We All Live by the River
“The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear era, but I have no fear
’Cause London is drowning, I live by the river”
— London’s Calling, The Clash
Front man of The Clash, Joe Strummer, would have been 70 last week. Musician, anarchist, socialist, culture revolutionary and punk rock hero, Strummer’s politics were grounded in resistance to authority and conformity of the late 1970s and 1980s. The Clash’s music spoke to us about heightened Cold War tensions, Sandinistas in Central America, Washington’s Bullets all over the world, union busting, dismantling of social services and, generally, neo-liberalism in the UK being ushered in by Margaret Thatcher.
The band’s landmark 1979 single “London Calling” was a stark warning to the “doom of everyday life” under the Thatcherite regime. As 1980s austerity and cultural conservatism began to take root, Strummer and bassist Mick Jones saw an urgent need for an urgent call to ordinary Britons about what the future might hold. At the time, Strummer was living by Thames and feared potential flooding. Jones expanded the song to incorporate much more.
The song’s title came from the BBC’s radio broadcasts during the World War Two era to Nazi-occupied territory and the band wanted to convey the urgency of a news report. It included fears of a “nuclear error,” policy brutality (“We ain’t got no swing / Except for the ring of that truncheon thing”), banal social conformity (“London calling to the zombies of death”), casual drug use (We ain’t got no high / Except for that one with the yellowy eyes”) and, most presciently, early references to the climate crisis (“The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in Meltdown expected”).
The Clash’s “London Calling,” amongst others, warned of possible nuclear war, the rise of neo-liberalism (also known as privatization, austerity or simply the defunding of public services), an increasingly authoritative police state, apathy of the populace, and global warming.
Things Get Worse
Today’s crises only get more dire.
In less than three years, the Coronavirus pandemic has killed over 6.5 million people worldwide (including over a 1 million Americans). In the U.S., this is a result of privatized health care systems and overwhelmed medical workers and public institutions besieged by inept craven politicians and attacked by conspiracy theorists.
The new “Gilded Age” of this era has made class power insurmountable. Trump 2017 new tax cuts reduced the corporate tax burden from 35% to 21%. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) gave the top 1% $1.9 trillion over the next decade. Meanwhile student debt is $1.75 trillion and Biden’s recent debt relief is a drop in the bucket compared to the benefits from the TCJA. Furthermore, while Congress approves hundreds of billions for the Ukrainian war effort they continue to cut funding for COVID testing and other essential services.
We laugh and joke about a class war, but it’s alive right before our eyes.
Finally, the climate crisis has only worsened since Joe Strummer worried about London flooding in 1979.
In eastern Kentucky, thousands of families lost everything in recent floods. 39 people were killed. Access to clean water is still an issue for many and schools have struggled to recover. My hometown of Dallas, TX experienced the 2nd worst raining and flooding in record. 23 counties were declared state emergencies by Gov. Greg Abbott. At least one woman died in Mesquite, TX when flood waters swept away her car. In Jackson, MS, the Mayor urged residents to “get out now,” as record setting rains hit Mississippi’s Pearl River.
In Pakistan, the “apocalyptic” flooding there has killed over 1100, displaced millions and wiped out a million homes. The climate crisis is literally bringing about an end to the world.
The past 9 years (2013–2021) have been the hottest years on record. China’s current heatwave is the longest in recorded history. Meanwhile, Europe faces its worse drought in 500 years. This week, climate scientists reported that major sea rise from the melting of the Greenland icecap is now inevitable. Billions living in coastal areas can expect to suffer through on of the most intense impacts of the climate crisis.
Fire season is no less of an issue. In the past 20 years, we have watched wildfires burn across Russia, Europe, Indonesia, the Amazon Basin, North America and Australia. According to Global Forest Watch, fires are destroying an additional 7.4 million acres of tree cover loss than they did in 2001. Wildfires are not naturally occurring in tropical rainforest, but deforestation and climate change have led to fires in tropical forests.
Along with these crises, an immediate popular reaction to them has been rising populism on all sides of the political spectrum: 1.) the far right anti-elite xenophobic Trumpian politics deriding free trade deals that outsource jobs, trade wars with China and closing the borders.; 2.) the Sanders-led progressives and socialists wanting a redistribution of wealth through essential services like health care, education, basic income guarantees, job protections and much more through state led intervention and reform; 3.) worker, grassroots and community-led movements organizing workplaces as well as providing bottom up street resistance and mutual aid in the midst of these existential crises.
The Return of Corporate Liberalism
As the Ruling Class is seeing these “shocks” from these crises and responding popular movements, their grasp on the ability to get, Adam Smith said, “all for ourselves and nothing for other people” is weakening. At least, for the moment, these “shocks” are leading to a shift from the regularly scheduled program of austerity to a return to “corporate liberalism.”
During the 1960s, historian Gabriel Kolko defined corporate liberalism, with his groundbreaking work The Triumph of Conservatism, as the state protecting and advancing capitalist interests. Kolko disputed the popular notion of the liberal state is that it provides a check and balance to corporate interests. Instead he used the “Progressive Era” of the early 20th century to show that reform comes from the top to prevent radical change from below.
Kolko used meticulous research to show that the Gilded Age was not a period of monolithic corporate power, but an era where big business lost profit to cutthroat competition, radical labor, anti-business politics at state and local levels and a divided political system. During the so-called “Progressive Era,” corporate leaders concluded that the federal government had the power to regulate the economy and bring order to the chaos of the Gilded Age. They, then, colluded with high government officials to make this a reality.
Manchin’s Energy Bill
Case in point, the recent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) negotiated for the past two years amongst Democrats and special interests is an example of the state advancing the interests of the capitalist class.
Climate movements have long advocated and agitated for action on the climate crisis. Over the past ten years, we’ve seen rising power in Indigenous, frontline and youth movements from Keystone XL to Standing Rock to the Green New Deal. But the rich and powerful won’t allow for grassroots and frontline movements to lead with solutions. Otherwise, there might be an equitable distribution of resources. Instead, Senate Democrats have crafted federal legislation that benefits business as usual.
The Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) within the IRA provides $27 billion in funding for accelerating clean energy technologies. Eligibility guidelines for the dispersal of the money are designed to benefit corporations and large non-profits (NGO). Grants are distributed on a “competitive basis,” therefore allowing corporations, NGOs and NGOs connected to corporations to have advantages in gaming the system. The GGRF will also fund “zero emission” technologies, thereby giving funds to false solutions like carbon capture and storage and biofuels.
Big Oil is invested heavily in the clean energy sector. If anything, they see the writing on the wall. BP, rebranded from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum, has significant investments in European solar power, rapid charging batteries and charging technology for electric vehicles. Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell has billions invested in solar and electric vehicles. French oil giant Total aims to be a global leader in solar power. It has invested billions in the solar industry.
The IRA is also full of false solutions to climate change. We’ve been told for decades by the billionaires these are the fix for the climate crisis. They include nuclear, biofuels, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and, last, but never least, carbon markets. All of these pose a clear and present threat to communities.
The IRA aims to ramp up biofuels with an emphasis on aviation fuel. It includes tax credits for biofuel production and $500 million for the construction of infrastructure for dispensing biofuels. Biofuels with carbon capture can get financing. Exxon is heavily invested in advancing biofuels.
The IRA has billions benefiting uranium and nuclear technology. This includes tax credits for existing nuclear facilities and production of nuclear reactors. It also includes $700 million for the stockpiling of uranium and $150 million to maintain the Office of Nuclear Energy. The nuclear industry has a decades long history of poisoning and killing communities across the country. It’s inclusion in the IRA is a slap in the face to those communities that have long resisted it.
The IRA also includes financial incentives and tax credits for a continued build out for carbon capture and storage. It allows for tax breaks if the CCS removes more than 75% of emissions. It increases cost incentives for each metric ton of sequestered carbon placed into geologic formation. It includes financing to fossil fuel and agricultural industries for implementing CCS technologies. It should be noted that a third of all CCS technology worldwide is owned by Exxon.
Last, but not least, the IRA also secures a future for fossil fuels. It allows for the fast tracking of fossil fuel projects (particularly the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia.) It opens up public land and water for fossil fuel extraction. It also creates a quid pro quo for wind and solar projects to be tied to oil and gas leasing. Finally, it frames energy production in terms of national security (what does that mean for pipeline fighters?)
The Inflation Reduction Act puts in place an energy future that is for, and by, the wealthiest entities on the planet. These are the same politicians and corporations that have added 100,000 new police to U.S. streets and put over $800 billion for military budgets.
It’s most surely the Triumph of Conservationism as it reduces any chaos created by economic and social forces that might upset the established order. If we’re lucky, it will reduce carbon emissions. But don’t bet on it.
False Solutions Be Damned.
Movements opposed to the wealthy elite’s “all for ourselves” mantra or the resulting human and climate disasters aren’t taking any of this lying down.
In response to Manchin’s new trough for the corporate pigs, U.S. climate movements are escalating on federal politicians. Last month, in the lead up to it, we saw dozens commit civil disobedience at the Congressional Baseball Game and congressional staffers sitting in at Majority Leader Schumer’s office calling for further climate action. Since the IRA was announced, actions have targeted the giveaways in the bill around fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters and the fast tracking of fossil fuel projects. In New York at Schumer’s office and at Sen. Patty Murry’s offices in Seattle, protests and sit-ins happened over the past week with more to come.
On September 8th, Appalachians are leading actions in Washington D.C. to stop the IRA’s fast tracking of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Escalation around the climate crisis is looking less cordial in other parts of the world. Climate fighters with Just Stop Oil smashed, vandalized and then glued themselves to gas pumps at three petrol stations in central London. A nice combination of sabotage and civil disobedience.
Across Vancouver BC, small groups damaged locks, smashed windows and left messages at Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) branches. RBC continues to provide funding for the Coastal Gaslink pipeline crossing Wet’suwet’en territory.
More intensely, in Puerto Rico, large crowds have been gathering at LUMA’s offices demanding a cancellation of the energy company’s contracts managing the electrical grid. Mostly because they don’t manage it very well, make lots of money and have caused ongoing power outages across the island. The protests have been met with riot police and tear gas.
One Final Note
On a final note, iconoclastic film director Bob Rafelson passed away in July (I missed it until recently). He was best known for directing Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and co-producing two of the most significant films of the 1970s era — Easy Rider and The Last Picture Show.
He was far from alone in edgy film-making. Rafelson’s generation of directors ushered in a new wave of film-making that offered a piercing critique of politics and society around them. It was a generation that included Robert Altman (M*A*S*H), Alan Pakula (All the President’s Men) and Mike Nichols (The Graduate). Their films portrayed characters that had drifted away from friends and family and are unable to make real connections. Authority is mindless, cold, and far away. Traditional heroes were violent and corrupt. The portrayal of institutions and politics at the time still rings true today.
Like Joe Strummer and the Clash, Rafelson questioned the status quo. A classic exchange between Dennis Hopper’s Billy and Jack Nicholson’s George Hanson in Easy Rider captured the moment then as it does today:
Billy: What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man? That’s what it’s all about.
George: Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s what it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it — that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. ‘Course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.