John Buell

Humanity faces its gravest crisis yet. Rejecting the ugly blend of geopolitics and neoliberalism is not enough

The United States is engaged in forever hot wars. The war in Afghanistan now nears the end of its second decade. Why US history is so saturated—some would say polluted—by war has recently become an object of both academic and activist interest.

University of Hawaii at Manoa International Relations theorist Jairus Victor Grove poses this question in his Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World.

He asks why US citizens are not waging another possible war, global climate change.

Those who pollute or poison the most are seldom the victims of this degradation while those who contribute the least suffer the most damage but are too powerless to protest effectively.

If humanity faces so grave a crisis—now almost universally recognized—why does the citizenry not unite in defense of survival?

The problem is that there is no we as such. Those who pollute or poison the most are seldom the victims of this degradation while those who contribute the least suffer the most damage but are too powerless to protest effectively. These asymmetries prevail on both a domestic and international levels. As does denial of this inequality I can't count the number of times since the beginning of the pandemic I have heard: "We are all in this together."

Both domestic and international arenas fall far short of the equality celebrated by Rousseau, communities where none are too impoverished or powerless to participate in common decisions and none are too wealthy to escape needs for common resources.

Far from a community or polity in a classic sense this is an era of geopolitics. This is a form of life, "that pursues a savage ecology radically antagonistic to survival as a collective rather than discriminatory goal."

Geopolitics is not an overriding cause that can explain all the major developments of our era in the way some Marxists attribute unitary causality to the means of production. Geopolitics is "a means that has been elevated and refined into a virtue. Because it is a virtue it succeeds and fails without much consideration as to whether it should be abandoned."

What would it mean to consider warfare as a form of life, an ordinary practice for most people rather than characterizing war as an anomalous event carried on by a narrow subset of the population? Warfare in this view is something other and more than conflict between or among bounded and delineated or preformed states. What if the normal workings of daily life are a state of war? In this context Grove is using state of war in the same way a chemist would employ states of matter.

Imagine a block of ice. That block is in solid state but nonetheless contains some molecules that are liquid and even gaseous. Though the block contains heterogeneous components, all are affected by the general state of solidity. Grove argues that the state of war intensifies the field of relations that make the world what it is today. "The practices and organizations—from resource extraction, enclosure, carbon liberalization, racialization, mass incarceration, primitive accumulation by dispossession, targeted strikes to all out combat are relations of war rather than opportunities for a war metaphor."

These relations can be seen as resonating with each other and intensifying and being energized by the state of war. War does not replace other grand theories or explanation of ecological crisis but is interrelated with and most importantly semi-autonomous. Grove correctly argues given the level of violence needed to create the current order it is not a stretch to "call war part of the constitutive practices of planetary relations" and one often issuing in phase shifts such as the conversion of intense racial prejudice to all out race wars.

Grove's provocative discussion of the state of war is an instance of the ecological perspective informing and sustained by the entire work : Human and nonhuman entities coevolve in complex and often unpredictable ways that belie ideals of a predictable, causal social and even natural science..

Grove further explicates his thesis by presenting the role that genocide has played in state formation and the centrality of war to the industrial revolution.

Grove maintains that war as an intensive difference filters into and revises other categories and oppositions.

To his examples I would only add international trade as a field once thought to be a guarantor of peace but now a growing recipient and intensifier of ethnic, national and class antagonisms. Workers are bounded by heavily policed boundaries even as capital is free to migrate. In a geopolitical climate this is a recipe for xenophobia or worse, as both the Americas and the Eurozone amply demonstrate today.

The 500-year geopolitical enterprise since the age of Columbus, from settler colonialism to the IMF and the Washington consensus has brought with it a homogenization or attempt thereof for the whole globe.

Will this savage ecology take us with it? Grove emphasizes a side of the story given little emphasis by most of the climate crisis radicals.

  • "Irreversible catastrophic changes are certain but extinction is unlikely. What we stand to lose as a species in this current apocalypse of homogenization is unimaginable , not because of the loss of life but because of the loss of difference. Who and what will be left on Earth to inspire and ally with us in our creative advance is uncertain. If the future is dominated by those who seek to establish the survival of the human species at all costs through technological mastery then whatever "we" manages to persist will likely live on or near a mean and lonely planet."(209)

Rejecting the ugly blend of geopolitics and neoliberalism is not enough. From the basis of a geopolitical world and a savage ecology—a world that does not care about us—he constructs suggestions for the practice of International Relations Theory (IR) and a broader ethic for the political activists. The former would challenge social science's futile quest for laws and predictions in favor of broadening how much of the world we could experience and be a part of. Toward this end he advances an ethics that "is defined as a means to intervene in the vitality of becoming, not to steer its course as captains of our destiny but as attempts to drag our feet in the water in hopes of going productively off course." (232)

Tragedy is inevitable, but also paradoxically it is the basis of our freedom. A world governed by law or inner purpose is a world without the precondition of freedom for humans or other creatures. An apocalypse is more and less than an extinction. Whole evolutionary lines may be destroyed, but other new emergents often follow. Grove welcomes artificial intelligence and robots. Human beings can hardly object, given all the harm they have done.

In an oddly provocative manner Jairus Victor Grove has provided an eloquent and impassioned tribute to war and its savage ecology. This book is a twofer, a thoughtful intervention in current policy debate and a scorching critique of mainstream IR theory, with its arrogant pretensions and its plenitude of crucial failures and catastrophic consequences. It will be tragic if activists and the discipline's leading practitioners fail to read it.

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Will the establishment's neoliberal model of drug profiteering finally kill us all?

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Why Homework Is Bad for Kids

Our schools and children are under the gun as never before. Increasing numbers of students are facing batteries of new standardized tests, and both parents and teachers feel the pressure. Many educators are now turning to an old remedy: ratcheting up the homework required of our children. Over the last decade and half, children as young as nine to eleven have seen a nearly forty percent increase in homework, a trend that is likely to continue. Unfortunately, this remedy may be doing our children more harm than good.

We like to think all of this makes sense: It is well tested and, besides, it is what everyone is doing worldwide. No wonder we lose our markets to Japanese, Chinese, and Korean kids. Their schools are more strict and they study harder.

Yet every element of this familiar equation is questionable. Many foreign school systems aren't obligated to educate the whole population and are teaching only an elite. Furthermore, Japanese schools spend up to 25 percent more per teacher than the US. Research does show us the unequivocal benefits of well thought out professional development programs for teachers, especially for teachers who teach in schools with students from traditions which are culturally and linguistically different from their own. Furthermore, even in countries as workaholic as Japan, the number of hours kids are forced to study is becoming an issue of concern. If there is a lesson from Japan, perhaps it should be that the nose to the grindstone mentality has its limits and that harsh regimens can and ought to be challenged.

But the biggest fallacy of all lies in our near religious confidence that more homework makes better students. If homework were a prescription drug, the FDA would long ago have demanded its recall. Over the years, homework has been subjected to a series of controlled trials. These trials vary considerably in their attempts to control for such confounding variables as the education and financial well being of the parents. Bringing together all such trials into the kind of meta-analysis often attempted with respect to drugs is a difficult task, but it so happens that one respected investigator has done so. Harris Cooper, a close student of the subject, reports that "The conclusions of past reviewers of homework research show extraordinary variability... Even in regard to specific areas of application such as within different subject areas, grades or student ability levels, the reviews often directly contradict one another." Even where a positive correlation is established, it is not clear whether homework makes good, well motivated students or privileged and well motivated students do homework. Cooper's work is unequivocal in its conclusion that no significant gains for homework are established for the elementary school years.

Just as tellingly, virtually no one so far has attempted to ascertain the side effects of homework. What are its effects on families, on children's lifelong interests in learning? Our own ethnographic research shows that extensive homework assignments have played a major role in school dropouts. In interviews with high school dropouts as part of a study for the Maine Department of Education, we asked students if there was a moment when they knew they were going to drop out of school. Their tales told the story of incomplete homework, of parent-child conflict exacerbated by homework demands that seem to grow as fast as the time parents have available shrinks.

Schools can and must do a better job, but punishing regimes for the children are not the way to go. A modest amount of independent work, say two hours a day, may well be appropriate for high school students, but let's stop trying to buy school reform on the cheap and at the expense of children and their families. The place for our children to be doing independent work is the setting designed for such work, the schools themselves. Teachers or other adults with appropriate skills and experience should be paid to assist our children in independent projects that would advance their learning. But even high school students shouldn't be forced to labor more than forty hours a week, a standard long ago established for adults. Free time plays a key role in fostering both creativity and emotional development, factors just as basic to long term success as an academic gains. In an era that reputedly values testing but that has done so little to test some of its most basic practices, we believe our approach is worth a serious trial.

Unmasking the Drug-Terror Link

The United States is in the midst of two wars. Both enemies are elusive, and end games are hard to discern. What better way to ease the doubts and anxieties implicit in these wars than to merge them. And what better time than the premier showcase of American popular culture, the Super Bowl. With two ads in last month’s Super Bowl, the Bush Administration commenced a campaign to convince us that the purchase of illegal drugs was more than an act of personal irresponsibility. As one of the ads put it: “Where do terrorists get their money? If you buy drugs, it might come from you."

An Administration so intent on making the connection between drugs and terrorism has been remarkably reticent about providing evidence of this connection. Are all illegal drugs implicated? Much of the marijuana smoked in Maine is also home grown. Unless Maine citizens are Al Qaeda members, it is hard to see how these purchases reach terrorists.

If the Bush Administration were truly interested in the economic foundation of recent Middle Eastern terrorism, Saudi Arabia would be a better target. And surely some of the Saudi millions channeled into terrorism derive from this nation’s appetite for imported oil. Perhaps a Super Bowl ad highlighting SUV owners as supporters of terrorism might have made a fitting counter to the usual barrage of auto ads in our football telecasts.

The Bush drug ads are equally forgetful of history. Looked at from a longer perspective, many recreational drugs have become a source of black markets and pools of hidden capital. Yet as AlterNet columnist Geov Parrish points out, two aspects of this story are revealing: “From Afghanistan to Southeast Asia to Latin America, the CIA has for decades been accused (often irrefutably) of reaping huge profits from illicit drugs, money which -- as with its illegal arms sales in the '80s that went to anti-Nicaraguan contra operations -- has tended to go directly into funding our terror campaigns. If the U.S. does it, it's no surprise that al Qaeda et al would, too. The effort to eradicate certain popular drugs…. has literally created, and perpetuated, the very black market now accused of being a source of cash for al Qaeda's jihad. Ending drug prohibitions would do far more to thwart terrorism than the War on Drugs ever could.”

If the Bush Administration’s major concern were the health and security of our citizens, cleaner, more fuel- efficient vehicles and mass transit would be national priorities. In addition, studies by Rand Corporation have provided strong evidence that rehabilitation and drug education are far better ways to reduce dangerous forms of drug use than police actions and foreign interdictions.

Yet we will likely wait a long time for government ads targeting SUVs and promoting honest public health approaches to drugs. The War on Terror, just like the drug war, is at least as much about affirming the worth and sanctity of mainstream culture as it is about fostering real security. Toward that end, all who differ from the most widely celebrated values are not merely different, but evil. Recreational drugs associated with the urban poor or the counterculture are decried on the very same telecasts that sell us beer and now even hard liquor. In addition, the war on terror has morphed into a selective attack on every nation that our national security elites see as a threat to US hegemony.

Nonetheless, each of these wars has its problems. Despite two decades of drug war, success remains elusive. Some of the population has tired of the war, either because they regard it as unwinnable or because they have gained a more nuanced appreciation of the range of harms occasioned by various drugs. Years of exaggerations and scare stories have taken their toll.

For its part, the war on terror can point to shattered caves in Afghanistan, but Osama apparently remains at large. And even were we to have irrefutable proof of his demise, just how many of Al Qaeda’s hydra- like cells would remain?

Both drug and terror warriors need a powerful enemy to grease their psyche, but an enemy against which tangible progress can be made. Merging of the two concerns is a natural for both. How convenient it is to provide drug warriors and skeptics a new incentive to renew the drug wars. And the war on terror becomes both more tangible if apprehension of the drug user down the street can now be seen as crippling Osama.

Unfortunately, the merging of these wars is not without risks to the rest of us. Each war has already been an occasion for myriad threats to our civil liberties. Fusing the two poses even greater risk. In addition, these vast campaigns drain resources from more evident and pressing threats to our health and security.

John Buell is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News. He invites comments at jbuell@acadia.net.

Rethinking Homework

As another school year begins, George Bush wants to test our schools as never before. Standardized testing is a growth industry. Administrators and teachers, themselves now under the gun, are turning to an old remedy, ratcheting up the homework. Unfortunately, this conventional medicine may be doing more harm than good.

Educators and much of the public likes to think lengthy homework makes sense: It is well tested and, besides, it is what everyone is doing worldwide. No wonder American businesses lose jobs to Japanese, Chinese, and Korean firms. Their schools are strict and they study harder.

Yet every element of this familiar scenario is outdated or debatable. American students don't always lose the "educational Olympics." They have been world leaders in reading. Even in math, where results have been less satisfactory, blaming deficiencies on homework is unwarranted. Japanese schools spend up to 25% more per teacher on professional development and resources than the US, make better use of the existing school day, and rely on elaborate after school programs.

It is also curious that US educational and business leaders embrace longer hours just at a time when even Japan has growing doubts about its work and school practices. Some of its business and educational leaders now concede that workaholism is not merely a psychological problem but a barrier to innovation and creativity. Japanese production line workers may be more facile in using math than in redesigning existing products or national economic priorities. Many Japanese leaders now worry that these workers spend so much of their lives in narrow cognitive tasks that they are unlikely to be broadly creative. Even the Japanese Educational ministry now recognizes that the rigid emphasis on long school hours must be re-examined. Perhaps our most significant gap with the Japanese is our unwillingness to open similar questions here. If homework were a prescription drug, the FDA would demand its recall. Harris Cooper, a respected scholar and long time homework advocate, has admitted: "The conclusions of past reviewers of homework research show extraordinary variability. . Even in regard to specific areas of application such as within different subject areas, grades or student ability levels, the reviews often directly contradict one another." Cooper is forced to conclude that for the elementary grades: "Teachers should not assign homework to young children with the expectation that it will noticeably enhance achievement. Instead, teachers might assign short and simple homework to younger students, hoping it will foster positive, long term educational behaviors and attitudes." (emphasis mine) Cooper provides no extensive studies or documentation to defend his hope.

Research conducted by a colleague and me in Maine show that extensive homework assignments have played a major role in school dropouts among disadvantaged families. In interviews with high school dropouts as part of a study for the Maine Department of Education, we asked students if there was a moment when they knew they were going to drop out of school. Every teenager cited tales of the crushing burdens of homework in the context of inadequate housing, educational resources, and adult assistance.

If homework is no answer to our educational dilemmas and may even exacerbate inequalities, this is no excuse for "dumbing down" public education. Schools can and must do a better job, but punishing regimes for the children are not the way. Studies both in the US and Western Europe provide far more support for other ways to improve education. Smaller class size, an emphasis on teacher training and development, and robust preschool programs have all delivered more consistent gains than intensifying homework.

Contemporary learning theory tells us why. Learning theorists now recognize that not only do students progress at different ages, they also do not all go through one invariant set of stages. Just as not all students are naturally right handed and should not be made to write in this fashion, distinctive learning styles are developed and may well persist over a whole lifetime. In such a context, the imperative to gear academic exercises to the particular limits of the individual child becomes even stronger. Small class size is crucial, and both class organization and homework must be rethought.

A modest amount of independent work, say two hours a day, is appropriate for high school students, but all children should have equal resources for such independent work. Teachers or other adults with appropriate skills, resources, and experience should be paid to assist our children in independent projects that would advance their learning.

Nonetheless, even high school students shouldn't be forced to labor more than forty hours a week. This goal, established more than sixty years ago for adult workers, is now regarded as passé. The long hours parents now work is often cited in defense of increased homework for our children: Children must get ready to work long adult hours. Parents and children pay a high price for this cavalier or even celebratory attitude toward work. Loading more work on kids and parents won't encourage educational excellence or prevent children from watching mindless television. Only a culture that learns to value the free time that parents and their children spend together can enhance education and family life. The unstructured time parents and children have for hobbies, recreation, religion, and visits to relatives plays a key role in fostering children's creativity, self-discipline, and emotional development. Homework intensification is an obstacle to such development and serves as a cheap but ultimately counterproductive response to our educational and economic crisis.

John Buell is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News. His most recent book, "The End of Homework: How Homework Overburdens Children, Disrupts Families, and Limits Learning" (with Etta Kralovec), has just been re-issued in paperback by Beacon Press.

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