Saturday, January 20, 2018

2801. Cuba Embarks on a 100-Year Plan to Protect Itself from Climate Change

By Richard Stone, Science Magazine, January 10, 2018
Habaneros wade through floodwaters near El Malecón after Hurricane Irma.
On its deadly run through the Caribbean last September, Hurricane Irma lashed northern Cuba, inundating coastal settlements and scouring away vegetation. The powerful storm dealt Havana only a glancing blow; even so, 10-meter waves pummeled El Malecón, the city’s seaside promenade, and ravaged stately but decrepit buildings in the capital’s historic district. “There was great destruction,” says Dalia Salabarría Fernández, a marine biologist here at the National Center for Protected Areas (CNAP).

As the flood waters receded, she says, “Cuba learned a very important lesson.” With thousands of kilometers of low-lying coast and a location right in the path of Caribbean hurricanes, which many believe are intensifying because of climate change, the island nation must act fast to gird against future disasters.

Irma lent new urgency to a plan, called Tarea Vida, or Project Life, adopted last spring by Cuba’s Council of Ministers. A decade in the making, the program bans construction of new homes in threatened coastal areas, mandates relocating people from communities doomed by rising sea levels, calls for an overhaul of the country’s agricultural system to shift crop production away from saltwater-contaminated areas, and spells out the need to shore up coastal defenses, including by restoring degraded habitat. “The overarching idea,” says Salabarría Fernández, “is to increase the resilience of vulnerable communities.”

But the cash-strapped government had made little headway. Now, “Irma [has] indicated to everybody that we need to implement Tarea Vida in a much more rapid way,” says Orlando Rey Santos, head of the environment division at Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment (CITMA) here, which is spearheading the project. The government aims to spend at least $40 million on Project Life this year, and it has approached overseas donors for help. Italy was the first to respond, pledging $3.4 million to the initiative in November 2017. A team of Cuban experts has just finished drafting a $100 million proposal that the government plans to submit early this year to the Global Climate Fund, an international financing mechanism set up under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Many countries with vulnerable coastlines are contemplating similar measures, and another island nation—the Seychelles— has offered to collaborate on boosting coastal protection in Cuba. But Project Life stands out for taking a long view: It intends to prepare Cuba for climatological impacts over the next century. “It’s impressive,” says marine scientist David Guggenheim, president of Ocean Doctor, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that has projects in Cuba. “Cuba is an unusual country in that they actually respect their scientists, and their climate change policy is science driven.”

Rising sea levels pose the most daunting challenge for Cuba. Over the past half-century, CITMA says, average sea levels have risen some 7 centimeters, wiping out low-lying beaches and threatening marsh vegetation, especially along Cuba’s southern midsection. The coastal erosion is “already much worse than anyone expected,” Salabarría Fernández says. Storms drive the rising seas farther inland, contaminating coastal aquifers and croplands.

Still worse is in store, even in conservative scenarios of sea-level rise, which forecast an 85-centimeter increase by 2100. According to the latest CITMA forecast, seawater incursion will contaminate nearly 24,000 square kilometers of land this century. About 20% of that land could become submerged. “That means several percent of Cuban land will be underwater,” says Armando Rodríguez Batista, director of science, technology, and innovation at CITMA.
To shore up the coastlines, Project Life aims to restore mangroves, which constitute about a quarter of Cuba’s forest cover. “They are the first line of defense for coastal communities. But so many mangroves are dying now,” Salabarría Fernández says. Leaf loss from hurricane-force winds, erosion, spikes in salinity, and nutrient imbalances could all be driving the die-off, she says.

Coral reefs can also buffer storms. A Cuban-U.S. expedition that circumnavigated the island last spring found that many reefs are in excellent health, says Juliett González Méndez, a marine ecologist with CNAP. But at a handful of hot spots, reefs exposed to industrial effluents are ailing, she says. One Project Life target is to squelch runoff and restore those reefs.

Another pressing need is coastal engineering. Topping Cuba’s wish list are jetties or other wave-disrupting structures for protecting not only the iconic Malecón, but also beaches and scores of tiny keys frequented by tourists whose spending is a lifeline for many Cubans. Cuba has appealed to the Netherlands to lend its expertise in coastal engineering.
Perhaps the thorniest element of Project Life is a plan to relocate low-lying villages. As the sea invades, “some communities will disappear,” Salabarría Fernández says. The first relocations under the initiative took place in October 2017, when some 40 families in Palmarito, a fishing village in central Cuba, were moved inland.

Other communities may not need to pull up stakes for decades. But Cuban social scientists are already fanning out to those ill-fated villages to educate people on climate change and win them over on the eventual need to move. That’s an easier sell in the wake of a major hurricane, Rodríguez Batista says. “Irma has helped us with public awareness,” he says. “People understand that climate change is happening now.”

Friday, January 19, 2018

2800. Summary and Index for the Past 99 Posts

By Kamran Nayeri, Janaury 19, 2018
Assistant Editor, Siah, who has joined the editorial office since December 20.

Of the last 99 posts, 28 were about socialism and ecosocialism, 12 were about climate change, 11 were about the recent protests in Iran which had a water crisis (ecological) component, six were about feminist issues, capitalis and ecocide had five posts each, Cuba, and literature/peoty each had four posts, and science/philosophy, health,

climate change/global warming. Science-related had 10 posts.  Socialism and eco-socialism combined had 16 posts (eight each).  There were six posts about the Sixth Extinction and six about the Cuban revolution.  Other topics with four or so posts included philosophy, the arts and literature, and White Supremacy/Neo-Nazism.  

Hyperlinks to posts follow:

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2799. Book Review: Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy

By Steve Knight, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, January 19, 2018

In the 135 years since his passing, many commentators on Marx’s work have maintained that his view of humanity’s relationship to the Earth is “Promethean,” i.e., that mastery over nature is a key step to achieving the communist state. A counter-tendency in Marxian analysis, however, led first in the 1960s and 70s by scholars like Raymond Williams and Istvan Meszaros, then in the past twenty years by a new generation including John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, has maintained that ecology’s conflict with capitalist relations is central to understanding Marx’s political economy.
Kohei Saito, author of Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, belongs firmly in the latter camp. For Saito, associate professor at Osaka City University, Marx is not simply an economist who sometimes refers to nature; he insists that “it is not possible to comprehend the full scope of his critique of political economy if one ignores its ecological dimension…Marx actually deals with the whole of nature, the ‘material’ world, as a place of resistance against capital, where the contradictions of capitalism are manifested most clearly.” (14) Drawing extensively upon Marx’s “excerpt notebooks” that have been published as part of the ongoing research project Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (aka MEGA), the author paints a compelling portrait of Marx first as a young man with a philosophical conviction of how capitalist relations alienate us from nature, then as a determined student of natural sciences, eager to find scientific verification of the ecological contradictions of capital.
In Part One, “Ecology and Economy,” Saito traces the systematic development of Marx’s ecological critique from the Paris Notebooks of the 1840s through the mature work of Capital. Marx’s Paris work (a portion of which was published in the twentieth century with the title Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts) shows a young scholar still under the philosophical influence of Feuerbach and the Young Hegelian school. He develops his fourfold definition of alienation under capitalist relations: within capitalism, Marx claims, one becomes alienated from the product of the one’s labor, from the labor process itself, from one’s free and creative “species-being,” and from one’s fellow workers. Marx proposes overcoming these forms of alienation through the abolition of private property (the product of alienated labor), so that humans can relate to nature in a free, cooperative manner. While he arrived at valuable insights in this period that laid the groundwork for later ecological thinking, Marx at this point was still enamored of an ahistorical, Feuerbachian idealism that he would need to transcend in order to make way for the “scientific socialism” informing his later work.
The turning point in Marx’s materialist critique came with The German Ideology (1846), manuscripts he co-wrote with Friedrich Engels. Here Marx shifts from a purely philosophical approach to ecology, into a “natural scientific” one based on a historical understanding of evolving relations between humans and nature. He begins using the term “metabolism”—a concept first used in the nineteenth century by physiologists, later by philosophers—to describe this dynamic interchange, where nature becomes man’s “inorganic body” upon which he depends for survival. Over the next decade, culminating in his writing of the Grundrisse in the mid-1850s, Marx refined his understanding of the concept to posit a general metabolic tendency of capital: in aiming for continuous expansion, capitalism exploits natural forces--including human labor power--in search of cheaper inputs; but this process deepens capitalism’s own contradictions (deforestation, carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, etc.), all of which have intensified since the time of Marx’s writing. Human civilization will likely become impossible long before capital accumulation ceases due to ecological degradation; therefore, capitalism’s metabolic relations are incompatible with sustainable human development.
Saito’s analysis is also valuable for the emphasis it gives to the concept of “reification” as a keystone of Marx’s ecosocialism. While reification perhaps receives its fullest expression in the chapters on “The Working Day” and “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” in Volume 1 of Capital, Marx developed it gradually as part of his ecological critique. In brief, reification refers to the process whereby private producers exchange commodities whose value is determined as the sum total of abstract labor used in their production. Nature’s materials are molded into economic forms, and those forms become ossified into “things,” but these material things can never be fully subsumed under capital. Thus, capital threatens the continuity of man’s metabolism with nature, by reorganizing nature to extract the maximum amount of abstract labor; reification insures that society can be produced—and reproduced—only through the mediation of value. Saito clarifies the point nicely:
Marx does not simply claim that humanity destroys the environment. Rather, his ‘materialist method’ investigates how the reified movement of capital reorganizes the transhistorical metabolism between humans and nature and negates the fundamental material condition for sustainable human development. Accordingly, Marx’s socialist project demands the rehabilitation of the humans-nature relationship through the restriction and finally the transcendence of the alien force of reification. (133)
In Part II, “Marx’s Ecology and the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe,” Saito scrutinizes newly available material from Marx’s natural science notebooks, showing the many writers Marx studied carefully for years to refine his ecological critique of capital. Saito concedes that there is some evidence that Marx’s earlier thinking about nature was “productivist,” i.e., he was optimistic that scientific and technological advances could overcome nature’s limits. His excerpts from the earlier editions of Justus von Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry and James F.W. Johnston’s Notes on North America, both published in the 1850s, strike a hopeful note that David Ricardo’s law of diminishing agricultural returns could be overcome through improved soil science and land management. Liebig’s earlier work assumed that productivity could be improved through the use of synthetic fertilizers (a convenient position, perhaps, for an agronomist with a sideline capitalist business as a manufacturer of chemical fertilizer!).
The turning point for both Liebig and Marx, however, was the publication of the seventh edition of Agricultural Chemistry in 1862, where Liebig adopted a darker theory of “robbery agriculture” under capitalist relations. Liebig now posited a “law of replenishment,” in which soil needs a mixture of organic and inorganic elements to maintain productivity. While organic elements can be replenished continuously through the atmosphere and rainfall, the loss of inorganic (“mineral”) elements must be minimized as they are much harder to replace under the pressure of capitalist production. Reading Liebig’s seventh edition “deepened his [Marx’s] insight that nature cannot be arbitrarily subordinated and manipulated through technological development. There are insurmountable natural limits.” (160) Marx’s demand for the rational regulation of human-nature metabolism sprang from the recognition of natural limits, as well as that social production must be radically reorganized to achieve sustainable human development. Capitalism, Marx realized, is inherently inimical to this more rational metabolism, as it mediates all relations through reified values.
Liebig’s idea of robbery agriculture became one source of inspiration for Marx’s theory of a “metabolic rift” between town and country in the first volume of Capital (discussed at some length by John Bellamy Foster in his book Marx’s Ecology). But Saito’s access to the MEGA notebooks reveals that following the publication of Capital in 1867, Marx began reading another agronomist, Carl Fraas, whose work—especially his 1866 book Agrarian Crises and Their Remedies—both modified his previously unqualified praise of Liebig, and opened a new scientific window for understanding capitalism’s ecological contradictions. Fraas espoused an “agricultural physics” counterpoised to Liebig’s “agricultural chemistry”; while he did not discount the importance of much of Liebig’s work, he believed that climatic factors were of more importance than chemical ones to soil productivity. Fraas writes at one point that cultivation can take place without exhaustion in a favorable climate even if nutrients are not returned to the soil in a metabolic cycle by humans.
Fraas also maintained—particularly in another of his studies, Climate and the Plant World Over Time—that deforestation was the primary driver of climate change, as it inevitably led to rising temperatures and lower humidity (i.e., desertification), tracing this as an historical tendency in the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. The problem, according to Fraas, is that civilization consumes an enormous amount of wood in activities like building ships and houses, as well as producing iron and sugar; therefore replanting deforested land is often not feasible. Saito observes that “Marx, reading Fraas’s work, rightly thinks it necessary to study much more thoroughly the negative aspect of the development of productive forces and technology and their disruption of natural metabolism with regard to other factors of production.” (250)
Much work remains for future scholars to plumb the development of Marx’s ecosocialism. As Saito points out, the MEGA project has to date published Marx’s excerpt notebooks only up to 1868; notebooks that track his developing ecological awareness over his final fifteen years await full publication of the fourth section of the MEGA. Nevertheless, “Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism” is an indispensable addition to the burgeoning literature on Marxian ecosocialism. Kohei Saito provides an intellectually rigorous, yet accessible, guide for readers not only as to why healing capital’s ecological rifts was essential to Marx’s socialist project, but also how Marx’s decades-long reading project in the natural sciences informed his analysis from The German Ideology onwards. “Marx did not answer all of the questions and did not predict today’s world,” Saito writes in his conclusion, “but it is does not follow that his ecology is of no use today. It is undeniable that his critique of capitalism provides an extremely helpful theoretical foundation for further critical investigation of the current ecological crisis, and that with regard to ecology Marx’s notebooks can prove their great importance.” (265) Ecosocialists everywhere should appreciate Saito’s meticulous elucidation of Marx’s evolving understanding of capital’s incompatibility with the earth.

2798. Warming, Water Crisis, Then Unrest: How Iran Fits an Alarming Pattern

By Somini Sengupta, The New York Times, January 18, 2018
Lake Uromia in northwestern Iran has shrunk by 90% since the 1970s. Photo: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Image

UNITED NATIONS — Nigeria. Syria. Somalia. And now Iran.
In each country, in different ways, a water crisis has triggered some combination of civil unrest, mass migration, insurgency or even full-scale war.

In the era of climate change, their experiences hold lessons for a great many other countries. The World Resources Institute warned this month of the rise of water stress globally, “with 33 countries projected to face extremely high stress in 2040.”

A water shortage can spark street protests: Access to water has been a common source of unrest in India. It can be exploited by terrorist groups: The Shabab has sought to take advantage of the most vulnerable drought-stricken communities in Somalia. Water shortages can prompt an exodus from the countryside to crowded cities: Across the arid Sahel, young men unable to live off the land are on the move. And it can feed into insurgencies: Boko Haram stepped into this breach in Nigeria, Chad and Niger.

Iran is the latest example of a country where a water crisis, long in the making, has fed popular discontent. That is particularly true in small towns and cities in what is already one of the most parched regions of the world. Farms turned barren, lakes became dust bowls. Millions moved to provincial towns and cities, and joblessness led to mounting discontent among the young. Then came a crippling drought, lasting roughly 14 years.

In short, a water crisis — whether caused by nature, human mismanagement, or both — can be an early warning signal of trouble ahead. A panel of retired United States military officials warned in December that water stress, which they defined as a shortage of fresh water, would emerge as “a growing factor in the world’s hot spots and conflict areas.”

“With escalating global population and the impact of a changing climate, we see the challenges of water stress rising with time,” the retired officials concluded in the report by CNA, a research organization based in Arlington, Virginia.

Climate change is projected to make Iran hotter and drier. A former Iranian agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, once famously said that water scarcity, if left unchecked, would make Iran so harsh that 50 million Iranians would leave the country altogether. 

Is water the reason for the latest unrest in Iran?
Not entirely. Water alone doesn’t explain the outbreak of protests that began in early January and spread swiftly across the country. But as David Michel, an analyst at the Stimson Center put it, the lack of water — whether it’s dry taps in the city, or dry wells in the countryside, or dust storms rising from a shrinking Lake Urmia — is one of the most common, most visible markers of the government’s failure to deliver basic services.

“Water is not going to bring down the government,” he said. “But it’s a component — in some towns, a significant component — of grievances and frustrations.”

Managing water, he said, is the government’s “most important policy challenge.”

How did it get this bad?
Like many countries, from India to Syria, Iran after the 1979 revolution set out to be self-sufficient in food. It wasn’t a bad goal, in and of itself. But as the Iranian water expert Kaveh Madani points out, it meant that the government encouraged farmers to plant thirsty crops like wheat throughout the country. The government went further by offering farmers cheap electricity and favorable prices for their wheat — effectively a generous two-part subsidy that served as an incentive to plant more and more wheat and extract more and more groundwater.

The result: “25 percent of the total water that is withdrawn from aquifers, rivers and lakes exceeds the amount that can be replenished” by nature, according to Claudia Sadoff, a water specialist who prepared a report for the World Bank on Iran’s water crisis.

Iran’s groundwater depletion rate is today among the fastest in the world, so much so that by Mr. Michel’s calculations, 12 of the country’s 31 provinces “will entirely exhaust their aquifers within the next 50 years.” In parts of the country, the groundwater loss is causing the land to sink.

Water is a handy political tool, and to curry favor with their rural base, Iran’s leaders — and particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — dammed rivers across the country to divert water to key areas. As a result, many of Iran’s lakes have shrunk. That includes Lake Urmia, once the region’s largest saltwater lake, which has diminished in size by nearly 90 percent since the early 1970s.

Does climate change play a role?
According to the government, Iran expects a 25 percent decline in surface water runoff — rainfall and snow melt — by 2030. In the region as a whole, summers are predicted to get hotter, by two to three degrees Celsius at current rates of warming, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Rains are projected to decline by 10 percent.
A 2015 study by two scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicted that, at current rates of warming, “many major cities in the region could exceed a tipping point for human survival.”

For the leaders of water-stressed countries, the most sobering lesson comes from nearby Syria. Its drought, stretching from 2006 to 2009, prompted a mass migration from country to city and then unemployment among the young. Frustrations built up. And in 2011, street protests broke out, only to be crushed by the government of Bashar al-Assad. It piled on to long-simmering frustrations of Syrians under Mr. Assad’s authoritarian rule. A civil war erupted, reshaping the Middle East.

Water, said Julia McQuaid, the deputy director of CNA, doesn’t lead straight to conflict. “It can be catalyst,” she said. “It can be a thing that breaks the system.”

Thursday, January 18, 2018

2797. Book Review: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

By Cliff Conner, Socialist Action, January 2018
Who is James McGill Buchanan? He was a Nobel laureate in “economic sciences,” but if his name is unfamiliar to you, you are not alone. He was not a publicity hound. He didn’t broadcast his views far and wide because he never wanted them to be widely known. Buchanan (who died in 2013) believed that certain vital truths about the political world we inhabit should be hidden from public view.
Buchanan’s secret truth was that democracy and liberty are incompatible and that therefore democracy must be suppressed. After his death, his private papers revealed warnings to co-thinkers that “conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential.”[i]
We know about those private papers and their contents thanks to historian Nancy MacLean, whose “Democracy in Chains” has exposed them to the world and alerted us to the danger they represent. This remarkable book is based on a large trove of documents discovered among James M. Buchanan’s private papers after his death in 2013. It is evident from their contents that Buchanan never intended for these documents to be made public.
Buchanan was a key figure in the development of today’s powerful libertarian movement. Be advised: This is not your grandfather’s libertarianism. If you still think of libertarianism as the quaintly eccentric blend of laissez faire economics with concerns such as privacy rights, civil liberties, and antimilitarism, you are behind the times. That old-time libertarianism has been marginalized by a hardcore, right-wing, enemy-of-humanity libertarianism fashioned by Buchanan and the Koch Brothers.
What the “Liberty” in libertarianism has come to mean
The well-funded libertarian movement today is the creation of self-interested billionaires, led by Charles and David Koch, who want above all else to decrease their taxes and minimize government regulation of their businesses. They disparage old-time “conventional libertarians” as impotent, and flaunt the hegemony of their own right-wing agenda.
When the hard-right libertarians trumpet their devotion to individual rights, it is code for individual property rights and has nothing to do with the human rights of the vast majority of individuals. In the new libertarian worldview, an individual without property has no rights.
Today’s libertarians are single-mindedly devoted to “dismantling the administrative state.” As anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist famously exclaimed, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
If there is any lingering confusion regarding libertarian commitment to genuine individual freedom, it should be laid to rest by their interpretation of the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile. To this day libertarian polemicists continue to hail that abominable crime against humanity as an “economic miracle” confirming the wisdom of the free-market economic policy.
They claim that an economic revival following Augusto Pinochet’s seizure of power was due to the guidance of Los Chicago Boys, Chilean economists who had been educated in free-market principles at the University of Chicago. The “miracle” they wrought was built upon the destruction of a vital labor movement requiring the murder and torture of tens of thousands of trade-unionists and their supporters. It was liberty for wealthy investors and property owners at the expense of the life, liberty, and happiness of the majority of the Chilean people.

“Los Chicago Boys,” Chilean economists who studied at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. Left to right: Luis Arturo Fuenzalida, Alberto Valdés, Larry Sjaastad, Pedro Jeftanovic, and Sergio de Castro.
As for the vaunted economic revival, its benefits flowed mainly to foreign investors and the Chilean upper classes. A United Nations report cites “a virtual explosion of poverty in both urban and rural areas” in Chile between 1970 and 1980, and attributes it in part to the “policy reforms under the authoritarian rule of the Pinochet regime.”[ii]
Libertarian apologists sometimes deny that they or Los Chicago Boys endorsed Pinochet’s tyranny or his oppressive methods. But even if their denials were to be accepted at face value, the “Chilean miracle” dramatically refutes their ideological claim that free-market economics is synonymous with democracy and freedom.
The libertarians’ love affair with the Pinochet dictatorship also exposes their greatest paradox. While denouncing “statism” and all governmental influence on the economy, they allow one enormous exception: They depend on the power of the state—in the Chilean example, a police state—to defend the property rights upon which their notion of “liberty” is based. American right-wing politicians are no less hypocritical in demanding the total destruction of governmental power while nurturing the most powerful military state—or “national security state”—the world has ever seen.
Makers versus takers
In 1980 Buchanan, who was also educated at the University of Chicago, was invited to Chile by the Pinochet regime to participate in drafting a new constitution for the country.
Buchanan’s hardcore libertarian definition of liberty—the absolute freedom of entrepreneurs to run their businesses in any way they please—is not one most people would find satisfying. He knew that most Chileans would not be attracted to his profoundly anti-democratic program so it would be a waste of time trying to achieve it openly, via the will of the majority.
Jan. 2018 Pinochet
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet
“Despotism,” Buchanan once wrote, “may be the only organizational alternative to the political structure that we observe.”[iii] By “the political structure that we observe,” he meant the system defined by the American constitution.
His service to the Pinochet regime demonstrated a willingness to embrace despotism that was not merely hypothetical. Buchanan helped the Chilean “alliance of capital and the armed forces” create a legal framework to eliminate the trade unions, privatize the social security and healthcare systems, constrain governmental regulatory power, and destroy the public education system.[iv]
The extremism of Buchanan’s views might be more astonishing if they had not already become part of the national discourse in the United States. Mitt Romney created a stir during his 2012 campaign for the U.S. presidency when remarks he thought would remain private were leaked to the public. In those comments, Romney complained that 47 percent of the American people “pay no income tax,” are “dependent on government,” “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” and “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”[v]
Romney’s views were in perfect harmony with Buchanan’s, although the latter would surely have put the percentage way higher than 47. In Buchanan’s worldview, the population is divided into makers and takers. The makers are the productive classes—owners of capital whose profit-making activities expand the national economy—and the takers are the indolent masses. To Buchanan, any taxation that redistributes wealth from the makers to the takers is a downright immoral form of robbery, and any governmental attempt to regulate the makers’ businesses is a criminal violation of their liberty.
The economic history of the world is indeed a story of takers robbing makers, but Buchanan’s odious interpretation has the relationship upside-down and backward. The great wealth of the United States was founded first of all on agricultural production created by the unpaid labor of African slaves, and secondarily on the industrial production of the underpaid labor of industrial workers. A small number of Southern plantation owners and Northern manufacturers amassed fabulous fortunes by appropriating the profits those laborers produced. Who, then, were really the makers and who were the takers?
The ill-gotten wealth of the exploiters of labor allowed them to gain political control, limit the franchise of the laborers, and create a legal system to consolidate their system of economic injustice. Adding insult to injury, the slaveholders and Robber Barons justified their conquest by propagating ideologies, from Social Darwinism to libertarianism, that denied and devalued the laborers’ role in creating the modern economy.
To appreciate the sheer audacity of Buchanan’s perversion of history, consider the plight of the former slaves after the U.S. Civil War. Having been forcibly taken from their homelands, having had their labor violently taken from them for decades, and being left in dire poverty in the post-war South, many were dependent on barebones federal assistance for survival. That made them, in Buchanan’s eyes, contemptible “takers.”
The Lenin of libertarianism?
What places Buchanan among the most dangerous of the right-wing ideologues is that he not only professed anti-democratic ideas; he devised strategies to successfully implement them. He was a social engineer who found ways to turn libertarian theory into public policy. It has been suggested that as the movement’s key cadre-builder, Buchanan was to libertarianism what Lenin was to Marxist socialism.
Buchanan took the ideas he learned from his Chicago School mentors to the University of Virginia and created a more extreme Virginia School of economics. Its institutional expression was the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy, which he founded in 1957 to develop “a line of new thinkers” to challenge the “increasing role of government in economic and social life.”[vi] That was to be accomplished by a “constitutional revolution” that would covertly rewrite the rules of the American economy to enrich the few at the expense of the many. Among its primary ambitions were the total elimination of the social security, public health, and public school systems.
Buchanan stated privately that the study center was named after Thomas Jefferson to deflect attention from the “extreme views” that were “the real purpose of the program.” This was the embryo of the modern libertarian intellectual movement. He envisioned the creation of a “counter-intelligentsia” backed by a “vast network of political power” to replace the existing establishment intellectuals.[vii] He thus provided the blueprint for today’s powerful array of libertarian think tanks and their army of paid academics, lobbyists, and politicians.
Buchanan was fully aware, however, that his plans would have languished on the drawing board without the material support necessary to put them into practice. Attracting that support was part of his master plan. In 1983, he reconstituted his academic institute at George Mason University, renaming it the Center for Study of Public Choice. George Mason University, identified in the Wall Street Journal as “the Pentagon of conservative academia,”[viii] was the ideal venue for Buchanan’s operation.
GMU has sometimes been referred to as Koch U. due to its position “at the center of the Koch college universe.”[ix] When Buchanan’s strategy for totally annihilating the government’s influence over the economy gained the support of Charles and David Koch, the counter-intelligentsia of their shared dreams began to become a reality.
The Koch brothers have donated tens of millions of dollars to George Mason University and to Buchanan’s Center for the Study of Public Choice, which trained the young intellectuals who would fill the Koch think tanks and become speechwriters for Koch-financed congressmen. Eventually, tactical disagreements led the impatient billionaire brothers to force Buchanan out and take direct control of the research center. If Buchanan had been the movement’s Lenin, the Kochs became its Stalin (all proportions guarded, of course).
White supremacist roots of Buchanan’s antigovernment crusade
Buchanan’s first research institute was created in the mid-1950s to provide ideological cover for the defiance of federal orders to desegregate the public schools. Two years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 declared segregationist state laws unconstitutional, Buchanan presented the University of Virginia with a plan to mobilize its intellectual resources in defense of the state’s white supremacist institutions. University officials agreed, and in 1957 the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy was born.Jan. 2018 Race mixing
Buchanan was careful not to frame the Center’s mission in explicitly racial terms. Instead, it threw the weight of “economic science” behind the familiar States Rights argument that the federal government had no right to usurp the authority of Virginia’s legislature and assert dictatorial control over Virginia institutions. When it became obvious that the States Rights position would not prevail, Buchanan proposed that Virginia should privatize its school system and do away with public education altogether.
De jure segregation eventually ended in Virginia and the rest of the United States, but, as economist Marshall Steinbaum has observed, “the racist stench attached to Buchanan’s intellectual projects and that of his heirs” endured.[x] And destroying the public school system, which taxes “makers” to benefit “takers,” remained a central plank of Buchanan’s ideological platform to the end of his days.
As I was writing this account of Buchanan’s words and deeds, a headline popped up on my computer’s news feed: “219 Republican House Members Just Voted to Cut Medicaid, Medicare, and Public Education to Give Tax Breaks to Millionaires and Corporations.”[xi]
The U.S. House of representatives had voted 219 to 208 to approve a national budget proposal that would cut more than five trillion dollars—$5,800,000,000,000—from healthcare, education, environmental protection, services for children and the disabled, scientific research, the arts, and other federal programs that are essential to human wellbeing.
This was a timely reminder of the real-world consequences of Buchanan’s abominable “makers and takers” ideology and the misery it has already inflicted on American society. While the draconian budget cuts had not at that time achieved the force of law, they provided a clear indication of how deeply the libertarian cancer had already pervaded the body politic. Although Buchanan’s full program of completely eliminating all beneficial social programs has not yet been accomplished, its partial fulfillment has already damaged or destroyed millions of human lives.
Buchanan’s antipathy to public education was not only due to its cost but to its function as an essential pillar of a democratic, self-governing society. That a majority of elected representatives in the U.S. Congress could vote to transfer trillions of dollars from the social majority to a relative handful of super-wealthy individuals further indicates how successful Buchanan’s well-funded strategy to undermine American democracy has been.
How scientific is Buchanan’s “economic science?”
The official name of the honor Buchanan received in 1986 is “The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences,” but his practice of the discipline made a mockery of the very notion of economics as a science.
Buchanan’s economics research centers have long been recognized not as institutes of independent thought but as partisan propaganda mills. The “science” they promote is not founded on objective premises but on the moral judgment that the vast majority of human beings are economic parasites on the capitalist class. The notion that the world’s poor are stealing the billionaires’ lunch money is so contrary to reason that without the funding of self-interested billionaires it would be unlikely to attract many followers.
Beyond its fundamental irrationality, Buchanan’s economic ideology is unscientific in its a priorismand reductionism. A priorism is the method characteristic of Aristotelian science, the rejection of which was the central achievement of the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.
When, for example, Buchanan was confronted with empirical evidence that raising the minimum wage does not create unemployment, he rejected it out of hand on the basis that it contradicts laissez-faire theory. To allow such a possibility, he angrily responded, is “equivalent to a denial that there is even minimal scientific content in economics.”[xii] On the latter point I find myself in agreement with him.
As for reductionism, Buchanan’s “Public Choice Theory” reduces real-world economic decision-making to the sterile abstractions of mathematical game theory. In a universe where human beings always act like purely self-interested automatons, game theory could perhaps offer some useful insights into economic behavior. But Buchanan applies mathematical models based on misanthropic assumptions about human nature to complex social interactions.
Nancy MacLean describes the hypothetical social order from which Public Choice theorists deduced their axioms as one in which “individuals always acted to advance their personal economic self-interest rather than collective goals for the common good.” Buchanan and his fellow theorists, she writes, were simply conducting “thought experiments, or hypothetical scenarios with no true research—no facts—to support them, while the very terms of their analysis denied such motives as compassion, fairness, solidarity, generosity, justice, and sustainability.”[xiii]
In brief, Buchanan’s method is of no scientific value at all. It is designed not to attain new knowledge about economics, but to justify an economic system of vast material inequality.
“Democracy in Chains” is a must-read for all people engaged in the struggle for social justice. No matter how well you think you already know thine enemy, I predict—based on my own experience—that you have much more to learn from this book.
[A note about the footnotes: Traditionally, I would have included page numbers in citations from Democracy in Chains, but that is no longer necessary in today’s world of digital books and search functions.]
[i] Quoted by MacLean, Democracy in Chains, from a February 1973 typescript conference-planning document by Buchanan bearing the title “The Third Century Movement.”
[ii] Oscar Altimir, “Income Distribution and Poverty through Crisis and Adjustment,” CEPAL Review, December 2008. [CEPAL is the Spanish acronym for the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.]
[iii] James M. Buchanan, The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan (2000); quoted by MacLean.
[iv] MacLean, Democracy in Chains.
[v] Video clip: “Mitt Romney Fundraising Comments on Video in Boca Raton,” C-Span,, May 17, 2012.
[vi] Buchanan, “Working Papers for Internal Discussion Only,” December 1956; quoted by MacLean.
[vii] James M. Buchanan, “America’s Third Century,” Atlantic Economic Journal, November 1973; quoted by MacLean.
[viii] Lawrence Mone, “Thinkers and Their Think Tanks Move on Washington,” Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1988; cited by MacLean.
[ix] David Levinthal, “Koch Brothers’ Higher-Ed Investments Advance Political Goals,” Center for Public Integrity,, November 4, 2015.
[x] Marshall Steinbaum, “The Book That Explains Charlottesville,” Boston Review,, August 14, 2017.
[xi] Common Dreams,, October 5, 2017.
[xii] From a Wall Street Journal op-ed of April 1996; quoted in Steinbaum, “The Book That Explains Charlottesville.”
[xiii] MacLean, Democracy in Chains.