The insurrection in Ecuador, October 2019

Last October, there was a fearsome struggle in Ecuador against the government’s decision to end subsidies for fuel, which was reversed after nearly two weeks of protests, riots, blockades, and occupations.

In February 2019, the government of Lenin Moreno signed a $4.2 billion financing deal with the IMF, which was conditional on cutting government spending. Moreno decided to achieve this by firing a number of government workers, privatizing certain state-run enterprises, and ending subsidies for fuel.

On Tuesday night, October 1st, it was announced that subsidies for fuel — worth around $1.3 billion a year, and which had been in place for some four decades — would end that Thursday. The price shock was immediate and brutal — a more than 25% rise in gasoline prices, and a doubling of diesel prices. Trade unions and indigenous movements immediately announced their intention to strike and demonstrate against the decision.

On Thursday, October 3rd, transit workers took the lead, taking to the streets and blockading major highways and roads in the two major cities, Quito and Guayaquil. The protests almost immediately took on a militant air, with barricades being thrown up and strikers clashing with police. The government declared a state of emergency.

Ecuador Political Crisis

After two days of battling the police for control of the streets, the transport unions called for an end to the strikes, with leadership declaring that their disagreements had been expressed, and that they hoped the government would listen to their demands. Over 350 people had been arrested, including union leaders; government officials said that 60 police officers had been injured, and a dozen police vehicles destroyed.

However, other groups, especially those of the indigenous communities, continued to rally, and called for a national general strike the following Wednesday, October 9th. La Confederacion de Nacionalidades Indigenas del Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE), a huge nation-wide coalition of various indigenous communities, announced that they would be mobilizing indefinitely until the reinstatement of the fuel subsidies.

CONAIE drove the insurrection to new heights on Monday, October 7th. Tens of thousands of indigenous activists and militants had spent the weekend travelling from every corner of the country to the cities, particularly the capital city of Quito. There, in coordination with angry urban workers and students, they quickly overwhelmed security forces and seized control of highways, universities, government buildings, and other urban spaces, including brief occupations of the General Comptroller’s Office and the National Assembly. The Moreno administration quickly packed up and fled, relocating the government to the port city of Guayaquil. Meanwhile, CONAIE declared a “state of exception” in indigenous territories, effectively rendering them autonomous from the central government; dozens of state security personnel were subsequently arrested by indigenous militants for violating this newly declared sovereignty. Meanwhile, several oil fields in the Amazon were attacked and forced to shut down 165,000 bbl/day of production.


The battle continued on for the rest of the week. Running street battles between demonstrators and police were constant. A national strike took place on Wednesday, October 9th, with the unions coming back to the streets. Police officers continued to be arrested by the indigenous forces, usually for a scold-and-release. La Casa de la Cultura (House of Culture) became the central headquarters for the militants in Quito, where large assemblies were held to discuss and coordinate the insurrection. Occupation and sabotage of oil infrastructure continued; by Friday, October 11th, production had been reduced by 900,000 bbl/day (an odd figure given by the energy ministry, since most sources have Ecuador’s oil production at typically around 500,000 bbl/day) .

On Saturday, October 12th, peace talks were finally announced between CONAIE and the Moreno administration, even as the latter announced a curfew and deployed the military to help control the streets. But within a day, Moreno capitulated; fuel subsidies were re-instated, the IMF austerity plan was cancelled, and further talks were planned between the government and the indigenous communities to devise a different set of spending cuts and taxes. After celebrating, the thousands of indigenous activists and militants spent some time cleaning up the streets of debris, before starting the trek home to their rural villages.



Overall, the insurrection is a fascinating case-study in organization, power, and militancy. At first glance, the almost two weeks of chaos look like a series of daily riots; but this characterization overlooks the intense level of organization, planning, and logistical coordination that was present. An interview from Crimethinc with a participant lays out the dense networks of solidarity and cooperation that made the sustained insurrection possible. There was the coordination of transport for tens of thousands travelling to the capital from the mountains, jungles, and lowlands, as well as food distribution centers, volunteer medical brigades, childcare services, entertainment, popular assemblies, and so on. All of this synced up with a fierce level of militancy, where thousands armed with sticks, stones, shields, rockets, petrol bombs, and molotovs battled state security forces for control of urban territory, while their counterparts in the hinterlands staged decisive strikes on oil infrastructure. And it should be noted that none of this was a spontaneous or sudden outburst of reactive anger; they had no illusions that the struggle was about anything other than forcing the state to reinstate the fuel subsidies. They were ready to fight and shed blood from day one, and had planned accordingly.

The insurrection is also noteworthy when situated against the deepening crises and contradictions of capitalism and Earth’s ecology. On Friday, September 27th — mere days prior to Moreno’s explosive announcement — the Global Climate Strikes took place. Millions around the world, including contingents in Ecuador, rallied in the streets to protest against political inaction around fossil fuel emissions and the climate crisis. An important cause, but one with very little teeth, and which was quickly eclipsed by the potent force of the fuel subsidy protests. The contrast in form between the two movements (peaceful demonstrations vs. violent confrontation) is matched by the contrast in content (demanding political action against carbon emissions vs. demanding popular access to carbon energy). This dynamic has emerged in other parts of the world, notably in France with the successful rebellion of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) against the Macron administration’s new tax on fuel.

This could be chalked down to the different social bases of the two causes — a relatively abstract and long-term vision of conservation, embraced by professionals and the middle-class, versus an immediate and harshly material necessity to defend the already empty pockets of the laboring masses from further deprivation. But CONAIE’s history has in fact been in opposing extractive capitalism, and upholding an indigenous environmentalism. In fact, perhaps the main reason why the disruption of oil production during the uprising was so effective was because CONAIE and other groups had been engaging in such actions for many years. So why did they rise up in defense of fossil fuel subsidies?

Because, they are not naive, or detached from the day-to-day material lives of their constituents. Fossil capitalism must be stopped — but this cannot be done on the backs of the masses, who depend on carbon energy to live and yet never had any real choice in the matter. The transition must be at the expense of those who benefited: the already wealthy and powerful. Thus, the attempts by capital to impose greenwashed austerity while protecting its ability to profit must be opposed.

And in Ecuador, at least, it seems that the mainstream environmental movement has recognized this fact; in an interview with Truthout, the local leader of Fridays for the Future states her intention to connect the student/climate activist organization with the country’s indigenous movements. If this goes well, then it will be a landmark in building a militant social composition that fights against the ecological devastation of capitalism, while remaining rooted in the lives of the masses.


We’re going through a climate crisis, not climate change

I am developing a minor, rhetorical gripe with the how deeply embedded and widespread the term “climate change” is. It is an incredibly vague and passive term, and does little to represent the actual magnitude of the ongoing destabilization of the climate, and other sub-systems of the Earth’s biosphere. This is why I am going to try to go out of my way to avoid using the term “climate change” in discussions and writing, and instead use the term “climate crisis”, or refer to the “destabilization of the climate/Earth’s ecology”, or alike terms (the term “climate chaos” seems to have been gaining some traction among climate justice activists).

But whatever we use, it should evoke a sense of destruction, since that is what is actually happening. The Earth’s climate has changed before, many times, (as climate crisis deniers are quick to argue) — but what’s unique about the climactic changes being driven by anthropogenic carbon emissions is just how rapid, in geological and evolutionary time-frames, the changes are taking place. Let us make sure our language properly reflects this.

Disorientation and decomposition

The modern Internet is an immense and finely-tuned engine for distraction and diversion. The big tech companies have some of the smartest people in the world working around the clock to ensure that their platforms are as engaging, addictive, widespread, and panoptic as possible. (Indeed, I’d like to see the economists who complain about the low observed productivity gains from the information revolution do a study on whether productivity gains were simply undermined by workers wasting a good chunk of their work time with dithering around on the Internet).

I think this is a key reason why the modern world feels like its in a state of constant frenzy, and why its so easy for people today to feel disoriented. As commented on in “Too Fast, Too Furious”, a wonderful essay from n+1 published in late 2015, the Internet has created an endless stream of information, audio-visual consumables, and social media chatter. This is part of a larger trend where capitalist innovation in labor-saving technology has created the paradox where workers (in the imperialist cores) by and large have more free time than they once had, but also find this free time under constant stress, pulled apart by an unceasing barrage of inescapable nudges and tugs, in an infinite number of directions, by an infinite number of competing corporations pushing an infinite number of goods and services. Combine this with the stress of working meaningless jobs and running on the hamster wheel of bills and debts, and disorientation becomes one’s natural state.

Systematic attack on our minds is not new. Such is the entire history of the advertising industry, as laid out in Tim Wu’s excellent book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016). What is new is how effective, intrusive, and ubiquitous advertisements today are, with the ability of advertisement technology corporations to soak up huge amounts of information about our social and psychological dynamics and adjust their ads accordingly. This is not just the result of technological advancements, but also the absorption of huge amounts of social activity into social media platforms, which can then apply data science and artificial-intelligence techniques to continually analyze and manipulate human behavior. Our social lives have become increasingly sucked into intelligent and interactive billboards, and our thought processes increasingly outsourced to advertising algorithms. This Twitter thread by a Google AI researcher is a good description of all this (although it is amusing that he puts all the blame on Facebook, as if Google isn’t doing the same thing).

The framework of class composition can be useful in analyzing all of this. Economic restructuring — shutting down and moving factories, deploying labor-saving automation, stratifying the labor markets by race and gender — disrupts working-class organization by breaking up the economic foundation on which such organization was structured. Likewise, social and psychological restructuring — pulling social interactions and individual entertainment into a world of infinite scrolling, push notifications, and constant information overload — disrupts our own ability to sustain in-depth, complex lines of analysis, and build and maintain relationships that are genuinely on our own terms. Of course, the flip side of economic restructuring is that even as old working-class forms of organization are decomposed, the new economic structures drive new forms of working-class organization, as seen in the major worker rebellions in China in the late 2000s, or in the unrest among tech professionals and gig workers in the US in recent years. Likewise, the flip side of social-psychological decomposition can be seen in the subversive uses of the Internet to drive networked, decentralized movements like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter.

However, it is essential that we don’t mistake these positive flip-sides to mean that there is some kind of teleological, automatic process where capitalist development generates an equally powerful reaction. It should be clear by now that the networked, decentralized movements dependent on social media have been unable to undermine capitalist power, and easily dissipate on contact with the hard, well-organized forces of capital and the state. This should be expected — as observed in “Too Fast, Too Furious”, the social spaces provided by techno-capitalism don’t allow for particularly deep experiences or relationships. These will only come about in the “real world”, outside of and autonomous to state and capital. Thus, while radicals should make use of social media platforms and related communications technologies, it is crucial that the ultimate purpose of such uses points outside of these disorienting spaces.

Thinking about climate crisis mitigation: time limits vs. carbon budgets

The slogan “we have 12 years to prevent a climate catastrophe” has been thrown around a lot since the IPCC released a special report in 2018, which focused on the importance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. I don’t particularly like the slogan, for two reasons: one, because it implies a kind of hard, unchanging timeline, and two, because it creates the image of an apocalyptic brink, past which there is no return. Neither of these are a good way to think about the climate crisis.

Mitigating the crisis is not about how much time we have left, but how much carbon we have left. The 12-year time limit is derived from how much carbon we can put into the atmosphere before we cross 1.5 C of warming. Chapter 2, Section 2, Part 2 of the IPCC Special Report analyzes this budget, and finds that the general range of how much carbon dioxide we can emit is likely somewhere between 420 and 840 gigatonnes; the 50% confidence value of the limit is 560 GtCO2. For reference, the total amount of carbon dioxide humans have emitted so far is roughly 2200 GtCO2. Comparing this budget with the rate at which we’re emitting carbon dioxide tells us how long we have until we push warming past the 1.5 C — assuming, of course, that this rate stays the same. If fossil fuel use peaked and stabilized in 2017, at a rate of 42 GtCO2/year, then our carbon budget would be exhausted after 13-14 years, around 2030. 12 years after the report’s release in 2018 — thus, the time limit.

But since this depends on the rate of carbon emissions, the time limit will change as the emission rates change. Global fossil fuel use today is in fact growing, at a rate of 2-3%/year, which knocks a couple years off of how fast we’ll exhaust the carbon budget. One the other hand, if somehow global carbon emissions peaked this year and went on a 2% yearly decline, we would instead add two years to the time limit; a 5% yearly decline would add around nine years. Thus, there is reason to be both optimistic and pessimistic: if emissions keep rising, that 12-year time limit will shrink, but if we can peak emissions and start decreasing it, the timeline will start to slowly stretch out, giving time for even more emissions reductions.

Graph of what year the carbon budget for 1.5 C of warming gets exhausted, for different rates of carbon emission increases/decreases. If carbon emissions keep increasing by 2%/year, the budget will be exhausted in 2029; if carbon emissions are decreased by 5%/year, the budget will be exhausted in 2041.

And if we don’t meet this moving deadline…well, things will get bad. But we should be clear about when and how things will get bad; its not like we’ll suddenly be engulfed with hurricanes and mega-droughts destroying our cities and displacing billions the second the last molecule of the carbon budget is used up, whether that is in 2030 or 2040 or whenever. And its not like things will be fine and dandy until that moment, either; this much should be clear from the widespread negative impacts that 1 C of warming is already having on the world. Peaking at 1.5 C will prevent much catastrophe, but it would have been much better if we had peaked at 1 C. Likewise, peaking at 2 C will bring much worse impacts than peaking at 1.5 C (such as the destruction of the coral reefs), but will nonetheless be much better than peaking at 3 C, which in turn will be much better than peaking at 4 C, and so on. This logic holds even when accounting for feedback loops and tipping points that could push climate change beyond the scope of human mitigation, since peaking human carbon emissions earlier rather than later will (presumably) prevent more dire tipping points from being reached, and make it more likely that we can figure out some way to stabilize the climate before any extinction scenarios play out.

So people shouldn’t despair when looking at the more sensationalist headlines about “12 years to save the world”. Its not a make-or-break deadline even though the stakes are massive and planetary in scope. Whatever we can do in the crucial decade of the 2020s will make the future that much marginally better, and we shouldn’t let pessimism about whether we can have a total victory stop us from fighting like hell.

The climate crisis and the far-right in the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest has been marked as a potential climate haven for the increasing masses of people who will be fleeing the worsening climate crisis. Cliff Mass, a University of Washington climate scientist, has pointed out that the area will largely escape the worst of the intensifying disasters that will affect the rest of the continental United States: sea-level rise, heat waves, hurricanes, droughts. Indeed, some research, like a 2015 paper in Science, has found that the Pacific Northwest will actually benefit from climate change, with increased agricultural productivity and lower energy costs.

But this potential haven will have to reckon with the parallel movement of far-right extremists into the area, a trend that has been happening for several decades now, and which only seems to be escalating. In the 1970s, white nationalist and neo-Nazi circles came up with the Northwest Territorial Imperative, which saw the northwestern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming as an ideal region to settle and construct a white separatist state. Militant groups, such as The Order, sprang up in the region, and carried out a series of robberies and killings to attempt to agitate for and fund a separatist movement. Meanwhile, more above-ground groups like the Aryan Nations set up compounds in remote areas of North Idaho, which is also where the infamous 1992 Ruby Ridge incident took place.

More recently, there has been a migration of far-right Christians into the region, via the American Redoubt movement, which was launched in 2011. Like the Northwest Territorial Imperative, American Redoubt sees the region as prime real estate, but for conservative and libertarian Christians and Jews, rather than whites only; it also explicitly excludes the coastal regions of Washington and Oregon, since a key element of its ideology is to prepare for the collapse of the United States and its infrastructure, and the resulting fallout in and around its major cities. According to a 2016 Economist article, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of families have answered the call and have relocated to the region. (Its not clear what any of these movements think about the many large Native American reservations in “their” territory, like Wind River in Wyoming, the Blackfeet and Flathead reservations in Montana, or Nez Perce reservation in Idaho).

American Redoubt is quieter, but more sophisticated than its neo-Nazi predecessor. It taps into a much wealthier crowd of people, as is clear from a 2016 Washington Post essay. The new settlers have quite a bit of disposable income, enough to put down hundreds of thousands of dollars on property, special bunkers, off-grid energy systems, food supplies, and ammunition; and their relocations are facilitated by a matrix of ideologically-aligned real estate firms and survivalist/prepper supply companies.

But while they aren’t robbing banks and getting into shootouts with the feds, they are certainly dragging regional politics even further to the right than it already was. The shenanigans of state representative Matt Shea are an excellent case-study of this (see Ep. 384 of The Dollop for a humorous podcast overview of this). Shea has represented a far-eastern legislative district of Washington, next to Spokane, for over 10 years, is a supporter of Redoubt, and has consistently pushed a far-right, Christian extremist message of securing the region against big government, communists, and Muslims. One of his pet projects is splitting Washington and making a new state, called Liberty, out of the rural eastern half.

Its clear that Shea does not envision a peaceful future for this movement. Last year, light was shed on a document he wrote that summed up his idea of Christian warfare, which included massacring all the males of communities that do not submit to the “Holy Army”; and within the last few weeks, his ties with a paramilitary training camp for Christian extremists were exposed. Shea, along with other far-right regional legislators, have also connected with various wings of the militia movement, especially via the Bundy family during their standoff with the feds in Nevada in 2014 over grazing rights. Shea and company later tried to intervene during the militia occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016, and in fact, its likely that Shea helped plan various aspects of the occupation and the surrounding political theater.

Members of the Oath Keepers in Oregon

All of this far-right organization is bad news for climate change mitigation, even as the Democratic Party strengthens its hold on the state governments of Washington and Oregon. A couple months ago, Oregon Democrats tried to pass a cap-and-trade bill. Republicans, who are in the minority, couldn’t block the bill, but what they could do was deny quorum and prevent a vote from being held at all. So, they walked out of the capitol and went into hiding; and regional militia groups — including some that occupied the wildlife refuge in 2016 — declared their intent to defend the Republican legislators against any attempts to force them to return. An additional threat to rally at the capitol caused the building to be shut down for a day. Eventually, the bill was killed, and the Republican senators slunk back to work.

This fiasco paints a grim picture of the future, where far-right Christian and white nationalist settlers continue their merger with the far-right militia movement, and create a powerful armed bloc against climate mitigation and climate refugee resettlement. And the Democrats, of course, will be of little help, given how they are toothless and terrified of actually standing for anything. They were certainly unwilling to call the Republicans’ and militias’ bluff on how far they would go to shoot down the cap-and-trade bill.

All this must be taken seriously, but at the same time it is important to not overstate the current power or centrality of the far-right. The militias certainly played a role in disrupting and delaying the legislative process around the cap-and-trade bill; but in the end, it was not them or the Republican senators who ultimately killed cap-and-trade, but a successful lobbying effort by Boeing to peel off a Democratic senator from supporting the bill. The biggest and most potent force in climate crisis denialism remains mainstream neoliberal capitalism.

Either way, the fiasco demonstrates the need for the climate justice movement to become better organized, more aggressive, better connected with the abandoned rural heartlands where fascist forces are festering unchallenged, and take seriously the question of armed self-defense. Neither the big corporations nor the far-right will back down from undermining a progressive and adaptive future, and will likely grow more militant and violent as the contradictions of capitalism, climate, and borders become more and more strained. If this all sounds extreme, its only because we’ve gotten far too used to accepting the massive gap between our rhetoric and our actions on the climate crisis– and its beyond time we closed that gap. If the Pacific Northwest is a future climate haven, it’ll be one that was fought for.

4 reasons to prioritize the study of the Bolivarian Revolution

The Russian Revolution has a disproportionately prominent position in the imaginations of modern revolutionaries in the West. Regardless of how smart and insightful Lenin was, and the trailblazing  efforts of the Bolsheviks, the hard truth is that the Russian Empire in the early 1900s was a totally different society than the ones we are dealing with today. Instead of focusing so much on the Russian Revolution, would-be revolutionaries should put much more energy into studying the Bolivarian Revolution, which is still playing out in Venezuela today, and which will have continent-wide ramifications. Now of course, the Bolivarian Revolution can be a controversial topic, and there are a lot of disagreements within the radical left about whether it is “truly socialist” or whatever; but regardless of these debates, I think we can all agree on the basic fact that the last couple of decades have seen some truly remarkable experiments in revolutionary praxis happen in Venezuela.

The first and most obvious reason to study the Bolivarian Revolution is that it is actually contemporary, starting in the 1990s and continuing today, as opposed to taking place 100 years ago during a totally different historical context. It started at the dawn of the information age, during an era of relative peace and a uni-polar US-controlled world order, and rebelled against neoliberal capitalism. These factors still mostly hold today, although the geopolitical context is certainly changing quite a lot, with the rise of China and Russia as economic and military rivals to the US, respectively. Compare this to the situation in the early 1900s. Basic technologies we take for granted today, like electricity and oil-based transportation, were just barely getting off the ground; the world was getting ravaged by vicious wars between evenly-matched imperial powers, in the worst violence that humanity has ever seen; and capitalism, in its modernist-developmental phase, was non-existent or peripheral to many regions that were still largely feudal in nature — such as Tsarist Russia.

Second, the Bolivarian Revolution took place in a highly urbanized country, which is again a stark contrast to Russia in 1917 (~20% urban), or really any country that saw a revolutionary socialist movement take power in the 20th century, like China, Vietnam, or Angola (Cuba is a possible exception, since in 1960 it was almost 60% urban). This is a huge factor for revolutionary politics, since the socio-economic and political dynamics of cities are extremely different than that of the rural countryside. Cities tend to be “fully capitalist”, with people totally subsumed by markets and wage-labor. In rural areas, markets have a presence but tend to exist alongside other social relations. The economic basis is also wildly different, with cities being orientated around industrial and service sectors, while rural areas revolve around energy and resources (agriculture, mining, etc), and corresponding differences in class and social composition. Given that the West is heavily urbanized, we should look closely at how radical politics has taken such deep roots within Venezuela.

Third, the Bolivarian Revolution was largely a peaceful process that combined electoral politics with autonomous social movements. This is quite novel in the history of revolutionary socialism; the closest parallel to this was the Allende government in Chile in the 1970s, which only lasted three years before being overthrown by a military coup. Chavez’s democratic road to power is crucial to study, given how hegemonic and popular democratic institutions generally are in the US, other developed countries, and wide swathes of the Global South. Despite the structural limitations of bourgeoisie democracy, its hegemony means that revolutionaries have to figure out some way to engage with it — albeit in a very different way than Western electoral parties, socialist or otherwise, have done so thus far. Hence the need to learn from the electoral experiences of Venezuelan socialists. The key lesson is probably in the relationship between electoral politicking and non or extra-electoral organizing, which has taken place across a dizzying number of cooperatives, clinics, affinity groups, neighborhood associations, etc., and how they feed into each other — a process that is much more complicated and interesting than current debates on the matter in the US and the West have acknowledged thus far.

Fourth, the Bolivarian Revolution is a revolution based on oil. The Chavez administration has used Venezuela’s oil industry as the material base for organizing and mobilizing the Venezuelan masses, turning its huge profits into funding for the aforementioned network of grassroots cooperatives and associations. This worked as long as oil prices were high (which was an explicit policy goal of Chavez), but their collapse has been the key factor in the recent crisis and potential end of the Bolivarian Revolution. This whole experience is an important lesson in the relationship between political economy and revolutionary strategy, and strategic questions about revolution and global processes — namely, imperialism and climate change. Venezuela’s oily socialism was dependent on exports to the US, which is obviously untenable for any serious revolutionary project in the long-term. And dependence on oil is itself untenable given the ongoing climate crisis. The (failed) attempts of the Bolivarian Revolution to break from US imperialism and fossil fuels must be studied; whether we can figure out how to actually overcome our material entanglement with US imperialism and fossil fuels will make or break all future revolutionary struggles.

Enron and 1990s capitalism

It is remarkable how much of bellwether Enron turned out to be regarding structural changes within capitalism — despite the fact that the company ultimately turned out to be fraudulent house of cards built on bizarre and incomprehensible accounting tricks (although then again, maybe its fraudulent aspect is precisely that which most represents capitalism’s fundamentals). Studying the rise and fall of Enron is like studying the political economy of the 1990s in general. The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (2003) covers the whole saga with definitive detail.

Initially, in the ’80s and early ’90s, Enron was a logistics company in the energy industry, specifically focusing on owning natural gas infrastructure. This involved being the intermediary between gas production plants and consumers, selling access to pipeline capacity, ensuring delivery, etc. Before long, Enron started to financialize all these physical assets, which coincided with the steady deregulation of the energy markets. Gas contracts were made more short-term, and trading markets were set up so that contracts could be bought and sold by third parties, and speculation on future prices started to increase. Of course, since Enron controlled a large portion of national natural gas infrastructure, they had access to high-quality information to inform their bets.

Even as Enron slowly morphed into primarily being a financial firm, they expanded their physical operations globally by hopping on the international development train that was taking off after the end of the Cold War. This was a time when privatization of assets and contracts across the Third World was heating up, and Enron was buying up energy and resource access in places like India and Brazil. A lot of these deals turned out to be total busts, not least because Enron was far more interested in closing big deals, fast, than in actually running an efficient and profitable operation, or even making deals that made long-term financial sense. And when they did make a profitable longer-term deal for themselves, as in the case of the infamous Dahbol gas plant in Maharashtra, India, they turned out to be such blatantly crooked deals that they were eventually shut down by popular backlash. For an analysis specific to Enron’s global operations, check out Vijay Prashad’s Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism (2002).

Within the company, the real fraud turned out to be in the accounting. Enron used “mark-to-mark” accounting, popular on Wall Street, which allowed you to book the total expected profits from a deal immediately, instead of as the cash actually came in over the life of the deal. The flip side of this is that if the expected value of the deal decreases in the future, you have to mark that down as a loss. Of course, Enron never did that, and took the abuse even further by twisting their assumptions about deal profitability to absurd lengths to book whatever amount of profits they needed to hit their quarterly earnings targets. And when they did have to face a loss, Enron shuffled away them away in weird shell company entities so that losses and debt were moved off the company books. However, these didn’t actually disappear, and slowly grew as a ticking time bomb over the course of the ’90s.

But even before the accounting fraud finally blew up, Enron became infamous for their actions during the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis, when they took advantage of a shoddy power deregulation effort to manipulate the markets and engage in serious price-gouging. By this point, Enron’s physical assets had grown to include power systems, and they used these to do things like withhold or divert power to drive up prices, or overload the transmission line schedules to get paid to not produce power, and so on.

Last but not least, Enron even tired to get into the Internet business, by trying to roll out broadband networks and to build a trading operation for Internet access like they had done for natural gas and electricity. This turned out to be a bust, not only because they didn’t understand the technology, but also because the dot-com bubble popped in 2000.

So to sum up, the story of Enron is also a story of logistics infrastructure, energy deregulation, state privatization, international development and neocolonialism, financialization and speculation, Internet and tech — and, fundamentally, the short-term systemic thinking that is central to the overall operations of capitalism. Wowza!

Post-Western films and the violence of capital

There has been an interesting trend in Hollywood in recent years around a new kind of Western. I’ve been calling them “post-Western”. Films in this category are set in the modern Western hinterlands, in the small towns and back-countries of states like Texas, Arizona, and Wyoming, and feature similar plots and themes as the old Westerns, like anti-heroes, lawlessness, individual valor, isolation, revenge, etc.

The main difference between the traditional Western and the post-Western is not in the actual time period (1800s vs. modern times), but rather, the portrayal of the changing position of the Western landscape within global capitalism. Westerns portrayed an area that was the dynamic edge of capital, with white settlers clearing the way for industrialization and development by chopping through Native Americans and Mexicans. It was a celebration of a civilization conquering fresh and promising new lands, sparsely inhabited by barbarians and rabble. Post-Westerns, on the other hand, examine this same region it its contemporary phase: stagnant, exploited, and decaying, whatever promises and romances the area once conjured up now revealed as a sick joke.

[Discussion/spoilers ahead for: Hell or High Water, Sicario, Wind River, No Country For Old Men, and Logan] 

Hell or High Water (2016) captures the post-Western perfectly. This film centers around two middle-aged brothers who are robbing banks across small-town Texas, in order to pay for their recently deceased mother’s mortgage — owned by the same bank they are robbing. The film also features two Texas Rangers, one white and one Native American, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, respectively. A conversation the two partners have during a stake-out of a bank sums up the socio-economic trajectory of the West:

Hamilton: Just relax, and enjoy this little town.

Parker: You wanna live here? There’s an old hardware store that charges twice what Home Depot does; one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress; and how’s anybody supposed to make a living here?

Hamilton: People have made a living here for 150 years.

Parker: People lived in caves for 150,000 years, and they don’t do that no more.

Hamilton: Well, maybe your people did…

Parker: Psh, your people did too. Long time ago, your ancestors was the Indians. ‘Till someone came along and killed them, broke them down, made you into one of them. 150 years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday. ‘Till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now its been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it. Its those sons of bitches right there. [points at the bank]

This discussion reveals one of the cruel ironies of the West today: that the denizens of the rural and small-town West find themselves being cut down and devoured by the very same forces that their ancestors once served. It is this cannibalism by capital that infuses the background of Post-Westerns.


Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, and his other scripts also fit the Post-Western genre. Sicario (2015) showcases the US-Mexico borderlands and the reach of the underground drug economy, as well as the nature of the modern national security state. In the traditional Western, lawlessness and vigilantism are shown as the consequence of the young and untamed nature of the frontier. In Sicario, we are confronted with a powerful and mature institution that is absorbing and co-opting the very criminality it is supposed to suppress, a mutation of the armed wing of the state in an opportunistic and self-serving feedback loop — which shouldn’t be surprising, given the traditional relations between American empire, various reactionary paramilitary formations, and the drug economy (see: Colombia).

Another of Sheridan’s films, Wind River (2017), is set in the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, home to the remnants of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes (and unfortunately and inexplicably, still has two white actors as the leads). The film turns the lens back to original victims of America’s western expansion, and shows that even if capital is now crushing those whose ancestors aided in its expansion, this doesn’t mean that the crushing of Native Americans has ceased in the meantime. The film revolves around the rape and murder of a Native girl, which is ultimately tied back to white oil workers stationed at a nearby extraction site. This, of course, points to how the conquest of native territory was always about seizing control of some kind of natural resource, from fertile farming lands to mineral deposits to fossil fuels. The pillaging of the land, and the accompanying human violence, has remained a constant presence across the West since the appearance of the first white settlers.

Since it is the specter of capital lurking around the background that defines the Post-Western, it is a bit tricky to lump No Country For Old Men (2007) under the label. Despite aesthetically being some kind of Western, the overall setting doesn’t really have the same kind of characterization that it does in Sheridan’s trilogy; there isn’t much sense of history or change in the motels, ranches, and small-town stores that the actual characters move through. However, perhaps the specter of capital here is actually directly personified in the demonic antagonist, Anton Chigurh, whose philosophical nihilism is only matched by his ruthless violence against anybody who stands in the way of his mission — even those who hired him in the first place. Chigurh’s inexorable march toward victory, and the bodies he leaves behind, echoes the way the ceaseless operations of capital explicitly liquidate the small town and back-country backgrounds of Sheridan’s films.

And just what is the end-point of capital’s inexorable, ceaseless processes? For this answer, we could turn to an unlikely candidate: Logan (2017), the final installation of Marvel’s Wolverine franchise, starring Hugh Jackman. This film fits the category of post-Western, as much as it does superhero, science-fiction, and/or dystopian. Corporate paramilitary groups appear to hold dominance not just in the US-Mexico borderlands, but across the US entirely. The degenerating national security state that we saw in Sicario is either completely absent, or has mutated into something totally unrecognizable. Mutants have been wiped out, and those who are left are seen as a resource to be enslaved and harvested for bio-genetic and military R&D. Capital, left to run amok, has uprooted and disintegrated everything that may have been good in this world.

It is a deeply grim picture; and yet, the goofiest aspect of the movie is also the one that may have the most to say about the Western landscape and its past and future. Logan’s ultimate enemy in the film ends up being a cloned version of himself, young, healthy, and strong, and stripped of all the moral trappings the real Logan has gained over the years. This confrontation can reveal an allegory of the Western genres. The real Logan, like the post-Western setting, is old, ragged, and full of self-doubt. The cloned Logan, like the traditional Western setting, is young, enthusiastically violent, and completely unquestioning of its mission and purpose. The real Logan is the West at its decaying end; the cloned Logan is the West in its blood-soaked beginning.

Despite the odds, of course, real Logan — with the help of his clone-daughter and other young fugitive mutants — defeats the clone Logan, and then promptly dies, allowing the torch to be passed on to the next generation. It is here that some hope can be found, among all the bleakness and nihilism that has thus far defined the post-Western and what it shows about the dying Western hinterlands and the ever-present specter of capital. Despite its bloody, imperial origins, the modern West can still harbor resistance and rebellion, even among those whose ancestors partook in its original savagery. The key is to not look backward, toward a mythical golden era that never existed, but indeed to bury this mythology and look forward to what may still be created, against and outside of capitalism.

Why are revolutionaries so obsessed with the Russian Revolution?

This is a silly question, on the face of it; of course revolutionaries are obsessed with the first successful communist revolution in history (regardless of how the revolutionary state evolved or devolved afterwards). And I don’t think I have to go out of my way to prove that most of the socialist movement in the US looks to the Russian Revolution and the works of Lenin as the basis for their thinking about revolutionary strategy. But the real question is: why just the Russian Revolution? Why doesn’t the Chinese Revolution and the works of Mao figure in just as importantly? And what about revolutionary movements closer to home: the Black Panther Party, or more recently, the Zapatistas in Mexico, or the socialist movement in Venezuela?

The main reason is probably that it is a consequence of historical momentum. The Russian Revolution had a massive impact on global politics, and the communist government made a lot of effort to export its ideas and practices abroad. The rise of Stalin and the exile of Trotsky contributed to this, with the latter’s followers working hard to spread their interpretation of the Russian Revolution, the USSR, and Marxism, in competition with the official line of the CPUSA. Despite the fact that the Chinese Revolution happened a full half-century later than the Russian Revolution, the Chinese communists didn’t prioritize exporting their model (an observation noted in Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che), and so relative to Trotskyism, Maoism has remained more marginal.

Eurocentrism is also probably a big factor. Russia is generally imagined to be “white”, “Western”, and/or “European”, and thus for Western socialists its easier to imagine and relate with narratives about the Russian Revolution, than more recent struggles in the darker nations. This is despite the fact that, in terms of what the social and material context of the different revolutions were, there doesn’t seem to have been much difference between Russia in the 1910s and China in the 1940s: both nations were largely agricultural, with a marginal industrial base, and totally wracked by war. Indeed, it is arguable that both of these cases are pretty damn far off from what the current conditions of struggle are in the industrialized West!

This is why, aside from when I need to tickle my fancy for history, I am generally not interested in studying the details of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. It seems far more important to examine case studies much more relevant to the current situation. The Black Panther Party is one such case, since they were arguably the most important revolutionary group on US soil in the post-WW2 era. Also important are the more recent radical movements in the rest of the Americas: the Zapatistas in Chiapas, various militant social movements in Brazil, and the socialist movements in Venezuela and Bolivia. The Venezuelan case is particularly noteworthy, given that they seized state power in a largely urban country, through participation in the country’s democratic institutions, while also maintaining and even expanding autonomous spaces for grassroots experimentation and mobilization. Of course, things there have been spiraling out of the control for a couple of years now; but regardless, the Venezuelan Revolution is a much more worthy example to obsess over, than one on a different continent that happened a hundred years ago.

Netscape and the rise of technocapitalism

Only ’90s kids will remember Netscape, the original browser of the Internet before the era of Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Google Chrome. But what we didn’t realize was the impact Netscape had on capitalism, and the way it symbolized and perhaps even initiated a recomposition of political economy. I have a hypothetical periodization of capitalism that I’ve been trying to work out, involving a distinction between industrial capitalism, finance capitalism, and technocapitalism, based on what industries are dominating the economy and directing the flow of capital, and studying the Netscape era yields some very useful information.

Netscape was the first real “unicorn”, a tech start-up that becomes valued in the billions of dollars by big investors. It was the brainchild of Jim Clark, an eccentric entrepreneur in the likes of Steve Jobs, whose impact on Silicon Valley has been documented in Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing (1999). Clark had already made a small fortune during the 1980s from his first start-up, Silicon Graphics, which had revolutionized graphic cards and 3-D rendering and paved the way for graphic user interfaces and the personal computer. But as the company grew, it was essentially taken over by Wall St. investors, who pushed out Clark and took control of the the profits.

Bankers taking control of up-and-coming companies wasn’t exactly a novel thing; it was how things were in the 1980s. But with Netscape, Clark was determined to not lose control and money to the bankers again. The new company, and its core product — an Internet browser — suddenly made the Internet more accessible to the average person by many orders of magnitude, and thus also meant a massive, massive market opportunity.

Its not clear exactly what kind of bargaining power Clark had against Wall St. Part of it was probably just a case of information asymmetry, and the bankers having severe FOMO. But in any case, he and his team played hard and fast against selling out the company too early, or for too few shares or seats on the board, and the result was that Netscape was the first tech firm that had engineers and programmers at the top, controlling the lion’s share of capital and the flow of profit. Wall St. made money too, of course, but they were simply following along in the wake. When the company launched its IPO in 1995, it turned the engineers and programmers into millionaires, and the co-founders into billionaires, and forever changed the game for Silicon Valley. Even though the company would be very quickly run off the road by Microsoft and Internet Explorer, the nature of its rise created a new standard for the ambitions and strategies of its entrepreneurs, and flipped the balance of power between tech capital and finance capital.

However, the Netscape era was only the beginning of a larger recomposition and re-balancing of global capitalism. The rise of technocapitalism rode on the Dot-com bubble, which burst in 2000 and eviscerated the industry. The survivors would kneel once again before finance capital — until the latter had its own reckoning in the 2008 financial crisis, after the housing bubble burst. Once the smoke cleared, tech would once again be in the vanguard of capitalism, based on the foundations built by companies like Netscape years earlier.