MITCHEL COHEN: The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be … And What’s More, it Never was


President Nixon’s hopes for splitting support for the antiwar movement and co-opting a significant fraction of it were not without precedent. At the turn of the twentieth century, reforms such as workers’ compensation were enacted despite those issues not having been raised as part of any radical or trade-union campaign. Workers’ compensation was solely a corporate innova­tion at the time, enacted not as a result of mass protests but when leading indus­trial capitalists decided they preferred federal regulations that supplied a pre­dictable stream of workers over being subjected to patchwork, disruptive state measures and costly lawsuits that were of less concern to smaller businesses.

When mass movements, such as the environmental movement, are not strong enough to project issues to the fore by dint of their own actions, reforms can sometimes be won by finding ways to exploit the interests of one section of capitalists against others. Especially as giant corporations gain more and more control over the state apparatus, popular movements not strong enough to achieve victories on their own should take the current structural realities into consideration when developing strategies for moving forward and not assume that moral suasion or the power of one’s ideas alone will be sufficient to achieve victories.

Nixon, in line with a sector of U.S. corporations in the 1970s (as was Franklin Delano Roosevelt forty years earlier), believed it to be in the capi­talist system’s interest to support some regulation of industrial pollution. “By the time Nixon was elected, the nation was pumping out 200 million tons of air pollutants and throwing out 100 million automobile tires and 30 billion glass bottles annually, with much of the refuse piled in mountain­ous open dumps.” Many large corporations, and politicians looking out for their long-term interests, happily recognized that compliance with Nixon’s legislation would be more exacting on and costly for their smaller corporate competitors than for themselves. Up to a point, they were willing to risk the rising of environmental movements in the expectation that they could eventually de-fang them before they did much damage to the corporations’ core interests, while also turning a portion of those movements to their own advantage against the other sectors. Large industries looked to their suc­cesses in co-opting a sector of the labor movement in the 1910s and again in the 1940s as a sort of blueprint for how to fight it out with their competitors, without too much disruption to their long-term profits.

Over a few short years in the 1970s, and especially culminating with Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980, many of the environ­mental regulations enacted under the Nixon administration were rolled back.

… Rachel Carson and the new environmental movement succeeded in winning the demand to ban DDT; but that pesticide was replaced by organophosphates, which themselves were soon replaced by pyrethroids and by glyphosate-based chemicals. The official mindset hadn’t changed, only the particular chemicals had. When the Clinton/Gore administration promoted genetic engineering (as had former President Jimmy Carter) and encouraged farmers to plant expansive acres of Roundup Ready corn and soy, the national pesticide regulations were already so weakened—with the encouragement of Democrats as well as Republicans—that there was no control over the massive amounts of pesticides used on genetically engineered (GMO) crops. …

The then-dominant ideology fostered by leaders of American liberalism presented human activity and nature as necessarily non-reconcilable adversaries in a never-ending war for “progress.”

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