Taking notes 29: Abundance and Apocalypse

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by Steven Miller

Somewhere in the ‘90s, world production crossed the historic line into Economic Abundance. Humans now produce, through the global economy, so much wealth every year that it is no longer necessary for anyone to be impoverished. The UN has long held that the world produces enough food to end hunger forever; the problem is how it is distributed. This is essentially based on ability to pay.

The reality of Economic Abundance is carefully censored and hidden, because it immediately raises the fact that people today have the capacity and the tools to — if they wished — completely re-organize the economy to eliminate the vast human suffering caused by poverty. It does not even cost very much.

The latest proof comes from Oxfam’s report, “The Cost of Inequality: How Wealth and Economic Extremes Hurt Us All.”[1] Jon Queally analyzed the report on Common Dreams:

… the $240 billion net income in 2012 of the richest 100 billionaires would be enough to eliminate extreme poverty four times over. In releasing the report, Oxfam is calling on world leaders to curb today’s income extremes and commit to bringing back inequality levels to at least those experienced in the early 1990′s.

‘Concentration of resources in the hands of the top one per cent depresses economic activity and makes life harder for everyone else – particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder,’ said Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam’s executive director.

‘We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true’, he said.[2]

Another recent report ups the ante still further, “The combined net worth of the world’s 250 richest individuals is more than the total annual living expenses of almost half the world — three billion people.”[3]

Matt Stoller sets the tab for resolving Global Warming this way, “It will cost about $100 trillion over 20 years to move our world to an entirely sustainable energy system, and the net worth of the global top 1 percent is $103 trillion.”[4]

Stoller concludes, “We can do this” and he is right. Let us harvest billionaires as a natural resource. In 2011, the Egyptian Revolution harvested the first billionaire, President Hosni Mubarak, deposing, detaining and dispossessing him of his stolen wealth. The world currently has 1210 billionaires. Sure, let them keep a mansion each, but we can turn most of these resources back to society. The term “cash cow” cuts both ways.

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The world’s economic production capacity – the machinery, labor and production yearly –  has actually been producing Economic Abundance for at least two decades. The United Nations first Human Development Report in 1998 documented this reality early on:

The world has more than enough resources to accelerate progress in human development for all and to eradicate the worst forms of poverty from the planet. Advancing human development is not an exorbitant undertaking. For example, it has been estimated that the total additional yearly investment required to achieve universal access to basic social services would be roughly $40 billion, 0.1% of world income, barely more than a rounding error. That covers the bill for basic education, health, nutrition, reproductive health, family planning and safe water and sanitation for all.

Accelerating progress in human development and eradicating the worst forms of human poverty are within our reach, despite deep challenges and setbacks. We know what to do. And the world has the resources to do it.[5]

The US today spends about $41 billion just on pets every year.[6] How much more would it take to finish off poverty altogether and guarantee every person adequate food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, democratic culture and lifelong education? Not very much.

In 1998, when the UN Report came out, the US military budget alone was around $400 billion. In other words, for a one-time deduction of only 10%, every human in the world could have been lifted above “the worst forms of poverty”. The US military budget in its totality today is over a trillion dollars a year. Could we maybe divert this money, just this once, and lift everyone out of poverty?

Economic Abundance is the result of the application of electronics to the economy. The rapidly automating factories and fields of the world are productive today beyond imagination. Think about the rise of the Dollar Store. Dollar Stores sell, for peanuts, many of the necessaries of human life. Everything in those stores is made by electronically-driven machines. This is a result of Economic Abundance becoming regularized. If they can sell it for $1, they can give it away for free.

Think of the implications, recognizing that Economic Abundance actually exists. The complete renewal of humanity is at hand. Every single individual will be able to develop each and every personal capacity. We can easily heal the planet and the climate. No wonder the story of Economic Abundance is censored.

Can it be true? The facts above are pretty conclusive. They put an end to the myths of Austerity, that “we all need to sacrifice”, that there are too many people in the world and that the economy must deal with Global Warming by producing less, instead of producing rationally.

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Corporations Begin to Dissolve and Implode Under Abundance

Capitalism does not do well when things are abundant. How do you make a profit anyway if there are more than enough products and resources for everyone? Why should people pay you for them? Well, we were all taught in high school economics that when the supply goes up, the prices go down.

So if you are a capitalist, there is little profit unless somehow you can restrict access to Economic Abundance, so that it is available only to a select few. So – how to do this? What about… restrict access to the people who can pay for it? Privatization immediately follows.

Of course, anything that is “public” is available to everyone, so ‘that’s gotta’ go’. Rig it so the corporations control everything. Then the game is to redesign and restructure every thing human beings need so that it serves private profits instead of human beings. Public education is a good example of how the money channels are designed to enrich corporations. The resource could be engineered in entirely different ways to serve the people, but it is not. It has become an ATM for Wall Street.

The cost of public higher education is being ratcheted up so that student-fees and tuition contribute far more to universities than the states the schools are usually named after. This is just a mechanism to restrict access. There is plenty of money to provide a good college education to everyone for free, but the funding structures are not designed this way. Austerity is evoked, referring to rampant state budget crisis. But no one talks about the fact that the states are in crisis because they owe money to corporations.

Bob Samuels is the President of University of California faculty union. In his report, “Making All Higher Public Education Free”[7], Samuels uses simple math to prove that – for the money that is already spent in state and federal programs – every student could graduate for free. The problem is, he shows, that the money is not used to fund programs. Instead it is used to fund clients, who get to go into debt to pay for what they could be getting for free. (There is even more money in the trillion-dollar-a-year military budget.): “If we took the state and federal money already being spent on providing higher education and the state and federal money that is lost each year due to higher education tax credits, deductions, and shelters, we could make public higher education free for millions of Americans. But this idea is simply not on the table.”[8]

Samuels also details how various programs that were originally designed to provide the poor with sufficient money to attend college have been rigged so that it is mostly the rich who can use these subsidies to go to college for free.

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The same is true for health care in the United States, the country that pays the most per capita for health care, but receives the least for it. So much is diverted off as corporate profit that health care could be given away for free cheaper than the current system. Once again, the problem is not the lack of resources, but the way the funding is jimmied to enrich corporations.

How far will corporations go? How bad does it really get? Many of the medications that are essential to treating diseases from childhood leukemia to arthritis and diabetes have gone off-patent and passed into the public domain. The corporations used their monopoly control for decades to jack the prices way up. Now they cannot. “Drugs usually enjoy 12 to 14 years under a patent’s aegis; once that’s gone, pill prices plummet.”[9]

Sorry, no more profit. The drug is becoming economically abundant. So drug companies lose the profit incentive to produce the drugs. Consequently they suspend production of vital drugs that are effective, but no longer profitable. For many of these drugs, severe shortages exist. This crisis is directly born by patient suffering, even though the drugs could have been given away for free.

Horrific as this is, this is not a result of individual greed, but the very failure of a system based on corporations. The very definition of a corporation, which further determines the responsibility of the managers, directors and CEOs, is that corporation legally exists to maximize the profits of the investors, while minimizing their liability. If a corporate leader does not maximize the profits, he or she can be financially and legally sanctioned.

Producing unprofitable medicine is wasting resources the corporations argue. Tough luck. But people are better than this. Corporations really do not have to exist. This is a choice society makes.

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If There’s Abundance, Where’s My Stuff?

Why do people not have access to this abundance of wealth? The simple answer is that corporations control the world’s economic production and appropriate the excess social production as private.

The vast riches of the world’s billionaires is merely personal wealth. This amount is a pale reflection of how much is actually produced as excess in a year.

Every year the world economic plant produces the necessities of life and must reproduce the quantity of products to reproduce human life for the next year. From this, the wealth of the entire globe, certain deductions must be made:

  • Replace the machinery, raw materials and labor that were used up in the year.
  • Apply another section of this total social product to expanding production, since the total human population and needs are expanding.
  • Use another amount for science, education, R & D, new technologies, etc.

Capitalism permits all these deductions to be determined by corporations, based on corporate values first and foremost, not public interest. They decide how technology is used, whether for human benefit or for human harm. What is left after all these deductions is generally declared as “private corporate profit”. Mostly it is not taxed.

Only a small amount of this vast wealth is distributed to CEO’s for their own personal wealth. The Oxfam report focuses only on the personal wealth of the 1%. OK – but there is so much more money! The 1% and the billionaires are economic midgets. A vastly greater yearly social product goes to corporations. They, and they alone, decide how to use this wealth as well.

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That is where our stuff is. It is held ransom by corporations and used to set up corporate profits, which are removed from your control. It is against the law to go get it.

The world economy has been increasingly driven by electronic technology, information and labor-less production since before the Internet became a public resource around 1995 or so. Labor-less production gets cheaper every year and invades more sections of the economy almost daily. Electronic production necessarily trends towards labor-less-production. Everyone can see that this development of our technology is rising and developing.

The Global Economy manifests a number of common, every-day features of Economic Abundance, mostly mishandled and abused by the economic system. There is an unstoppable development of technology, excess laborers without employment or means of existence, excess supply over demand, mountains of commodities that cannot be sold because the impoverished workers cannot buy them back. Abundance is not going away; neither is the technology that produces it. But the economic system certainly is when its only response is to debase people as prisoners of Abundance.

The reality of labor-less production is that it can no longer be distributed for money, based on your ability to pay, as is required by capitalists. Production without human labor requires distribution without money. This means the best things in life really can be free. As long as electronic production exists, this reality will continue to impose itself on society.

When a new technology begins to transform society, the first phase is destruction as every institution is shredded before it is transformed. But the wealth really is there. In fact, there is so much left over after replacing and expanding production that corporations do not even know what to do with it. So they turn it into “money”, which resides not in banks, but in computers as a collection of zeros and ones. Then they invest it in speculation, in the various financial games, bets and manipulations of the Casino Economy.

Economist Michael Hudson has shown that the entire GDP of the United States, some $14 trillion, is invested in the financial speculative markets every day.[10] Driven by computers, financiers can and do make profits in microseconds. This speculation however is empty and unproductive to society. But what it does do is allow the market to convert public assets into private profit. These are choices about how the economy is configured and controlled and organized. And today it is for corporate people, not actual humans who have belly buttons.

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Apocalypse Precedes Armageddon

In the Greek, Apocalypse means “the raising of the veil”. It is the moment when clarity dawns. It is the beginning of the process, not the “final battle”, commonly conceived of as “Armageddon”. The Apocalyptic moment is a moment pregnant with contradiction. The instability of the system is becoming now generalized and lurches from crisis to crisis. People begin to connect the dots and see the problem for what it is. Once this occurs, the way forward becomes clear and the fight for the future is unleashed. This begins the positive phase of social transformation.

The instability and dangers of extreme weather is beginning to be recognized. Endemic global financial and economic crisis is locked into a similar unstable phase. Neither one are going away. The solution to each is the same.

Corporations cannot solve these problems. Either the people take over the corporations – or – corporations will destroy society and the living earth into the bargain.

When you examine how corporations have ruined the wonders of antibiotics by giving them more to animals who are packed together in feed-lots, you can see that they are inherently incompetent. Used in massive amounts like this to prevent diseases makes killer bacteria immune to the drugs. Their solutions to climate issues are even more toxic.

The book and its companion movie, The Corporation, point out that corporations (not the people within them) share important traits with psychopaths. They are grandiose, lack empathy, manipulate everything and everyone for their own immediate gain, act irresponsibly, act anti-socially, refuse to accept responsibility or feel remorse, and try to use charm to hide their lies.[11] Do we really want these psychopaths running the world, deciding how technology is used and determining who can eat and who cannot?

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The economic crisis today is in hyper-crisis – greater than the Depression of the 1930s, perhaps the penultimate crisis of capitalist over-production. It certainly is a classic capitalist crisis of over-production, but this coincides with a vast historical transformation to a new mode of production and distribution that is caused by electronic technology. These two factors are combining to produce a perfect storm.

Sooner or later, corporations will tell us again, “Do what we say, or there will be another economic meltdown. We’re too big to fail.” Their political henchmen will again tell us that accepting their malevolent, selfish actions is the only path.

In the words of a recent Zapatista communiqué, “…two things are clear: They don’t need us in order to fail. We don’t need them in order to survive.”[12]

As the world economy lurches from crisis to crisis, maybe it is time to consider that the system really is on the way out, in a historic sense. It is certainly time to start the discussions of what transformation really means. The moments are coming where we really can make changes. Endless good is within our capacity as people, once we abolish the right of corporations to own and control technology and infrastructure, and put it under the control of the public.

[Note: This article first appeared on dailycensored.com]

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End notes:

[1] http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/cost-of-inequality-oxfam-mb180113.pdf

[2] Jon Queally. “Profits of World’s 100 Wealthiest Could End Poverty Four Times Over”. Common Dreams, January 21, 2013

[3] Paul Buchheit, “The Extremist Cult of Capitalism”.

[4] Matt Stoller, “The Progressive Case Against Obama”. October 27, 2012. http://www.salon.com/2012/10/27/the_progressive_case_against_obama/?source=newsletter

[5] From “United Nations Human Development Report 1998”. Chapter 1, p 22. http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr1998/chapters/

[6] www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_32/b4045001.htm

[7] http://futureofhighered.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/CFHE-Working-Paper-Free-Higher-Ed.pdf

[8] ibid.

[9] “Patent Play”, Forbes, September, 2001. See too Marcia Angell. “The Truth About Drug Companies”. July 15, 2004

[10] Michael Hudson. “Trade Theory Financialized”, http://michael-hudson.com/2011/10/trade-theory-financialized

[11] Joel Bakan. The Corporation – The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, 2004, p 56

(12) “The EZLN Announces Next Steps: Communiqué of December 30, 2012”. http://www.elkilombo.org/communique-from-the-indigenous-revolutionary-clandestine-committee-general-command-of-the-zapatista-national-liberation-army-mexico-december-30-2012

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[Thank you Steve for this contribution]

Steven Miller taught science in Oakland high schools for 25 years. He started writing about privatization in 2003, when the state seized the school district and started imposing corporatization and privatization. He has written about the privatization of water, public education and the police.

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2 thoughts on “Taking notes 29: Abundance and Apocalypse

  1. Tremendous piece of work. We as people need to own the technology, the forces of prouction to free us all from misery, poverty, isoltion, alienation, drudgery, climate sickness and social death. But as Steve notes, this will only take place when we completely transifigure the economy towards people, not profit.

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