Interview With Eric Schechter

(TFC) – Eric Schechter describes himself as an eco-anarcho-communist. He was a professor of mathematics at Vanderbilt University for 31 years. He is now retired, and devoting all his time to reading and writing about political philosophy and economics. Mainstream economics uses a great deal of math, but Schechter says it’s irrelevant, because the mainstream economists make crucial mistakes in their basic assumptions before they ever start applying the math. The one piece of math that he still talks about is this: The feedback loops in global warming can be expected to cause exponential acceleration, which starts off slowly but will soon pick up a lot of speed. Schechter is proud of the fact that he never “served” in the military, even though he was of draft age back when there was a draft. You can find Schechter’s essays and videos here.

 

John: You are an anarchist running for office. And you’ve said you are running to get info out. What, in your opinion, are the key problems we as humans face today both globally and where you live?

Eric: First, I want to clarify your statement that I’m an anarchist running to get information out. I’ve read and liked a little bit of Peter Gelderloos and Carne Ross. I’m an anarchist, in the sense that I think hierarchical authority systems and indirect, representative democracy are a bad idea. A very small number of people can’t know what’s good for a very large number of people, and concentrated power corrupts. I’d like to see a move toward direct, participatory democracy, and peer-to-peer networking. Even at its best, democracy is far from ideal. Majority rules and minority obeys — obviously that’s unpleasant for the minority, but it’s also bad for the majority if they’re ill-informed about the world and about themselves, as most of our society is. And it’s unpleasant for everyone if the majority and minority haven’t reached an understanding. What we really need is to care about each other, and to get to know one another better, and reach consensus. But my message is more about cultural change than legislative change, so I’m using the race for political office as a platform to talk about some things that can’t be accomplished by holding political office. If I actually win the election, I’ll try to do a good job — I’ll talk about that in a minute — but winning the election is not the outcome that I’m most hoping for.

Really, I’m hoping to be part of a movement of cultural change that makes the election irrelevant. Now, getting on to your question — our biggest problems are bullying, war, poverty, other kinds of economic unpleasantness, and our abysmal failure as stewards of the ecosystem, which is now dying. All of these problems can be traced to a single cause, our culture of separateness — separate property, separate lives, separate efforts. Our big problems are global, but the USA plays a pivotal role — the USA is the biggest warmonger, the biggest producer of weapons. You and I live in the belly of the beast. John Lennon gave us the first step of the solution, when he sang “imagine all the people sharing all the world.” That’s a peaceful revolution. But sharing can’t be imposed; we need everyone to WANT to share.
That requires that we understand ourselves and each other a lot better. And in that vein, I’d like to put in a plug for Charles Eisenstein’s new book of revolutionary psychology, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. It’s all about ending separateness. Short of revolution, I can think of some legislative changes that would be helpful as intermediate steps, if we had a more sane congress.

I’d like to repurpose the National Security Agency: instead of spying on the people and reporting to the government, I’d like to get them spying on the government and reporting to the people. Also, I’d like tonationalize the war industry and the energy industry — if those weren’t run for profit, our country would be starting fewer wars and using less fossil fuel. Do you realize that half your tax dollar goes to the military? And a significant chunk of it goes to subsidize the fossil fuel companies, too. Think of all the schools, hospitals, and bridge repairs that money could buy. If any of your readers are unfamiliar with my campaign, they can watch my video at Schechter for Senate. I don’t want your money, and I may not even ask for your vote. “Business as usual” won’t bring us the changes we need: end war, fossil fuels, and our…

 

John: What would you say is important to consider in a revolution as to the tactics used and teh new society brought forth? is there a definite intersectionality between type of tactic and the emerging culture?How do our tactics differ on an issue that effects few against a issue that effects all and might have a time limit?

Eric: As the issues and our situation change, how does that call for different tactics? How do you feel about revolution, economic sabotage, or small but positive bureaucratic changes? And do you see a time limit in this, and what are the implications of that time limit?
It’s true that the ongoing ecocide imposes a time limit on us. But our other big problems, such as war and poverty, are also urgent — we can’t stop thinking about our cousins who are already suffering. I don’t believe the reformists can solve our problems, but I won’t say their efforts are completely useless. At least they are making more people aware of some of the symptoms of the problems.

That’s a start toward getting more people involved. But market solutions can’t solve our problems. Harnessing greed is bargaining with the devil, and that’s unwise. The devil has a whole expensive team of lawyers, accountants, and other tricksters, to find a loophole in any contract you write. The only way to outsmart the devil is by avoiding him altogether. The rich are too firmly entrenched, and they buy government in order to keep themselves entrenched. Money is power, as surely as water runs downhill. The only way to avoid rule by the wealthy class is to not have a wealthy class. But markets create a wealthy class, because markets increase inequality, because markets favor whoever is in the better bargaining position. Thus the only route to democracy is by ending markets, and allocating resources where they are actually needed — that is, sharing and caring. That would be an enormous change, not just economic but also cultural, an even bigger change than what we have usually meant by the word “revolution.” Economic sabotage or violence are rarely useful. For instance, if you put nails into some trees, it won’t hurt the trees much, but it makes logging more expensive. Maybe you’ll stop a few trees from getting logged. But the logging companies may start posting armed guards around “their” forests. And they may beat you, or shoot you, or impoverish you with lawsuits. Of course, the ruling class routinely uses violence against those who question their power. But that doesn’t mean we should respond with violence. If we do, we give them an excuse to escalate their own use of violence, and that’s a contest they’d definitely win — they have more physical power. And even if we could somehow “win” through violence, what would we win? Violence could conceivably change the leaders, but not the culture.

If we overthrow the plutocracy without changing our culture, then that culture will just generate a new plutocracy, and we’ll have gained nothing. The only advantage our side has is our ideas; our only reliable tactic is to spread ideas. Awareness is spreading gradually. When it finally surfaces — when the general public sees that the emperor has no clothes — then the plutocracy will just crumble to dust and blow away. That change will be rapid, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, not gradual. Either you’re pregnant or you aren’t. Any complex system — a mother’s body, or a socioeconomic system — has many related ingredients, and changing some of them causes others to change. The old world is dying — come with us to the new world that is being born — we can’t get there without you.

 

John: What alternative systems do you think would be beneficial as opposed to the injustice systems we have today?

Eric: I’m going to talk in general terms here about changes I’d like to see in our society, not just things that I could help along by getting elected. Some of the changes for criminal justice are pretty obvious, and don’t even require any cultural change. For instance, * Close Gitmo. Not by transferring those prisoners to other prisons, but by freeing those prisoners. Pay them reparations for their mistreatment, and fly them to wherever they want to go. * Abolish the death penalty entirely, since law enforcement officers do sometimes make mistakes. * We need a more effective system for dealing with police use of excessive force, and other forms of police misconduct. I have to admit that I don’t presently know what that more effective system would be, but we could start by making sure that citizens everywhere have the right to record videos of anything that police do.

* End prisons-for-profit. I could go on at great length about all the different ways that such prisons are an awful idea. Of course, in trying to change this, we’re going to get some resistance from the prison-for-profit lobby.

* Free all people who have been imprisoned for “crimes” that do not involve violence. In particular, free all whistleblowers. Bastille Day is coming soon. * Free all people who have been imprisoned for possessing, selling, buying, or using drugs. When drugs are a problem at all, they call for medical help, not punishment. * And in particular, marijuana should be completely legal. Pot is less harmful than alcohol. If we legalize pot, some people will use it instead of alcohol, and we will have far fewer traffic fatalities. Of course, in trying to change this, we’re going to get some resistance from the alcohol lobby. *

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Image Source: Pixabay.com

The worst criminals are not being locked up at all. The people who crash economies. The people who start wars. The people who poison our air, our water, our food. I don’t know how we will get organized enough to bring those people to justice. At present, those people are in charge of the justice system. There is also a cultural change that I’m hoping for. Right now, our society classifies people as “good” or “bad.” But I believe there are no bad people; it’s just that some people need healing. It’s true that some of those people need to be kept behind bars until they’re healed, to protect the rest of us. But they don’t need punishing. Punishing doesn’t actually help. The question of economic justice is much more open-ended, and depends entirely on cultural change. Most people in our society believe in fairness, but we have many different conceptions of it. The book MORAL POLITICS, by linguist George Lakoff, lists about 10 different meanings of the word, and there are more. Here are four examples — should your salary be

* proportional to what portion of the workplace you control?

* proportional to how much you produce?

* proportional to how hard you work?

* proportional to what you need?

Those are very different. I don’t know how we’re going to approach agreement on this question, but it would help if we start talking about it. Personally, my own hope is that our society is moving toward greater empathy, greater caring and sharing; if so, then we may move toward the idea that you should get what you need. There is enough for everyone’s need, if we stop giving nearly everything to a handful of very rich people. I’d like to see what John Lennon sang about: “imagine all the people sharing all the world.”

But we won’t get that until all the people want to share the world. Until then, there are some good intermediate systems we could try, and Sweden is about to consider two of them. These two proposals both sound very good to me, and I’m very interested in seeing what happens in Sweden. One proposal is that they will set a maximum of 12 to 1, for the ratio between the salaries of the top and bottom people in a company. Here in the USA right now, the AVERAGE ratio is around 380 to 1, and some companies go much higher than that. If we make salaries closer to equal, that will help in making power closer to equal as well. Another proposal is to give an unconditional guaranteed basic income, a living wage or better, to every citizen. That’s whether they’re employed or not. That’s in addition to whatever other income they might have from a job. In a society with a guaranteed income, you don’t have to take the first job you find. You have time to look for a job you actually like — a job where you feel useful and appreciated and creative. And that means the employers have to treat their workers well, or they won’t have any workers. In summary: Cornel West said, and I agree, that “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I think that our society needs to learn to be a lot more loving.

 

John: In what ways is art affected by our political situation? What sort of artists influence you?

Eric: I’m a consumer of film and music, but not a very thoughtful one, so I don’t know if my answers to this question will contain much insight. Still, I’ll give it a try. In some cases, the politics in a film is fairly obvious. The film “Avatar” brought to life the connections between capitalism, racism, and imperialism; I liked that. And the film “Elysium” raises the question of wealth inequality in our society. Many people have different interpretations of the film “The Matrix.” For me, the sleepers in that film represent the many people in our society who are unaware of imperialism and unaware of the truth about capitalism. My own awakening was just a few years ago, and it was as shocking as Neo’s red pill experience, though not so abrupt. But most fiction films have bad politics — they perpetuate the sleep. They present a Disneyfied view of the world, a view in which our economic system is perfectly acceptable, and there is a clear demarcation between the good guys and the bad guys, and generally the good guys are allied with the US government. Do you ever think about what class of people James Bond is really protecting? There is also an element of wish-fulfillment in these films: Our present political situation makes us feel powerless, and then we identify with some bold hero who brings justice. I have to confess, I sometimes enjoy watching some of those hero-centered films. But really, I’ve been far more influenced by documentary films. Some of my favorites are “Sicko,” “The Corporation,” “Iraq for Sale” (all available at freedocumentaries.org) and “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward” (on Youtube).
As for music — I love the ideas in John Lennon’s songs “Imagine” and “Instant Karma.” David Rovics produces lots of wonderful political songs (soundclick.com/bands/default.cfm?bandID=111310).

But I like some music just for the way it sounds — for instance, I have no idea what the lyrics mean in “The Dog Days Are Over.” What’s wonderful about music is that it doesn’t consume raw materials, it doesn’t pollute anything, it doesn’t make you fat, and it can give you pleasure without being tied to any meaning at all. Some day, when capitalism is gone, and all the world is peaceful and affluent and sustainable, and the robots do all our work for us, then films like “Elysium” will lose their meaning, but we’ll still want to make music. SoundClick artist: David Rovics – “If the great Phil Ochs were to rise from the dead today, he…www.soundclick.com

I know that quite a few people have said they were “awakened” by Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist documentary films, but do documentaries qualify as “art”? Perhaps the first of his films does; Joseph said that it originated from a “performance art” piece.

 

John: What do you think of anarcho-syndacalism and participatory economics?

Eric: I haven’t read much on those, so I’ll have to make my response very brief. I think you’re asking for the mechanics of how a post-revolutionary economy should work. I don’t have a clear vision of that, but I’m more concerned with the attitudes than with the mechanics. The fundamental issue is, does our society want to live together or die separately? I think that if we all agree on cooperating and caring and sharing, then together we can work out the mechanics without much difficulty. Within anarchism, pretty much all I know of the syndicalist emphasis is the novel THE DISPOSSESSED, by Ursula Le Guin. I liked the lifestyle depicted in that story very much. I’ve read just a little of Michael Albert’s writing on parecon. I liked a lot of it — for instance, I agree that markets are bad because they always have externalized costs, and your influence over a policy decision should be proportional to how much you are affected by that policy. But I didn’t care for what Albert called “balanced job complexes.” That’s where everyone has to take a turn at doing the job that no one really wants to do, such as garbage collector. I think we can do better than that. If there is a job that no one wants to do, then maybe that job isn’t really needed. Or maybe that job needs to be restructured in fundamental ways, so that more people want to do it. Maybe it can be made more meaningful, more creative, more appreciated. Or, if we’re still using money, at least give that unwanted job a higher salary. For example, let’s end the concept of “garbage” and landfills. Everything that nature produces is biodegradable, and gets recycled; our chemists and engineers should strive for that level of sustainability. The job of “recycling coordinator” should NOT be just a fancier title for “garbage collector” — it should be a very different job.

 

John: Talk to us a little bit about your views in the current Eco crisis.

Eric: Well, I’m more extreme even than most people in the climate movement, in a couple of ways. First, we are in dire straits, more than they realize. I taught calculus for 35 years, so I understand better than most people how feedback loops cause exponential growth, and what that means. A feedback loop is a process, some of whose consequences are also causes. For instance, warming is killing trees in a variety of ways; so there are fewer trees to suck up excess carbon dioxide; so more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; so warming happens even faster. Another example: Warming melts the polar ice. So the white ice is replaced by dark water. So less sunlight is reflected into outer space. So warming happens even faster. Round and round it goes. It’s not just self-perpetuating — it’s accelerating. And it’s not just trees and ice — we’ve actually triggered over two dozen different feedback loops. You can read about that in Guy McPherson’s blog. His fans sometimes call him “Doctor Doom.” And feedback causes exponential growth, because the bigger it gets, the faster it grows. For those people who know calculus, here is the equation: p’(t) = kp(t) ==> p(t) = p(0)exp(kt). But if you don’t know calculus, don’t worry about it, I’ll tell you in nontechnical terms what the result is. Exponential growth starts off so small that you can’t see it without special equipment, and that makes it very easy to deny. But it’s still there, growing very slowly. Eventually it grows large enough to be visible, and by then it’s picking up speed. Soon after that it’s enormous and it’s growing explosively. Well, global warming entered the visible stage in 2012, with super-hurricane Sandy and some big crop failures. Anyone still denying it has their eyes tightly shut. It’s going to get worse, and it’s going to get worse faster. It’s going to be like falling over a cliff. A lot of climatologists didn’t attach enough importance to feedback. They keep revising their models upward, but climate change keeps outpacing their models anyway. That’s because they keep using linear models. Climatologists keep revising their models upward, but global warming keeps outpacing their models anyway. That’s because a lot of them tried to use linear models, because feedback is rare in our everyday experiences. In the last year or two, climatologists have finally begun switching to the exponential model. And some people are saying people will adapt. It’s true that humans are very adaptable, but the plants and animals we depend on are not nearly so adaptable. They’re going extinct very rapidly, and so the ecosystem is becoming less diverse and more fragile, and at some point it may simply collapse. If it does, we humans will all starve. I don’t think we’re all doomed yet. I think we might still avoid extinction if we phase out fossil fuels very quickly, and plant a trillion trees, and maybe do some other things that we haven’t figured out yet. Maybe we need some new technology, but this time it’s got to be technology that works with nature instead of against her. But I don’t think that those remedies will happen without huge fundamental changes in our socioeconomic system. And that’s the other way that I differ from most of the climate movement. Organizations like 350.org are still petitioning the ruling class. I hope that their efforts will have a side effect of waking up some of the proletariat, but I don’t believe their efforts will have any influence on the ruling class. The ruling class is insane. Perhaps the clearest evidence of that is their attitude about the Arctic. After being frozen for millions of years, the Arctic is now melting very rapidly, bringing us closer to extinction. We should react by quickly phasing out fossil fuels. But instead our ruling class says, “oh goody, now it will be so much easier to extract fossil fuels from the Arctic!” They’re going to make lots of money, but on what planet will they spend it? In general, the reason that our ecosystem is dying is because the commons has been privatized, plundered, and carelessly poisoned. It’s externalized cost, inevitable in a market economy. If the world had a single secret ruler, the Chairman of the Illuminati, then he’d say to himself “I own this planet, so I’d better not destroy it.” But the ecosystem is being destroyed, so evidently we don’t have a single secret ruler. Instead we are ruled by a few thousand very rich people, all compelled by the market to compete against each other in offering quick profits to investors, which means ignoring the future. If any of them walks away from the system, he’ll instantly be replaced by others. The only way to fix this mess is to get everyone on board at the same time. That’s a huge cultural change.

 

John: What would you describe as your campaign strategy?

Eric: I used to believe that our newspapers and television news programs actually did their job, and told the people what is going on. I started wising up in 2008, when Dennis Kucinich was excluded from the televised debates. It became more evident to me in 2010 when I got on the ballot for the US House of Representatives, and I was never interviewed or even mentioned by any newspaper. When have we ever had a poor person elected to any high office? But I refuse to surrender to cynicism. I believe the truth should be free, and it will be if the people make it so, and so I’m not relying on money — I’m relying on the people. I’m not accepting any campaign donations from anyone. My only chance of getting elected is if lots of people tell other people about my cheap campaign video. There’s an irony in this: That video will go viral only if people like the ideas in the video. But the video promotes direct democracy. If our society moves toward direct democracy, then representative government will become a lot less powerful. In particular, senators will become less powerful. And that’s the only way I can become a senator. But that’s fine with me.

 

John: You mention Zen and Christianity in one of your other videos. How do you see this relating to anarchism? In your estimation, was Jesus a radical?

Eric: Jesus hung around with poor people, and with other people who didn’t have much social status, and he advocated sharing and caring. So his position was contrary to the system of hierarchical authority and power, so that makes him a radical and an anarchist. Authoritarians claim him for their own, but I guess they haven’t really thought about it much. Well, that goes with the territory of being authoritarian. All of politics is motivated by our conception of morality. George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt have both written extensively about that. But we all have different notions of morality. For instance, in his book “Moral Politics,” Lakoff lists ten different concepts of fairness. Here in the USA, most people see their morality connected with their religion, and most people call themselves Christians, though they have many different understandings of what that means. They won’t give up Christianity, but they might change how they understand Christianity. My own view is that authoritarianism hasn’t worked, and so we’re going to have to move away from the idea of Jesus the King, and toward Jesus the Teacher. And what did he teach? He taught that people should share and care. As for Zen Buddhism, well, people have different understandings of what that means, too. The main point I wanted to make is that Buddha cautioned us against dichotomies, particularly the dichotomy between me and not-me; he said much of that dichotomy is illusion. For instance, the people of Occupy Wall Street were fond of saying “we are the 99%.” But it’s a mistake to think that the 99% really is separate from the 1%. If we lock up the plutocrats for their crimes but we don’t change our culture, that culture will quickly generate a new plutocracy. That culture is inside all of us, even inside you and me. It’s in the so-called “American dream,” our middle-class use of private property. You know, you keep your stuff in your house, and I keep my stuff in my house, and we see our lives as separate, and that’s where plutocracy starts. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to lock up the plutocrats, to protect the rest of us. But I want to heal them, not punish them. And healing them will take the same insights as healing our culture; they’re simply the extreme manifestation of that culture. We need to heal all of us. We need to understand ourselves and each other better.

 

John: What do you think of the recent win for the socialist in Seattle? And her recent remarks about workers seizing means of production?

Eric: I’m pleased by Sawant’s victory, of course, but I think it’s too soon to tell whether this has any wider significance. Seattle may be an outlier. And she was only elected to a local office. More interesting is the fact that Bernie Sanders is considering running for president, but there too it’s too soon to tell. [Author’s note: Not any more!]

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