Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, June 10, 2005

An interview with George Draffan

by Aric McBay (January 2005)

George Draffan is a forest activist, public interest investigator, and corporate muckraker. He has worked as a carpenter, landscaper, and librarian. He is the author or co-author of Cascadia Wild, Railroads & Clearcuts, The Elite Consensus, Strangely Like War, Welcome to the Machine, and several activist research manuals. He is a freelance researcher and writer for citizens and public interest groups. Some of his work can be found at I interviewed him over email at the end of January, 2005.

Aric McBay: When I look at the news about Peak Oil and energy issues in the corporate-owned media, I am assured that I have nothing to worry about. If I look deeper, I might hear that there may be problems a few decades from now, but that the "experts" will have solved the problems by then. If I really dig, I might hear that the "solution" involves corporations converting to "green" companies - like British Petroleum's advertising campaign to rebrand themselves as "Beyond Petroleum" - and building an electrical renewable infrastructure that will require no effort or change on my part. Why do we hear this "take it easy" message instead of the more serious truths coming out of the independent media? How are those in power able to influence a supposedly investigative and democratic media?

George Draffan: The media isn't democratic and its purpose is not to investigate and provide a public service. Its purpose is to sell advertising, and that means entertainment: violence, sex, consumer products. It sometimes does that by "investigating" scandal or controversy, but sensational reporting is serving a commercial purpose. There are lots of ways to influence the media, but owning it is the best.

The industrial lifestyle depends on technology and anything that questions technology as ultimate solutions to all our problems is a threat. The green consumer approach is palatable to advertisers, which include auto and oil companies, and it's palatable to the consumer. Few Americans or Europeans want to reduce their consumption to the level of the average person.

McBay: Do those in power actually believe the things that the evening news tells us?

Draffan: Actually most people don't get any news. Few people watch television news, and fewer still read newspapers, and fewer still read in-depth coverage and or engage in deep discussion of issues.

McBay: What does the use of compliance-inducing propaganda about issues like Peak Oil mean for the ability of people in general to respond intelligently to those issues?

Draffan: Without knowing what's going on, it's impossible to make intelligent responses. Even more mysterious is the fact that even if we know intellectually what's going on, we often still lack the emotional will to do anything significant about it. There are lots of people who sense that there is a fundamental imbalance in the industrial way of life, but find it impossible to focus or act to actually change things. Where does emotional willingness and political will come from? What prevents us from making changes?

McBay: When there are major disruptions in the functioning of the industrial system (from oil depletion, for instance), will the media try to keep up the current facade of "everything will be fine"? How do propaganda systems respond when widespread events challenge the falsehoods they try to tell us?

Draffan: Disruptions have been happening all along. Environmental change is usually slow and we don't notice it, especially when we aren't in touch with the natural world. But the disruptions are there whether we notice them or not. The latest scandal splashes across the front pages while the more important dilemmas (energy, extinction, toxics) are ignored or treated as temporary accidents.

When something really threatening becomes public, scapegoats are found. The economic recession in the early 1990s came on top of a couple decades of lumber mills being shut down across the Pacific Northwest. The timber companies had been steadily depleting the old-growth forests over several decades, and by the 1970s and 1980s had begun shifting their operations to the South, where the trees are smaller but grow much faster. By the 1990s unemployment in the Northwest mill towns had reached crisis stage, so environmentalists were attacked for trying to save the spotted owl and other endangered species. The mills had been closing for years, for the only reason they ever close: the trees were gone. But somebody had to be blamed for the misery, so the owls were turned into goats.

Likewise, the military's policies of torture may be exposed (and what else is war but systematic campaign of atrocity?) but lower-level soldiers (or the stubborn enemy) can easily be made into scapegoats.

Or a corporation and its executives are put on trial and punished as criminals, when they are simply following standard corporate practice. A public hanging is usually enough to obscure the fact that crime is rampant and everyone is complicit. Only a few people are willing to hear that the system is fundamentally corrupt. Most of us are convinced that it's a few bad leaders, or a few terrorists, or a few hoodlums, that are the problem.

McBay: I've been told that it isn't necessary for us to dismantle the current systems of control - rather, that if we create a "better" society, people will simply flock to it and civilization as we know it will be transformed into something benevolent. To me, this implies that people live in a functioning democracy which allows the choice to "opt out" of the system. Will those in power let any significant number of people "opt out" of the capitalist economy without a fight? How do they use the mass media to try to convince people that there are no other options than that of working in the wage economy?

Draffan: Capitalist industrial economies have always depended on cheap raw materials, ever-expanding markets, the division of labor, the division of economic classes, accelerating technology, product obsolescence, and externalized costs. None of that is new. The first agricultural empires required slave labor. The first urban monuments took resources away from productive social investment. The first corporations were transnational monopolies sent out to govern colonies and to siphon goods and profits back to the economic and political elites in Europe. What's new is that those economies have expanded to the point where they are merging into a global system.

The options actually have been reduced. People actually have lost their lands, their skills, and their freedoms. There aren't easy alternatives to the wage economy and the consumer lifestyle. How many people in the "advanced" nations know how to provide their own food, clothing, and shelter? Who has access to land? People will need to relearn those ancient skills. And again, that assumes that people will make the choice to do that, and have the will as well as the intelligence to carry out the choice. What is the price of freedom?

McBay: We know that as computer and surveillance technology is "improved" it offers options for those in power to move towards an increasingly dystopic, technologically controlling society. Yet, we are assured that any given technology is being developed to "save children from being kidnapped" or for other benevolent uses. What kind of surveillance technology is currently being put in place, and is it in any way benevolent? If very controlling surveillance technology already exists, why aren't we already living in "1984"? What kind of society is this technology leading to?

Draffan: Technology serves many functions. One of them, perhaps unintended or at least hidden, is to separate us from nature, from sensation, from personal knowing. There is always a rationale for adopting the latest technology: it saves labor, or it enables you fly across the country, or it saves a life. The rationales usually succeed; I don't know of any technology that's successfully been banned or renounced. There's something about machines that people just can't resist.

The result is that those of us in the modern industrial societies are already living in dystopia. The dominate institutions of the corporate state already collect and store information about where you live, what you buy, what you do for entertainment.

Economic and political control has merged. Political opinion polls, which are often portrayed as a tool of democracy, were actually invented as marketing surveys. And when citizens allow themselves to become consumers, what's the difference? Are you willing to use one of those electronic cards that the grocery store gives you? Then they know what you buy. Do you have a bank account? An account at a video rental store? A mortgage for your house or a rental agreement for your apartment? Do you have a social security card or a driver's license? A telephone? The company or agency that provides that service has information on you.

What works in the marketplace works also works in politics. Do you vote for political candidates? What's the difference between Democrats and Republicans and Toyota and Ford? Different color, different upholstery, different rhetoric. Same shareholders, same manufacturing technology, same function.

McBay: As major disruptions in the industrial system start to occur in the coming decade, civil unrest will likely increase almost everywhere in the world - either because oppressed peoples see a weakness in institutions of control and an opportunity to become freer, or because privileged peoples will have their supplies of cheap consumable commodities interrupted. How will those in power respond to this unrest? How will their technologies of surveillance and control play a part in that?

Draffan: I hesitate to predict the collapse of civilization, or timetables for repression. Writing was first developed to inventory the centralized stocks of surplus grain. Medieval guilds controlled the movement and activity of laborers. Five hundred years ago, the first corporations were already multinational monopolies with the legal authority to tax, to raise private armies, and to administer the colonies. Within a decade of the invention of photography, the governments of Europe had files of photographs of hundreds of thousands of gypsies and itinerant tradespeople. Some of the first passports were used to keep young men from escaping military service during World War I. After World War II, the East German state had a much more sophisticated system for surveillance and compliance than the Nazi state before the war.

So there are technological advances and increasing efficiency and control, but the basic routines were developed thousands of years ago: use technology as a lever to amass economic wealth and concentrate political power, develop the sophisticated administrative systems required to control huge economies and societies, and repress or eliminate those who don't buy into the system. Most written histories are soap operas about the elites competing with each other, but if you look carefully you'll see another story line about history as an ongoing war between centralization-property and freedom-community. For thousands of years there have always been groups that have resisted being absorbed into centralized economy and government, and we ignore their successes and failures at our peril.

McBay: You've said that "the only sustainable level of technology is the stone age". Obviously, most people wouldn't even bother to consider this statement; they've been told the opposite so many times it doesn't occur to them that it might be true. What do you say to people who find that concept interesting, but don't know enough to be convinced?

Draffan: We won't return to the stone age of the past; history is never repeated. But we won't stay in the current industrial stage either, since it depends on endless growth in production and consumption. How can that be sustainable? The modern economy depends on limited resources and energy, and produces toxic chemicals. How can that be sustainable? A huge percentage of animal species are becoming extinct. We may feel that we can live without wetlands or the rhinoceros, but the loss of a species results in the loss of other species as the ecosystem unravels. How can that be sustainable? The facts of widespread ecosystem disruption are well-established, but rather than trying to prove those facts, I'll repeat the obvious: sustainable systems are the only ones that are sustainable. Humans invented agriculture 6,000 years ago. We discovered how to harness coal a couple hundred years ago, and petroleum little more than a century ago. Most of the synthetic chemicals have been invented in the past fifty years. But humans have been on the planet for a couple million years. But we have consumed more in the last century than in all previous history. What does that say about sustainability? The modern system is toxic and it consumes an unsustainable quantity of energy and resources. By definition humans will eventually, either willingly or unwillingly, evolve a steady-state economy which fits within the planet's ecological base. If we develop it willingly, soon, it could be more efficient, more elegant and enjoyable, than the heavy industrial system we have now.

McBay: What are the "three faces of power"?

Draffan: Power structure theories have offered three faces of power. The first face of power is described by the theory of pluralism, which says that society is an open system composed of various interest groups of more or less equal power who compete to get what they want. The second face of power is described by the elitist theory, which says that in reality, some individuals and groups have more power than others, and that the powerful control society's agenda. Some issues get addressed, while other issues do not. The powerful have their needs met, while the powerless do not. The powerless are excluded, and their silence or inaction is not necessarily the result of their consensus and conscious choice, as the pluralists imply. The third face of power shows how over time unequal power structures become invisible as people internalize the agenda set by the powerful. Eventually people don't even notice that some things aren't on the agenda. People believe the poor are poor and the powerless are powerless because there's something wrong with them, or because that's the way God (or karma, or fate) arranges the universe. The powerless themselves internalize their subservient role in order to escape the subjective sense of powerlessness, of being responsible for their own subservience. George Bernard Shaw wrote that monarchs are not born; they are made by artificial hallucinations. It's no longer a conspiracy when everyone thinks the same, when everyone has the same hallucination.

Copyright 2003-2004, redistribution for for-profit uses prohibited without permission.

Bill Totten


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