The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 was, in many ways the process of resuming the movement against global capitalism that had been heating up in the late 1990s. Before 9/11, protests against the WTO had been pulling in both increasing attention and increasing brutality from law enforcement. That was around the time I was starting to get involved in political activism through my high school and through the New England branch of Quakerism. For me, that mostly meant learning, along with a few protests and demonstrations. I focused on the devastating humanitarian impact of the sanctions against Iraq, and on the School of the Americas/WHINSEC, and the role of the US military in South and Central America. Capitalism wasn’t really on my radar – I still saw these issues, along with environmental issues, as largely separate things, with individual, largely separate solutions. I didn’t really get what the WTO protests were about, nor did I understand their connection to the issues that had captured my attention. Others definitely did, though, and so I came into contact with activists who were involved in things like the protests in Seattle, and later in Quebec. I heard stories that have become very familiar in recent years, of wanton use of tear gas and pepper spray, of police aiming for people’s heads, and targeting medics. As the 2003 protests in Quebec showed, that movement wasn’t ended by 9/11 and the reactions to it, but I think it was drowned out a bit. Similar to how so many events seem to slip by with minimal reporting in the Trump era, a lot of stuff happened during the Bush years that went unnoticed by a lot of people – myself included.
When Obama got into office, there was a misguided feeling among some of us that we had begun the process of “fixing things”, and with that and the 2008 crash, people making systemic critiques were being heard again. Occupy Wall Street brought a renewal of mainstream focus on the shortcomings of capitalism, including articles like this one from New Scientist discussing a study of the underlying skeleton of the global capitalist economy:
The work, to be published in PLoS One, revealed a core of 1318 companies with interlocking ownerships (see image). Each of the 1318 had ties to two or more other companies, and on average they were connected to 20. What’s more, although they represented 20 per cent of global operating revenues, the 1318 appeared to collectively own through their shares the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms – the “real” economy – representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues.
When the team further untangled the web of ownership, it found much of it tracked back to a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies – all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity – that controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth in the network. “In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 per cent of the entire network,” says Glattfelder. Most were financial institutions. The top 20 included Barclays Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The Goldman Sachs Group.
John Driffill of the University of London, a macroeconomics expert, says the value of the analysis is not just to see if a small number of people controls the global economy, but rather its insights into economic stability.
Concentration of power is not good or bad in itself, says the Zurich team, but the core’s tight interconnections could be. As the world learned in 2008, such networks are unstable. “If one [company] suffers distress,” says Glattfelder, “this propagates.”
“It’s disconcerting to see how connected things really are,” agrees George Sugihara of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, a complex systems expert who has advised Deutsche Bank.
This aligns well with Naomi Klein’s earlier reporting, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, and underscores the degree to which increasingly unrestrained capitalism has concentrated ever more power into the hands of ever fewer people. The rise of corporate power has, on occasion, been described as a movement toward a form of neo-Feudalism. In discussing things like taxes for universal healthcare, I’ve often pointed out that for essential services like health insurance, corporations have more or less become small, privately owned branches of government, operated for the personal gain of those in charge. The premiums paid by residents of the United States are taxes in every practical sense. The same can be said of the fees we pay to utility companies, internet service providers, and so on. Vast portions of the global economy are controlled not by governments – even through international treaties – but by corporate boards, mostly made up of a small, overlapping group of people. Any changes to something like global power production or the structure and motivations of the global economy, can only come with either the permission, or the dis-empowerment of this tiny ruling class.
I want to be clear – this is not a statement of some “conspiracy”. It is rather a straightforward description of how the world currently works, as a result of the basic structures of a capitalist system. Capitalism, by design, has always concentrated wealth – and therefore power – in an increasingly small number of hands. This has led to national economies that serve the interests of the “captains of industry”, rather than the general public, under the assumption that this “natural” hierarchy will result in the best possible results. The more measures like progressive taxation, anti-monopoly legislation, and so on have been whittled away, the more concentrated wealth and power have become.
This is why the notion of individual action on climate change – or on any environmental problem – has always been a red herring. It’s part of the constant propaganda saying that, in capitalism, the “consumer” is in control, and corporations merely give us whatever we keep buying. This simplistic equation is, of course, undermined by the ways in which the people at the top work to crush competition, manipulate legislation, and by the long-confirmed effectiveness of advertising in manipulating demand. The reality is that as consumers we have very little control, particularly as wealth disparity has increased, and the network of corporate ownership has shrunk, meaning that our “choices” are largely pre-determined by the people who control the options from which we choose.
Environmental problems – climate change included – are the result of the way our global economic system operates, and how it doles out power. Increasingly, that also means that they are the result of corporate policy, more than governmental policy. Multinational corporations have wealth rivaling that of many nations, and that results in power and influence on a similar scale. A lot of focus over the years has been on which countries are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, but it’s becoming clear that while there’s some use to that analysis, it largely misses the point. It’s more useful to focus on which corporations, with their associated supply chains, are responsible for emissions.
Professor Dabo Guan (UCL Bartlett School of Construction & Project Management) said: “Multinational companies have enormous influence stretching far beyond national borders. If the world’s leading companies exercised leadership on climate change — for instance, by requiring energy efficiency in their supply chains — they could have a transformative effect on global efforts to reduce emissions.
“However, companies’ climate change policies often have little effect when it comes to big investment decisions such as where to build supply chains.
“Assigning emissions to the investor country means multinationals are more accountable for the emissions they generate as a result of these decisions.”
The study found that carbon emissions from multinationals’ foreign investment fell from a peak of 22% of all emissions in 2011 to 18.7% in 2016. Researchers said this was a result of a trend of “de-globalisation,” with the volume of foreign direct investment shrinking, as well as new technologies and processes making industries more carbon efficient.
Mapping the global flow of investment, researchers found steady increases in investment from developed to developing countries. For instance, between 2011 and 2016 emissions generated through investment from the US to India increased by nearly half (from 48.3 million tons to 70.7 million tons), while in the same years emissions generated through investment from China to south-east Asia increased tenfold (from 0.7 million tons to 8.2 million tons).
Lead author Dr Zengkai Zhang, of Tianjin University, said: “Multinationals are increasingly transferring investment from developed to developing countries. This has the effect of reducing developed countries’ emissions while placing a greater emissions burden on poorer countries. At the same time it is likely to create higher emissions overall, as investment is moved to more ‘carbon intense’ regions.”
The study also examined the emissions that the world’s largest companies generated through foreign investment. For instance, Total S.A.’s foreign affiliates generated more than a tenth of the total emissions of France.
BP, meanwhile, generated more emissions through its foreign affiliates than the foreign-owned oil industry in any country except for the United States; Walmart, meanwhile, generated more emissions abroad than the whole of Germany’s foreign-owned retail sector, while Coca-Cola’s emissions around the world were equivalent to the whole of the foreign-owned food and drink industry hosted by China.
As with individual action, the emissions of individual nations are something of a red herring in this era of multinational corporations. While individual nations can influence their carbon emissions, decisions they make are made far less relevant or effective by the ways in which corporations move their activities around. The degree to which a nation is contributing to the rise in greenhouse gasses has far more to do with corporate activity within that nation.
This is even more then case when one accounts for the ways in which corporations use their wealth and power to influence national policy. In my post about the privatization of water, I wrote a bit about how companies like Nestle can use their wealth to gain control over a country’s natural resources. Similar tactics of investment, bribery, and loans are used by corporations in all nation to influence policies in ways that benefit those corporations, and the people who run them.
All of this is to say that while there’s merit in working to pursue sustainable lifestyles, and to pursue national policies that reflect and encourage those values, without a global perspective, and a global change in how power and resources are managed, we will never be able to achieve the changes we need. The entities most responsible for the continuing rise on greenhouse gas levels are, in many ways, landless rogue governments, that relocate as they see fit, and govern their affairs in a manner that benefits that tiny group of people who run them – people who already use their wealth to isolate themselves from any of the problems of humanity, including those relating to climate change.
The Shock Doctrine is a story of capitalism using crisis to exert control and crush democracy, and set up temporary, extractive feudal governments. It’s corporations as piratical governments, roving around in fleets and latching on to weakened nations to plunder them. Simply looking to our own affairs, and dealing with our own emissions is doomed to failure, not just because other nations might choose to do otherwise, but because history has shown that they will be unable to do so, if we do not stand in solidarity with them to disarm and destroy the pirates.
Over the course of the 20th century, the United States has, as empires are wont to do, improved the lives of its core population by extracting wealth from other populations within its sphere of influence. This is what has created the now-independent multinational corporations that are free to roam across the planet influencing policies and practices wherever they go. The reason I supported Bernie Sanders in the primary was that he was the sole candidate whose policies and record indicated that he understood the severity of this problem, and that he might begin slow down – or even stop – the practice of destabilizing other countries to ensure their servitude to corporate interests.
That opportunity is gone, now, but the work remains. We must stand in solidarity with the people of every other nation if we are to deal with climate change. We must end the imperialist policies of the United States in particular, and of powerful nations in general. The path we are on leads to extinction for us, and for most other species currently living on this planet, and as long as global affairs are dictated by the needs of a tiny handful of people who are so isolated from the rest of humanity, we are doomed.
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