Correcting the Poor: The Civilizing Impulses of Homo Corporatus and Private Charities*

This is the next post in my series on Neoliberalism and Charity. Part 1 is posted here and at New Economic Perspectives.


Should anyone—the state or any other source–have an obligation to interfere with you in order bring your best, flourishing, self about?

Certainly, this is the debate that philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin and libertarians such as Robert Nozick have engaged in heartily, with a view to socialist frameworks that redistribute resources in order to produce certain kinds of outcomes. Should the state impose certain ideals and goals upon you, and why? There are certainly examples of very good certain state-imposed expectations such as seatbelts or prohibitions against drunk driving, as well as terrible examples, such as state-imposed prohibitions on certain kinds of drugs.

In a neoliberal era, the corollary to above question is whether non-state organizations should have the ability to interfere with you in order to bring about your best, flourishing, self?

This question emerges in the wake of the heralded contrition of Sam Polk, as expressed in a New York Times opinion piece, where he offered a self-congratulatory description of his decision to give up being a Wall Street trader and “money addict,” and instead to form a charity that awards “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms.”

Polk’s charity, Groceryships, on its face appears to be a thoughtful idea.  Indeed, the basic Groceryship is a “scholarship for groceries.”

 Soon a simple one emerged: what if we bought groceries for a family for six months. I imagined a single mom, working overtime to try to put food on her table, and falling short. We wanted to give that mom some breathing room, and her kid some healthy food in the process.

The language of Groceryships is certainly neutral, but tells a story that reveals a number of assumptions about poor folks. In his tale about how Groceryships started, Polk gives a narrative about how he and his physician wife learned about eating better. And how they might be healthier if they ate better (apparently, this was previously unknown to them).  So they got to work, switching to whole foods, eliminating processed and fatty foods. Though they suffered “withdrawal” from their addiction to unhealthy foods, they were able to kick their habit. (addiction seems to be the lens by which Polk understands many phenomena).

We started buying tons of vegetables and whole grains, and cut down on fatty meats, sugar, and processed foods. It was hard. Very hard. Kirsten and I both experienced what we can only describe as withdrawal symptoms—nightmares, panicky feelings, irritability.

After a few weeks those symptoms faded. We found we enjoyed eating healthy and especially how good we felt. We no longer had to battle ourselves about whether to eat another Cheetos, or felt shame about eating too much cake. That everyday battle-stress just faded away. We ate at mealtimes, snacked when hungry, and felt great. After three months, Kirsten got her cholesterol levels tested. They’d been cut in half. She went off Lipitor.

Polk and his spouse were so impressed with the results that they wanted to share their newfound knowledge and to give back to society at the same time.

A few months later, we watched A Place At The Table (sic), a documentary focused on the staggering numbers of Americans, especially children, facing food insecurity. Each day 50 million people in this country (including one in four children) go hungry.

Growing up, my parents struggled, living paycheck to paycheck. But it never got so bad that food wasn’t on the table. Kirsten and I were horrified that so many people—kids!—were hungry. We were especially horrified that many of these kids lived down the street from us. Los Angeles is a segregated city. It’s easy to forget that just a few miles away people were starving.

I guess the truth is that we had known that; we’d just never taken ownership of our responsibility to do something about it. That day, we decided to help.

Polk recognizes the correlation between poverty and hunger, but he frames this correlation in the language of “choice” and options:

Hunger in America looks strange; there is a definite correlation between food insecurity and obesity. You’d think that people who can’t afford food would be rail thin, but it’s often the opposite. People that struggle to make ends meet tend to opt for the cheapest calories, processed/fast food. They often live in Food Deserts, areas where nutritious produce is simply not available. (Emphasis mine)

Perhaps the implied causation was inadvertent. Perhaps Polk recognizes that such “opting” is the result of being short of cash. In which case, the solution would be to distribute sufficient money to buy healthier food. And certainly, that seems to have been the initial idea, but Polk frames the solution in these terms:

…we realized that mom could also use some nutrition education and group support. We remembered how difficult quitting sugar and processed/fast food was for us, and we realized that a structure of support would be helpful, necessary.

It suggests helpfully, liberally, perhaps due to no fault of their own, that poor moms don’t know much about nutrition.  So, families who receive a “Groceryship” will be supported not only financially, but medically, educationally, and emotionally. Support typically means resources are available to help one advance towards a goal, but not mandated. By contrast, mandatory resources are not forms of support, but a form of discipline: if you must avail yourself of a resource, then you are not supported, rather you are compelled.

Groceryship awards are not merely the distribution of groceries with the “option” of attending nutrition classes; rather the classes are required. “Poor moms” who apply for the meritorious award must swear their allegiance and commitment to attending nutrition classes, “weekly meetings” and to do weekly homework. It’s as if they were young, naïve, subservient children.

Indeed, Polk acknowledges that his program is different from “but can be used in conjunction with SNAP (food stamps) which provides financial to support to struggling families (link not in original),

 but doesn’t insist the money be spent on healthful foods, or teach families how to prepare and shop for those healthy foods.” (emphasis mine)

In that simple sentence, Polk reveals more of his (limited) worldview: the state “does not insist that the money be spent on healthful foods.”

Had Polk searched, he would have found that, if anything, food stamps severely constrain the purchase of healthy foods. According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, the maximum monthly budget for a family of 4 (i.e. those who have no other income) on food stamps is $632.

That boils down to $5.64 per person per day. Whole Foods, expensive as it is, accepts food stamps; there are multiple sites where families have accepted the “Thrifty Whole Foods” challenge to shop for whole foods on a food stamp budget. I’ll let them tell their stories—many of which have various helpful hints about how to shop and cook on a limited budget.

In short: it is possible to cook healthy foods on a severely restricted budget. But healthy foods require adequate kitchen facilities to process and cook them.  Poor families, who can presumably afford housing that is cheap (cheap because landlords don’t make repairs to provide decent stoves, rat- and cockroach-proof storage, adequate refrigerators needed to store fresh foods), often do not have those facilities, therefore tenants are forced to choose processed, sealable, storable foods.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, time (or more its scarcity) becomes a severe constraint if a “poor mom” is also working or doesn’t have access to child-care so that she can schlep to her Whole Foods easily/quickly, and also process said healthy foods. The issue of access to transportation that allows her to get to her Whole Foods will also, chances are, constrain her free cooking time further.  But all of these constraints raise another urgent issue: namely the assumption that someone who is both cash- and time-poor is expected to cook whole foods after long, difficult, days. How many working professionals are expected to cook full, healthy meals after a full day of work?

Aside from the sheer difficulty of spending money on “healthful foods,” there is also the issue of why any state should impose a certain standard on those who are dependent upon public monies for survival, when it does not impose the same expectations on the rest of its citizens.  It calls to mind Isaiah Berlin’s discussion of positive liberty.

For Berlin, positive liberty–defined as the ability to “be my own master,”[1] is least harmful when I am able to decide how to live my own life, to make my own decisions, rather than to have to depend upon external forces. As a counterpart to negative liberty, namely that where I would be protected from being harmed by others and the state, positive liberty allows me to find a way to flourish, to decide how I want to live.  In this idea, Berlin marks an idea that re-emerges a decade later in Hannah Arendt. Arendt criticizes the “Social,” that dimension of society that is subsumed by the economy, where one’s acts are instrumental—where one works in order to make a living.[2]

For Arendt, this idea undermines our very humanness. It coerces us into thinking only about life, about living, rather than acting, understood as great words and great deeds. The economy, with its inducement to consume, to work in order to live and consume—was anathema to Arendt. Arendt was critical of the notion that one’s goals must have utility. Being healthy is exemplifies this idea: Health has become naturalized as an end in itself, but in fact is about usefulness: to be less of a drain on society, to be aesthetically pleasing, to appear successful.

To be fair, Arendt’s is precisely not a socialist ideal, where one’s needs are met through a communal society, where one hunts, fishes, reads, in the model of a balanced life. Nevertheless, Arendt’s fear comports with Berlin’s, who skeptically asks:

“What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

To find a way to flourish without being forced to live out another’s expectations for you—this was both Arendt’s and Berlin’s concern. This question was a challenge to the authoritarian state whose creeping influence, in their experiences, had been detrimental, to say the least.

But the creeping state is not the issue at stake with regard to Sam Polk and Groceryships. Rather, the issue of state-imposed expectations has been derailed with the forceful emphasis on civil society as the arena by which to solve various social and economic problems.

Civil society, a term that G.W.F. Hegel used to indicate that arena where the public and private meet, has a distinctly different sense today. Whereas Hegel circumscribed civil society as that where the individual and the state can interact through intermediate organizations such as guilds, or unions, today’s civil society is that arena where the state has dialed back its obligations in order to allow private organizations and individuals to pick up the slack.

Polk’s charity, like that of many others (such as Teach for America, charter schools, Kiva) that have sprung up in the last several decades, reflects the success of a paradigm that has emerged over the last 3 decades. This paradigm endorses private, faith-based, or “non-profit” charities as the foundation of civil society (defined as a non-government sector). These organizations, endorsed by every U.S. President since Ronald Reagan, have facilitated the evacuation of a public safety net—an evacuation that goes hand in hand with the deregulation of the banking industry, and the steady erosion of unions, public pensions, and labor protections.

Certainly, it is unreasonable to expect that the state can or will address all levels of public need. But private non-governmental charities have fewer Congressional or procedural inhibitions  what they may demand of the constituents that they claim to want to help, such as the ability to impose certain behavioral features.

Groceryships imposes many strings for the mere flaw of being poor.  According to the rules of applying for a Groceryship, being poor apparently means one chooses to eat unhealthily. Being poor apparently means that one is “addicted” to fast foods and sugar (this isn’t such a far-fetched idea for Polk, who frames his past actions in finance as the result of an “an addiction” to wealth).

Thus, to be eligible for a Groceryship, poor moms can’t have excessively large families (“no more than 3 children”), and be only moderately poor. And they “must” need/want/be eager/be motivated/be ready to adopt a healthy lifestyle, to want to be healthy, to be open to new ideas. See here.

Groceryships’ expectations fit into the neoliberal paradigm that I discussed in another piece, namely that poor people, more so than the non-poor, have an obligation to be moral, aesthetically reasonable, healthy, happy, and eager about it.

The most vulnerable—or as I say elsewhere, those who are perceived to be unruly—are seen as scary, dangerous, frightful because they are seen as “failures” due to their personal characters rather than through their circumstances: Why are they poor? Why don’t they eat better? Why are they fat? Why are they rude? Why are they noisy and loud?

If the poor just worked harder, smoked less, didn’t do drugs, shunned McDonald’s and cooked more, then they too could be as aesthetically pleasing—and perhaps as successful and happy as Sam Polk and his spouse.  This is one of the pernicious implications of a neoliberal economic model: the poor are expected to fulfill the aesthetic and moral expectations of the upper-class of what it means to live “a good life,” to flourish. And they are subject to those who are precisely in a position to be able to dictate the life goals for those who are more vulnerable.

Being poor means that if one wants to have one’s poverty relieved slightly or temporarily (remember, the Groceryship is for 6 months, after which one still remains poor), one is at the mercy of the ex-money addict Sam Polk and his neoliberal buddies, who are cheered for “helping the poor.”

Let’s remember that Polk’s money-addiction days were part of a milieu—a group of traders/financiers/bankers who were engaging in a set of practices that were both induced and condoned by state power and general pre-financial crisis societal approval. That is to say, his role in JP Morgan Chase, or other financial corporations who contributed heavily to the banking crisis (including mortgage foreclosures on the working class and minority populations) was seen as a positive contribution, until around 2008/9. Moreover, the state—both Congress and the Executive Branch–continues to condone it through (pro-banking) legislation that allowed CEOs to receive large bonuses in spite of their roles, or through supposedly punitive legislation that slapped banks lightly on their wrists, and paid out less than $2000 per person to those who lost their homes over a three year period. Moreover, this settlement changed nothing in the relationship between the borrower and loan servicing company.

By framing Polk’s actions within an individualizing framework (be it therapeutic or moral conscience), and without locating them in a larger political/cultural structure, this frame precisely engenders the kind of glorification that is showered upon Polk, by Jacqueline Novogratz and many others such as Rachel Cook, Jessica Jackley…and the Nobel Peace Prize winning innovator of microfinance himself, Mohammed Yunus, who are engaged in similar, if not identical, shifts.

What Polk et al. appear to be doing here is making a move from a “corporate free market” to a “non-profit free market,” which in no way challenges the idea that poverty and wealth are exclusively about individual choices. Rather, Polk’s (and Novogratz and Yunus) shifts still emphasize the ideology and primacy of the “free market,” coupled with a rhetorical emphasis on hard work, along with individual moral, personal, social accountability for darker or non-American population.  In Yunus’ case, micro-lending is tested in Bangladesh; for Novogratz, it’s taken to East Africa, India, Pakistan and Ghana, and for Polk, it’s applied to black and Latino populations of Southern California.

But there is another aspect of this that is also troublesome: the self-satisfaction experienced by these “free market successes” who reclaim their moral sensibilities through the act of walking away after making millions in profits and then turning to “help the poor” on their terms. They are cheered for their charity work (in an individualist frame) without being asked about their participation in a financially corrupt, morally bankrupt “free market” system that allowed these individuals to “flourish” at the expense of millions of individuals who are unable to access the free market system because they don’t have the connections or “moral luck” to have been born in the right place at the right time.  As economist Dean Baker clarifies in his book, The Conservative Nanny State, there is nothing “free” about the free market: it is rigged to benefit those who already have at the expense of those who don’t.

As well: this kind of neoliberal framework ensures that the ruling class will shape the poor, by forcing them to behave, reshape themselves through these seemingly neutral, or generous, charities in Sam Polk et al.’s own ill-informed visions of what it means to be a successful citizen.

This, then, is an expression of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics: those who are induced to cultivate themselves in the image of the ruling class are those who are the most vulnerable—subject to the whims and dictates of the wealthy and the powerful.  This is the success of the neoliberal paradigm: it renders to Homo Corporatus (or Homo Wall Streetus) the freedom and flexibility to shape the actions and character of the most vulnerable to those who have the money, the power, and the favor of the state; simultaneous Homo Corporatus’ contributions, the results of plunder and the corporate nanny state—are read as an individual/private acts of generosity to help those who are most needy, those were rendered needy through institutional/governmental/financial practices.

[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 131. In Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford U Press: 1969.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, ch. 6. University of Chicago Press, 1958.

*Updated version. Thanks to Robin James, Janine Jones, and Robert Prasch for their helpful comments.


The Interest-Divergence Dilemma Between the Tech Companies and the NSA*

The intensity of the semester has precluded me from writing much on the blog over the last few months. But as the term ends and the winter session begins, I hope to post more frequently here. This post marks the beginning of that aspiration.


As philosopher Robin James has insightfully pointed out last week, “privacy is a red herring,” that is, it is not a relevant consideration in the debate over surveillance and government power. Rather, the real issue is the balance between “security and freedom,” as Obama and DNI Director James Clapper repeat ad nauseum the trite pro-surveillance mantra. Balance, according to James, can be considered either as “the average of two extremes” or it “could mean a dynamically-adjusting continuum (the kind of balancing done, for example, by an audio equalizer or an electrical resistor).” She argues that the discussion over balance is about the latter—how to continually fine-tune the precise resting place between security and freedom.

James’ point is well taken. One of yesterday’s major stories seems to confirm the success of neoliberalism in precisely this vein: Eight top tech companies published an open letter to the POTUS, in which they urge him to limit the state’s surveillance activities because the “balance has tipped.” It’s not clear what the balance is, though here is how they describe it in their letter:

The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.

Prima facie, the tech companies are concerned about the encroachment upon individual freedoms, such as privacy.  Coincidentally, such “tipping” dovetails with profit losses for these companies, since as customers continue to hear about how these corporations have turned over supposedly private information to the government (sometimes making even more profit in the mix), they may challenge them by shutting down their Facebook, LinkedIn, and Yahoo accounts (which in turn induces further lost revenue from advertisers). They may engage in some other form of resistance (as encouraged through a neoliberal environment—of relocating their money (and potential corporate profits elsewhere), such as by shifting to non-profit tech organizations or open-source browsers, software, etc. whose primary mission is to protect user privacy. As such, the tech companies’ own “balance” of interests–located between complying with government requests and profiting by (falsely) claiming to protect their customers’ privacy for profit–also tips: in favor of the state.

Elsewhere in their (advertising) campaign to reform government surveillance, they suggest five “principles.” This is the first one:

Governments should codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data that balance their need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the Internet. In addition, governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.

So, the “balance” that the tech companies suggest is a balance between the government’s “need for data,” “users’ reasonably privacy interests” and “impact on trust in the Internet.”

Funny how the “principle” is rather an exercise in pragmatism: The tech companies don’t disagree that the state “needs” private information. They just insist that the state restrict its demands to that information that falls outside of “users’ reasonably privacy interest.” Presumably, “we” would all be okay if the NSA just collected the data of only those who might be terrorists and threatening American security interests.

Still, on this “principle,” I wonder how the US would distinguish between terrorists and reasonable privacy unless they collected everyone’s data. Doesn’t that bring us full circle back to the premise of all-encompassing surveillance?

I would add that, as the tech letter shows, while the language they resort to is the time-honored liberal discourse between security and freedom, in fact the balance they care about is the balance between corporate profits, government power, and customer complacence. It is not necessarily a problem to tip over from freedom to security, as long as government surveillance doesn’t begin to cause unrest among their customers such that they lose their profit machine.

Presumably “being sensible means not undermining “trust in the Internet,” which makes total sense, when your business profits depend on your customers’ trust in the Internet. So the appeal from the tech companies to the USG, in essence, is to continue their collaboration with the corporations to mine and acquire as much data as possible, but to be less obtrusive, less extreme, less confrontational about it. One way to do so, is to re-institute strict controls on which persons are the focus of data collection.

This is the quintessential neoliberal environment: corporations and the government converge to strip the focus away from rights so as to have better control over individuals. But at the moment that corporate profit is threatened, corporations no longer act in complete concert with the state, but rather each “institution” (the government and corporations) battle each other for control over consumers/citizens.

I think there’s a different (or another) red herring, to borrow from James: It is the red herring of “interests.” In other words, the discourse of interests distracts the “public” conversation from naming several realities (i.e. this is what is NOT printed as part of the official record, as in Reuters or the NYT; it doesn’t mean that many of us don’t see it).

1) It distracts us from being able to identify the struggle over the limits of surveillance as being about the limits of corporate power versus the state’s power and not, as its typically articulated, to protect persons/subjects/consumers/citizens.

2) This struggle is better understood as that between corporate interests for profit and (managing its customers’ behaviors for that purpose) v. government interests to acquire all information as a mode of securing control over subjects and companies.

In other words, the struggle between the tech companies and the government is over managing individual actions en masse, and by extension, its dialectical counterpart: consumers’/subjects’ resistance to being managed.

And this battle reflects the red herring of interests: The discourse of “interests” saturates the public conversation, such that privacy is no longer a relevant question. In fact, the prime concern that governs state actions is “its” own interests. This makes more sense if we revert to the assumption that the state’s interest is in its own survival, not that of its subjects/citizens. The corporations have their own interests in mind is obvious, but their interests are profits as extracted through the control/management of consumers’ actions (such as through Google’s and Facebook’s datacollection methods, which in turn are enhanced by targeting personalized ads at each user, which in turn extracts more information about user behavior.

The issue at stake is not about principles, or ethics, or privacy per se. Rather, the real concern—from the perspective of the tech companies is their profits being lost. That is the tipping point that shifts the balance away from profit in the service of overwhelming government desire to know everything that’s going on.  That interest was okay, so long as the public (customers) didn’t know (or didn’t focus so much on) the fact that their information was being handed over in volume by the tech companies. But when that knowledge threatens to drive away their customer base, then the “balance” qua fine-tuning has been lost.

I think James is right when she questions the relevance of privacy: she and I don’t disagree per se. But my emphasis on “interests” emerges by shifting the analytic:  The language of “interest” distracts us from the question of privacy. In part, this is because the language of privacy reflects an old liberal discourse of principles in relation to the limits of state power. But the discourse of neoliberalism concentrates on interests rather than rights or principles per se.

As such, the political framework changes from individual security to question of “what’s in my interest?” That’s why the common articulation of “disinterest” takes on so much resonance: But if I’m not doing anything wrong, then why should I care?”

The discourse of “interests” has begun to hegemonize the shape of public concerns. Because the language of interests is so commonplace, very few raised an eyebrow when the state appropriates the same language to explain its actions. For example, the US military announced this past weekend that it will no longer communicate information about Guantanamo detainees who are on hunger strike.

Officials have determined that it is no longer in their interest to publicly disclose the information, said Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, a spokesman for the military’s Joint Task Force Guantanamo.

Filostrat has reported that is more important to worry about the welfare of GiTMO guards (sympathy for whom had to have been enhanced by 60 Minutes’ report inside Camp Delta, which consisted of prisoners yelling, and reports of feces being flung at the guards, among other atrocities), and that of the detainees rather than reporting these strikes.

As the Washington Post reports, of course, the reports on the detainees’ hunger strikes was itself the barometer of the prison. Thus, the absence of information shuts down journalists and human rights advocates, not to mention the public’s, access to this information. But the reason cites was that it was NO LONGER in the interest of the government.

Since when does the interest of the government become an express–and justifiable–factor in which information is publicly reported? It is hard to imagine the state making this the basis of its defense in an earlier era. Arguably, this has been the overwhelming concern for the decade since September 12, 2001, but government policies have always been articulated as having the “interests” of the public in mind: i.e., national security.

The convergence of the language (e.g., of interests) that marks corporate motives and state motives illuminates how the force of biopolitics (or ontopolitics, as I write elsewhere—namely the creation of moral monsters in contrast to good citizens) shifts from one group to another. This is not a question that Michel Foucault answers: how does the focus of biopolitics change from epoch to epoch? Why are some groups persecuted in one moment, but not the next, and how does the focus change? In this moment, as the case of surveillance suggests, it is because the state has taken up the language of interests, as the corporations did already, to manage/discipline their subjects. But, the next chess move is that the corporations have taken up the debate of “freedom/security” in order to battle consumers/subjects’ resistance to being managed or controlled, in order to ensure the corporations’ continued existence and profit-making capacity.

*With a nod to the title of the late Prof. Derrick Bell’s article, “Brown v. Board and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma.”

Guest Column: Al Gore’s False Climate Solutions

Dear readers: I am traveling/living outside the US for the next several months, improving my French language skills and doing some research (I can feel your sympathy for my difficult plight. Thank you.). I plan to use the occasion to post some guest columns alongside a weekly (or, if other commitments permit) a biweekly column by yours truly.  Please continue to check in when you can.

Today, I’m very happy to introduce a guest column by Ben Grosscup, a Hampshire College alumnus and long active in ecological and environment issues. Mr. Grosscup offers some important reflections on why Al Gore’s neoliberal approach to climate solutions is flawed.

Guest Column: Al Gore’s False Climate Solutions


An earlier version of this piece was published on Friday, March 2, 2012 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

On April 27, former Vice President Al Gore will keynote the inauguration of Hampshire College’s new president, Jonathan Lash. Gore may be the world’s best-known climate activist. While he has educated the public about climate change, his solutions are based on a flawed assumption that the only way to address the climate crisis involves creating markets and extending corporate rights.

Despite his commitment to environmentalism, Gore’s political legacy has been ecologically disastrous. The pro-corporate policies he supports – nuclear power, agrofuels, so-called “free trade” and carbon trading – are false solutions to the climate crisis. They fail to contend with its root cause: an economic system that demands ever-expanding corporate profits. But as this avaricious system impinges upon the natural limits of the biosphere, our world breaks down.

Faith in the flawed ideology that we can transcend the ecological crisis without addressing this contradiction in capitalism makes Gore’s “solutions” part of the problem.

As vice president, Gore led the fight to increase the power of the corporate class at the expense of popular democratic rights in two major treaty negotiations. Gore relentlessly championed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the media and in Congress, and he played a pivotal role in restricting the Kyoto Protocol’s legal mechanisms to carbon trading.

In Gore’s nationally televised defense of NAFTA, which aired on CNN’s Larry King Live in November 1993 just before Congress approved the deal, he presented the treaty primarily as a means of reducing tariffs on trade. He argued that as governments reduce restrictions on corporations, business productivity would increase and improve everyone’s livelihood.

But NAFTA had only partly to do with trade. It also gave corporations in all three participating countries the right to sue signatory governments whose policies interfered with their profits.

Following NAFTA’s adoption, Americans didn’t get the secure livelihoods Gore promised.

Instead, companies that once paid relatively higher wages relocated factories to Mexico and Americans struggled to adjust to a more precarious job market. Mexicans went to work in new “free trade zones” where companies drove down wages and evaded taxes while public infrastructure crumbled. NAFTA privatized traditional Mexican community land stewardship systems, pushing millions off their land. This corporate cannibalism of the body politic has exacerbated an utter breakdown of much of Mexican society, manifesting as poverty, drug violence and desperate northward migration as people seek respite from this misery.

Gore’s record on climate policy echoes his trade policy record. In 1997, Gore traveled to Kyoto, Japan, for an international conference to develop a framework for a global treaty on climate change. He stated that the U.S. would not sign the Kyoto Accord unless every other country agreed to a “cap-and-trade” scheme for carbon emissions. The U.S. position conflicted sharply with competing proposals to directly require industrial countries to reduce pollution. Gore successfully pushed through this agenda, which became the basis for the Kyoto Protocol.

Under “cap-and-trade,” governments allot transferable rights to spew climate-destabilizing pollution to the worst corporate polluters, who buy and sell those rights on a market. This privatizes access to the biosphere’s carbon-cycling capacity. By framing everyday corporate pollution in terms of an exchange value rather than an urgent threat, this policy regime makes the incalculable harms of climate disruption interchangeable with the more easily measured financial costs of mitigating pollution.

It prioritizes what it can quantify – and ignores what it cannot.

Some within the environmental movement still defend Kyoto, because it remains the only existing legal mechanism for curbing emissions. In 2005, European signatories inaugurated the EU Emissions Trading System as the official carbon trading mechanism under Kyoto. Shamefully, these countries’ carbon footprints have been rising since, discrediting those who support “cap-and-trade” for its ecological benefits.

Besides not helping to curb the pollution that endangers our lives, the most disgraceful aspect of Gore’s legacy on climate policy is that today the notion of “tradable rights to pollute” dominates the U.N. climate negotiations, displacing non-market alternatives. Those negotiations lack credibility because, after 20 years, they aren’t ameliorating the climate crisis.

The system of market fundamentalism that brought us to the sorry place we’re in has failed catastrophically – a realization more people are making thanks to the Occupy movement. Growing numbers throughout the 99 percent have lost faith in the corporate state and gained confidence in their own initiative. Through creative occupations of public spaces, this movement demonstrates its commitment to creating and envisioning radically different alternative worlds that remain off-limits to market fundamentalists like Gore.

Hampshire College may view Gore’s visit as bolstering its reputed dedication to ecological sustainability, but Gore’s record violates this commitment. The same thinking that delivered the debacle of NAFTA and the calamitous distraction of carbon trading will help none but the clever investor in navigating the difficult times ahead.

The college should feature Gore as part of a debate in which his solutions to impending global catastrophe can be challenged, not just passively applauded.

Ben Grosscup of Amherst, a Hampshire College graduate, represents Precinct 9 in Amherst Town Meeting. He is actively involved in Occupy Amherst and is a board member of the Institute for Social Ecology.