Books for Change

Whatever happened to the public interest anyway? A review of three books’ approach to the current crisis - financial, environmental, and democratic

Heather Menzies

Excerpted from the original published by CCPA Monitor, January 2017


A couple of centuries ago (not long, in Earth time), a host of public interest regulations that had kept the fledgling English capitalist economy operating within the carrying capacity of the social and natural environment were repealed – largely due to the lobbying power of the emergent capitalists. The social movement that arose to resist the devastation this unregulated transformation unleashed, Luddism (or the Luddites), came to be so demonized that at least one edition of Webster’s Dictionary defined it as “a misguided attempt to stop progress.”

This historical note nicely reviews what people in today’s social movements are up against – including at the level of naming reality, directing public policy and shaping public perception. It also reminds us that what we’re “for” is not utopia, but a renewal of a vision of humans living in right relation with each other and the planet, a vision that has served countless societies for millennia.

Three recent books approach the current crisis – financial, environmental, democratic – from the same public interest perspective. In Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (Monthly Review Press, July 2016) Ian Angus suggests corporate conglomeration, militarization and the acceleration of “fossil capitalism” all but guarantee we will be engulfed before we can adequately address climate change.

Joyce Nelson’s new book on big finance, Beyond Banksters: Resisting the New Feudalism (Watershed Sentinel Books, October 2016), locates a citizen lawsuit to restore the original public interest mandate of the Bank of Canada within the larger context of conglomeration and acceleration in that sector. With adroit interpretive skill, she links recent bank-related developments to a blizzard of “free trade” deals that weaken public interest regulation in areas like education and public infrastructure, but which also seek to prevent democratic governments from expanding public governance of finance.

The third book reviewed here, A World to Win: Contemporary Social Movements and Counter-Hegemony (ARP Books, June 2016), edited by William Carroll and Kanchan Sarker, personalizes the financial and climate crises as being part of the ongoing colonization and integration of people into the fast, competitive, individualist consumer society that global market capitalism has produced. This important anthology then lays out a range of hopeful, helpful responses to the seemingly ineluctable status quo based on what people are doing in the here and now.

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Facing the Anthropocene speaks from the fecund, fairly recent convergence of the social justice and environmental movements. By extending a socialist perspective into an ecosocialist one, Angus makes it easier to see that what has been done to human communities has also been done to nature as a living community, with similar destabilizing effects. He lays out the breakdown in nature’s carrying capacity in much the same way that sociologists have described how deepening poverty and polarizing inequality have destroyed the social carrying capacity of many cities and even regions.

The term Anthropocene, Angus explains, was coined some decades ago to mark the point where human systems started to overwhelm earth’s self-regulating systems, ending the relatively peaceful Holocene era and bringing the world to the tipping point of Earth-systems collapse. The key system on the human side, he argues, has been fossil capitalism, the first phase of which was coal-based, followed by oil. Today, there is more money in oil and gas than in any other industry.

As one thread in a well-woven tapestry of analysis, Angus points out the close link between fossil fuel and the military, and also with big government. Winston Churchill was the first global leader to see the strategic importance of oil, especially cheap oil from the Middle East, and the advantage of controlling it at the source.

Cheap fuel has also made possible the acceleration of the post-war market-capital economy, and corporate conglomeration adds another dimension to the situation by concentrating and rigidifying vested interest in maintaining the status quo. From a post-war surge of mergers and acquisitions, notably in the petrochemical business, conglomerates spread through the corporate sector, engulfing the media, communications, and financial industries while maintaining close links to the state.

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Nelson has been tracking the interconnections between money, information and government for decades, as well as the key personalities and institutions involved. Her newest book, Beyond Banksters, examines the effects of the speed-of-light financial and information systems now driving the global economy. Anything slowing or impeding this “high frequency” movement of money is, as Nelson points out, targeted for elimination in “next generation” trade deals.

As with the other acceleration-boosting developments, the expansion of “free” finance began shortly after the Second World War with the direction to governments from the Bank for International Settlements to borrow privately at market interest rates rather than publicly from national banks. Still, the paradigm-shifting changes only occurred under the neoliberal deregulation drive of the 1990s.

The repeal of the US’ Glass-Steagall Act during the 1997-99 Clinton administration collapsed the barrier between commercial and investment banks, opening the way to the high-risk realm of derivatives trading and ultimately to the financial collapse of 2007-08 and the deepening of inequality – not to mention massive public bailouts of private banks – in America and around the world.

The rise of public-private partnerships (P3s) and flat-out privatization of public infrastructure has also been part of this agenda, raising troubling questions – like how corporate interests seem to acquire these assets at a fraction of what it cost taxpayers to build them, or why, for example, the Ontario government would sell off shares in Hydro One when the utility generates hundreds of millions of dollars in profit a year for the province and its people. Equally disquieting is the loss of public knowledge.

Still, the more troubling aspect arising from Nelson’s analysis is how the expansion and acceleration of financialization has shaped public perception on what’s normal. It makes the shift from public interest governance to corporate management across a widening range of public institutions and infrastructure systems seem like the normal thing to do, the new reality. This in turn helps to neutralize public concern over the moves to permanently disable public interest governance through “free-trade” agreements.

One of the book’s strengths is the depth of knowledge and insight that Nelson marshals to describe the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Canada–EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the lesser-known Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). While lowering trade barriers is part of these deals, their larger impact will likely be to tie the hands of government by, for example, preventing a reinstatement of the Glass Steagall Act, permanently legalizing trade in financially risky products, and challenging the legitimacy of public banks along with the public interest mandate of Crown corporations.

The more troubling aspect arising from Nelson’s analysis is how the expansion and acceleration of financialization has shaped public perception on what’s normal. It makes the shift from public interest governance to corporate management across a widening range of public institutions and infrastructure systems seem like the normal thing to do, the new reality.

Such is the power of naming reality and managing public perception – the result of canny connections among key people, think-tanks and governments – that regulation is now a dirty word. For many, government has come to imply “interference.” Worse, the information inequalities and polarization of our times are creating additional barriers to asserting the public interest in the public’s own voice.

According to an exposé quoted by Nelson, during Occupy Wall Street the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and New York police came together with key Wall Street firms to conduct surveillance on protesters in Zuccotti Park, with the FBI labelling participants a “terrorist threat.” More recently, Canadian security legislation, including Bill C-51, designates certain transportation routes, including energy pipelines, “critical infrastructure,” giving legal heft to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr’s statements about using defence and police forces to make sure “people will be kept safe” from opponents to pipeline projects.

The scene is being set for a future in which citizens raising public awareness about overextended social and Earth systems are labelled not just Luddites, but “threats to security.” The We who would resist this are therefore in a struggle to think for ourselves, and to articulate and sustain action toward an alternative to the catastrophic status quo.

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Carroll and Sarker are determinedly hopeful in A World to Win, even as they acknowledge that we are habituated inhabitants of this individualized, commercialized short-attention-span world that we are trying to change.

Carroll draws on great thinkers and theories, and uses words like “hegemony” and “colonization” (plus counter-hegemony and decolonization) to name the challenge facing would-be changemakers in the social and environment movements. He gently warns against short-term, feel-good, pragmatic reforms while acknowledging that the cultural politics of personal, grounded, local and pragmatic action that makes a difference in the here and now is an essential first step in claiming agency and building capacity.

The book is an excellent study guide to the many threads of alternative-building that are currently at work. David McNally’s chapter, “Neoliberalism and its Discontents,” combines statistics on today’s economic divide – e.g., 44% of Ontarians living between Toronto and Hamilton are “precariously” employed – with reports from the protest zones of elaborate self-governing social infrastructure, such as the medical stations, food centres and child care set up in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during Egypt’s 2011 uprising.

Laurie Adkin’s chapter on political ecology and counter-hegemony takes the analysis to the more systemic level that Carroll argues is essential for sustaining genuine change. Her definition of political ecology introduces a “way of thinking” about the world that highlights the “mutually constitutive relationship between human societies and nature.” This thinking offers a bridge for solidarity-building between people of settler descent and Indigenous people on their journey to reclaim their traditions, their naming of reality and with it their connection to the land.

Many chapters demonstrate the feminist mantra that “the personal is political,” often in combination with lessons from the LGBTQ, disability and student politics of more recent decades. As Warren Magnusson writes, “we need to foreground the political if we are to make sense of the world in which we live.” This means refusing the neoliberal position that favours “markets” over politics as society’s key public decision-maker, with its hidden assumption that “markets” aren’t political.

The theme of capacity building runs throughout the book, making it particularly timely post-US election. One chapter, on direct action, explores the efficacy of “solidarity networks” to support otherwise isolated temporary workers and serve as “real-life training” in thinking strategically and working with others.

Michael Bueckert’s chapter, “Solidarity with Whom?,” takes up the tough question of scaling up and weaving initial issue-action into a larger and longer-term program of change. Bueckert suggests a disciplined dialectic in which rotational leadership and other practices can be employed that develop solidarity among different interests, and allow them to build. The alternative, he says, is wishful idealism and “the tyranny of structurelessness.”

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This ability to scale up and sustain actions over the long term is essential to the challenges contemporary social/political/environmental movements face today. The task is no less than reasserting the primacy of the public interest and the commons where so many governments and mainstream political parties have abandoned it.

Nelson’s airing in Beyond Banksters of the tangled, ideology-driven web that seeks to cement and increase the theft of the commons highlights the need for civil society to take on these larger issues. The information on political ecology in A World to Win and ecosocialism in Facing the Anthropocene provide helpful theoretical guidance to the agenda of revitalizing public interest governance.

With their emphasis on self-governance, direct democracy and accountable interrelationships, these books also seem to draw on long-standing legacies associated both with self-governing commons and Aboriginal traditions regulating, for example, the buffalo hunt on the Prairies and the harvesting of red cedar bark and wapato roots on the Pacific Northwest. An Earth-based vision can help reverse the remote-control perspective of contemporary globalization and its foundational information and financial systems – as though the view from an orbiting satellite is all that matters.


Heather Menzies is the author of 10 books, including the award-winning Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good.

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