So You Want to Have a Revolution?

austerity protest

A 2013 study from Fairleigh Dickinson University reveals that 29% of Americans believe an armed revolution may be necessary in the next few years to “protect liberties.” The voter survey differed from most corporate media polls in that it included a substantial number of low income, cellphone only households.

18% of Democratic respondents shared this view, 27% of Independents and 44% of Republicans.

A decade ago, the notion that anyone other than a few thousand fringe extremists would contemplate violent revolution was unthinkable. At the very least, these results suggest a significant minority of Americans are profoundly disillusioned with the government’s apparent indifference to their needs and expectations.

The End of Growth: An Inconvenient Reality

Despite government claims to the contrary, recovery from the deflationary spiral that started in 2008 (aka The Recession) has been elusive. Although stock prices continue to soar, productivity, employment and consumer spending have stubbornly refused to return to pre-2008 levels. Some latter day (non-Wall Street) economists believe the era of economic growth has ended – permanently – owing to the soaring cost of fossil fuels. In their view, the world has returned to a steady state economy.

Given the historic link between growth and “full” employment (jobless levels below 10%), they are also predicting a scenario in which roughly half the adult population is unemployed. The paid work that remains will be low paid, part time, temporary jobs, unprotected by unions, employment rights or health and safety regulations.

To appreciate that US economic growth is at a standstill, it’s essential to look at undoctored economic data. For example, when Obama and the corporate media trumpeted a 7% unemployment rate for November, they neglect to mention that this figure only reflects the number of workers newly unemployed in the last six months (i.e. the number still receiving basic unemployment benefits). Unlike other countries, the official US jobless figure doesn’t include workers whose benefits have run out, who have stopped looking for work, or who want to work full time but are stuck in part time jobs.

Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis reveals that the US economy is shedding full time jobs, rather than gaining them. The percentage of unemployed Americans of working age has increased from 35.5% in 1999 to 41.7% in 2013 – the highest since 1980. Most of that increase (5%) has occurred since Obama was first elected in 2008.

The 2008 Economic Crash Was Predictable

Prominent members of the Peak Oil movement, most notably Michael Ruppert and Richard Heinberg, predicted the 2008 economic crash. They based their predictions on declining oil reserves, the failure of oil production to keep up with increasing demand from developing countries and the steep rise in oil prices that began in 2005.* Based on their calculations, mankind had extracted half of the world’s available oil reserves by November 2005. This was officially known as Peak Oil. We reached Peak Natural Gas several years before that, though we won’t reach Peak Coal for another decade or so.

Although there still remains tons of oil, gas and coal left in the ground for us to extract and burn, we are now on a downward slope. Not only is production continuing to outstrip demand, but most of the remaining oil, natural gas and coal are difficult to get at, expensive to extract and rely on dangerous, expensive, environmentally destructive and controversial technologies, such as deep sea oil drilling, tar sands extraction fracking and mountain top removal.

Capitalism and Productivity

The steady economic expansion we call growth is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Prior to the 19th century, the major nations of the world operated steady state economies. In fact the argument Heinberg and others make is the burst of productivity most of the world attributes to capitalism had nothing to do with the capitalist economic model itself. Rather it was based on the widespread abundance of cheap fossil fuels. British economists at the Fiesta Institute provide abundant data justifying this argument in Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse. They point out that even at current oil prices, it costs far less to use a machine to perform work than to employ a human being or even a draft animal.

The birth of capitalism wasn’t just about the exploitation of fossil fuels. It was about the exploitation of all natural resources – clear cutting forests, large open pit mines to extract steal, copper, gold, bauxite (for aluminum), gold diamonds and rare earth minerals, draining swamps and eradicating wetlands. When oil started becoming more expensive (in the 1970s), it was also about moving western factories to third world countries to enable wholesale exploitation of human labor. Government encouraged this wholesale extraction and exploitation because it produced enormous prosperity for most of western society over many decades.

At the same time there were immense human and environmental costs. Western capitalism produced incalculable suffering in the third world as indigenous people were driven off the land that gave them a subsistence living, with the lucky ones obtaining jobs in brutal sweatshops that paid starvation wages. Suffering in the first world was less visible until last decade, when residents of the industrialized world began to realize they were being systematically poisoned with toxic industrial chemicals, increasing levels of both nuclear and microwave radiation and harmful organisms that had contaminated our air, water and food chain.

*Historically the oil price ranged between $2-4 a barrel prior to 1973 oil crisis. It remained between $10-20 a barrel until 1979. From 1979-1986 it fluctuated between $20-38 a barrel until 1986, when it dropped below $20 a barrel until 1989. It dropped below $20 a barrel very briefly in 1999. It hasn’t been below $40 a barrel since 2004.

photo credit: athens.rioter via photopin cc