Ice and Oil

I’m standing on Pulpit Rock, a granite outcropping over Lysefjord a couple of hours from Stavanger, Norway… the power of ice carved this fjord long ago…
Greenland from the plane ride home….. ice in Greenland is melting faster than ever recorded…

It’s been nearly a half a year since I’ve blogged! The time between posts has grown longer and longer largely because it’s mostly self-serving to publish here. I can say anything I want, I have maybe 1000 readers (probably much less after such a long hiatus), give or take a few score. I am glad for feedback when I get it, but it has become exceedingly rare.

I took a trip to Norway at the end of April with Adriana, to root her on in her appearance for the Mexican National Curling team at their first-ever appearance in the Curling World Championships in Stavanger, a town that is the home of Norway’s oil industry. Stunning fjords carved by ancient glaciers characterize the coastal areas of Norway, which is as far north as the middle of Alaska. Already in late April the sun was setting slowly long after 9:30 pm. I visited the oil museum in Stavanger. I ate a minke whale steak while in Bergen, a town that honors its role as the northernmost Hanseatic League town in the 1500s, when salted cod was its greatest export. The photos accompanying this post are mostly from the trip to Norway.

The Mexican Curling mixed doubles team achieved many firsts. Adriana scored the first-ever point in Mexican Curling history! and her rock assured the first-ever 3-ender for Mexico against Norway! (they didn’t win any of their matches, regrettably)

I, like many people, have fallen into a kind of trance these past months, frozen in the face of the inexorable march of bad news, watching our world descend from its everyday horrors into a spectacular form of barbarism. It’s not like we didn’t know that Obama was “more of the same” following the madness of the Bush-Cheney years, which in turn were a (notable) worsening of the already horrible Clinton era, which itself was a full capitulation to the logic of neoliberalism that the Reagan regime had launched on the foundations laid by Jimmy Carter’s pusillanimous four years to wrap up the 1970s, all of which put an end to the legacies of the half-century New Deal. The New Deal was never so great anyway, in spite of some my friends’ enthusiasm for it and its recent reinvention in a Green cloak. Based on the bedrock of private property and the private accumulation of capital, and ultimately the guarantee of prosperity by a globe-spanning militarism, both nature and humanity took a terrible beating during the slow dance called the Cold War that spanned the New Deal era. But it was by shaking off the “constraints” imposed by the wealth-spreading deals of European social democracy and the U.S. New Deal that the globe began its final descent into what is now an irreversible and catastrophic decline in terms of habitability for life as we’ve known it.

Not only has wealth concentrated at rates not seen since the end of the 19thh century, but its necessary complement, extreme poverty, has also grown by leaps and bounds. The streets of San Francisco have seen a 17% increase in homelessness just in the past year, and that’s after a persistent population of 8,000-10,000 living on the streets and in cars since the early 1980s. Other cities like Los Angeles and New York report similarly entrenched populations living at the edge of survival amidst our much-touted prosperity. In the vast middle of the country, people work multiple low-wage jobs to make ends meet, often only managing due to ever-growing debts. Student loans have topped $1 trillion and WILL NEVER BE PAID. Opioid addiction, alcoholism, and general despair are rampant. One in five California children live in desperate poverty according to a recent radio program I heard, the worst in the country.

Everyone knows the emperor has no clothes, whether it’s the blatant venality of Trump and his minions, or the overarching fakery of the modern economy whose self-referential numbers all proclaim wild success even when so many are suffering a steady decline in quality of living. All the factors that produced the near-collapse in 2008 are still in place, worse than ever, with incalculable amounts of debt-derived money pushing along a fictional illusion of well-being. The concentration of capital in finance and land, and the extortionary inflated rents and home prices that funnel so much social wealth into the coffers of the criminal syndicates who built this house of cards, is as fragile as an old rickety chair, and as likely to shatter as fine crystal. The much-touted success of Google and Facebook is entirely dependent on advertising, a parasitical and worthless activity that can and will suddenly crumble when the chickens of climate and financial insanity come home to roost.

Stavanger is the home of Norway’s oil industry, based in the North Sea. This is a photo of the Oil Museum there, and inside is a well-designed, informative history of Norway’s oil… starting in the late 1960s when North Sea oil was discovered, to today when the country is extremely wealthy thanks to decades of successful exploitation of the fossil fuels that have brought the planet to the brink.
A scale model of the technologies invented to exploit deep sea oil and gas deposits
The pipeline map showing all the gas and oil lines running from the deep sea to the northern European countries that depend on it.
Another scale model of a deep sea platform from the Museum in Stavanger
A photo of the actual cement platform sunk in the deep sea.
The Ten Commandments of Norwegian Oil!!
An small-ish oil platform in for service along the interior coast of Norway, seen from our ferry ride to Bergen.
The drill bits that go through the bottom of the sea.

History is pounding on the doors in the form of decades of combustion and carbon emissions—the burning of millennia of organic wastes turned into carbon-rich oil, coal, and forests. Had we begun to slow—and ultimately stop—our dependence on fossil fuels in the brief sweater-wearing winter of Carter’s presidency, much of today’s record-breaking heat (guaranteed now to be superceded by far worse when the burning 1980s, 90s, and 2000s reach their full impact in the decades soon to come) could have been averted. Hell, we might have stabilized a new world order that actually promoted the flourishing of human cultures, natural systems, and generalized abundance! Oh yeah, that was NEVER on the agenda!

Continue reading Ice and Oil

Exiting the Cul-de-Sac

The view from my back window in September… I’m just back from a long week in Guadalajara….

While reading and writing history I never stop thinking about radical social change. And I am continually frustrated with my own isolation, which arises from my critical dissatisfaction with what passes for the Left, whether of the social-democratic or the anarchistic varieties not to mention the older hardline M-L versions which I never embraced even when they were riding a bit higher in the late 1970s. Whether through self-imposed ideological leanings, or through a genuine absence of a dynamic political culture where the debates I think are vital are unfolding, I often feel like I’m stuck in a cul-de-sac—either one that is the dominant culture of extreme right-wing insanity, or the smaller one that is the circular firing squad on the Left.

…at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike.

—Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (University of Chicago: 2016) p. 80

The key to radical social change?…

…gig work is part of the individualizing of economic life and financial responsibility. Every man, woman, and child is implored to take personal control of work, retirement, insurance, education, and so forth. Alas, greater responsibility means greater risk of failure. The Gig Economy is the antithesis of collective responsibility and class solidarity.

—Richard Walker, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area (PM Press: 2018), p. 116

I’m one of those people who have spent my entire adult life, approximately 40+ years now, thinking and scheming about revolution. During a recent Shaping San Francisco Public Talk we had a decent discussion on the revolutionary upheavals of 1968-70, necessarily a bit brief given the format. Preparing for it I read George Katsiaficas’s book The Global Imagination of 1968, which actually concludes that in terms of the U.S., the year 1970 came much closer to the kind of social break that we might call a revolution. In his book he invokes the concept of the “Eros Effect,” which I believe originated with Herbert Marcuse. This is the name he gives to the powerful feeling of connectedness that emerges in times of social conflict and upheaval.

Trying to come to grips with the despair that is always available these days, and remembering that however awful it is (and it is), we do have collective possibilities that feel dormant but could awaken much faster than we can imagine. Remember how quickly the Arab Spring and its doppelgangers in Spain, the U.S., Turkey, Brazil, Korea, and elsewhere spread, amplifying the eros effect across the planet in a matter of months. The people who took those public squares, who occupied those public spaces, who used the internet to augment the face-to-face networks that are the real foundation of radical change, are mostly still alive and well. The forces of repression have destroyed most of those hopeful manifestations from 2011, but the knowledge of how to do it, the people who did it, and the imaginations that know it’s still possible, are all intact. Better still, the dead-ends encountered last time have been pondered, and presumably new tactics will emerge to overcome obstacles, whether self-inflicted or state-imposed, next time.

Between 1968 and 2011, during my lifetime, both the old and new left fractured and shrank to a meaningless set of grouplets, though the cultural revolt that burst forth during the florescent ’60s and ’70s, prominently among women and the LGBT community, continues to fight for hegemony against the resurgent Right. But formal political organizations and ideologies, Democrats and Republicans, Socialists and Conservatives, have withered and are barely a shell of the public arenas of social conflict they once were.

In other words, the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church. Politics as thus practiced is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness… [As Guy Debord declared:] “The spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule.”

—Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (University of Chicago: 2016) p. 131

Continue reading Exiting the Cul-de-Sac

Contesting the History of Early American California

South Park, George Gordon’s original real estate development, c. 1862.

The heroic histories of early California have been fed to the state’s schoolchildren, and to the larger culture, since the first wave of American historians began to churn out the self-aggrandizing tales that were meant to exalt the first settlers while painting a simple story of inevitable progress. The real stories are quite a bit more complicated, and in key respects, the reverse of what we’ve been told. California’s jump-started economy in the middle of the 19th century was based not on hardy self-made men, but was based on an industrial model that required large amounts of capital and the abundant natural wealth without which California would have had a very different history. As Andrew Isenberg cogently puts it, “Anglo California’s economic development thus began with industry, later included agriculture, and still later invented wilderness.” (Mining California: An Ecological History, p. 164). The thousands of gold-seekers who rushed to California were themselves imbued with both the white supremacist ideology of Manifest Destiny, and the liberal belief in individualism and personal honor as the foundation of public life. Prior to the Civil War most white men were committed to a republic of individual producers, either small farmers or self-employed artisans and entrepreneurs. The corporation had not yet risen to the powerful position it would assume within a generation, and while plenty of people took jobs working for wages, few thought of it as anything but a transition on the way to self-sufficiency. As Richard White ably describes in his epic history (The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1895, Oxford University Press: 2017):

Free labor depended on independence, and, as Lincoln had said, permanent wage labor signified “either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune,” but as the 1860s turned into the 1870s wage labor was becoming not a transitory stage in life but the norm. In 1873 the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor proclaimed that wage labor had become “a system more widely diffused than any form of religion, or of government, or indeed, of any language.” Excluding farmers, wageworkers by 1870 outnumbered the self-employed. They did not sell the products of their minds and hands. They sold their hours and days. (p. 237)

It’s not even 200 years since the American seizure of California from Mexico. As Americans poured into the territory seeking their fortunes they aggressively sought to implant a political and economic order that ensured their own well-being and denied it to every everyone else. But they also faced the deep anxiety that accompanied the shifting economic world they were bringing with them, the beginnings of industrial capitalism and wage-labor. The mythological small farmers and self-made men found themselves dependent on wealthy investors and new business syndicates that employed them in seizing the natural wealth of California. While a few became unimaginably wealthy, most American California settlers were boxed in by lack of capital and a lack of land, forced to find employment with those who could command their labor with wages.

Build the Wall?

That first wave of settlers included many southerners who brought slaves with them. Even after California was granted statehood in 1850 as a “free” state, several thousand people of African descent were held in slavery with the backing of fugitive slave laws passed by the California legislature and approved by the California supreme court. But a growing majority of California’s white men, the only ones who could vote, were embracing the “free soil” ideology of the anti-slavery wing of the Democratic Party. The commitment to free white labor meant that any other group, for example, the thousands of Mexicans, Chileans, Peruvians, and other Spanish-speakers who arrived early to the gold diggings, had to be defined as occupying a different category of work. The push for a “foreign miner’s tax” that lasted until 1852 was designed to drive out the so-called peones, or peons, men who were paid a pittance and sent the products of their labor to their patrones, or bosses. The Spanish-speaking gold miners were defined as less than white men by this argument, and thus subject to violent expulsion. After 1852, when most Spanish-speaking miners had departed, the target of white miners was shifted to the Chinese miners. Before long a new claim was being made about the Chinese workers who had signed contracts and come to work in California: they were “coolies.” This process is well described by Stacey L. Smith in her excellent book Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press: 2013):

…the question that peonage raised about the relationship between capital and labor, between wage work and slavery, between citizens and aliens, and between empire and exclusion did not disappear with the repeal of the foreign miners’ tax. Instead, white Californians transferred the class, racial, and national imaginings associated with peons to a new group of foreign-born laborers. Within just a year, imagined Chinese coolies took the place of peons and started to represent virtually the same threats and fears. The campaign for Chinese exclusion that emerged in California by 1852 had deep roots in the expulsion of Latinos that preceded it. (p. 94)

Smith offers a wider view of the struggle over different labor regimes during the pre-Civil War decade through the end of Reconstruction in the mid-1870s. Her argument penetrates the fraught beginnings of wage-labor in the pre-Civil War west, and how the struggles over the definition of free and unfree labor came to shape the national discourse by the end of Reconstruction in the mid-1870s. She includes detailed accounts of slavery in California, backed up with many examples and evidence from the press of the time. She goes through the legal battles in the state legislature that led to the passage of the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians and the fugitive slave law that together rendered California’s ostensible status as a “free state” a mendacious claim at best.

Continue reading Contesting the History of Early American California