I’ve been investigating power my entire career.
I’ve reported for VICE, The Guardian, The Independent, and numerous other publications — including my own crowdfunded investigative journalism platform INSURGE— on the systems that enable rapacious power.
I’ve studied how these systems work to compound and consolidate a framework of human activity that is gradually destroying planetary life support systems.
And after over a decade and a half of this work, I’ve moved into an effort to build real alternatives to the status quo, like PRESSCOIN, a new cryptocurrency infrastructure for independent journalism and positive action.
Yet as I’m building these projects, I’ve come to a core realization, something that is perhaps familiar to some of us, but the reality of which is so deep-rooted and insidious, that I’m only seeing it, truly seeing it, right now.
And that realization is this: that the biggest opposition to the transformational change we need on the planet comes not from among the sources of power I traditionally investigate; not simply from the incumbency; not from the ‘Deep State’, ‘Big Oil’, ‘Financial Elites’, or other extractive industries; but from those amongst us who shout the clarion call for Change, who carry the banners of Resistance, who proudly wear the badges of Progress.
Earlier in November, I got a press release about a new project launched by liberal media exemplar Huffington Post, in partnership with MIT’s Presencing Institute, on “transforming capitalism”. The project announced that HuffPo would provide a radical journalism hub exploring ways to redesign the economy, looking into concepts like “circular economy” and other issues, while doing “online to offline” movement building to facilitate real action in relation to these solutions.
It sounded super-exciting.
But as I read on, I experienced a sinking feeling.
The new HuffPo-MIT project is headed up by Dr Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and co-founder of MIT’s Presencing Institute. Dr. Scharmer is a management guru who has written extensively on theories and practice relating to organisational change and leadership.
And despite some positives, Dr. Scharmer’s grasp of the issues is confused, to say the least.
Sanitizing neoliberal deregulatory insanity
Scharmer rightly recognizes that there is a fundamental lack of joined up thinking in the approach to the multiple crises facing the planet. He calls for a more integrated response, and sets out his diagnosis of the problem in the destruction wrought by early phases of capitalism.
He commendably acknowledges the entrenched limits of conventional economic thinking, with its dependence on “a very small number of economic theorists and frameworks.”
He asks pointedly, “… despite the millions of words devoted to [the economic crisis] by ‘experts’ on talk shows and in publications, what do we really know about its root causes?”
This all sounds compelling, until his ‘solution’: a shift to what he calls ‘Capitalism 3.0’, which he defines magically as “a shift of awareness that extends the natural self-interest of the players to the entire ecosystem.”
Amazingly, Dr. Scharmer doesn’t really offer a definition of capitalism that has anything remotely to do with economics, finance, relations of production or anything.
Capitalism, he says, has already been ‘evolving’ — and improving — from being solely ego-centric and growth oriented, resulting in massive social and environmental costs, toward a more stakeholder-oriented system.
Scharmer conceives of this ‘evolution’ as being “based on a different state of awareness among its players” — consciousness evolution, he believes, is driving capitalism’s evolution.
Today’s capitalism, Capitalism 2.0, he writes — seemingly with a straight face — is “more regulated” than before. It has wondrous new social security systems, labour unions, environmental standards, much of which are supported by the activities of hundreds of thousands of NGOs. As such, he declares that “the main focus of capitalism 2.0 is on redistribution in order to sustain society as a whole.”
This, supposedly, is the defining nature of the current age of capitalism.
In one fell swoop, Scharmer manages to obscure what is really going on.
It’s widely recognized that the defining feature of today’s extreme form of neoliberal capitalism is all about imposing grand-scale financial market deregulation, designed to shift power over economic policy from the public to the private sector, from the government to an unaccountable financial elite. This is the same ideology which has exponentially accelerated the debt and financial volatility we now see in the global economy.
And it is precisely this rampaging expansion of unregulated neoliberal globalization, which has led to the steady dismantlement of state-led regulatory apparatuses established between the 1940s and 70s. That, in turn, has generated an army of largely impotent NGOs campaigning desperately, usually on deaf ears, to restrain this increasingly predatory financial system.
Those civil society movements, then, emerged not as a benevolent outpouring of the existing capitalist system — representing an expansion of its overall consciousness — but out of conflict with the prevailing system: struggle between those who monopolize access to resources, and those dispossessed from that access.
This was not some sort of teleological process of ‘consciousness’ evolution.
And yet, Scharmer himself concedes that the friendlier ‘capitalism 2.0’ “does not appear to be working to mitigate the current global externalities”. Within his logic, the actual reasons for this appear unfathomable.
That is why, under Scharmer’s ‘capitalism 2.0’, global inequalities have widened, and the number of people living under $5 a day — a more realistic poverty line than the World Bank’s $1.90 — has dramatically increased. Today, 4.3 billion people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, live on less than $5 a day.
That is why, what is actually happening is that state-failures, extremist nationalism, Islamist terrorism and other phenomena are being driven by a convergence of economic and ecological crises, which are intensifying within a broken economic model that is hell-bent on accelerating extraction at any human, social or environmental cost.
Work on your ego, and the corporate world will obediently follow
Perusing Scharmer’s work, it becomes painfully clear that he is ill-equipped to engage with the interconnected complexity of this systemic crisis.
Scharmer’s basic limitation is his starting point: organizational change theory. He remarks that it is standard practice for leadership teams in global companies to do ‘inner change work’ to help shift an individual’s awareness “from an ego-system to an extended stakeholder situation or, in some cases, to the larger ecosystem”.
Neoclassical economists, he says, do not acknowledge how changes in “human awareness and consciousness” can “influence human behaviour”. And so he concludes that “the biggest blind spot in economic theory today [is] consciousness— that is, the structure of human awareness and attention that a community of actors develops when they go on a journey of transformational change.”
So what’s the solution? Don’t worry about the economics: let’s have Scharmer and his crack team lead the employees of all the giant corporates currently extracting from the planet at break-neck pace, and have them go through mind-expanding “journeys of transformational change” — this will change their behaviour, and the behaviour of their companies, and transform capitalism into a juggernaut of collective, orgasmic altruism.
This, basically, is what’s going on at the MIT Presencing Institute.
Can we get real here, please? The stark truth is that Scharmer is casting a net of beauty on a far more mundane process of corporate cultural institutional conditioning: improving the productivity of workers.
It doesn’t really matter what company employees think they are experiencing. For the most part, their “transformational change” is designed to condition the individual to “embrace the larger forces of change” that constitute the narrow profit-maximizing imperatives of the company itself. The end result is not a transformation of how these companies operate in the world, but instead, the cultural conditioning of employees into the belief that submerging themselves in the corporate values and vision of their employers is, indeed, part of a ‘transformative’ process.
Inside the wondrous ‘ego-to-eco’ transformation of Google
A quick glance at some of the corporations that Scharmer has run leadership and innovation programs for illustrates the problem: firms like Alibaba, Daimler, Fujitsu, Google, and PriceWaterhouse. Yet these companies do not exhibit meaningful processes of transformational change — in fact, we see the opposite.
Let’s take Google, one of Otto Scharmer’s transformational change clients.
What has Scharmer’s innovation and leadership program done to transform Google’s structural entanglement with the US military-industrial complex? What has it done, for that matter, to transform anything meaningfully at Google?
We might refer to Google’s oft-stated declarations of reducing its carbon footprint to zero while transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2018.
Yet according to Lux Research, Google uses an obsolete tool to calculate its data center emissions from purchasing electricity from the power grid. Consequently, in four out of seven data centers, Google underestimates its dependence on coal by 30 percent or more.
And then there is Google’s primary technique for reducing its footprint to zero: buying carbon offsets — that is, investing in outsider green energy projects, allowing Google to claim the equivalent in ‘emissions reductions’ on its own books. Although their actual real-world emissions have not reduced at all.
While Google has been trumpeting its zero carbon trajectory — receiving accolades from Greenpeace along the way — its gross carbon emissions have actually increased.
Over the last half decade alone, Google’s gross carbon emissions have more than doubled.
In 2011, Google recorded its gross CO2 emissions at 1,677,423 metric tons.
In 2012, the company reported a 9% drop in its gross emissions to 1.5 metric tons. Yet even here, the drop was achieved not by a real material drop in emissions, but by factoring in deductions from Google’s power purchase agreements (PPA). So the real gross emissions figure for that year, calculated in the same way the 2011 figures were calculated, was 2,024,444 metric tons.
By 2016, Google’s gross carbon emissions had grown to 2.9 million metric tons according to the company’s 2017 progress report.
The net result?
Google’s actual carbon footprint is growing exponentially. Yet environmental certifications, such as that produced by Greenpeace, are being used to sanitize and legitimize this growth.
Google now claims that “because of our renewable energy and carbon offset programs, our net operational carbon emissions were zero. Because of our emissions-reduction efforts, our carbon intensity has steadily decreased even as our company has grown and our energy use has correspondingly increased.”
All this is true, but it is ultimately a clever carbon accounting trick that allows Google’s real-world carbon emissions to continue accelerating. Which is why, despite all this self-congratulatory nonsense about the ‘greening’ of the internet, our current global emissions trajectory is so bad it could end up heading to an uninhabitable 8C planet by end of century.
It is no surprise, then, that Google is simultaneously funding climate deniers. Google hosted a fundraiser for notorious climate-denying Senator James Inhofe; donated $50,000 for a fundraising dinner for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an ultra-conservative outfit that attempts to sue climate scientists for fraud; and is a member of the US Chamber of Commerce, which consistently lobbies to block action on climate change and promotes fossil fuels.
But it’s all okay, because Google got an ‘A’ certification from Greenpeace.
In other words, such sustainability metrics might be good for business; but for the planet, they are meaningless.
Their application isn’t slowing the pace of fossil fuel extraction — they are accelerating extraction under the cover of saving the climate.
Stenographic liberal ‘journalism’
And thus, with the help of misleading number crunching, an exponentially increasing carbon footprint is misreported as a decreasing carbon footprint.
Unfortunately, you won’t find any dissecting of Google’s grand claims from the mainstream liberal press. Instead, Huffington Post — Otto Scharmer’s media partner of choice to ‘transform capitalism’ — bravely reported Google’s acclaimed clean carbon footprint trajectory without any investigation of the facts.
Thus, HuffPo — along with a host of liberal media outlets like The Guardian whose stenographic reporting conveniently erases the reality of Google’s increasing carbon emissions — obfuscates the real systemic causes of the Crisis of Civilization.
Stultifying liberal ‘philanthropy’
The main funders for the HuffPo-MIT project are a Geneva-based foundation, Partners for a New Economy, and an Atlanta-based foundation, the Kendeda Fund.
Both foundations are important players on the spectrum of liberal philanthropy. They are part of a whole network of such foundations.
In March 2017, for instance, I’d been invited to Boston by the director of Partners for a New Economy to do a keynote speech on the future of philanthropy for the Biodiversity Funders Group (formerly, the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity).
This is the premier forum of philanthropic foundations focused on environmental issues, comprising 67 organisations including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and many others.
What’s clear is that these philanthropic foundations have no real idea what’s actually wrong with the existing system, and therefore no clue as to what they should be funding. So they end up funding self-soothing, self-serving ideological nonsense that merely distracts from real solutions.
Layer upon layer of self-soothing delusion
And so we come full circle.
This is the interlocking network of liberal progressive do-gooding that is continuing to escalate the destruction of the planet.
All these years I’d been exposing and investigating the system of extraction in its various manifestations — mass surveillance, covert operations, military invasions, fossil fuel extraction, rampant debt-acceleration.
And yet I have begun to see that the real enemy, the real forces preventing us from actually responding to this system meaningfully, was something entirely different. The real enemy to transformation is among the harbingers of change themselves.
The real enemy is amongst ourselves.
In this liberal progressive world of philanthropists, foundations, trusts, charities, NGOs, platforms, outlets and beyond, a great deal of activity, though dressed up in the language of ‘change’, is not authentic. This language conveniently disguises the fact that actors in this space are still playing the extraction game. They appropriate the discourse of ‘systemic transformation’, and use it to sanitize and legitimize the very system of extraction that they are professing to transform. And they believe that their way is the only way.
Layer upon layer of self-soothing delusion serves to mask and intensify what are in fact behaviors that support extraction. They appear benign, and there are all sorts of rationalizations, excuses and explanations for their behavior: ideological indoctrination, structural constraints, social conditioning, psychological ailments, or simple incompetence.
But it doesn’t matter. Because the current configuration of liberal progressive myopia constitutes the most dangerous obstacle to saving people and planet that currently exists. It is standing in the way of real alternatives, real solutions. It is co-opting the emergence of genuine possibilities, ideas, movements and ventures with transformative potential, and absorbing them within the framework of accelerated extraction.
The central insight here is that liberal progressive discourse, right now, is precisely the ideology by which the system of extraction is accelerating and consolidating. By positioning themselves as transformers of the system, the liberal progressive mirage is in fact legitimizing and extending the system through the language of ‘change’.
The resistance is not failing. The resistance is sowing the confusion by which the extraction juggernaut intensifies. Welcome to the McResistance.
I’m not saying that we don’t need to look into ourselves and our consciousness. But what’s clear is that until we first let go of the delusions we’re clinging to, the ideological polarization that allows us to feel comfortable in a form of fake resistance that amounts merely to conforming to the pressures of business-as-usual, we will fail to address the real structures — and that is exactly what the system of extraction expects. That is exactly the function that the liberal progressive delusion is dutifully fulfilling. It’s time to break out of that delusion, without compromise.