Joe Bageant

Our Plunder of Nature Will End Up Killing Capitalism and Our Obscene Lifestyles

As an Anglo European white guy from a very long line of white guys, I want to thank all the brown, black, yellow and red people for a marvelous three-century joy ride. During the past 300 years of the industrial age, as Europeans, and later as Americans, we have managed to consume infinitely more than we ever produced, thanks to colonialism, crooked deals with despotic potentates and good old gunboats and grapeshot. Yes, we have lived, and still live, extravagant lifestyles far above the rest of you. And so, my sincere thanks to all of you folks around the world working in sweatshops, or living on two bucks a day, even though you sit on vast oil deposits. And to those outside my window here in Mexico this morning, the two guys pruning the retired gringo's hedges with what look like pocket knives, I say, keep up the good work. It's the world's cheap labor guys like you -- the black, brown and yellow folks who take it up the shorts -- who make capitalism look like it actually works. So keep on humping. Remember: We've got predator drones.

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The Battle for the American Soul Is over and Jay Leno Won

Holy smoking Jesus, America is losing its middle class! "We're taxing the middle class out of existence," charge the conservatives. "The middle class is being hollowed out," wail the liberals, pouring forth great mock turtle tears (although one wonders how such a vacuum, as middle class life in America could be further hollowed).

In any case, much overwrought political theater is being dedicated to the subject of the middle class' demise. If demise is the right word for losing its ability to engorge on commodities at obscene levels.

A month or so ago I watched news footage of some fat guy being interviewed inside his the three car garage of his $300,000 cardboard house. The poor fellow was about to lose his bass boat, and maybe his home too. From the looks of it, I'd say the bass boat was a Ranger X520. Now these babies start at $45K, not to mention the $30K for the four wheel drive usually seen pulling. Looked like it was sitting on a 20-plus foot Hurricane boat trailer, another $4K or $5K. My wife, who was watching the show with me, turned and said, "What class is this man supposed to be in?"

"I don't know, they say middle class."

"Hmmm. Whatever it is, we've never been members."

George Jones and Tammy Wynette said it all when they sang:

No we're not the jet set

We're the old Chevrolet set

Our steak and martinis

Is draft beer with weenies

Indeed, we are witnessing the death of the American lifestyle, bass boats and all. Unless of course, the Chinese banksters will keep on loaning us enough dough for one more fix, one more snort of crank to keep the American lifestyle from going into withdrawal. Yeah, sure.

That does not keep both political parties from assuring us that "the great American middle class lifestyle is not negotiable," then proceeding to negotiate the hell out of it.

God save the middle class! Whatever the middle class is, they have the assurances of every administration of its eternal preservation.

When asked exactly what constitutes being middle class, most typical Americans, which is to say working class Americans, talk in terms of income. Better educated and more erudite Americans mumble some vague litany about college and home ownership, etc., then attach an annual income number about twice as high as the average working mook's. Neither of them ever comes close to a real definition. Nevertheless some 300 million Americans fancy themselves as middle class, chiefly because they: (A) own microwaves and a car with plastic bumpers; and (B) live in perpetual hock to MasterCard and Visa. Debt, stress and insecurity being the only observable characteristics of middle class America, they rally round those things in a show of class solidarity. "Hell no! Our pointless stressful lifestyle is NOT NEGOTIABLE! No goddamned socialist is gonna take away my constitutional right to medical bankruptcy. God bless the middle class!"

In essence, preservation of the American middle class is an assertion we are entitled to waste as least as much of the earth's limited vital resources as their fathers and grandfathers did, preferably more. Political assurances of the sanctity of the middle class come down to promising that the six percent of the world's population called Americans may continue to rip through 36 percent of the earth's resources in its endless pursuit of obesity and carcinogenic intake. Not to mention taking everybody else out with us in the process through ecocide.

Nobody but an unmitigated psychopath would even make such a case, much less hawk it to the American people as being in their best interests. In their best interests to wipe out our dwindling planetary sustenance and to piss off the rest of the world enough that a significant number are willing to strap on explosives and buy a plane ticket for the States.

Unfortunately, the psychopaths are in charge. And they are charging over the rest of us like rutting bull elephants on Jimson weed. There doesn't seem to be enough Thorazine on earth to take 'em down. Consequently, their delusions have escalated to the point where believe they are exempt from planetary catastrophe. Assumedly this is due to their wealth and authority. Which in America are the same thing. However, you can never rule out that they may believe they are gods. Which comes down to being bullet proof to the afflictions of common mortals, the shit that makes ordinary life miserable and in many cases, snuffs it right out -- lifetime debt, lack of health insurance or the chain smoking that so often comes with such stress chew through your health.

Let's get real here folks. Do you think Barack Obama or Rahm Emanuel worry about ever being homeless or having a credit card company haul them into court and garnish their wages? Or that they will develop lung disease from living in or near Camden, New Jersey? Of course not. Because, in fact, they really are exempt.

But when the planet's condition, which, despite Republican claims otherwise, affects human beings, gets bad enough (and that appears to be sometime next week) their children may not be exempt. This of course, matters not a twit to a psycho. Especially if the psycho is rich, powerful, and saluted by media networks wherever he/she goes, and has not the faintest clue that he/she is a psycho to begin with.

The "or she" refers to Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin or any of the other power-crazed female politicians who've slit enough throats to make made it into that gladiatorial arena inside the beltway. White males by no means have a franchise on naked political blood lust.

America's constellation of psychos occupying the real estate up there on Mount Olympus includes just about everybody with a few hundred million or a billion bucks behind their hallucinations -- from Oprah Winfrey, who, despite her own delusions, is not responsible for the nation's moral, spiritual and financial well being, to Ben Bernanke, who actually holds a great deal of responsibility for the latter, but is convinced the world begins and ends along the length of Wall Street and consists entirely of derivatives brokers and the money printing crew at the Fed.

Such people presume their anointment to rule, if they are willing to play the game hard enough. And why shouldn't they? They've experienced nothing but success through gaming the system and the rest of humanity -- dicking the proles in the ear and running the nation and its institutions for their own benefit as elites.

Needless to say, they do not see things that way. To them it's just the natural order of the universe. Raw personal power has a way of justifying itself as having been inevitable. Over my 35 years as a journalist, I have met and/or interviewed many, and I have met only a couple who showed real humility or attributed their national influence, or fame and social status and national influence to simple good fortune. Paul Newman was one. Kurt Vonnegut was another. When you are pissing down on the world from the balcony of your suite on the 44th floor, it's hard to be humble, or concerned about the pissant swarm on the streets below. Even if you are not the kind of psycho our political system attracts and legitimizes, it isn't easy.

At the same time, for a person like, say, Hillary Clinton or Joe Lieberman, there is always the worry that one of your vengeful peers may have moved in on the 45th floor and is waiting on their balcony for you to come out. Even for princes and ladies of the royal court, our system holds its fears and frights.     

Ah, the system! Hallowed legacy of Jefferson and the port besotted founding elites. Our system, owing to the magic of its "checks and balances," holds all possible solutions. So we must "work within the system" for any desired change. Be an active factor within the rules.

These rules are sanctioned by big shots, a big shot being defined as anyone whose bullshit is beyond questioning because he has made his fortune by bullshitting millions of typical Americans. Which is not difficult because as both Goering and Hitler pointed out, then proved, if the bullshit is huge enough, normal people will not believe that anyone would have the balls to tell such a lie, and accept it as the truth. And so The Big Lie is sold.

Next, the big political players, Republican and Democrat, determine some minute variations on the most current lies being sold. These slight variations are proclaimed as profound differences between the parties, because both parties' role on the political stage is to act as opponents. So cosmetic differences are netted out and then savagely contested in the theater state as life or death issues for the American people. That's how we got such massive public agitation and incitation regarding just how hundreds of billions more will continue to be delivered to health insurance companies. Yes, dear, they are unnecessary. But they are players. They are sitting at the national poker table because they have the muscle get into the most important backroom game in town -- the one where the people's wealth is divvied up before the people ever see it.


If you have watched any old mob movies, you know that any racket needs a front. In America the front is called democracy. Like the term populism, the people have no idea what democracy really is, but has something to do with the free market capitalism that issues forth such things as bass boats. And it certainly it has to do with every citizen having a small piece in the determination of national matters. Clearly untrue as that is, nevertheless it is one helluva a sales point, revered by the proles and not to be fucked with if you are to maintain the illusion of the consent of the people among the people. The front.

So the people are given such narrow electoral choices as not to even be real choices, but packaged in somewhat different wrappers -- such as skin color. Or if a president and Congress can see a clear path in rolling over the dimwits out there, the dimwits are given no choice at all. Such as going to war against Iraq.

Still, there are always those citizens who will not settle for simply voting based on what they have been fed. They detect the odor of swill, but cannot quite name the ingredients. So they feel they must test democracy, exercise their uncontrolled "freedom of choice," as fully as possible through activism.

So they turn to one of the two controlling political parties to put them to work. After all, anyone who doesn't is considered a kook. Right?

In a marvelous bit of Mobius strip logic, the activists end up working toward the success of some minute difference in national policy that serves the purposes of the established power cartels. The main difference is in the degree of profitability for the corporate state. More profit or a helluva lot more profit.

In the end the activists find themselves working for the election of someone who, by the very nature of being selected as a candidate by the system, has been vetted by his or her own elite peers as one who will -- ta ta! -- preserve the system from change.


Nevertheless, the activists have their issues by god and by golly, and cling to them every step of the way. The issues come prepackaged to fit their established belief systems. No great trick really, given that the corporate people at the top own all the media and information distribution and make the first cut. And there's something for everybody's political stocking. When the issue is not wrapped up in religion or blood-in-the-face patriotism by corporate managed conservative elves, it is packaged as a moral or social justice issue for liberals.

And so, charged up on emotion, activist proponents of both minute differences attack one another at every turn, both sides convinced they are fighting the good fight in one or another "important issue of our times." Gay marriage, gun laws, abortion, animal rights, you name it. It's small stuff in the big picture. None of these mean anything in the monotonic gray life under the emerging corporate totalist state. So you both have the same plumbing and are married. So what? What is that worth if you spend your life chained to a headset in one of the corporate gulags' cubicles punching out digits for the overlords so you can keep your health insurance? Terrified of losing your job or insurance, or being forced to join the Army and go to Iraq to put bread on the table?

Freedom is freedom, and you have it across the board or you do not. It does not come piecemeal and is not defined by any single freedom. Human freedom is holistic -- full spectrum. It covers everything because, well, it's freedom.

In a free country none of the above pseudo issues would be being debated. Bottom line on freedom: You have the right to fuck any other adult you want to by mutual consent. You can marry anyone you choose regardless of sex or race or religion. Even a member of the US Senate if you have the stomach for it. Your body is your own to do with as you see fit, not governable by state laws or for profitable abuse by pharmaceutical corporations or the medical industry.


The 24/7 deluge of falsely manufactured issues has done more than detract from comprehension of the real and life or death issues at hand. Over a couple of generations, it has rendered us incapable of ever grasping the real ones and what is at stake. The ability to do so dies out, as each subsequent generation is conditioned by the reality (or state induced non-reality), it comes up in.

Important as they look and feel because we have lived our entire lives amid these so-called national debates, they have nothing to do with our freedom. Freedom itself was always, and will always be The Issue. The only issue. Everything else follows. The Big Lie is that it does not.

Lies for the sake of generating emotion enough to destroy reason have been a mainstay of American politics from the beginning. Jefferson spread lies about Madison. Madison returned the favor. The lies served the purposes of two ambitious individuals.

Now they serve the purposes only of those forces who can afford to buy politicians. Nor are they the simple sort of lies told by fallible human beings such as Jefferson or Madison, but rather the lies of massive faceless, deathless entities subject to no man, only the accounting regimen of postindustrial capitalism. They have not become pathogenic; they are pathogenic by nature and from the outset to society. To the world too, given what our nation is doing and willing to further do not just to ourselves, but also to the world. It is increasingly said, and not unreasonably, that the United States has reached the same level as those malevolencies that poisoned Nazi Germany. You may not believe folks who say that. The Germans did not believe it was happening to them either.

Can we change? Or is it too late? Most days I feel it is too late.

Well hold on now, Jake! Didn't we just see change? Didn't we just throw out the sickest regime in US political history? Remember all those people and all that conviction and activism that delivered us from heaven only knows what Cheney and Sparky Bush might have done? How can you say conviction and activism, especially liberal activism, is useless?"

No arguing that activism is considered absolute proof of conviction by most liberal political lights. Activism is the unarguable stigmata, the nail hole in the palm as proof. Yessir, when it comes to putting your money where your mouth is, when it comes to "put up or shut up," when it comes to "lead, follow or get out of the way," political activism answers any and all charges of faintness of heart. It requires tremendous amounts of time and energy and has only one small flaw.

It doesn't work. Not for liberals. Tea partiers armed with baseball bats and megaphones get results. But liberal activism is sort of like sending a rabbit to sell wolves on the benefits of veganism. Liberal activism requires convincing the pissed off and scared citizenry that your guy is different, better, more kind and possessive of the higher moral ground than his opponent, and will govern accordingly. This is hard stuff to peddle in a nation that has, for quite understandable reasons, grown meaner, more distrustful and more ideological over the past 30 years, not to mention demonstrably more stupid, and more ideological (which comes along with becoming more stupid) over the past thirty years.

Hell, even liberals are becoming mean ideologues these days. Many want a candidate who will break some GOP knees on their behalf. I cannot say I blame them. Murder, mayhem and global warfare are by no means out of the question in achieving any goal. Just listen to the political chatter at any cocktail party. When Code Pinkers declare that the bloody killing of men, women and children in Afghanistan is justified -- because the war may one day enable Muslim women to go braless and tell their husbands, "Go go to hell, Buster, I'll drive if I want to" -- well, you gotta call that some hardened liberal ideology.


I never subscribe to email or organizational mailings. Well, almost never -- I get and Patrice Greanville's Cyrano. I'm not really an Internet denizen or a liberal blog freak. So I notice when there is a sudden unsolicited surge in my personal account with (yeah, I know it's a piece of AOL shit, but now I'm stuck with it).

Anyway, there has been a surge lately in heated liberal calls to action, mostly pleas for money. Nearly all of them are from some tentacle of the Democratic Party.

With Obama safely in office, three years to go before next election, and no sign of George W. Bush, not even an empty malt liquor can, it seems a bit early for raising cries demanding more liberal activism. It that's what they are, the calls for "a renewed effort at changing American hearts and minds" toward "social justice" and "a more humane human society" [sic]. In typical Dem fashion, you seldom get specifics, just noble words like "justice" and stuff nobody can disagree with, like being humane to humans. I reckon though, that by next election enough disappointed Obama-ites will have recovered from their current depression to resupply the Dems with ground troops. The party will have plenty of sincere liberals out on the streets again. Partly because Obama will be spearheading the effort, and partly because the Republicans have an endless supply of embalmed brain dead geezers, any of whom could be slipped into a good suit and a red white and blue tie and dollied onstage. Not much legwork involved for Goppers, really. They just yell 'TEAAAAA PARTY!" and throngs of trained simians come running.The Dems have no equivalent liberal mating call, except possibly "Free Argentinean Malbec."

The saddest part is that you could put every sincere liberal in America on the streets knocking on doors and I dare say damned little, if anything, would ever change (although there is rumor of possibly limiting handgun owners to 60 weapons per person and 100,000 rounds of ammo. Most of my family in Virginia is dead agin it!).

About the most that can happen is what happened the last time liberals effectively mobilized in force: We will reelect Barack Obama, yet another pure product of the system, yet another candidate who has deeply interiorized the processes, values and folly of a spent and exhausted hyper capitalist state.

OK, so I will drop the "exhausted hyper capitalist state" stuff, though it's true. No matter whom we elect, he is not going to beat the odds against eco-collapse and resource depletion.

Throw in the current human overpopulation -- which our free market capitalists assure us are, oh joy of joys, an "expanding customer base" -- and you have a guaranteed disastrous outcome for, oh, let's see now, human civilization for openers. Maybe even our species, if Big Energy and da miltury industrul cumplex has any say so in it. Which they do. You do not need a PhD in physics to figure out that a geometrically expanding hydrocarbon based civilization fueling itself at unsustainable levels of consumption, waste and toxicity on a finite resource is bound to hit the wall at some point. "Earth to Congress, we have a problem. My wife just sprouted an extra row of teeth; my heating bill is $6,000 a month and my 12-year-old weighs in at 250 pounds and is stuck in a booth at the food court."

I am no political genius, which I prove regularly by writing these columns and essays. But I dare say leftish activist energies could be better spent than by selling the latest political greaseball to one's neighbors and/or perfect strangers willing to answer the door. One option would be to expend that effort in destroying the genuine common enemy of the people, all the people: Capitalism and its brutal commoditization of our very lives and breath. Which would make one a socialist.

True, socialism has not a chance in hell in the USA. So there is no use in even discussing our little problem of thug capitalism and rogue nation warfare in that context. Forget that democratic socialism by its very nature (along with a few buckets of hot tar and thumbscrews judiciously applied on Wall Street) is the solution to the most brutal material aspects of our degenerative capitalist disease, now nearing its full-blown outcome. If you haven't noticed, the rich and the mean have prevailed. Only a fool would believe that having prevailed, they are going to mellow out, become kinder and more compassionate.

However, if there is a God in heaven, or even of there ain't, then the traditional cruelty of the unleashed rich could work in the people's favor for a change. Even by the monkeys and typewriters rule, at least some portion of "the people" must eventually wise up.

There are hopeful signs that a significant number of Americans are sick of watching the cash laden cargo planes pass overhead on their way to gated CEO compounds in Zurich and Dubai. And they have a gnawing suspicion that somehow in the big picture, somewhere backstage, something or someone has been relentlessly working to fuck them at every turn.

Not that most Americans can see the big picture. They were blinded at birth, so as not to view the monstrous system that has taken on a life of its own. One that rules their lives through the small elite class it created and governs. Blame it on water fluoridation, lousy education or degraded breeding stock, but not one in a hundred Americans can grasp that monolithic ideo-economic systems can become intelligent entities of their own sort (although capitalist state indoctrination has conditioned Americans to readily accept that Soviet Communism did just that).

Nurtured on the national mythology of freedom and American individualism, we cannot imagine anything larger than the citizenry itself affecting the nation's direction. We find no contradiction in 300 million totally unique, ruggedly individual Americans, a people blessed with free choice in life, swarming the same mall stores coast to coast -- and living under the same hard edged capitalist philosophy and ever tightening laws. Obviously they all made exactly the same choices as to their destinies -- to live their lives as debt ridden shoppers and television addicts. I admit though, I cannot say for sure. They may have all taken a vote at some convention behind my back.

Given such belief in the individual, Americans tend to believe that some individual or group of individuals elsewhere is in control of the state of the union (though apparently not in Washington, where nobody seems in charge of anything, so near as we can tell). Therefore, some individual or group of them can be blamed for their increasingly bleak situation. And by that same logic, some other individual or individuals can set things right.

Now of course there are a few assumptions in this postulation:

  • That the magic fix candidate can raise a few hundred million campaign dollars to get onto the game.
  • Run the gauntlet of a stacked electoral college.
  • Tap dance through gerrymandered voting districts.
  • Pole vault over black box voting fraud.
  • Circumvent nine glory whores on the Supreme Court who will throw up their skirts for whichever party bought them their robes.

Despite their mounting insecurity and fears, that is what most of the American people still believe is the best of all possible political systems now and forever more. They believe it enough to bomb other people into accepting its graces and benefits.

The fact that it does not work worth a damn and that the system is as crooked as a dog's hind leg does not interfere with our reverence and obedience to it. Because the alternative, socialism, as we have been so indoctrinated to believe, is "too terrible to contemplate."

By now you have figured out there never was theme or thesis to this screed. So let's put it out of its misery and bring it on home. Besides, who wants to contemplate anything on a good Tuesday night when Sarah Palin is gonna shake it on the Fox Network, not to mention the Conan vs Leno title fight for the hearts and minds of the nation.


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The Health Insurance Racket Is Manufacturing Entertainment Value from Pulling the Plug on Grandma

Every day I get letters asking me to weigh in on the health care fracas. As if a redneck writer armed with a keyboard, a pack of smokes and all the misinformation and vitriol available on the Internet could contribute anything to the crap storm already in progress.

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How Unions Gave My Redneck Family a Chance at the American Dream

In looking back on growing up, I always remember 1957 and 1958 as "the two good years." They were the only years my working-class redneck family ever caught a real break in their working lives, and that break came because of organized labor.

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Only in America Could Misery Be Turned Into a Commodity

HOPKINS VILLAGE, Belize -- Sitting down here in Central America, happily abusing my health, occasionally, between the hangovers and the bouts with sand fleas and mosquitoes comes an insight or two, or at least what passes for insight in my lowbrow take on life.

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The Really Hard-to-Swallow Truth About the Bailout

Myriad cultural historians have noted the American belief that success is a sign of God's favor. Over the past couple of decades, He has had a downright lovefest with the already-rich -- so much so that the richest 400 Americans now have more money stashed away than the combined bottom 150 million Americans. Some $1.6 trillion.

This was accomplished by selling off or shipping out every available asset, from jobs to seaports, smashing usury and anti-monopoly laws, raiding the public coffers and manipulating the medium of exchange and blackmailing the peasantry regarding common needs such as health care and energy to keep their asses warm, to name a few. The ultimate coup was to convince the entire nation that the well-being of the rich, meaning the well-being of Wall Street, was indeed the common man's well-being.

All went well for a while. People went into credit card hock up to their noses in order to provide 26 percent credit card interest to Wall Street, etc. And when that became untenable, flimsy mortgages were cranked out by the millions, ensuring that every American who could hold a crayon could sign to purchase a home. To facilitate this, all sorts of shaky "mortgage instruments" were created -- balloon (sign here Jeeter, you're gonna flip it in a year and make a hundred K on this house trailer), interest only, and finally, negative-balance mortgages where you only paid part of the interest and the rest was rolled back into the principal balance. And joy of joys, you could refinance a couple of times while the inflated value of these houses was on the way up. Life was good for everybody.

The bill was never gonna come due because God, in His wisdom, had deemed that capitalism would defy the second law of thermodynamics and expand forever. So every time a bank made a mortgage loan of say, $400,000, even though the debtor hadn't even made a payment yet, the loan was declared a bank asset and another $400,000 was loaned against it. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank yelled whoopee and printed another $800,000 in currency. Of course, at some point the country had to run out of customers, so the loans got easier and easier. No matter that debt is not wealth. Wink and call it that, and most folks won't even look up from their new big-screen high-resolution digital TVs.

The problem was that all the jobs to pay for this stuff were stampeding off toward places in China with names containing a lot Xs and Zs and praying for a vowel. It was becoming clear that the entire economy was running on fumes -- in fact, less than fumes. It was running on the odor of paper. Mountains of the stuff. Bundles of mortgages and very strange securities and derivatives of unknown origin and value. Paper that stated its own worth and signed by some mystic hand no one could quite identify though the blurry signatures looked to read Greenspan, Paulson and Bernanke.

But there was a rub. Things reached the point where there simply was not anything left to defraud the public out of, nothing left to steal from the nation's productive capability, no matter how much paper Jeeter and Maggie signed for that trailer house, no matter how secure Brian and Jennifer out there in Arlington, Va., and Davis, Calif., thought they were. So the only thing left to do was steal from future generations of Americans and accept an I.O.U., which the government would happily sign on behalf of the people and enforce. By the wildest coincidence, under the Bush administration this I.O.U. happened to tally up to about $700 billion.

Seeing the oncoming train of financial disaster, the financiers just about wet their pants and screamed, "We want it all now! And if we don't get it, the 'economy' will lock its brakes and crash. Remember, we control the medium of exchange. Nobody gets a paycheck if we don't. Remember that it's lines of credit from us that back every working man's and woman's paycheck in the country. So pay the hell up."

Folks, they've got us all by the nuts and nipples. McCain knows that. Obama knows that. In the end, regardless of the so-called dissenters in the House and the Senate, we will pay up. It's election season, and the dissent is for show. So it looks like we will get some "concession." For example, we will get shares in these "toxic assets" that are stinking up the joint. The rich need to dump them and dump them fast. In another magnanimous concession, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will raise the insurance on "our savings" to $250,000. (How many readers have $250K in the bank?) But it will be redeemable in even more inflated currency amid an inflationary environment. And, in case you didn't know, the FDIC has up to 10 years to pay up on that insurance. So don't get any ideas about running off to Mexico, to which, by the way, we are a net debtor nation.

We will pay. We will pay because the European banks holding all that bad paper we wrote demand that we make good on it so even more of their banks will not fail. We will pay because the Chinese, the Japanese and everyone else will cut off the loan tap with which we pay the interest (not the principal) on our exploding supernova of national debt. We will pay because God loves the rich. We will pay because we will not be offered any other choice. We will pay because George Bush worked hard for all those Ds in school and became the first MBA president. We will pay because our media has internalized the capitalist system so thoroughly they can only talk in Wall Speak. We will pay because the only language we have to describe our world is that of our oppressors because we have been taught to think in Wall Speak. We will pay because we hitched our wagon to last-stage capitalism and even though the wagon has now two wheels over the cliff and roars forward, we don't know where the brake handle is located. And because we don't know any better or understand any possible resistance to the system because we have been kept like worms in a jar and fed horseshit.

And as we all know, worms do not rise up in revolt.

That takes a backbone.

Getting Out the Bling Vote

HOPKINS VILLAGE, BELIZE -- I know it's unpatriotic as hell, but I just cannot get a hard-on about the '08 American presidential elections. As in I haven't read or heard a word about them in a couple of weeks and could care less whether Hillary showed some emotion, which was the big news when I left the States. The will just isn't there. And it's even more difficult from here in this Central American village, where so many people have real problems. The kind that come with being born under one empire, the British one, and living in the shadow of the present American living in the shadow of its walled fortress of armed privilege. One of those problems is who to sell your vote to and for how much.

"I wan too hunred an feefty dollah for my vote," Marie declares as she chops up bananas to make tapo for dinner. I got feefty for my vote las' time, but some people got two feefty."

"Well you're not gonna get any more than fifty, babe," I tell her. "You gotta be more important to get two fifty for your vote. Did you bring anyone else to the polls?"

"No. Le' dem get dey own money."

"End of story then. If you'd brought along some other voters, you might have been up to two fifty by now"

"Den I no vote jus to spite dem."

Belizean politics works that way. Next Feb. 7 Belizeans will cast their ballots in the national election for candidate of either the liberal People's United Party (PUP) or the conservative United Democratic Party (UDP). Between now and then, the People's United Party will hand out a lot of cash and pay off a lot of voters' outstanding bills. Once every five years, it's payday for the poor, who consider their ballot a net cash asset worth 50-100 Belizean dollars (USD$25-$50) or more. Here in Hopkins, 50 Belizean dollars pays the village utilities' water bill for a year. Then too, voters here often feel that their "vote money" is likely to be all they'll ever get from what they consider an unresponsive government. It's hard to argue against this "one in the hand is worth two in the bush" reasoning if you live their lives. There's certain pragmatism, even ironic fairness in vote bribery here. On the other hand, it's a sorry system in which the actual voters are monetarily corrupted by the politicians. I'm more accustomed to the American system, where voters are corrupted morally and intellectually by media. In either case, free market politics is the handful of corruptive mud thrown into the fishbowl. We cannot see a damned thing but what is closest to out noses, usually put there by a politician.

It ain't the Mayo Clinic, but the needles are clean

Indeed, the Belizean government is fucked up, misled, inefficient and corrupt. All things taken into accord, however, in some respects Belizeans get back more than Americans get in return from their government, considering how much Americans work and pay (15 times more than Belizeans), beginning with healthcare. Belizeans at least have free health clinics in the cities and villages, and dirt-cheap higher education, about USD$15 a credit hour. These systems may not be as glossy as their profiteering American equivalent, especially the public hospitals here. But it ain't China, where hospitals do blood transfusions out of Pepsi bottles (according to American media, anyway) and it's not rural India, where poorer patients often sleep under the beds of more heeled patients. In any case Belize does not have 47 million people with no access to healthcare at all, and a not-so-good hospital beats no hospital. In fact, a not-so-good hospital beats even Johns Hopkins if Johns Hopkins won't let you in because you cannot pay the freight.

Same goes for public schools. The school system is a wreck. But so is the American system. Both graduate kids who can't find their own country on a map, the main difference being that Belizean kids don't demonstrate it on YouTube. As an underdeveloped country, we are also way behind in school shootings and sexual assaults, and have yet to install a metal detector anywhere, so far as I know, even in airports, much less schools. Hope remains of catching up: U.S. Bloods and Crips moved into Belize City last year and have been shooting up the joint.

As for the Belizean trade school and higher educational system, my wife and I are helping a Garifuna boy through one, and I cannot say it is inferior to ours, just less plushly equipped. In fact, I'd say on the average the Belizean kids work much harder once they are in college, simply because it's harder to get there in the first place. Our guy in trade school over in Dangriga Town, James, is making perfect grades, while working uphill against hardships such as an arduous daily bus ride and seldom even having lunch money. In the end, though, American or Belizean, it all depends on the young person's grasp of reality. James grasps that studying computer science has removed him from the village streets, where so many of his peers now languish and probably will for the rest of their lives -- or at least until the gringo resorts hire them as slave wage gardeners and maids. Meanwhile, his mom's $50 vote bribe buys a fair slug of lunch supplies. Once every five years during national elections.

Buy mi vote, but don't tief it, mon

The people's democratic voice may be bought and sold at the voter level, but on the other hand, as a Garifuna friend Harry pointed out yesterday, "This is not the United States. It is impossible to "tief" (steal) an election here." Which is sure enough true. Combined forces of international and party monitors intensely watch the utterly countable and recountable paper balloting process like frigate birds circling over a pile of fish guts. Voters may arrive at the polls for less than savory reasons, but the vote count, at least until Diebold gets into Belize, is secure as hell. Until then the only way to undermine the power of the vote is to buy it.

When Belize gained independence in 1981, optimism ran high; Election Day was a jubilant one of national pride. Vote bribery was rare, if at all, and politics, though yeasty with its own intrigues, was fairly uncorrupted and diverse as hell. Crazy, yes, but straight up as the sick game of politics goes. Before the International Monetary Fund, the DEA, the foreign "investors," foreign banks, cruise ship lines, and everybody else got Belize by the short hair, there was a leftist vitality not possible today. You had political activists declaring solidarity with the American Black Panthers, indigenous peoples of the planet, human rights and Cuba. Malcolm X and Che were not yet media trivialized into $10 posters and $19 T-shirts. Most of that day's young Belizean radicals are now silver-haired PUP politicos buying votes today. But back in 1968, even current prime minister Said Musa (a Palestinian-blooded Belizean native) was a young firebrand lawyer organizing protests against American imperialism, capitalist exploitation and the Vietnam War. Along with Assad Shoman, who would later become foreign minister, he struck blows for black nationalism in a wary, conservative, British colonial Belize. Which is why it is so disheartening today to hear that over $7 million is missing from the passport receipts, which are directly under Mr. Musa.

Both of Belize's main parties are crooked as a dog's hind leg. The only difference is where they toss the swag, they do not mismanage or steal. A billion dollars seems to be missing from the national kitty as the shadier elements of both parties in the government scam Belize's oil, tourism and retirement/leisure condo development bucks. (To give some idea of scale, a billion dollars would give every household in this tiny country $100 a day for over 140 years.) The PUP tosses more money to the people, recently instituting a social security program worth about USD$40 a month, and most of all, schools. When it comes to throwing money at the nation's education problems, PUP gets no better results than the U.S. Democrats. After building 1,100 classrooms and improving teacher training, and funding college education for teachers, the country's student failure rate has jumped to an all time high -- 65 percent. The dropout rate keeps climbing. The conservative UDP, which resists money for education, doesn't miss the opportunity to say, "I told you so." Meanwhile, word is the UDP is coming up with a No Child Left Behind clone. Left behind whom? Where are these public school children who are ahead?

As with the U.S. Democratic Party, PUP is the party of immigrants, and presently that party is rushing to naturalize as many Latino migrants as possible so they can vote PUP. Among the shit storm of problems involved here is that the HIV rate is high among these immigrants, many of whom are single young men of migrant labor. They constitute an increasing strain on the nation's rickety healthcare system, which is fighting, rather successfully so far, to stave off a full-blown epidemic. Many also feel the immigrants take away too many Belizean jobs. Moreover, immigration issues stew the same as in America, and like America, it's politics as usual, but with a few different twists.

One twist is that Belize has some fighting partisan newspapers the likes of which America or Great Britain has not seen in at least 60 years, if at all. The newspapers, however partisan, are loaded with the voices of common citizens, not made up of quotes from powerful officialdom like U.S. papers. Whatever can be said about the lack of libel laws here, it enables citizens to name the bastards out loud. And they do. Sadly though, little comes of it unless some big dog in the government wants it to. But the bastards have not yet worn all of the people down.

Whoa hoss, this just in! Marie's shot at that $250 just got better. Hugo Chavez has dumped $10 million into the PUP government, ostensibly for development, but much of which is being passed out to voters as I write this. That's a lotta lunch money and water bills. When choosing between such political bullies, best to go with the one who gives you lunch money instead of beating you up and taking it. Go, Hugo!

Not being the majority party at the moment, the UDP cannot get its hands into the coffers deep enough to spread around the loot even if it wanted to (nor is Uncle Hugo likely to open his wallet for them in an act of solidarity with their hard-liner capitalism). Which makes them somewhat less corrupt for the moment than PUP. This makes some poor voters see them as being more honest. Many poor people vote the same way working-class Americans vote Republican, and see the UDP as a force for stability, evidently, like their North American counterparts, mistaking meanness and transference of wealth for stability. The bad news here is that much of the fiscal talent and administrative skill rests in the UDP, a party in which, in violation of Belizean law, every elected member flat out refuses to declare his or her assets and business connections and gets away with it -- now that's solidarity.)

In any case, the UDP is counting on high-powered U.S.-style media paid for by the Bush administration to do the job on Feb. 7. All TV and radio are owned by the parties or party interests, and while biased, between the two camps you get the real dirt on everybody if you can sift it. Nearly all electronic media here is owned by the parties or their associate interests. Thus the UDP's Channel 7 mouthpiece has been showing news footage of voters lined up at the PUP representative's offices to get their vote money. Strangely, they do not show the nationwide burst of road improvements, free televisions, deeds and even a few trucks that get distributed. In all likelihood, if they showed the free refrigerators, the PUP lines would stretch from here to the Mexican border.

The news footage of the vote bribe lines flickers on the TV screen at Kibby's Cool Spot (taverns are "cool spots" here), where I am sucking down Beliken Stout with a small group of older Garifuna, plus a few mixed-race Creoles and Mayans -- Belizeans all. Some for damned sure are paying for drinks with vote money, given that they said so. Yet they are incensed at the vote bribery lines shown on the screen. The Belizean TV anchor person looks piously concerned as she delivers her script. Now call it a cultural bias if you want, but I have a hard time taking seriously black women with brightly bleached and straightened blonde hair cut like Katie Couric and wearing heels in these soft, sandy palmetto scrub lands. But it seems to work for Belizeans. Anyway, the drinkers are indignant about the news of such widespread vote bribery. Am I missing something here?

"Huh? You sell your votes, right?" I ask.


Then why is it so bad they do?"

They just laugh knowingly.

"So are you going to vote PUP?"



"Because dey paid de moneh for my vote."

Thus followed an absolutely serious discussion regarding how it is every person's patriotic obligation to vote, for the sake of the nation and our village. "In wi hans de fuchah." Something like that. Caribbean and Creole syntax comes hard for me. Do these people know something I don't know? Do they care to know anything at all, at least in the way I think I know things? Obviously not.

Outside the open doorway of Kibby's, silhouetted against the glaring subtropical light, three Garifuna girls float by, tall and cranelike, a mirage of brilliant headscarves and parasols, all Giachometti elbows and necks, seemingly without feet. They nod and bob, as if in suspension over the deep purple black spots that are their noon shadows. The oldest cannot be more than 18, and already they are as inscrutably African as the Mother Continent herself.

From Malcolm X to MasterCard

Looking back on earlier visits to Belize, I think it's safe to say there was a time here when a common man's vote directly affected national policy, what there was of it, and directed the nation's finances, what little there were. Perhaps in America too. Almost nobody believes that today. Not in Belize or America. Oh sure, "national progress" has been made here, roads are sort of better, folks are healthier, there are more "jobs." The people are swimming in knockoff symbols of affluence, Chinese-made duds, styrene plastic washing machines that fly apart after a couple of months, crappy cell phones that sort of work. In fact, for most Belizean citizens, everything is "sort of." There is a sort of middle class emerging, based mostly on the Chinese bling and sort of usurious home loans. But the majority of citizens are poorer today in real quality of life terms. Most of the housing stock, especially in Belize City, consists of the rotting structures of the British slave era. Bank credit cards, hawked night and day in the media, are causing people to lose the free land granted to them as citizens of Belize -- particularly if it has beachfront. The kids are getting dumber, quick payday loan offices are springing up everywhere, and even with gas now at $12 a gallon, more people are driving. We are all Americans now. In Belize or in the U.S., the business of local and state politics is the business of turning virgins into whores. The business of national politics is polishing up whores to look like virgins. Of course some whores are nicer than others, but in the high stakes back room poker game of power politics, one does not get to play by being nice. One comes to the table with a lot of dough, a good cover story and a knife stashed in the boot. And even if you win, the really big guys running the game still own the country where it is being played. In Belize it's the shadow governments such as land development, tourism and drug trafficking. In the U.S. it's the financial corporations, Big Pharma, the war-making industries, energy companies, etc., who don't even have to do the shadow government act; they run the joint openly, and if you don't like it and refuse to pay taxes to support them, well, they are in the privatized prison business too, buddy! Hence, while a guy like Obama, who presumably does not take corporate campaign dough, may win, you'll never hear him call for the complete dismantling of the rapacious big healthcare or financial corporations, or big media corporations that own our consciousness and awareness of our nation and the world, and upon which he must ultimately depend to gain access to the public at all. In America every player has some smaller player by the balls under the table. In Belize they just divvy the money up without even dealing the cards.

"In America, there is food to eat,
No more runnin' through the jungle scuffin' up your feet …

--Randy Newman, Sail Away

Belizeans love the hell out of Obama, mostly because he is black, or somewhat so. When I remind them that nearly all their own politicians are black, they are not impressed. Poor Belizeans follow the U.S. presidential race more as entertainment than anything else. And so as long as Obama can buy TV ads and deliver greeting card platitudes that have a sort of righteous sound, he has entertainment, emotional and dramatic value here, as well as to liberal couch taters up there in the Nembutal Republic. As for Hillary, entertaining she ain't. ("A hard an' sour wooman," agree the Kibby's drinkers, "like de green orange.") Frankly, I'd like to see Clinton wear Lewinsky's blue dress on American Idol and sing "A Man Ain't Nothin' But A Man" as a campaign ad, or maybe deliver Lady Macbeth's "Out damned spot!" lines in an episode of American Housewives. But I suppose that's asking too much, even from the rancid freak show of American politics.

As Lady Macbeth quipped, "Hell is a murky place." Politics is even more so. The capability for any president to make big progressive changes has become nil in the U.S., and maybe here too, although the capability to fuck things up remains boundless -- to wit, Sparky the Chimp. If all of the U.S. Congress cannot effect change because they are owned men, no candidate sucking down corn soup on the Iowa campaign trail is gonna either. And besides, America is dead broke and in hock up to her eyeballs. Even little changes in America country cost big money because there must be big profit in it for Big Corp or big dough to slosh around inside the gullet of big government bureaucracy. For instance, a Katrina victim reader of mine, who happens to be a cost accountant, tells me that it cost the U.S. government $38,000 NOT to get his family into one of those emergency FEMA trailer homes, hundreds of which are still sitting in storage areas unoccupied. He moved to Panama, and swears the quality of life there is much cheaper and far better, and that despite inefficiencies and fixes, it is more bearable. Which is rather the way I feel about this tiny country.

I dunno. Come November '08, assuming I can find the stomach for it, I will vote. My choices are not even as good as in Belize, where the candidates are flesh-and-blood people, not holographic media illusions. In November I can cast a vote for the manufactured candidate of my manufactured choice, vote Democratic as they vote PUP, on the grounds that at least some of the national swag will land in poor people's laps, after it passes through the innards of bureaucratic waste, the fraud of government contractors and privatization. I can write-in vote my conscience as I have traditionally done, which would necessarily mean Kucinich. That's assuming I don't get cut from the voter list through fraudulent voter caging tactics (not too likely, since I am white and few felons are likely to be named Bageant). I'll be punching a touch-screen voting machine with no accountability because no recount is possible. And my vote will legally be reduced a set of digits that instantly become the undisclosed intellectual property of Diebold.

Neither a Ron Paul nor a McCain nor a Huckabee nor an Obama or anybody else going to blow the trumpet and have the walls of Jericho's corporate gulag/surveillance state fall down. They'll fall down as the walls of empires always do, when the rot inside them becomes too great, when it is stretched too thin and runs its course. Until then, if a single righteous candidate ever does make it through the bullshit to get close enough to throw a Molotov cocktail over the walls of power, I'll light the goddamned wick. But maybe it's the subtropical heat. Maybe it's the distance from the fray. But right now, when it comes to voting, I'd take 500 for my vote and head back to Kibby's Cool Spot.

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