An Energetic Investigator of Energy Realities: Details That Provide the Big Picture
A teacher friend of mine, a brilliant fellow, spits with fury at the insidious decimation of the decent life, most recently in relation to the depredations of British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico. When I point out that he needs to be willing to do something about the crime and venality that he sees so clearly, whether it concerns nuclear giveaways, oil spills, or the sorry state of schools in Georgia, he shrugs his shoulders, and the perfect mimic of a 'cracker,' up-country Georgian, says, "I'm too stupid. They'd kill my ass if I ever did anything. That'll never happen."
And I tell him, just as I tell whatever readers pay a bit of attention here and elsewhere, "If 'that' never happens, then things will never change." And that possibility, of truly transformative popular leadership, is the only reason that I write stories and seek to convey what's happening hither and yon.
In the guts and sidelines of these mediations of what's going on, folks will see glimmerings of what needs to take place. But I can't say, as simply as I can say that this day will end, just precisely what those new popular powers will be, or how they will look, or how they will work. But I know they are possible, and I ask readers to consider: along with finding out about new techniques, along with recognizing corruption and mismanagement, we need to think about how we're going to assume control so that the planet doesn't cast off our kind like the soil rejects a bad seed.
As I walked into Starbucks this morning, plotting out the composition of this posting, the clerk--a slender young fellow who towered over me, arched his eyebrows and asked, "So you're reading Armed Madhouse, eh?"
More amazed than I can say, I nodded and said that I was in fact finishing an essay extolling the work of Greg Palast as a model that people who want better lives need to learn to follow. The youth nodded his head as his coworker took my money.
"Yeah," he sighed, "it's a shame that Palast's sorta 'persona non grata' in the States now."
Shame is perfect. In this introductory profile, I develop the following aspects of this intellectual leader and informational champion, whom the media outlets and political hoi polloi of the 'arsenal of democracy' have over and over again rejected.
- Mr. Palast's past, his actual and activist curriculum vitae, qualify him as the person that everyone needs to follow who is not a conscious and enthusiastic part of one corporate machine or another.
- A perusal of this bulldog searcher's materials provides readers with absolutely critical concepts and makes sense for us of otherwise often indecipherable patterns of corporate control, especially among the energy companies that currently determine all upper level governmental and industrial policy.
- Palast's perspectives on "Peak Oil," a very popular trope among those who want to understand the shape of things as they are, and as they are becoming, offers a populist deconstruction of an important idea.
- While he is too busy afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted to spend a lot of time doing community organizing, Palast is clear that leadership from below is both the only way to save the hard won gains that working people have made since the 1930's, as well as the only way to salvage anything akin to a human future for our kids and grandkids.
Palast makes clear in The Best Democracy Money Can Buy that he does not come from privilege. His work ethic and his keen acuity sent him to Milton Friedman, but when Mr. P. had mastered the arcana of forensic financial investigation, he unleashed his skill not only against attacks on the integrity of capital but also against the denizens of capital themselves. He uncovered fraud and criminal malfeasance in the Exxon-Valdez scandal and elsewhere for close to twenty years.
This capacity for revealing hidden reality, for explicating the necessary skein of facts that permitted a rich and accurate portrayal of socioeconomic reality, turned him toward reporting, making him, by default, an "accidental journalist." Quickly recognized as "the most important investigative reporter of our time," in the words of a Tribune Magazine profile, that recognition paradoxically (or logically, if one thinks in Palastian terms), made him almost unemployable in the United States.
Thankfully, that den of 'socialist' media, the United Kingdom, gave him a home and a base from which to orchestrate his incisive dissection of the complex webs of influence and thuggery that presently maintain order on the planet. From his sinecure in BBC and the Guardian news group, he repeatedly skewers the secret deals and pernicious pacts that currently make policy on multiple fronts. Nowhere is this perfidy, this arrogant derision against democracy, more apparent than in the development and marketing of energy, the 'policies' about which are merely a cover for extricating the maximum number of dollars from the maximum number of pockets.
KEY POINTS ABOUT UNDERSTANDING ENERGY
All that Palast asks from readers is that they not completely abandon their critical faculties. Policies reflect interests. If we quest and dig, we can see the patterns--money as it flows through banks and corporate/government accounts, paper as it leaves a trail from one 'secret'-enabled reader to another, etc.--and begin to make sense of what is happening, both to us, and to others in our names.
Repeatedly, Palast nabs the 'smoking gun' that proves government lies and corporate conspiracy. As often as not, the agencies 'protecting' the hidden troves of data do not deny the truth of what Palast shows. Instead, they are apt to recount, "There are lots of things the intelligence community knows and other people ought not to know."
This response was in relation to the discovery that a truly "terrorist charity," tied to Saudi oil interests and in particular to the Bin Laden family, had been a desired target of investigation for years prior to September 13, 2001, when the G-men's official examination actually began. The prior mandate to keep clear of the group had to do with the 'sensitivity' of some of the subjects, who were either wealthy Saudis or representatives of official Arabia, or both.
Democracy cannot possibly function if the basis for every decision that the majority makes is a pack of lies meant to serve the wealthy. Yet, except for the likes of Palast, that remains the standard story. A key element that Palast provides, again and again, is historical. He demonstrates, beyond any shady place where doubt might linger, than official policy of government and oil companies since 1925 has been to underdevelop--to sequester--Iraqi oil. The signatures of oil magnates and politicians on a red-lined map are sworn proof of this.
Moreover, the attacks on Saddam Hussein, which began twelve years after British Petroleum and the CIA tapped him to be 'our man in Baghdad' in 1979 (and this after he was on the payroll of both the CIA and the KGB for the prior two decades), had zero to do with any of the stated rationale for the attacks. Using time-honored investigative techniques, brass, and charm, Palast reveals documents that tell the truth about wars that have murdered a million Asians and ten thousand Europeans and Americans.
The U.S. orchestrated his use of poison gas against Iranians. Americans maintained him in power, and Western companies courted his interest in nukes throughout the 1980's. But his desire to develop Iraqi oil went against the OPEC/oil company plan to keep Iraq's petro-dollars in mother earth's bank, so as to bolster prices. More than anything else, the volatility that Hussein introduced into the political economy of oil was anathema to the ruling class.
Thus, the 'oil-for-food' protocols of the Clinton years established a ceiling on what the Iraqis could expect to bring to market. And when our ungrateful dictator, like a Frankenstein monster bent on the destruction of its master, not only found ways round these restrictions but also had the gall to reach out to another trickster like Hugo Chavez, he became the butt of not one but two plans to overthrow him.
One emanated from the State Department and the oil companies and OPEC. One resulted from the detailed desires of the Pentagon and entrenched groups of 'neoconservative' thinkers who worshipped so-called 'free' markets. The oil companies won, but the attack, planned well in advance of 9/11 merely needed the excuse of fear and the sense of victimization that followed in the lee of that dark day.
Palast proves this. To doubt these matters, given the documentation he provides, would be tantamount to doubting that an infant whom one watched emerge from its mother was indeed that woman's child. He also shows the following.
- The U.S. planned and financed the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez, an actual elected leader, unlike his detractors in Washington, George Bush and Dick Cheney, who came to office as a result of a fraud perpetrated by the Florida Secretary of State and the Sunshine State's governor, Jeb Bush.
- The law firm of James Baker, senior advisor to Daddy Bush and ongoing point man for the oil industry, made a fortune helping Saudis resist discovery attempts by victims of the 9/11 attacks.
- The 'War on Terror,' from its edifice in Homeland Security to its operation in the boondocks of Southwest Asia, is a series of no-bid contracts that enrich the richest and annihilate the possibility of security.
The pages of Armed Madhouse burst with chilling indictments such as these, almost all of them revolving around the 'oil men' who are at the peak of corporate power, whatever the status of Peak Oil.
But these facts pack no greater punch than the arguments that Palast persuasively posits in their lee. Basically, capital's plan is to gut the working class. We can say shalom to Social Security. Limited work weeks and minimum wages will fade away. Any sense of a 'safety net' will disappear. The New World Order is a prison camp.
Equity and justice will mean nothing other than a guarantee that those with the vast majority of the world's wealth continue to share that plunder with each other, on the one hand, and that, on the other hand, any attempt to overturn or divert this concept of 'equal treatment before the law,' of finance, will be swiftly and brutally punished. These are stark contentions that don't fit with any notion of 'corporate responsibility' likely to be bandied about at the current moment. But Palast pounds such points home with the same relentlessness that the commentator in "Network" presented the same ideas on screen.
In another instance of life imitating art, plutocratic theft and patriotic hypocrisy go hand in hand, according to Palast. This is the life blood of empire. An exchange between interviewer Alex Jones and Mr. P. illustrates this point, in the aftermath of another of Palast's coups: 'turning' a former World Bank director, and Nobel Prize economist, to tell the real story of contemporary finance capital.
"AJ: But Greg, you said it yourself and the documents show it. They first implode the economy to create that atmosphere. They institute the entire climate that does this.
GP: Yea, and then they say, well gee, we can't lend you any money except at these loan-shark rates. We don't allow people to charge 75% interest in the United States. That's loan-sharking.
AJ: Part 3 and Part 4. What do they do after they do that?
GP: Like I said, you open up the borders for trade, that's the new opium wars. And once you have destroyed an economy that can't produce anything, one of the terrible things is that they are forcing nations to pay horrendous amounts for things like drugs - legal drugs. And by the way, that's how you end up with an illegal drug trade, what's there left to survive on except sell us smack and crack and that's how...
AJ: And the same CIA national security dictatorship has been caught shipping that in.
GP: You know, we are just helping our allies.
AJ: This is just amazing. And so, drive the whole world down, blow out their economies and then buy the rest of it up for pennies on the dollar. What's Part 4 of the IMF/World Bank Plan?
GP: Well, in Part 4, you end up again with the taking apart of the government. And by the way, the real Part 4 is the coup d'etat. That's what they are not telling you. And I'm just finding that out in Venezuela. I just got a call from the President of Venezuela.
AJ: And they install their own corporate government.
GP: What they said was here you've got an elected president of the government and the IMF has announced, listen to this, that they would support a transition government if the president were removed. They are not saying that they are going to get involved in politics - they would just support a transition government. What that effectively is is saying we will pay for the coup d'etat, if the military overthrows the current president, because the current president of Venezuela has said no to the IMF."
Such criminal conspiracies as these, attested to by insiders, with documents aplenty that name names and give timelines and list payoffs, are at the heart of the highest operational directives of contemporary governance, in which the State and the Corporation are one and the same.
A TELLING CONTROVERSY
A point at which Palast diverges from many 'academic progressives' is over the significance and reliability, at least as currently promulgated, of ideas about "Peak Oil." This concept is easy to state. Fossil fuels, non-renewable except over millions of years, will become increasingly difficult to extract as our exploitation of them, especially in relation to oil, approaches and passes the highest point of our discovery and output, which 'peak' may well have passed already or in any event will soon pass us by.
An employee of Shell Oil in 1956, M. King Hubbert, suggested this development. His point was that nuclear power, which his company was beginning to explore in a substantial way with the formation of Unenco, a uranium mining consortium, would pick up the slack when the predicted peak drew nigh and oil became harder to find than snow in Florida.
Palast has marshaled copious evidence that a primary purpose of such thinking was a price hike for oil companies (Armed Madhouse, pp. 107-14 and passim). He can prove, without doubt, that as prices have risen, the foretold zenith has receded, at least temporarily. He can argue persuasively that worrying about the 'peak,' instead of combating the criminal conspiracies that oil companies have foisted on us as imperial policy, is at best foolhardy.
But he has encountered stiff criticism for his views. Richard Heinberg, a leading proponent that 'Peak Oil' is a critical fact of life, has this to say.
"But, in contrast to these (other) subjects (about which you speak accurately), the Peak Oil discussion is more about science than politics, and when it comes to science, catchy phrases don’t count; only a careful weighing of evidence does. I’m sorry to say that you don’t appear to be fully informed about the terms and history of this debate."
Palast counters with a refutation of himself, in "Why Palast Is Wrong - And Why The Oil Companies Don't Want You to Know It" . His concession, however, is not about his political analysis, but about the truth that the 'easy' petrol, the cheap crude, is a thing of the past. As a matter of science, we may have used up more or less half the oil in the earth's reserves. But as a matter of economics, higher prices will find more elusive deposits.
We need to keep this distinction in mind because the oil interests will use it as a whip for imperial and draconian policies if we let our awareness slip for even an instant. Energy is always political, and the hidden agenda is always the only agenda that matters.
Readers can stay tuned for an upcoming assessment of this debate and of the science, technology, and politics of oil in the current state of things here on planet earth. Heinberg has some important things to say. But Palast's points cut closer to the bone of contention about life in the twenty-first century. That debate will not be about facts but about social control, not about knowledge alone but about the capacity to find things out and act with power.
Everything that this author produces hinges on the capacity of people to lead so that leaders will follow. In answer to a question from a New York Inquirer columnist about Democrats that Palast would "stand behind," he answered.
"We shouldn’t stand behind any politician at all. We should stand in front of them, and I mean that sincerely. The whole point is that we have to create the movement... . When the public started screaming that the average working guy is getting shafted, it was Pat Buchanan who came out and said 'Let’s raise the minimum wage.' The leaders from both parties will jump behind the voters, never the other way around. Never look for the leader — the leader will look for you."
That said, even though Palast, with the same ferocity as a grizzly watches over her cubs, defends the gains of progressive democracy--wage and hour rights, union rights, whistleblower rights, civil rights, everything from the Bill of Rights to Social Security and beyond, he mainly focuses on the standard political arena as the battleground for defending these progressive aspects of the struggles of the past 150 years. And that advice, stick to the ballot, may be apt.
But I doubt it. We desperately need a sense of politics that attends to every day, every situation, 'every breath we take.' The parliamentary and 'party' systems of democracy are inherently cooperative with those whose dollars vote, and those of us who can only touch a screen once, or send out a few e-mails or make a few phone calls at the behest of activists, will always find ourselves outflanked so long as the halls of power do not operate in participatory fashion.
How is such participation possible? Answering that question, especially in relation to energy--renewables getting the shaft while nukes get buckets of money; tax credits for buying Hummers continue at the same time that any support for solar panels on the roof goes down the tube, and so on and so forth--has to be the primary focus of the current moment. Otherwise, all of Mr. P's awesome reporting will be as dust in the wind.
Books like Armed Madhouse and the journalistic whirlwind that Greg Palast releases online, on the BBC, and elsewhere proffer enough fire to ignite action and enough brilliance to illuminate comprehension. However, all of this exposure--both of the 'emperor's nakedness,' and of the vicious venality that inevitably accompanies the imperial pretense--won't amount to much if we the people don't find a model to follow that leads somewhere other than back to where we started.
At the least, the following trio of eventualities must in some fashion take tangible form.
- Popular Study Circles, like the correspondence networks of late eighteenth century America, taking a cue from the Chautauqua progressive debates of the 1880's-1920's, akin to worker education groups that unions and social democratic political parties have advanced, need to come into being. We don't need another TV network, another video game, or another i-Phone app. We need a way to learn more and put our knowledge to use.
- People's Information Networks, a deeper and more journalistic and more politicized form of the study circles, also need to happen. This entails community and popular support for investigative work, a grassroots uprising of day-by- day documentation of revelations about the corruption and class war that Palast so richly documents.
- People's Action Networks need to build on the basic capacitation that occurs in study groups. They need to formulate new policies and new politics out of the discoveries that come out of the people's information networks. They need to have as their central operational output that from-below leadership is going to rule.
These names are unimportant. The ideas that the names represent are critical to survival.
Gassing the car costs more than half as much as my Dad paid for his first house payment. Neither I nor my ex use our air conditioning any longer, in Georgia, because swelter beats insolvency. People everywhere are struggling with the most basic needs in relation to energy and motive power.
Almost always, people think about such real difficulties--the stuff of the daily struggle to survive--and shrug their shoulders about what lies behind these crises. We don't insist that we can understand and fix such problems, except by working harder, 'sucking it up,' and generally being patient and diligent.
Patience and diligence are virtues; we can't live without either one. But we have to start looking at things with a longer perspective. We have to recognize the material reality that governs our lives. We have to be willing to get stronger if we don't want our weaknesses to overwhelm and eviscerate us.
Most of all, to allow such transformations to blossom, we must turn to those neighbors, both virtual and actual, who share a commitment to equity and justice and democracy, and agree to do something together. That 'something' will have to exceed, by a fair margin, the act of voting, signing petitions, and complaining. A People's Energy Party, for example, would be a vast improvement over the Demopublicans and the Republocrats, and something akin to such a vehicle is likely the only path to energy policies that are in support of the common folk.
And a step like that would just be a start.