear option of disconnecting ourselves from these systems that both serve us and cause us to serve them. Something from outside this entangled relationship could break these very sticky bonds-something big, like Mother Nature, for instance. Short of such an intervention, I don’t expect to see our trajectory changing direction anytime soon.

Posted in culture, Economics, Environment, GMOs, Health, History, Science, society, Technology, war | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saturday Matinee: The Salton Sea


John Waters Narrates Offbeat Documentary on an Environmental Catastrophe, the Salton Sea

By Dan Colman

Source: Open Culture

In 2004, John Waters narrated Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, a humorous documentary on the accidental lake created in the desert of Southern California. You can now find the film hosted on the YouTube channel of KQED, the public television outfit in San Francisco (where we’re getting heavy, heavy rains today). They lay the foundation for watching the film as follows:

Once known as the “California Riviera,” the Salton Sea is now considered one of America’s worst ecological disasters: a fetid, stagnant, salty lake, coughing up dead fish and birds by the thousands. Narrated by cult-movie legend John Waters, Plagues & Pleasures is an epic western tale of real estate ventures and failed boomtowns.

Find Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea listed in our collection, 200 Free Documentaries Online.

Dan Colman is the founder/editor of Open Culture. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox.


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Does Work Undermine our Freedom?


By John Danaher

Source: Philosophical Disquisitions

Work is a dominant feature of contemporary life. Most of us spend most of our time working. Or if not actually working then preparing for, recovering from, and commuting to work. Work is the focal point, something around which all else is organised. We either work to live, or live to work. I am fortunate in that I generally enjoy my work. I get paid to read, write and teach for a living. I can’t imagine doing anything else. But others are less fortunate. For them, work is drudgery, a necessary means to a more desirable end. They would prefer not to work, or to spend much less time doing so. But they don’t have that option. Society, law and economic necessity all conspire to make work a near-essential requirement. Would it be better if this were not the case?

In recent months, I have explored a number of affirmative answers to this question. Back in July 2014, I looked at Joe Levine’s argument for the right not to work. This argument rested on a particular reading of the requirements of Rawlsian egalitarianism. In brief, Levine felt that Rawlsian neutrality with respect to an individual’s conception of the good life required some recognition of a right to opt out of paid labour. Then, in October 2014, I offered my own general overview of the anti-work literature, dividing the arguments up into two categories: intrinsic badness arguments (which claimed that there was something intrinsically bad about work) and opportunity cost arguments (which claimed that even if work was okay, non-work was better).

In this post, I want to explore one more anti-work argument. This one comes from an article by Julia Maskivker entitled “Employment as a Limitation on Self-Ownership”. Although this argument retreads some of the territory covered in previous posts, I think it also offers some novel insights, and I want to go over them. I do so in several parts. First, I offer a brief overview of Maskivker’s central anti-work argument. As we’ll see, this argument has two contentious premises, each based on three claims about freedom and justice. I then spend the next three sections looking at Maskivker’s defence of those three claims. I will then focus on some criticisms of her argument, before concluding with a general review.

1. Maskivker’s Anti-Work Argument
I’ll actually start with a mild criticism. Although I see much of value in Maskivker’s article, and although I learned a lot from it, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading it. Large parts of it felt disorganised, needlessly convoluted, and occasionally repetitious. Although she introduced a central normative claim early on — viz. a claim about the need for effective control self-ownership — later parts of her argument seemed to stray from the strict requirements of that concept. This left me somewhat confused as to what her central argument really was. So what follows is very much my own interpretation of things and should be read with that caveat in mind.

Anyway, let’s start by clarifying what it is we are arguing against. In the past, I have lamented the fact that definitions of work are highly problematic. They are often value-laden, and prone to the sins of under and over-inclusiveness. I’m not sure that there can ever be a perfect definition of work, one that precisely captures all the phenomena of interest to those making the anti-work critique. Nevertheless, we need something more concrete, and Maskivker duly provides. She defines work as paid labour. That is, labour that is undertaken for the purposes of remuneration. This definition is simple and covers what is central to her own argument. My only complaint is that it may need to be expanded to cover forms of labour that are not directly remunerated but are undertaken in the hope of eventually being remunerated (e.g. work of entrepreneurs in the early stages of a business, or the work of unpaid interns). But this is just a quibble.

With that definition in place, we can proceed to Maskivker’s anti-work argument itself. That argument is all about the freedom-undermining effect of work. Although this argument is initially framed in terms of a particular conception of freedom as effective control self-ownership (something I previously covered when looking at the work of Karl Widerquist), I believe it ends up appealing to a much broader and more ecumenical understanding of freedom. As follows:

  • (1) If a phenomenon undermines our freedom, then it is fundamentally unjust and we should seek to minimise or constrain it.
  • (2) A phenomenon undermines our freedom if: (a) it limits our ability to choose how to make use of our time; (b) it limits our ability to be the authors of our own lives; and/or (c) it involves exploitative/coercive offers.
  • (3) Work, in modern society, (a) limits our ability to choose how to make use of our time; (b) limits our ability to be the authors of our own lives; and c) involves an exploitative/coercive offer.
  • (4) Therefore, work undermines our freedom.
  • (5) Therefore, work is fundamentally unjust and should be minimised or constrained.

You could alter this, as Maskivker seems to wish to do, by turning it into an argument for a right not to work. Though I will discuss this general idea later on, I’m avoiding that construal of the argument for the simple reason that it requires additional explanation. Specifically, it requires some explanation of what it would mean to have a right not to work, and some answer to the question as to why it is felt that we do not currently have a right not to work (after all, we can choose not to work, can’t we?). I think time would be better spent focusing specifically on the freedom-undermining effect of work and its injustice, rather than on the precise social remedy to this problem.

What about the rest of the argument. Well, premise (1) is a foundational normative assumption, resting on the value of freedom in a liberal society. We won’t question it here. Premise (2) is crucial because it provides more detail on the nature of freedom. Although Maskivker may argue that the three freedom-undermining conditions mentioned in that premise are all part of the what she means by effective control self-ownership, I think it better not to take that view. Why? Because I think some of the conditions appeal to other concepts of freedom that are popular among other political theorists, and it would be better not to limit the argument to any particular conception. Moving on, premise (3) is the specific claim about the freedom-undermining effect of work. Obviously, this too is crucial to Maskivker’s overall case. The two conclusions then follow.

Let’s go through the two central premises in more detail. Let’s do so in an alternating structure. That is to say, by looking at the defence of condition (a) in premise (2) and premise (3); then at the defence of condition (b) in premise (2) and premise (3); and finally at the defence of condition (c) in premise (2) and premise (3).

2. Freedom, Time and the 24/7 Workplace
Condition (a) is all about the need for an ability to choose how to use our time. Maskivker defends this requirement by starting out with a Lockean conception of freedom, one that is often beloved by libertarians. The Lockean conception holds that individuals are free in the sense that they have self-ownership. That is to say: they have ownership rights over their own bodies, and the fruits of their labour. This fundamental right of self-ownership in turn implies a bundle of other rights (e.g. the right to transfer the fruits of one’s labour to another). Any system of political authority must respect this fundamental right and its necessary implications.

The problem for Maskivker is that many fans of self-ownership limit themselves to a formal, rather than an effective, conception of that right. In other words, they simply hold, in the abstract, that individuals have this right of self-ownership and that they should not be interfered with when exercising it. They don’t think seriously about what it would take to ensure that everybody was really able to effectively enjoy this right. If they did this, they would realise that there are a number of social and evolutionary imbalances and injustices in the ability of individuals to exercise self-ownership. They would realise that, in order to effectively enjoy the right, individuals will also need access to resources.

Now, to be fair, some writers do recognise this. And they highlight the need for things like adequate education and healthcare in order for the right to self-ownership to be effective. Maskivker agrees with their approach. The originality of her contribution comes in its insistence on the importance of time as an essential resource for self-ownership. Time is, in many ways, the ultimate resource. Time is necessary for everything we do. Everything takes time. Other skills and abilities that we may have, only really have value when we have the time to exercise them. Furthermore, time is a peculiarly non-manipulable resource. There is a limited amount of time in which we get to act out our lives. This makes it all the more important for people to have access to time.

You can probably see where this is going. The problem with work is that it robs us of time. We need jobs in order to live, and they take up most of our time. Some people argue that the modern realities of work are particularly insidious in this regard. Jonathan Crary, in his slightly dystopian and alarmist work, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, notes how work has colonised our every waking hour and how it threatens to colonise our sleep too. We are encouraged to make our time more productive, but also to be available to our workplaces at more times of the day, through email or social media. Indeed, the slow death of the regular 9-to-5 workday has, if anything, encouraged work to monopolise more of time. We have flexible working hours and our work may be more outcome-driven, but the marketplaces are open 24/7 and they demand more outcomes from us. The result is an infiltration of work into every hour of the day.

Some people may not resent this. They may feel that they are living the kind of life they wish to live, that their work is enjoyable, and that it gives them a sense of purpose. But others will feel differently. They will feel that work takes away valuable opportunities to truly express themselves as they wish.

In sum, access to time and the time-limiting nature of work, is one thing to think about when designing a scheme of distributive justice. An ability to opt out of work, or to have much less of it one’s lives may be necessary if we are to have a just society.

3. Freedom and Authorship of One’s Life
There is a related argument to made here about the ability to choose one’s time. It can be connected to Maskivker’s account of effective self-ownership, but it can also be separated from it. That’s what condition (b) is about. It appeals to a distinctive notion of freedom as being the ability to exercise true authorship over one’s life. This is a slightly more metaphysical ideal of freedom, one that joins up with the debate about free will and responsibility.

To understand the idea, we need to think more about the individual who truly enjoys their work. As I suggested at the end of the previous section, you could argue that there is nothing unjust about the current realities of work for such an individual. Granting them more free time, won’t really help them to exercise more effective self-ownership. They are getting what they want from life. Take me for example. I have already said that I enjoy my work, and I have been able to (I think) select a career that best suits my talents and abilities. I’m pretty sure I’m employing the scarce resource of time in a way that allows me to maximise my potential. I’m pretty sure there is nothing fundamentally unjust or freedom-undermining about my predicament.

Nevertheless, Maskivker wants to argue that there is something fundamentally unjust about my predicament. My freedom is not being respected in the way that it should. Despite all my claims about how much I enjoy my work, the reality is that I have to work. I have no real say in the matter. She uses an analogy between starving and fasting to make her point. When a person is starving or fasting, the physical results are often the same: their bodies are being deprived of essential nutrients. But there is something morally distinct about the two cases. The person who fasts has control over what is happening to their body. The person who is starving does not. The person who chooses to fast has authorship over their lives; the person who is starving is having their story written by someone else.

When it comes to our work, there is a sense in which we are all starving not fasting. We may enjoy it, embrace it and endorse it, but at the end of the day we have to do it. That’s true even in societies with generous welfare provisions, as most of those welfare provisions are conditional upon us either looking for work (and proving that we are doing so), or being in some state of unavoidable disability or deprivation. We are not provided us with an “easy out”, or with the freedom we need to become the true authors of our lives. (Maskivker notes that the introduction of a universal basic income could be a game-changer in this regard).

As I said, in appealing to this notion of self-authorship, Maskivker is touching upon a more metaphysical ideal of freedom. Within the debate about free will, there are those that argue that the ability to do otherwise is essential for having free will. But there are also those (e.g. Harry Frankfurt and John Fischer) who argue that it is not. They sometimes say that being free and responsible simply requires the reflexive self-endorsement of one’s actions and attitudes. The ability to do otherwise is irrelevant. So what Maskivker is arguing is somewhat contentious, at least when considered in light of these other theories of freedom. She claims that her theory better captures the normative ideal of freedom. But there is much more to be said about this issue.

4. Freedom and the Absence of Coercive Offers
The final condition of freedom — condition c) — is probably the most straightforward. It has its origins in the classic liberal accounts of freedom as non-interference by coercion. It is introduced by Maskivker in an attempt to address a possible weakness in the argument thus far. Someone could argue that the mere absence of acceptable alternatives to work is not enough to imply that it undermines our freedom, or that it creates a fundamental injustice.

An analogy might help to make the point. Suppose you are crossing the desert. You have run out of water and are unlikely to make it out alive. As you are literally on your last legs, you come across a man who is selling water from a small stand. He is, however, selling it at an obscene price. It will cost you everything you have to get one litre of water (which will be just enough to make it out). Because of your desperate situation, you hand over everything you have. Was your choice to hand over everything free? Was it just for the man to sell the water at that price? Many would argue “no” because you had no acceptable alternative.

But now consider a variation on this scenario. Suppose that this time the man is selling water at a very low price, well below the typical market rate. It will cost you less than one dollar to get a litre of water. You gratefully hand over the money. Was your choice free this time? Remember, you are still in a desperate state. All that has changed is the price. Nevertheless, there is something less disturbing about this example. Your choice seems more “free”, and the whole scenario seems more just.

The problem with the first case is that the man is exploiting your unfortunate situation. He knows you have no other choice and he wants to take you for everything that you’ve got. The second scenario lacks this feature. In that case, he doesn’t undermine your freedom, or violate some fundamental principle of justice, because he doesn’t exploit your misfortune.

How does this apply to Maskivker’s anti-work argument? Very simply. She claims that work, in the modern world, involves an exploitative bargain. There is no particular agent behind this exploitation. Rather, it is the broader society, with its embrace of the work ethic and its commitment to the necessity of work, that renders the decision to work exploitative:

Demanding fulltime work in exchange for a decent livelihood is comparable to demanding an exorbitant price for a bottle of water in the absence of competition. It leaves the individual vulnerable to the powerful party (society) in the face of the great loss to be suffered if the “offer” as stipulated is not taken (if one opts not to work while not independently wealthy)

(Maskivker 2010)

5. But isn’t the abolition of work impossible?
Thus ends the defence of Maskivker’s central argument. As you can see, her claim is that the modern realities of work are such that they undermine our freedom and create a fundamental injustice in our society. This is because (conjunctively or disjunctively) work monopolises our time and limits our effective self-ownership; the absence of a viable alternative to work prevents us from being the true authors of our live; and/or society is presenting us with an exploitative bargain “you better be working or looking for work or else…”. You may be persuaded on each of these points. You may agree that a full (positive?) right not to work would be nice. But you may think that it is naive and unrealistic. You may think that it is impossible to really avoid a life of work. Maskivker closes by considering two versions of this “impossibility” objection.

The first, which we might call the “strict impossibility” objection, works something like this:

  • (6) We all have basic needs (food, clothing, shelter etc); without these things we would die.
  • (7) We have to work in order to secure these basic needs.
  • (8) Therefore, we have to work.

Maskivker has a very simply reply to this version of the objection. She holds that premise (7) is false. Not all activities that are conducive to our survival are inevitable. At one point in time, we had to take the furs and hides of animals in order to stay warm enough to survive. We no longer have to do this. The connection between survival and procuring the furs and hides of animals has been severed. The same could happen to the connection between work and our basic needs. Indeed, it is arguable that we no longer need to work all that much to secure our basic needs. There are many labour saving devices in manufacturing and agriculture (and there are soon to be more) that obviate the need for work. And yet the social demand for work has, for some reason, not diminished. Surely this doesn’t have to be the case? Surely we could allow more machines to secure our basic needs?

The second impossibility objection, which we might call the “collective action” objection, is probably more serious. It holds that while a right not to work might be all well and good, the reality is that if everyone exercised that right, society would not be able to support its implementation. After all, somebody has to pay for the system. Maskivker’s responses to this objection are, in my opinion, somewhat problematic.

She makes one basic point. She says that the existence of a right is not contingent upon whether it may be impossible to recognise it in certain social contexts, or whether universal exercise of that right would lead to negative outcomes. She uses two analogies to support this point. First, she asks us to suppose that there is a universal right to healthcare. She then asks us to imagine that we live in a society in which there is some terrible natural disaster, which places huge strains on the healthcare system. The strains are such that the available resources will not be sufficient to save everyone. Maskivker argues that the universal right to healthcare still exists in this society. The limitations imposed by the natural disaster do not take away people’s rights. Second, she asks us to consider the right not to have children. She then points out that if everyone exercised the right not to have children, it would lead to a bad outcome: humanity would go extinct. Nevertheless, she argues, that this does not mean that the right not to have children does not exist.

In some ways, I accept Maskivker’s point. I agree that a right may exist in the abstract even if its implementation creates problems. But I don’t think that really addresses the collective action objection, and I don’t think her analogies work that well. With regards to the right to healthcare in the disasterzone, I’m inclined to think that the limitations of the available resources would compromise or limit the right to healthcare. And with regards to the right not to have children, I think there is something fundamentally different about the problems that arise when we collectively head towards our own extinction and the problems that might arise if everyone stopped working. In the former case, no individuals would be harmed by the collective exercise of the right: the future generations who would have existed, do not exist and cannot be harmed. But in the latter case, there are individuals who might be harmed. For example, if doctors and nurses stopped working, their patients would be harmed. So I’m not sure that Maskivker has really grappled with the collective action objection. I think she tries to sidestep it, but in a manner that will be unpersuasive to its proponents.

6. Conclusion
That brings me to the end of this post. To briefly sum up, Maskivker presents an anti-work argument that focuses on the ways in which work undermines our freedom. She argues that this happens in three ways. First, work robs us of time, which is an essential resource if we are to have effective self-ownership. Second, work prevents us from being the true authors of our lives because there is no acceptable alternative to work (even in societies with social welfare). And third, because work involves an exploitative bargain: we must work, or else.

I think there is much of value in Maskivker’s article. I like how she focuses on time as a resource, one which should be included in any scheme of distributive justice. I also like how she integrates the anti-work critique with certain aspects of the mainstream literature on freedom, self-control and justice. Nevertheless, I fear she dodges the collective action objection to the anti-work position. This is where I think that technology, and in particular a deeper awareness of the drive toward automation and technological unemployment could be a useful addition to the anti-work critique. But that’s an argument for another day.

Posted in culture, Economics, History, Labor, Social Control, society, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Monsanto Shill Patrick Moore Fails “Glyphosate Challenge”


France is not without it’s share of free speech issues, but much credit should be given to the Canal+ network and a recent documentary they aired, “Bientôt dans vos assiettes” (Soon on your plate), produced by investigative journalist Paul Moreira. During an interview for the show, corporate green-washer Patrick Moore claims that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is safe enough to drink (an oft-repeated claim for Monsanto chemicals). Moreira’s response is brilliant: offering Moore an opportunity to drink glyphosate in front of the cameras. This is a transcript of the PR nightmare moment:

Moore: Do not believe that glyphosate in Argentina is causing increases in cancer. You can drink a whole quart of it and it won’t hurt you.

Moreira: You want to drink some? We have some here.

Moore: I’d be happy to actually… Not, not really, but…

Moreira: Not really?

Moore: I know it wouldn’t hurt me.

Moreira: If you say so, I have some glyphosate.

Moore: No, I’m not stupid.

Moreira: OK. So you… So it’s dangerous, right?

Moore: No. People try to commit suicide with it and fail, fairly regularly.

Moreira: Tell the truth. It’s dangerous.

Moore: It’s not dangerous to humans. No, it’s not.

Moreira: So you are ready to drink one glass of glyphosate?

Moore: No, I’m not an idiot.

Moore then abruptly ends the interview losing what little dignity he had left by calling the interviewer “a complete jerk.” This is the man Monsanto and the Biotech industry would have us believe is a suitable science Ambassador for EXPO 2015 whose theme will be “Feeding the planet, energy for life”. Moore has also been vocal on social media in response to the decision of the World Health Organization’s panel of scientists to list glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.

Enjoy the schadenfreude with James Corbett through the following Corbett Report video:

It could only be better had Moore actually drank it.


Posted in Corporate Crime, culture, Economics, Environment, Health, Humor, media, news, Science, Social Control, society, Video | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gates Foundation’s Seed Agenda in Africa ‘Another Form of Colonialism,’ Warns Protesters


‘This neoliberal agenda of deregulation and privatization poses a serious threat to food sovereignty and the ability of food producers and consumers to define their own food systems and policies,’ says campaigners

By Lauren McCauley


Food sovereignty activists are shining a light on a closed-door meeting between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which are meeting in London on Monday with representatives of the biotechnology industry to discuss how to privatize the seed and agricultural markets of Africa.

Early Monday, protesters picketed outside the Gates Foundation’s London offices holding signs that called on the foundation to “free the seeds.” Some demonstrators handed out packets of open-pollinated seeds, which served as symbol of the “alternative to the corporate model promoted by USAID and BMGF.” Others smashed a piñata, which they said represented the “commercial control of seed systems;” thousands of the seeds which filled the pinata spilled across the office steps. A similar protest is expected later Monday in Seattle, Washington, where BMGF is headquartered.

The meeting was convened to discuss a report put forth by Monitor-Deloitte, which was commissioned by BMGF and USAID to develop models for the commercialization of seed production in Africa, especially “early generation seed,” and to identify ways in which the African governmental sectors could facilitate private involvement in African seed systems. The study was conducted in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia on maize, rice, sorghum, cowpea, common beans, cassava and sweet potato.

However, food sovereignty activists are sounding the alarm over the secret meeting. Heidi Chow, food sovereignty campaigner with Global Justice Now, which organized Monday’s protest, warned that the agenda being promoted by these stakeholders will only increase corporate control over seeds.

“This is not ‘aid’ – it’s another form of colonialism,” said Chow. “We need to ensure that the control of seeds and other agricultural resources stay firmly in the hands of small farmers who feed the majority of the population in Africa, rather than allowing big agribusiness to dominate even more aspects of the food system.”

In a blog post, Chow further explained:

For generations, small farmers have been able to save and swap seeds. This vital practice enables farmers to keep a wide range of seeds which helps maintain biodiversity and helps them to adapt to climate change and protect from plant disease. However, this system of seed saving is under threat by corporations who want to take more control over seeds. Big seed companies are keen to grow their market share of commercial seeds in Africa and alongside philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation and aid donors, they are discussing new ways to increase their market penetration of commercial seeds and displacing farmers own seed systems.

Corporate-produced hybrid seeds often produce higher yields when first planted, but the second generation seeds will produce low yields and unpredictable crop traits, making them unsuitable for saving and storing. This means that instead of saving seeds from their own crops, farmers who use hybrid seeds become completely dependent on the seed companies that sell them.

Further, many of the seeds produced by these biotechnology giants are sold alongside chemical fertilizer and pesticides, manufactured by the very same companies, the use of which often leads to widespread environmental destruction and other health problems.

As others noted, while the meeting attendees included representatives from the World Bank and Syngenta, the world’s third biggest seed and biotechnology company, no farmers or farming organizations were represented at the talks.

“Seeds are vital for our food system and our small farmers have always been able to save and swap seeds freely,” Ali-Masmadi Jehu-Appiah, chair of Food Sovereignty Ghana, said in a press statement. “Now our seed systems are increasingly under threat by corporations who are looking to take more control over seeds in their pursuit of profit. This meeting will push this corporate agenda to hand more control away from our small farmers and into the hands of big seed companies.”

Reporting on the Monitor-Deloitte study, Ian Fitzpatrick, a food sovereignty researcher for Global Justice Now, said that documents circulated ahead of the meeting revealed a neo-liberal agenda “laid bare.”

Fitzpatrick writes:

The report recommends that in countries where demand for patented seeds is weaker (i.e. where farmers are using their own seed saving networks), public-private partnerships should be developed so that private companies are protected from ‘investment risk’. It also recommends that that NGOs and aid donors should encourage governments to introduce intellectual property rights for seed breeders and help to persuade farmers to buy commercial, patented seeds rather than relying on their own traditional varieties.

Finally, in line with the broader neoliberal agenda of agribusiness companies across the world, the report suggests that governments should remove regulations (like export restrictions) so that the seed sector is opened up to the global market.

“This neoliberal agenda of deregulation and privatization, currently promoted in almost every sphere of human activity—from food production to health and education—poses a serious threat to food sovereignty and the ability of food producers and consumers to define their own food systems and policies,” Fitzpatrick adds.

AGRA Watch, a program of the grassroots group Community Alliance for Global Justice, notes that the BMGF-USAID commercial seed agenda further “extends U.S. foreign policy into Africa on behalf of corporate interests.”

Phil Bereano, food sovereignty campaigner with AGRA Watch and an Emeritus Professor at the University of Washington added: “This is an extension of what the Gates Foundation has been doing for several years—working with the US government and agribusiness giants like Monsanto to corporatize Africa’s genetic riches for the benefit of outsiders. Don’t Bill and Melinda realize that such colonialism is no longer in fashion? It’s time to support African farmers’ self-determination.”

Posted in Activism, Corporate Crime, culture, Economics, Empire, Environment, Geopolitics, GMOs, Health, Law, Privatization, Science, Social Control, society, State Crime, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment