You are browsing the archive for democracy.

Steve Fraser: The Return of the Titans

9:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson

Think of this as the year that democracy of, by, and for the billionaires shall not perish from the Earth — not when we’re on a new electoral playing field in a political world in which distinctions are no longer made between unlimited money and unlimited speech.  In other words, these days, if you have billions of dollars, you can shout from the skies and the rest of us have to listen.  If, as Steve Fraser points out today, we’ve been witnessing the return of “family capitalism on steroids,” nowhere has it been bigger than in American politics, aided and abettedby that ultimate family institution, the Supremes (and I’m not, of course, talking about the classic Motown group).

We’re still almost two months from the midterm elections in which the Republicans already have the House of Representatives essentially wrapped up and ads for Senate races are zipping onto TV screens in “battleground states” at a dizzying pace.  To fund those ads and other campaign initiatives, dollars by the millions are pouring into the coffers of “dark money” outfits in a way guaranteed to leave the record for spending on midterm elections in a ditch at the side of the road.  We now have our first estimates of what election 2014 is going to look like as a billionaire’s playground; and count on it, you’re going to hear the words “record,” “billionaire,” and “ads” a lot more until November.

“Outside groups” have already spent $120 million on TV ads alone, more than half that sum coming from those dark-money groups that don’t have to let anyone know who their contributors are.  At the top of that shadowy list are six outfits linked to David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers from Wichita. Together, those groups have already sent a mind-spinning 44,000 ads into the politico-sphere in those battleground states, and the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) leads the pack with 27,000 of them. In the end, AFP alone is expected to put $125 million into this year’s midterm elections, a figure that should take your breath away and yet that’s only a start.

Sheldon Adelson, of casino fame, may, for example, put $100 million of his $31.6 billion fortune into this campaign season, shuttling much of it through dark-money outfits, including AFP. On the liberal side of the spectrum, environmentalist and billionaire Tom Steyer has pledged to sink $50 million into campaigns to promote candidates ready to act on global warming (though there is little question that, in the billionaire sweepstakes, the right-wing ones are going to outspend the liberal ones, and Republicans outspend Democrats).

In all of this, you can see the urge of America’s new crop of billionaires to “play god” at our expense and with our lives — to decide for us, ad by ad, dark-money outfit by dark-money outfit, how we should organize ourselves politically. Historian Steve Fraser, TomDispatch regular, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, and co-founder (with me) of the American Empire Project, has rubbed elbows with many a billionaire — on the page, if not in life. From this country’s earliest tycoons to the latest batch of family capitalists, he finds one overwhelming, unifying trait: a deep-seated belief, in a country that worships self- or family-made money, that the more billions you have, the more you should be listened to. In his upcoming book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, he explores how, in our second (even more) gilded age, others with little money also came to believe that, rather than resist it. Tom

Playing God
The Rebirth of Family Capitalism or How the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, and Other Billionaires Are Undermining America
By Steve Fraser

George Baer was a railroad and coal mining magnate at the turn of the twentieth century.  Amid a violent and protracted strike that shut down much of the country’s anthracite coal industry, Baer defied President Teddy Roosevelt’s appeal to arbitrate the issues at stake, saying, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for… not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country.”  To the Anthracite Coal Commission investigating the uproar, Baer insisted, “These men don’t suffer. Why hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”den

We might call that adopting the imperial position.  Titans of industry and finance back then often assumed that they had the right to supersede the law and tutor the rest of America on how best to order its affairs.  They liked to play God.  It’s a habit that’s returned with a vengeance in our own time. Read the rest of this entry →

Ira Chernus, Political Dreaming in the Twenty-First Century: Where Has It Gone?

6:48 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A painting of a person dreaming

Can we imagine a better political future?

Before plunging into TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus’s piece on political dreaming, there’s one historical reality worth considering in the largely dreamless night that is our present planet.  As everyone knows — but few give the slightest thought to these days — the Soviet Union, that “evil empire,” that other “superpower,” gave up the ghost in 1991. In that moment, history as humanity had long known it ended.  A series of great power rivalries that dated back at least to the sixteenth century, often involving several imperial states, each eager to gain further control over parts of the planet, was instantly relegated to the dustbin of human experience.  More than half a millennium of history came to an end with only one imperial power left standing, representing a single economic system, a single way of life, a single way of thinking called capitalism.  On Planet Earth, it no longer mattered whether you called yourself a “communist” power, you were traveling “the capitalist road,” as was everyone, whether they liked it or not.

I suspect we still haven’t fully absorbed the meaning of that moment.  If 1992 was Year One of the new system, the following years would be hailed as the era of “globalization.”  That was the word chosen to celebrate the triumph of Washington and its global system, the much-hailed victory of Hollywood, the Swoosh, the Golden Arches, and the so-called Washington consensus.  There can be no question that one kind of dreaming, or perhaps a dreamy public-relations frenzy, was sparked at that moment and didn’t end until the global economic meltdown of 2007-2008.  Then, the dirty underside of capitalism’s great boom was revealed for all to see (and feel), while a spotlight suddenly fell on the rise of “the 1%” and ever more staggering economic inequality.

In those years, something else occurred: a kind of flattening of the planet that wouldn’t have made a bestselling book for New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.  Think of it as a let-the-good-times-roll(-over-you) phenomenon.  With all other systems discredited and abandoned, with only one way to imagine, political dreaming was flattened, too.  Wherever you looked, it seemed that you just saw another version of the same old same old.  Without a sense that alternatives were possible, it proved remarkably hard to dream, to have a vision of something else, something better.

It’s strange, though, how few have mentioned the global dreamlessness of the post-1991 era, which is why Chernus’s piece couldn’t be more timely — especially in this post-meltdown moment when, as revolts and turmoil grow across an increasingly crippled planet, we are being shown the way into a world of darkness and fears, but also new dreams and hopes.  That some of us dream in waking life is crucial, as Chernus points out today, because if you can’t dream, politically speaking, if you can’t imagine a different world, how will you begin to fix the one we have, the ever hotter, more tumultuous planet we continue to create, to the detriment of those who follow us? Tom

Political Dreaming in the Twenty-First Century 
Where Has It Gone? 
By Ira Chernus

All right, I confess: I have a dream. I bet you do, too. I bet yours, like mine, is of a far, far better world not only for yourself and your loved ones, but for everyone on this beleaguered planet of ours.

And I bet you, like me, rarely talk to anyone about your dreams, even if you spend nearly all your time among politically active people working to improve the planet. Perhaps these days it feels somehow just too naïve, too unrealistic, too embarrassing. So instead, you focus your energy on the nuts and bolts of what’s wrong with the world, what has to be fixed immediately.

Read the rest of this entry →

Lewis Lapham: Machine-Made News

6:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Kindle Reader, after Renoir by Mike Licht

A decade ago, I wrote a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, about the world I had worked in for a quarter-century. I already had at least some sense, then, of what was bearing down on the book. Keep in mind that this was a couple of years before Facebook was launched and years before the Kindle, the Nook, or the iPad saw the light of day. Still, back then, for my novel’s characters — mostly authors and book editors like me — I imagined an electronic book-in-the-making, which I dubbed the “Q.” It was the “Q-print,” officially, with that initial standing for “quasar”– for, that is, a primordial force in the universe.

When one of my younger characters, an editorial assistant, unveils it — still in prototype form — it’s described as “a sleek, steno-pad sized object… a flickering jewel of light and color.” And he imagines its future this way: “Someday it’ll hold a universal library and you’ll be able to talk with an author, catch scenes from the movie, access any newspaper on earth, plan your trip to Tibet, or check out a friend on screen, and that probably won’t be the half of it.”

An older publishing type, on the other hand, describes its possibilities in this fashion: “In a future Middlemarch, the church will offer public service ads when Casaubon appears, the drug companies will support Lydgate, and architectural firms can pitch their wares while Dorothea reorganizes the housing of the poor.” A decade later, that may still be a little ahead of the game, but not by so much. The inexpensive version of the Kindle is awash in ads by now and, books and all, the iPad, of course, is a riot of activity.

Don’t think of me, though, as the Nostradamus of online publishing. It was evident even then that the coming machines of our electronic lives, no matter the tasks they might be dedicated to, including reading The Book, would have little choice but to “generalize’ into all-purpose entities. The urge for email, a video camera, ads, apps, you name it, has indeed proved overwhelming.

Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Andy Kroll, Political Crossroads in Wisconsin?

5:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at

It was an olive branch out of nowhere. In Ohio last week, Republican Governor John Kasich sent a letter to his state’s labor unions pleading with them to join him in renegotiating Senate Bill 5.  That’s the controversial bill he signed in March, amid a wave of anti-union legislation around the country, that cut collective bargaining rights for more than 350,000 Ohio teachers, cops, firefighters, and other public employees.

Kasich is now urging union leaders to “avoid the bitter political warfare” — having initiated it himself. It’s not surprising that he made his gesture now, since We Are Ohio, a union coalition, gathered a staggering 1.3 million signatures (only 231,000 were needed) and got a referendum to repeal the law onto the November ballot.  Now, Kasich wants a compromise deal in which the unions would call off the referendum vote. We Are Ohio, however, has no urge to cater to Kasich’s sudden yen for compromise. A spokesman for the coalition fired back that the governor “should either repeal the entire bill or support our efforts and encourage a no vote” in November.

It’s no coincidence that Kasich’s concession offer came one day after the end of the long, politically fraught summer of recall elections in Wisconsin that dented Republican strength in that other Midwestern state where lawmakers laid siege to workers’ rights. Consider Kasich’s sudden gesture a straw in the wind, but as TomDispatch Associate Editor Andy Kroll writes, just where and how strongly that wind is blowing remains anybody’s guess.  (Kroll’s work for TomDispatch on the Wisconsin events of last winter has been included in a new book, We Are Wisconsin, which describes itself as “the Wisconsin uprising in the words of the activists, writers, and everyday Wisconsinites who made it happen.”) Tom


The Badger State’s Bloody Stalemate
What Comes Next for Wisconsin’s Fledgling Uprising

By Andy Kroll

Stephanie Haw needed a good cry.

On the night of August 9th, the rowdy crowd inside Hawk’s bar in downtown Madison grew ever quieter as the election results trickled in. Earlier that day, with the nation watching, voters statewide cast their ballots in Wisconsin’s eagerly awaited recall elections that threatened the seats of six Republican state senators. Democrats needed to win three of them to regain control of the state senate and block Republican Governor Scott Walker’s hard-line agenda. But it wasn’t to be.  Deep into the night, an MSNBC anchor announced that a fourth GOP senator, Alberta Darling of north Milwaukee and the nearby suburbs, had clinched a narrow victory.

Haw slipped outside. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this, she thought. Progressives had mobilized damn near every possible supporter they could, phone banking and door knocking and Facebooking and Tweeting, and in the end, it still wasn’t enough. She thought of all the energy poured into the recall effort, and of her two-year-old daughter running around the house shouting “Recall Walker! Recall Walker!” Standing on the sidewalk, she burst into tears.

I met Haw and her mother later that night at Hawk’s. We sat around chewing over the election results till the bar emptied. Haw, who was wearing a red t-shirt with SOLIDARITY emblazoned on the front, said simply, “I feel terrible that we lost.” I reminded her what the Democrats had been up against: with one exception, the six districts in play leaned to the right, and all six of those Republicans had won in 2008 despite the Obama frenzy that gripped the state. (He won it by nearly 14 percentage points.) She nodded along with me and then summed her feelings up this way: “I guess it’s the best of times and the worst of times.”

That ambivalence seemed to carry through Wisconsin’s historic summer of recalls, which ended on August 16th when a pair of Democratic state senators easily defended their seats from a Republican recall effort. Which is to say, when the dust settled in the Badger State, there was no clear winner.

Wisconsin Democrats took five out of the summer’s nine recalls, and also won the overall vote count by 50.7% to 49.3%. They failed, however, in their chief goal: winning enough seats to wrest control of the State Senate majority and so shift the balance of power away from Governor Walker and his allies in the legislature.

That didn’t stop Mike Tate, chair of the state Democratic Party, from crowing that Democrats had clinched the “overall victory.” Republicans, meanwhile, cast the results as a vindication of Walker and his Republican game plan. “Wisconsin now emerges from this recall election season with a united Republican majority,” Wisconsin GOP chairman Brad Courtney bragged. “[We’ve] beaten off an attack from national unions and special interests and emerged steadfastly committed to carrying forward a bold job creation agenda.”

Liberal and conservative media similarly claimed victory. The Nation‘s John Nichols, the most vocal cheerleader for the Democrats, wrote that their recall wins dealt “a serious blow to [Republican] authority inside the state Capitol.” Conservative blogger Owen Robinson was typical when he opined in the West Bend Daily News, “The people decided that they were pretty happy with the direction the Republicans are moving the state and let them retain power in Madison.”

Can it be both? If not, then who really won in Wisconsin? And what does that portend for the fledgling movement sparked by the labor uprising in February and March?

The Union Manpower Machine

The night before the August 9th recalls, people clutching stacks of paper and cradling cell phones to their ears spilled out of the Laborers’ Local 464 union hall on the north side of Madison. The Democratic Party had moved its phone-banking operation to the union hall to accommodate the waves of volunteers who had turned out to help the six Democrats in the next day’s election. The hall itself buzzed with the din of a few dozen conversations, and with volunteer trainers getting the next crop of callers ready for their upcoming three-hour shift.

I logged 1,200 miles driving around Wisconsin before the GOP recall elections, and saw the same enthusiasm nearly everywhere I went. It was something to behold, the staggering get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort mounted by the labor unions and the Democratic Party — at a time of year when many Wisconsinites are normally more preoccupied with last night’s Brewers game and heading out to the lake for the weekend.

One Sunday afternoon, I tagged along with a savvy, relentless community organizer named Austin Thompson in a mostly black, low- and middle-income neighborhood that locals call “Far North” Milwaukee. At door after door, Thompson stressed the importance of voting in the recalls; by the time I met him, he’d visited some houses five or six times, determined to mobilize a pocket of the city that, he reminded me, barely turned out the vote in the 2010 election.

That energy carried right up until the polls closed. Tom Bird, a whip-smart grad student I’d befriended during Madison’s labor protests back in February, texted me at 6 p.m. on Election Day from a local union meeting place, “I can’t even phone bank because the labor temple is full.” Democrats and the unions had thrown everything in the ring.

All that GOTV effort paid off — but for both parties. Forty-four percent of eligible voters in the six state senate districts cast a ballot on August 9th, just shy of the combined turnout for the 2010 governor’s race. The GOP’s biggest fear — that a small but motivated base of opponents would come out while their supporters stayed home — did not happen. “Everybody voted. Ultimately, that probably hurt,” Democratic pollster Paul Maslin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We didn’t have that kind of aggrieved-party advantage [we needed].”

Nor did Democrats have a big money advantage. Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a non-partisan outfit that tracks money in Badger State politics, said upwards of $40 million was spent on the nine recall races, with both left- and right-leaning groups spending roughly the same amount. By contrast, $3.75 million went into the entire slate of legislative races in 2010. The key difference, McCabe explained, was the wave of “dark money” spent by right-leaning groups, who, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010, didn’t have to disclose their donors. (Left-leaning groups almost entirely disclosed their funders.) Such staggering recall spending, he said, “is so out of whack from everything we’ve ever seen.”

Make no mistake: the Democrats and labor unions won the overall GOTV fight. In the nine Senate districts in play this summer, more ballots were cast for Democrats than for Tom Barrett, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, in last November’s general election. Sure, Republican turnout was higher than expected, but a majority of the districts at stake were colored red on the political map anyway. “Union money is being matched or outmatched by money from conservative organizations,” wrote Slate‘s Dave Weigel, “but union turnout operations are outmuscling conservatives and the Tea Party.”

Putting the Cart before the Donkey

A week before the August 9th recalls, Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate held a national conference call with reporters to deliver some rosy news. Internal polling (always to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt) showed Democrats leading in three races and tied in the remaining three. Tate didn’t say so outright, but the swagger in his voice sent a message: We’re gonna win this thing. Next stop, senate majority.

When I arrived in Wisconsin four days before the vote, many of the activists, operatives, and candidates with whom I talked brimmed with confidence. Polling data from the liberal Daily Kos website showed Democrats ahead in three races, albeit by the narrowest of margins in two of them. “In my mind we get all six,” Jessica King, one of the six Democratic challengers, told me on the steps of the Waupun City Hall. (And she would, in fact, unseat the Republican she was facing.)

Then, on the eve of the elections, I sensed a subtle shift. A succession of union and Democratic staffers pulled me aside to remind me about what an uphill fight their candidates faced, and how difficult it was going to be to win on GOP turf in the dead of summer. You could feel then that, by trumpeting their chances of ousting three or more senators, left-leaning groups feared that they had put the cart before the donkey (if you will). Suddenly, the bluster was gone, and they were racing to manage expectations.

It was too late. When Democrats fell one seat short of winning back the senate majority, their opponents promptly portrayed what was certainly a victory as an embarrassing loss, a waste of money and manpower, a sign of the left’s waning clout. “They came, they spent, they lost,” was how one conservative blogger put it. “Unions made Wisconsin a great battleground to send a message to other states that politicians who challenge union power will pay a price,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board opined. “The real price was paid by the unions themselves, in the national demonstration of their diminishing power.” Never mind that the Republicans had fired the first shot in the summer’s recall battle, and that the Democrats had launched their own recall efforts only in response to Republican threats — a point, it should be added, that Democrats failed to hammer home.

And so even though left-leaning groups turned out more voters, won more races, and left Governor Walker with a razor-thin majority — and one Republican senator who who voted against Walker’s anti-union bill and might be willing to work with the Democrats on key issues — they found themselves losing the messaging war. They had pinned their hopes on instant and total victory, on flipping the Senate, when they just as easily could have kept expectations in check. Such lofty ambitions in the face of very long odds and unfriendly demographics gave Republicans an opening to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Further to the Left — and Right

Matt Thompson leaned back in his chair at the Argus pub just off Capitol Square in Madison, and thought about what came next. (Heavy political discussion in Wisconsin, you might have noticed, is often accompanied by even heavier ales.) Thompson had taken to the streets during the winter labor uprising to protest Walker’s anti-union actions, and since then has been a voice in the debate over the future of Wisconsin’s re-energized progressive movement, a discussion cultivated on the Twitter hashtag #wiunion. “I just don’t want this movement, whatever you want to call it, to fade,” he told me. “But if we don’t get three seats, I feel like that’s gonna hurt our momentum.”

Thompson was right to worry. With no obvious winner in Wisconsin’s summer recalls, it’s unclear what comes next for progressives. Many of the Wisconsinites I met told me that they were tired of the attack ads and political fisticuffs; they couldn’t wait for the senate recalls to end so they could get on with their lives. Yet left-leaning groups insist that the nine races were mere previews for the biggest recall of all: Governor Walker’s.

There are plenty of reasons why a Walker recall would be a long shot. For starters, only two governors have been recalled in this country’s history: North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921 and California’s Gray Davis in 2003. Walker’s opponents will need to collect upwards of 600,000 signatures in 60 days to trigger a recall. And they will have to decide whether to begin collecting signatures in January, the moment Walker is eligible for recall — he has to have been in office for a full year — or plan their effort to coincide with the November presidential election.

Collecting 600,000 signatures, activists told me, isn’t that daunting; one million Wisconsinites voted for Walker’s opponent in 2010 in an election featuring a mediocre turnout and before anyone knew that Walker wanted to kneecap public-sector unions. But winning a recall election remains a very tall order.

If the senate recalls succeeded at anything, experts say, it was in further polarizing the voters of Wisconsin, widening the chasm between left and right in a state previously known for compromise. (Remember, it was Republican Governor Tommy Thompson who ushered in BadgerCare, the state’s renowned health insurance program for low-income parents and children.)

Then there’s the recall fatigue felt by many. After weeks of nasty attack ads blanketing the airwaves, some of them peddling outright lies, there was a general feeling that people wanted to get on with their lives. A recent survey by left-leaning Public Policy Polling captured that wariness, with 50% of respondents opposing a Walker recall while 47% supported it. Any such recall effort would also fall within the shadow of the 2012 presidential race, if not on election day itself, raising an important question: Would the Democratic Party and liberal outside groups that spent tens of millions of dollars in Wisconsin this summer siphon money away from defending President Obama or preserving their U.S. Senate majority in a difficult effort to defeat Walker?

When you play the angles, a Walker recall looks increasingly unlikely, says Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist. “I think it could happen,” he told me, “but between the letdown of not having succeeded fully this time and the competition in 2012, I think it’s going to wither away.”

Progressives at the Crossroads

Not if the unions can help it. After returning from Wisconsin, I interviewed Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), at her organization’s headquarters just off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Henry’s spacious office was splashed with colorful maps depicting SEIU membership around the country or various states’ positions on issues like anti-gay and right-to-work legislation.

She was, Henry said, “incredibly proud of the heroic efforts” of the unions in pushing back against Walker and Wisconsin Republicans, but also “disappointed with the outcome.” Most of all, she went on, the big challenge for SEIU and other unions was transforming the Wisconsin uprising into something larger. “I have waited all my life to see what I saw in February,” she told me. “And I think the question for us is how do we add oxygen to that?”

Henry acknowledged the possibility that a Walker recall election might go forward, but insisted that the key for Wisconsin’s progressives was “not to limit [the movement] or narrow it into electoral politics.”  Instead, she considered it crucial to make sure “it’s expanded into a demand for jobs from the private sector in the state, and getting people back to work.” She summed things up this way: “I just think we need to expand the fight.”

Even activists on the ground in Wisconsin don’t yet know if that will happen. For the rest of us, their decision either to press on or pack it in will speak volumes about where progressive organizing stands in America, a nation where too many protesters believe it’s enough to turn up for a few rallies and then go home, even though the foundations for real mass movements (like Egypt’s democracy uprising) are laid years before lasting change occurs.

Americans need such a movement, built on economic populism and the dream of shared prosperity. The question is: Are Wisconsin’s progressives the first spark in that movement? Or is theirs a flare that is already flickering out?

Andy Kroll is a staff reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine and associate editor at He reported on the Wisconsin labor protests in February and March, and is still burning off the pounds he gained in fried cheese curds and craft beer from his most recent reporting trip. His email is akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com.

Copyright 2011 Andy Kroll

Tomgram: Jen Marlowe, The Freedom Reading List

8:22 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

With Hosni Mubarak gone, let’s do a little Egyptian math on the Mubarak years. 

According to experts, the fortune amassed by Egypt’s former president and his two sons (both billionaires) could reach $70 billion.  That includes funds in secret offshore bank accounts and investments in residences and real-estate properties reaching from Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills to Wilton Place in central London and Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheik tourist resort.  Since Mubarak has been president for 30 years, he’s put that little fortune together at a record clip — something like $2 billion or more a year.  He and his family are now worth approximately four times the gross domestic product (GDP) of Paraguay, five times the GDP of embattled Afghanistan, and more than ten times the GDP of Laos.  He may be the richest man and they the richest family on Earth.  All this happened, by the way, in the years when millions of Egyptians — at least one in every 10 — lost their farms, while more than 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

And let’s just mention a few others in the cast of characters who let the good times roll and made a few bucks off the reign of the Mubarak family: steel magnate and ruling party insider Ahmed Ezz, for instance, managed to eke out a $3 billion fortune, while former Interior Minister Habib Ibrahim El-Adly scraped by with a near-rock-bottom $1.2 billion.  And they are just two of at least five much-loathed Mubarak cronies who reportedly crossed the billion-dollar mark in these years. 

As for a trio of Washington lobbyists — former Republican representative Bob Livingston, former Democratic representative Toby Moffett, and mover-and-shaker Tony Podesta — who bravely hired themselves out to the Mubarak regime, they made chump change: reportedly a mere $1 million a year for their efforts.  Who knows what Frank Wisner, the former ambassador sent to Cairo by the Obama administration to give Mubarak the boot, made working for Patton, Boggs, a company which proudly boasts of the litigation work it’s done for Mubarak and company?  Conflict of interest anyone?

Meanwhile, don’t forget the Egyptian military.  It didn’t do so badly in the Mubarak years either.  After all, according to one expert, it owns “virtually every industry in the country,” and it still managed to take in a handy $35 billion in “aid” from Washington since 1978.

As for ordinary Egyptians who protested the devolving state of their country?  Estimates of the number of political prisoners in Egypt’s grim jails have varied over the years from 6,000 to 17,000.  Their well-being was overseen by former head of intelligence Omar Suleiman.  Since Egypt was a “torture destination of choice” for the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, Suleiman happily oversaw that program, too, as Mubarak’s torturer-in-chief.  Appointed vice president by his pal, Suleiman was the “democrat” the Obama administration seemed ready to back until recently to manage the “transition to democracy.” 

All in all, should we wonder that such a torturing kleptocracy on the Nile is now being shaken to its foundations and that another spirit, a spirit of democracy, freedom, and justice, is rising in the region?  Sometimes such a spirit can be caught in the story of a single ordinary, yet remarkable, life.  Jen Marlowe has done so in her just-published book The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker.  It’s a remarkable story about how even prison can prepare the way for another world and its message, as Marlowe’s latest TomDispatch post indicates, is particularly appropriate for this Middle Eastern moment.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Marlowe discusses how prison became university for one Palestinian prisoner, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom


From An Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square
One Palestinian’s Odyssey in a Middle East Ablaze

By Jen Marlowe

As pro-democracy demonstrations sweep across the Middle East, ousting dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, many in the West have expressed surprise that such a strong, sophisticated vision of a democratic future is being articulated by ordinary citizens and grassroots movements in the Arab world.

I have not been surprised. Sophisticated organizing for democratic reform and justice has a rich legacy in the region.  In fact, watching anti-Mubarak demonstrators taking to the streets en masse to demand true democracy, freedom from repression, and the right to be stakeholders in their own political and civil systems caused me to reflect on my friend Sami Al Jundi, a Palestinian from the Old City of Jerusalem who has spent the last two decades working for peace and a nonviolent end to Israeli occupation. He is, in many ways, a product of that legacy.

Sami’s political awakening came in 1980, when he was inducted into a highly organized, democratic community and, at the age of 18, began a program of serious study, reading hundreds of books including:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract
Makarenko’s Pedagogical Poem
The writings of Ho Chi Minh, Basil Liddell Hart, and Angela Davis
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Incoherence of the Philosophers by Imam Ghazali
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Arab Nationalism Between the Reality of Separation and the Aspiration for Unity by Munir Shafiq
The complete works of Dostoevsky. Twice.

These were not parts of syllabi for courses in political science and literature. Sami was not in a university. He was a Palestinian political prisoner in an Israeli jail, incarcerated for building a bomb with two friends intended to be used against Israeli security forces. The bomb exploded prematurely, killing one of Sami’s friends. He and his other friend were arrested by the Israeli secret service, tortured, interrogated, and finally sentenced to 10 and 15 years in prison, respectively.

It was in prison that Sami received his higher education. The veteran prisoners in his jail had established a complex, intricate, community-based society with self-governance. This included a program of study for the new prisoners via a curriculum created and overseen by an education committee.

Previously, political prisoners had been forced to work in Israeli military factories, making netting for tanks and building crates to hold missiles. The prisoners revolted, burning down one of the factories, and then made a collective decision: their efforts and energy would go only towards their own people. They won access to books, paper, and pens through hunger strikes and other acts of resistance.

A Palestinian Odyssey

For the first three years of his confinement, Sami sat with five other new prisoners in a circle on the concrete floor of their cell for six hours a day, six days a week, being instructed in great detail by two older cellmates/teachers. One of them covered the background of Fatah (the secular Palestinian national liberation movement that Sami was a member of) and the other taught the history of rebellion and revolution in the modern world, from the Bolsheviks in Russia to Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrillas and the Vietnamese movement that defeated the French and Americans in a decades-long war. Their lessons were peppered with comparisons to and anecdotes from places as distant and disparate as Ireland and South Africa.

After the six hours of group meetings, Sami and his fellow prisoners would sit on their mats, each with a book, reading in silence for the rest of the day. The books were assigned, but the education committee mixed the fare. A dense political volume like Mahdi Abd Al-Hadi’s The Palestinian Issue and the Political Projects for Resolution would be followed with a volume of poetry or a novel like Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered.

When Sami graduated from the mandatory courses, he was free to determine his own reading and composed a list of 70 titles. Taking advice from the older prisoners, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels topped his list.

Given the mainstream media’s emphasis on the role of inflammatory Islamic rhetoric in the Palestinian resistance movement, one might assume the prisoners’ reading list would have been replete with books focusing on anti-Israel indoctrination.  In reality, Sami underwent the intensive equivalent of a liberal arts education.

He emerged from his decade in prison well-versed in Greek and Roman classics, Russian literature, world history, philosophy, psychology, economics, and much more. He read The Odyssey and The Iliad three times each. He read the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. He read the letters that future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote from prison to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, a future prime minister herself. Sami describes the prison library as “an ocean.” The texts mentioned above only skim the surface of his deep plunge into world literature.

This education system was just one element of the remarkable society that Palestinian prisoners built inside Israeli prisons. They held elections every six months for a prison-wide council and steering committee.  They divided themselves into committees chaired by the members of that steering committee, responsible for education, communication with the Israeli guards, security, and intra-prisoner affairs.

Sami served several times on the elections committee and the magazine committee.  When his cell got hold of a contraband radio, he and his cellmates became the news committee, surreptitiously listening to radio reports at night and stealthily disseminating the news in headline form to the other cells each morning.

There were daily book discussions in the cell, weekly political meetings between cells, and monthly gatherings of the entire 120-person section or corridor of cells to take up thorny topics of disagreement among members of the different Palestinian resistance movements jailed together. When the prisoners engaged in any joint action, such as a hunger strike, the decision would be made collectively after lengthy deliberation.

Israeli guards sometimes revoked the privileges of the prisoners as a form of punishment. The harshest punishment of all was the confiscation of pens, paper, and books. Books, according to Sami, were the prisoners’ souls.

The Impact of Prison

Prison did not further radicalize Sami in the ways one might expect, nor did it stoke a desire for revenge or for the further use of violence. Instead, locked away, he began to develop a worldview grounded in principles of nonviolence, democracy, and equal rights. Undoubtedly, he was influenced by a collection of speeches he came across by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the teachings of Gandhi that he read. But much of the human being that Sami grew into emerged from the society the prisoners had painstakenly created, with its emphasis on reading, discussion, reflection, democracy, solidarity, and equality.

Sami speaks with nostalgia of the weekly “criticism” meetings that the older prisoners in his cell facilitated. He approached the first such meeting with trepidation.  No one, after all, likes to be scolded for doing something wrong.

He was taken off-guard when the prisoner-facilitators started the meeting by criticizing themselves. Then, turning to the younger prisoners, they began with positive feedback, noting, for example, who had participated actively in group discussions. The prisoners were also given the opportunity to critique each other, but only after each had criticized himself first.

Sitting in those meetings, Sami came to realize that much of the goal of this prison society was, as he puts it, to build the humanity of the young prisoners. Political books and discussion provided intellectual stimulation, literature engendered empathy and compassion, and carefully facilitated discussions fostered connection and solidarity.

Prison as a place of study is hardly unique to Palestinians. Though in the United States prison is notorious for intense violence, political prisoners worldwide have historically used their time of incarceration to educate themselves.  Malcolm X famously taught himself to read and write in prison. Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland, where many Irish Republican Army volunteers were jailed, was regularly referred to as “the university of Long Kesh.”  While locked away on Robben Island for 27 years, Nelson Mandela received a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of London.

What was suprising to me, however, was the intricate community built by the Palestinian prisoners, with enormous care taken to nurture and educate the young. The path that Sami set out on, while in prison for constructing a bomb, led him to an unshakeable belief that Israelis and Palestinians can and must work together to build a common future of peace with justice. I had never considered the possibility that a decade in prison might not harden a prisoner against his jailers but provide him with the intellectual and emotional tools to become a passionate advocate for reconciliation.

Prison was instrumental in shaping Sami’s worldview and his growth as a courageous and critical thinker, thanks not just to his determination to study, but to the fact that older political prisoners viewed the development and education of a younger generation as their primary human and political task. Sami’s own proudest moment, he would later tell me, was when it was his turn to become a teacher.

From Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square: connecting the dots

As I watched the events in Tahrir Square unfold, leading to President Mubarak’s ouster, I experienced the same excitement and inspiration I first felt when Sami began describing his prison experience to me.  There are striking parallels between the two in terms of solidarity, human connection, and incredible organization.

For example, neighborhoods in Cairo organized their own volunteer guards to make sure their streets and homes remained safe; people set up ad-hoc clinics in Tahrir Square; demonstrators banded together to protect the Egyptian Museum and its priceless treasures from regime-friendly thugs and looters.  And according to a Democracy Now report by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, when a group of demonstrators associated with the Muslim Brotherhood began to chant “Allah Akbar!” the crowd drowned them out with the chant, “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian!”

But I watched with dismay the way the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) responded to the protests. It seems reasonable to expect that those who struggled for their own people’s freedom would be quick to support an Egyptian nonviolent struggle for democracy. Yet the PA banned and suppressed solidarity demonstrations in the West Bank — and such repression of political expression was no isolated incident. The once revolutionary Fatah movement has become the corrupt, authoritarian, and self-serving Palestinian leadership we see today.

There are complex reasons for this transformation, including the fact that, though some of Sami’s former cellmates now hold high positions within the PA, much of the current Palestinian leadership is drawn not from the revolutionary prison generation, but from PLO members who returned from exile in 1996 after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords.  In addition, those accords created the Palestinian Authority as a quasi-government without a state.  The political goals of a national liberation movement and the political project of nation building were absorbed by an entity (the PA) that had functionally become a sub-contractor for the Israeli occupation.

Beyond the specifics, there is the issue of the nature of power itself.  Once a regime — any regime — is in power, its tendency is to do whatever it takes to cling onto, consolidate, and expand that power, even at the expense of the very ideals it came to power to uphold.

Whatever the mixture of reasons, if there is a parallel to be drawn between the incredible Palestinian political prisoner community of the 1980s and the inspirational people’s revolution emerging like a tidal wave in the Arab world today, there is also a warning to be offered.  Today’s Palestinian Authority provides a lesson for the people of Egypt. It is not enough to struggle for freedom and democracy against an authoritarian or dictatorial regime (or, in the Palestinian case, an occupying power). Once the revolutionaries obtain power, the struggle for those same core values becomes even more difficult and critical.

May Palestinians and Egyptians gain strength and solidarity from one another as they demand freedom as well as a meaningful political voice. May they learn from each other as they build enduring institutions of democracy and pluralism. May they continue to nurture hundreds of thousands of courageous, critical thinkers.

The people’s revolution is still unfolding in Egypt and all over the Arab world, including the occupied Palestinian territories.  Where it will lead is unknown.  If, however, it maintains (or, in the case of the Palestinians, rediscovers) its roots in ideals about a caring community that nurtures the humanity of its young, as in Tahrir Square and as in the Israeli jail where Sami Al Jundi went to “university,” then genuine social change in the Arab world is inevitable.

Jen Marlowe is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author, playwright, human rights advocate, and founder of donkeysaddle projects. Her new book, The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, co-written with and about Palestinian peace activist Sami Al Jundi, has just been published by Nation Books. Her previous book was Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Marlowe discusses how prison became university for one Palestinian prisoner, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)

Copyright 2011 Jen Marlowe

Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, Invasion of the Democracy Crushers

10:55 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In fiction, these have been the modernizing years for vampires.  Following the path blazed by novelist Anne Rice, in text and on screen they have become more complex, more human, and increasingly (dare I use the word) heartthrobs.  Think “True Blood,” the Twilight series, and “The Vampire Diaries.”  In the all-too-real and bizarre world we actually inhabit, however, the vampires have been truly regressive: think Count Dracula or Count Orlok of Nosferatu (only far, far richer).  Their sole bow to modernity is that, while they — or the monetary contributions they offer in return for political cocktails made from our national lifeblood — still tend to skulk in the dark, they are also willing to stand in the light, teeth bared, ready to sink them in the nearest set of necks.

A story of election-year vampirism led last Thursday’s NBC Nightly News with correspondent Michael Isikoff reporting on “a kind of secret fortune that has been flowing into congressional campaigns in these midterm elections,” with Karl Rove’s right-wing front-group American Crossroads, among others, “expecting to raise as much as $250 million dollars to flood the airways in the last weeks of the election.”  The next morning the New York Times reported on a bevy of top corporations (Chevron, Goldman Sachs, Texaco, and Dow Chemical, to name just four) who have funneled multi-millions through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce into massive national ad and influence campaigns in these last years — and on one right-wing contributor who stepped happily out of the dark to the tune of $7 million (also for American Crossroads).

If you want to go deep into the night of the living dead, check out Marvin Kitman’s account, “Murdoch Triumphant,” in the November issue of Harper’s Magazine.  It’s the blow-by-blow tale of Rupert’s fair-and-balanced path to American media power and the millions he spent or donated to get there.  To stay there, he just keeps on giving — most recently, million dollar donations to both the Republican Governor’s Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  Reports on this subject are now a dime a dozen because what the weather (and global warming) recently did in inundating Pakistan, the money of the rich and largely right-wing is now doing to what’s left of American politics. (And this isn’t likely to be a passing phase.  After all, the “secret” donors of the moment are already planning for their future – but not, of course, yours.)

It may be true that you can’t buy love, but politically speaking, it looks like pretty much everything else is potentially up for sale in what we still like to call American democracy.  With that in mind, one of TomDispatch’s favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster and the soon-to-be-published Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, returns today to look at just whose horror movie we’re living in.  (By the way, catch Solnit discussing “mixed-up California” in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

Jurassic Ballot 
When Corporations Ruled the Earth 
By Rebecca Solnit 

This country is being run for the benefit of alien life forms. They’ve invaded; they’ve infiltrated; they’ve conquered; and a lot of the most powerful people on Earth do their bidding, including five out of our nine Supreme Court justices earlier this year and a whole lot of senators and other elected officials all the time. The monsters they serve demand that we ravage the planet and impoverish most human beings so that they might thrive. They’re like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, like the Terminators, like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except that those were on the screen and these are in our actual world.

We call these monsters corporations, from the word corporate which means embodied. A corporation is a bunch of monetary interests bound together into a legal body that was once considered temporary and dependent on local licensing, but now may operate anywhere and everywhere on Earth, almost unchallenged, and live far longer than you.

The results are near-invincible bodies, the most gigantic of which are oil companies, larger than blue whales, larger than dinosaurs, larger than Godzilla.  Last year, Shell, BP, and Exxon were three of the top four mega-corporations by sales on the Fortune Global 500 list (and Chevron came in eighth). Some of the oil companies are well over a century old, having morphed and split and merged while continuing to pump filth into the air, the water, and the bodies of the many — and profits into the pockets of the few.

Thanks to a Supreme Court decision this January, they have the same rights as you when it comes to putting money into the political process, only they’re millions of times larger than you — and they’re pumping millions of dollars into races nationwide. It’s like inviting a T. rex into your checkers championship — and it doesn’t matter whether dinosaurs can play checkers, at least not once you’re being pulverized by their pointy teeth.

The amazing thing is that they don’t always win, that sometimes thousands of puny mammals — that’s us — do overwhelm one of them.

Gigantic, powerful, undead beings, corporations have been given ever more human rights over the past 125 years; they act on their own behalf, not mine or yours or humanity’s or, really, carbon-based life on Earth’s. We’re made out of carbon, of course, but we depend on a planet where much of the carbon is locked up in the earth.  The profit margins of the oil corporations depend on putting as much as possible of that carbon into the atmosphere.

So in a lot of basic ways, we are at odds with these creations. The novelist John le Carré remarked earlier this month, “The things that are done in the name of the shareholder are, to me, as terrifying as the things that are done — dare I say it — in the name of God.” Corporations have their jihads and crusades too, since they subscribe to a religion of maximum profit for themselves, and they’ll kill to achieve it.  In an odd way, shareholders and god have merged in the weird new religion of unfettered capitalism, the one in which regulation is blasphemy and profit is sacred.  Thus, the economic jihads of our age.  

They Fund By Night!

In the jihad that concerns me right now, most of the monsters come from Texas; the prey is in California; and it’s called our economy and our environment. Four years ago, with state Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, we Californians decided we’d like to cultivate our environment for the benefit of all of us, human and biological, now and in the long future.

They’d like to pillage it to keep their profit margins in tip-top shape this year and next. The latest tool to do this is called Proposition 23, and it’s on our ballot on November 2nd. It is wholly destructive, cloaked in lies, and benefits no one — no one human, that is, though it benefits the oil corporations a lot. (You could argue that it benefits their shareholders, but I’d suggest that their biological and moral nature matters more than their bank accounts do and that, as a consequence, they’re acting against their deepest interests and their humanity.)

When he signed AB 32 into law, Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, who’s totally weird, termed out, but really good on climate stuff, said: “Some have challenged whether AB 32 is good for businesses. I say unquestionably it is good for businesses. Not only large, well-established businesses, but small businesses that will harness their entrepreneurial spirit to help us achieve our climate goals. Using market-based incentives, we will reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. That’s a 25% reduction.  And by 2050, we will reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels. We simply must do everything in our power to slow down global warming before it’s too late.” 

With Proposition 23, two out-of-state oil corporations, Valero and Tesoro, and right-wing oil billionaires based in New York and Kansas are trying to use the California initiative process, originally intended to allow citizen intervention in the governance of this state, to countermand AB 32 and set policy for us. “According to data from the California Secretary of State’s office,” Kate Sheppard recently reported in Mother Jones magazine, “more than 98% of contributions to the pro-Prop. 23 campaign are from oil companies. Eighty-nine percent of the contributions come from out of state… Valero contributed $4 million, Tesoro gave $1.5 million, and a refinery owned by the notorious Kansas-based billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, of Koch Industries, kicked in another $1 million. Just last week, Houston-based Marathon oil contributed $500,000.”

Actually, Tesoro and Valero are headquartered out of state, but their refineries in California gave us 2.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals in our air and water last year, and they’d like to continue offering the citizens of my state these gifts that keep giving illness, death, and long-term environmental devastation without interference. The coming vote is not about protecting fancy places for upscale hikers — the stereotype used to portray environmentalism as a white-person’s luxury movement — it’s about air quality for inner-city people, especially those who live near refineries and harbors. This is the kind of environmental degradation that’s about childhood asthma and increased deaths from respiratory illness. In other words, Prop. 23 is part of a corporate war on the poor. A vote for Prop. 23 is a vote to turn the lungs of poor children into a snack for dinosaurs, to put it in bluntly Hollywood-ish terms.

Lies of the Living Dead

To sabotage AB 32, they’re spending lots and lots of money and telling lots and lots of lies. Start with the proposition’s name — “The California Jobs Initiative” — designed to make you think that this measure will create jobs. Actually, according to most reputable analyses, it will do the opposite. A green economy has made jobs, is making jobs, and will make more jobs. This stealth initiative would suspend AB 32 until unemployment in California drops below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters, which it won’t anytime soon, if ever.

The implication is that doing something about climate change is a luxury we cannot afford in this bleak economy. That’s a lie. Down the road, if we don’t retool to address a future in which there’s less petroleum (at far higher prices), we’ll truly crash and the suffering will be intense. AB 32 would prevent that crash; Prop. 23 steers us directly into it.

The more we heat up the planet, the more it costs all of us, not just in money, but in colossal famines, displacements, deaths, and species extinctions, as well as in the loss of some of the things that make this planet a blue-green jewel, including its specialized habitats from the melting Arctic to bleaching coral reefs.

Doing something about climate change makes economic sense right now. It’s good business.

It’s hardly surprising that the corporate aliens lie when it comes to the relationship between doing something about climate change and the economy.  After all, oil corporations funded a lot of the disinformation campaigns which, for years, promoted the idea that human-caused climate change was a figment of the overheated imaginations of mad environmentalists, and later that there was controversy (as well as corruption) among scientists when it came to global warming.  The only honest information would have been that about 97% of the world’s relevant scientists overwhelming agree that climate change couldn’t be more real and is a genuine danger to humanity and the planet — and that the evidence is all around us in freakish weather, rising oceans, melting arctic ice and glaciers, shifting habitats, and more.

The Phantom of Democracy

The oil dinosaurs want to win so badly in my home state because what happens here matters everywhere. The nation often follows where California goes. In the 1970s, we started setting energy efficiency standards that mean we Californians now use about half the energy of the average American (with no diminishment of quality of life or pocketbook pain). In the last decade, we created cutting edge measures to curb carbon emissions.

In 2002, Los Angeles state assemblywoman Fran Pavley (now a state senator) put out AB 1493, which was to — and will — reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.  It was, unfortunately, held up for six years by the Bush administration and then transformed into a national standard by Barack Obama as one of his first acts in office. Pavley also authored the now embattled “Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006,” AB 32.

If you think oil corporations and life share an interest, you should’ve been in the Gulf of Mexico a few months ago. I was. I saw their oiled pelicans, their unemployed fishermen, and their oil-smeared marshes.  I tasted and smelled the poisons I could not see, and I read their lies.

The people of the Gulf will struggle to survive the recklessness of BP for decades to come, but the petrobeasts aren’t just destructive when things go wrong; they’re that way when things go according to plan as well. If the 5.5 million barrels of oil that spilled into the Gulf, thanks to BP, had instead made it to our gas tanks, the consequences would still have been dire. They are dire.  The companies funding Prop. 23 are themselves a major source of climate change and, of course, a major obstacle to coming up with solutions to it.

Like the people of the Gulf during the spill, the people of Richmond, California, in the San Francisco Bay area, live with those tastes, smells, and consequences all the time, because they’re in the shadow of Chevron’s biggest west coast refinery. (Corporate headquarters are only 25 miles away.) Sirens go off during excessive leaks of toxins like ammonia, and as if out of a horror movie, an explosion at the plant in 1999 that sent an 18,000-pound plume of sulfur dioxide fumes into the air was said to be so nasty it took the fur off squirrels.

Chevron is one of the biggest corporations on the planet.  While the average income for a human being in Richmond is a little over $19,000, Chevron’s profits last year were $24 billion, meaning the corporation is more than one million times as rich as the average citizen there. Nonetheless, the humans there won a huge victory recently, preventing the corporation from expanding and retooling its refinery so that it could process even dirtier crude oil (with dirtier local emissions, in a place that already suffers huge health consequences from the monster in its backyard). It may be the world’s first victory against refinery expansion.

Chevron is both the state’s biggest single greenhouse-gas emitter and a huge financial force in Richmond elections, invariably funding campaigns against green candidates. The mostly poor, mostly nonwhite citizens of Richmond are, however, organized and motivated, so if you want to watch a monster movie in which the little guys have been winning lately, follow city politics there.

One of the cool things about the West County Toxics Coalition, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the Green Party mayor, and the activists working with them is that they know better than anyone how to act locally and think globally, and even sometimes how to act globally and think locally. Maybe collectively they’re not so little. They’re allied with antiwar groups, with Burmese human rights groups, with the people of Ecuador and Nigeria who have suffered petro-contamination at least as bad, if not worse than BP’s Gulf spill this spring, with groups around the world fighting the petrobeast. There’s a movement out there, and sometimes it even wins amazing victories.

Around the world this month, coordinated more than 7,000 demonstrations in favor of lowering atmospheric carbon to a sane 350 parts per million, while the climate justice movement had a global day of action on Columbus Day.  Among the month’s heroic efforts were direct action against mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia, blockades of refineries in France and Britain and of a coal-fired power plant in Germany, protests and gas-station blockades in Canada, and a rally in the Philippines, a demonstration in Finland, a march in Ecuador, a protest in South Africa, among others.  In California, activists worked steadily against Prop. 23.

Think for a minute about horror movies: in some of them, the little people rally and do heroic things and the monsters or aliens are vanquished. The forces that have come together against Prop. 23 are impressive, ranging from inner-city job coalitions and traditional environmental groups to university think tanks and business interests.  Winning or losing, however, depends on what happens when California voters look at that deceptive label “California Jobs Initiative” on their ballots on November 2nd.

If your heart isn’t pounding, and you aren’t biting your fingernails and teetering at the edge of your seat, then you haven’t noticed the monsters yet. Look carefully. They’re all around us — and they’re coming for you.

Rebecca Solnit’s brother David does organizing work against Chevron, and she often shows up for the marches. She is the author of 13 books, including the forthcoming Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (which maps toxins and right-wing corporations in the Bay Area, among other things) and A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in DisasterShe writes for as often as she can.  It’s her personal version of being David in the face of all those Goliaths. To catch Solnit discussing “mixed-up California” in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Rebecca Solnit