Friday, December 30, 2011

It's Complex Out There

The older I get and the more I study, the more people I exchange ideas with, here and elsewhere, the harder I find it to see clear objectives. Indeed, the process is akin to seeing a once clear objective evaporate. All I am left with is participation and contribution, and both are muddy. It is not that there is no bad deed to battle, no soured system to turn to some ‘higher’ purpose or ‘functioning,’ it is rather that the ‘steps’ and ‘decisions’ to be taken appear more and more arbitrary to me. It is as if all that matters is our wisdom, our consciousness, and our broadest intent, not so much the details of the System du Jour we find ourselves in. And further, that even these vague caveats be qualified by a ‘what will be will be’ philosophy.

Perhaps some quotes from two Pixar films will help explain my ‘position.’ The first is a pivotal scene from “A Bug’s Life”, in which the leader of the bad guys (bad grasshoppers, actually), Hopper, gives a motivational talk to his troops, who kinda sorta wanna chill, quaff beer, and pork out on snacks in the delicious Mexican sun, not go out of their way to Do The Right Thing and quash an ‘upstart’ member of the ant colony they tyrannize to sustain their way of life.
Hopper: But, there was that ant that stood up to me...

Thug 1: Yeah, but we can forget about him!

Thug 2: Yeah ... it was just one ant.

Hopper: You’re right! It’s just one ant.

Thug 2: Yeah, boss! They’re puny!

Hopper: Puny? Say, let’s say this grain is a puny little ant. [Pulls a seed-grain from a jerry-rigged liquor bottle behind the ‘bar’ and throws it at Thug 2. Grain bounces harmlessly off grasshopper’s exoskeleton.] Did that hurt?

Thug 2: Nope.

Hopper: [Takes another grain from the bottle.] How ‘bout this one. [Throws grain at Thug 1.]

Thug 1: Are you kiddin’! [Chorus of thugs laughs uproariously.]

Hopper: How about THIS! [Rips ‘grain dispenser’ from the bottleneck to let thousands of grains flood out, overwhelming the assembled thugs.] You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up. Those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one! And if they ever figure that out, there goes our way of life! It’s not about food, it’s about keeping those ants in line. That’s why we’re going back! Does anybody else wanna stay? [Entire group dutifully ‘activates’ its wings as one, ready to ride off and do their duty.]
I’m not interesting in discussing the 99% analogies that leap off the page here. I'm getting at something else. In my mind the grasshopper character “Hopper” is named after Dennis Hopper, an actor gifted at playing spooky bad guys. I mention this because it links us to a film which presents free riding ‘cool’ dudes in a very different light; “Easy Rider”. In “A Bug’s Life”, it is, in a sense, the bourgeois collective (the ants) who are the Good Guys, while the free riding fun lovers are assigned the antagonist’s role. In “Easy Rider” it is the other way around; the bourgeois collective must be rebelled against, escaped, as its cloying grasp limits freedom and smothers creativity. Furthermore, I can easily imagine a Pixar cartoon in which ants were characterless, rapacious drones, and grasshoppers sensitive, musical troubadours with poet souls yearning to create their most beautiful songs. ‘Evil’ is that which challenges us to leave our comfort zone behind, to move ‘beyond’ our current state to something ‘higher’ or ‘wiser.’ Evil is not intrinsic to one mode of life or another. Antagonism is inevitable in a reality which is complex and multifaceted. How we deal with antagonism is, in a limited way, up to us. ‘Evil’ creates the space in which progress can happen.

Good or Evil? The versatile Dennis Hopper challenges us in all his roles.

The next scene comes from “Ratatouille”, one of my favourite films. In this scene the pragmatic Rat Dad tries to show his idealistic son (Remy) the harsh realities of rat life. Dad takes son to see a store selling traps and poisons for killing rodents. The window display is gruesome for a rat; tens of dead rats hanging by their necks from various implements of death.
Dad: We’re here. [ It’s dark, but two flashes of lightning illuminate the rat corpses.] Take a good, long look, Remy. This is what happens when a rat gets a little too comfortable around humans. The world we live in belongs to the enemy. We must live carefully. We look out for our own kind, Remy! When all is said and done, we’re all we’ve got. [Walks off, thinking the lesson is over. Remy stays put.]

Remy: No.

Dad: What?

Remy: No! Dad, I don’t believe it. You’re telling me that the future is ... can only be, more of THIS!? [Points at rat corpses.]

Dad: This is the way things are. You can’t change nature.

Remy: Change is nature, Dad! The part that we can influence. And it starts when we decide.
“Ratatouille” is a better and subtler film than “A Bug’s Life” (in my opinion). It’s as if the two films represent two statements on the same problem, the earlier film taking a standard position (the ‘bad’ guy is defeated), whereas in “Ratatouille” the threat is transformed into a creative partnership. The later film deftly wields multiple antagonists, but the main ‘bad’ guy literally becomes the hero’s business partner. (I hope that’s not giving away too much for those who have not seen this wonderful film.) And for me this is what antagonism (‘evil’) is about; change. We either manage change creatively, or we don’t (though I’m loathe to present a binary!). And of course when we manage change creatively, we set up some ‘better’ situation which itself is antagonistic to some other system. A life without challenge cannot create anything new, cannot evolve. And in that melee, we each perceive (experience) comfort and discomfort, pleasure and pain, in greatly varying degrees.

I am on holiday in Italy with my own family of four, my sister-in-law’s family, and my parents-in-law. Aside from my good self, everyone here loves Christmas, loves the toys, the gifts, the abundance, the drinking, the hedonism and indulgence. Lip-service is paid to ‘being together,’ but every day is about consumption, shopping, spending. And if not that, watching TV. The young ones play computer games. On (what is for me) the plus side, there’s been a fair bit of scrabble, and my elder daughter’s gifts were her own creations for the main part. One was even a piano piece she discovered online and learned with great self-discipline, then played to her aunt. And it is here my duality is highly visible to me (and you I’m sure). At Econosophy I write about deep societal change, less is more, transition to a resource-based economy. Here in Mirano I mention no such thing, stand on no soap box, seize no opportunity to berate my fellow revelers for their ‘mindless’ consumption. I am middle class, so would not enjoy the subsequent tensions, but deeper than that I realize we all walk different paths. There is no such thing as equality, except in the abstract world of mathematics and scientific measurement. There is no pure, clean path we must tread as one, loyally follow to reach one single destination, a city shining on a high hill, best for all, the best that humanity can achieve. Though I am romantic and idealistic, I know deeply such visions are exactly as ‘evil’ and divisive as that which I see as ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ in the world ‘out there.’ There is not one tune we should march in lockstep to which can possibly be good. Mess is beauty. Mess is mucky. Celebrate that.

And my duality (or hypocrisy) runs deeper than that rendering. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with enjoying Christmas in all its consumerist glory, with singing the Santa Claus-Coca Cola, Good Child-Bad Child song; with playing along with the ‘crowd,’ going with the flow. We are all of us socialized by the ongoing dance of our biology and the events we pass through. For thousands of reasons I become what I become, perceive as I perceive, desire, fear, hope as Toby Russell does. Pride of ‘accomplishment’ is misplaced, totally egotistical. I am the flow of my life, as are you of yours. That I go ‘against’ the mainstream is neither here nor there. If doom-based predictions are right, if our ‘greed’ were to cause civilizational collapse, would that be more or less ‘evil’ than a meteor wiping out life on earth? Or the sun exploding?

And yet none of this moral relativism detracts from my passion to fight for what I see as a ‘better’ system. I still love humanity, life on earth, Universe. Such feelings are expressions of what I am becoming, but have next to nothing to do with what I can ‘control.’ What these tendrils binding me to the mainstream do is humble me. Though I get angry at injustice and short sighted profligacy, perfection is not only an impossibility, striving for it is almost cruel. While I do not want short sighted profligacy to wipe us out, it is not because such would be ‘evil,’ but simply because I do not want that outcome. Fighting for what I want does not mean accusing others of being less Good than I am oh so nobly struggling to be. Such is not only counter-productive, it is short sighted. No one can be handed wisdom by me (however well written or reasoned); there exists no finished ‘wisdom’ that can be handed over. Each of us develops our own, unique wisdom; art is communicating it, sharing it. I would go so far as to say that is what living is, for amoebas, coral reefs, forests, herrings, hedgehogs and humans alike. And all together as Universe too, for life is not a separate or alien phenomenon, weirdly and inexplicably around for a moment until the ‘natural’ pitilessness of Universe can carry on as it was before. Life is as inextricably Universe as ‘barren’ rock drifting the depths of space, or as nuclear forces. And I say that knowing we do not yet understand anything, life most of all perhaps, not to mention time and gravity. So while I do get angry, and shout at Those Idiots, such does not help that fight which has chosen me; it just gets in the way, slows me down.

We are our own worst enemies. But without that defect, could we do anything at all? What would we be without our ‘enemy’ within? And thus, in my round-about way, I get to thank you, dear readers, for keeping me grounded, challenging me, offering me your wisdom in your art, and helping me change creatively, even if it hurts sometimes. And thank you too to those who don’t resonate with my art, who walk very different paths. Whatever we do choose and create, we’re in this together, in ways both great and small, intimate and remote. We would wither to dried flotsam were antagonism not in our midst. We get to try and enjoy it while it lasts.

Peace, pain, change and a good life to all!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Our Augean Stables

Augeas, King of Elis, was proud owner of one thousand divine cattle, all housed in vast stables that hadn’t been cleaned in thirty years. No one knows the exact tonnage of dung those beasts had produced in that time, but it didn’t bother Augeas; the cattle were divine and hence could not get sick. He was a very proud and ensconced king of Elis. Until, one day, a famous hero visited him, and took a shine to his beautiful heifers.

Heracles wanted one hundred of Augeas’ cattle, so offered to clean their stables in one day. Augeas, convinced the task was totally impossible, accepted the offer, not knowing Heracles had a cunning plan; rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus. Heracles ripped a hole in two of the stables’ walls, dug a trench through the stables and to the rivers, rerouted their waters and washed the dung away. Augeas was royally miffed, more so when he discovered Eurystheus had set his heroic opponent this task as one of the famous Twelve Labours (Eurystheus was Hera’s choice in a battle she fought against Zeus, who had chosen Heracles to be his hero—even heroes are pawns to the gods). Augeas refused to pay up, so Heracles, as one might expect, killed him.


Heracles battles the Hydra


Out with the old, in with the new. But of course there is plenty to this myth which is appropriate to all sorts of situations. Zeus and Hera had set Heracles and Eurystheus in hot contest with one another, to determine which of the two would earn the honour of being the hero fated to usher in the long reign of the Twelve Olympians. The victorious hero would kill off the old guard, the old beasts still holding power on earth. So not only are the stables cleansed of accumulated junk in this part of the tale, the deed itself was a task set by an aspiring hero chosen by an ambitious goddess hungry for the honour of backing the right man in fulfilling a long prophesied destiny. What screams out at me in all this is adversarial competition, opposites struggling against one another, producing change and, to some eyes, ‘progress.’ A kind of Hegelian dialectic; thesis and antithesis yielding a higher truth, a synthesis, a ‘progression’ to something new. Competition breeding cooperation, or cooperation as an overarching ‘outcome’ of competition. I think this is how we see reality for thousands of years, as a battle of opposites. While we do, reality ‘complies’ by showing us that of its ‘selves’ our presumptions selectively reveal. This isn’t solipsistic, more of a multi-trillion node tango of infinite counter-influences and caused causes.

At a narrower angle there is the theme of unattended business, or procrastination, perhaps hubris. Because Augeas’ cattle are divine, he can ignore their waste. But the countryside is not divine. While the cattle can remain healthy forever, Augeas’ casual confidence is a threat to the future; the stables are not infinitely big, must overflow at some point, by which time perhaps even a hero of Heracles’ stature wouldn’t be up to the task. The parallel to our modern situation is obvious. Human Progress (now enshrined in GDP Growth) is divine, must go on forever, should go on forever, because it is inherently Good and Right, no matter the finite nature of the environment supporting our ‘ascent.’ We can sustain belief in infinite growth while our stables hold, but if we wait too long, our effluent will overpower the supporting environment and we will be washed away by the resulting collapse.

And yet manure, as we all know, is fertilizer. It is only a problem if used incorrectly, in this case left to accumulate in one spot. And here another parallel emerges; hoarding and desert. Being usury-based, our money system encourages hoarding. Being elitist-based our broader, hierarchical system assigns the largest rewards to those most ‘deserving’ of them. We ‘decide’ who is most deserving of the largest slices of the pie via the so-called ‘free’ market. Because we Just Know this ‘free’ market ‘impartially’ distributes money rewards to the most ‘deserving,’ it necessarily produces, over the long term, the best possible outcomes for all, as long as there is no interference (an obvious impossibility). What we actually experience is stubbornly growing rich and poor divides (hoarding), with the rich fearfully defending their cash cows, because they, as if by divine right, ‘deserve’ them, Market says so; Market says they are kings all. We must not ‘punish’ success, hence things stay as they are, rich-poor divides and all. Muck accumulates, being muck precisely because it accumulates. Sadly, the deeper aspects of what it is to ‘deserve’ a reward are not explored in the mainstream. One of them is of course free will, a concept at least very difficult, if not, then probably impossible to prove, and that’s before we even look at the impossibility of ‘equal’ opportunities.

Daniel Pinchbeck, author, journalist, and writer of the film “2012, Time for Change” describes money as fertilizer, perhaps as a new twist on ‘stinking rich.’ We should put (invest) money there where it will yield the healthiest returns. What “healthy returns” might be needs to be discussed. As readers of this blog know, I am not for mindless consumerism, and support strongly any redesign of the money system which encourages gift giving, stronger community, ‘individual’ health and societal health (i.e., low crime, high ‘freedom’ to live life as creatively and generously as possible), open education systems, maximum political and emotional maturity for all, a prevention-based not cure-based health system, renewable energies, etc. One part of achieving this would be to keep money flowing, to prevent hoarding. I suspect one part of that is losing the casual confidence of King Augeas in believing in our divine right, that simply because we are human, we deserve to multiply infinitely upon the face of the earth, then out into space, forever. I expect a far richer and maturer confidence would emerge if we managed this new humility, and not the barren and system-rescuing ‘austerity’ parroted by the financial industry, and their two stooges the mainstream media and political actors.

On a personal level, we all have our own Augean Stables. In a small way, Econosophy is a place where I share some of my negativity with anyone who cares to comment (I too like to bitch and moan). I am here, at a late stage in my life, growing up in public. There are articles I posted here which embarrass me now, but I will not delete them. I noticed a line I had written of which I am now deeply ashamed; “Bankers are the scum of the earth.” I leave all that crap out there to remind myself how I have progressed through this learning arc I was set on by Peter Joseph’s “Zeitgeist: Addendum”, and to try and teach myself patience with others, and with myself. None of us is perfect. I ‘fail’ again and again. But better to have out with it than let it fester in some dark corner, convinced the Bright Toby, the bits of me I’m proud of, are immortal, divine, forever robust and healthy, unaffected by the dark. There is no separation, no matter how clearly we think we can see it. Dark and light are matters of perception, each suggesting the other, each meaningful in a vast and seamless web we call Universe. And it is beautiful.

So the opposites we perceive are not necessarily opposites. There is something about this stage of our wisdom that needs to see reality this way, split it into good and bad, light and dark, for just while longer. This is changing though, and quickly now I feel. Good and bad guys in our literature, in film, are softening, becoming complex, tortured, blurred. In some films it is impossible to tell which is which. And a growing number of us prefer it that way, welcome that richness. It feels more accurate, more nuanced, human, natural. The clumsy old opposites feel antiquated, childish, obvious, boring. The new song of wisdom emerging through this crisis in part transcends clumsy opposites, and recognises context, perception, history and creativity together determine what levels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we can work into existence, perceive into existence, imagine. This is part of what it means to recognise that it’s up to us, that we are as involved in the process of wising up as those we berate for blocking our progress, our ‘freedom.’

In a few days the northern hemisphere will pass through its longest night. Many will celebrate the imminence of spring, of renewal, in a tradition preceding Christianity by millennia. Bob Dylan sung, “They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn.” There’s something to that, but no two dawns are alike, and the same goes for our darkest hours. And though we are always hoarding, always cleansing, always failing and succeeding, I strongly believe we, as a species, are at the crossroads (crisis) of the profoundest change we have known. Staying humble and hopeful, though hard, is wisest. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

On Education

Over at Golem’s blog, under his latest post, I made a couple of comments referencing David Graeber’s perception that we are culturally suffering from a failure of nerve, a failure of imagination. This is the reason our outlook appears bleak. Not because it is bleak, but because we can’t see a way out. Writing for the Guardian about the Occupy movement in September this year, Graeber said:
But the ultimate failure here is of imagination. What we are witnessing can also be seen as a demand to finally have a conversation we were all supposed to have back in 2008. There was a moment, after the near-collapse of the world's financial architecture, when anything seemed possible. [ ... ] Even the Economist was running headlines like “Capitalism: Was it a Good Idea?” [ ... ] Then, in one of the most colossal failures of nerve in history, we all collectively clapped our hands over our ears and tried to put things back as close as possible to the way they’d been before.

Why did this happen? Obviously there are far more reasons than a mere blog post can address, but one of them is surely rooted in the education system. We are not put through that system to become critical thinkers, to question, to carry on learning. We are compulsorily put through that system to have our independence of spirit broken, to be made compliant, obedient, susceptible to advertising, propaganda, to fail to care enough about the indignity of factory-line work and consumerism. Consequently, faced with the challenge of creating a new model, we balked. We don’t have it in us. Not after our ‘education’ knocked it out of us, that is.

Now, those are aggressive and sweeping words, but I suggest they hold generally (there are always exceptions). Before I go on, I’d like to point out I do not believe in ‘control’ by supremely gifted puppet masters of some lumpen mass. I do not believe in Us and Them projections. As far as I’m concerned, it’s “We, the 100%,” at least, as a mode of perception more constructive long term than “We, the 99%,” as important as that perception is right now. Our predicament, our reality, is far subtler than Us and Them. Nevertheless, it does serve to look at broad brushstrokes sometimes, especially by way of guidance and as a process for encouraging critical thought.

John Taylor Gatto wrote a paper back in 2003 called, “How public education cripples our kids, and why.” He has written books too, which I strongly recommend. Gatto thoroughly researched the origins of public education, in particular the sort of thinking behind its design and purpose. He singles out Alexander Inglis and his 1918 book, “Principles of Secondary Education”. For Inglis, public education was to be “a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table.” Gatto then describes the six core functions of public education as understood by Inglis:
1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.
2) The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.
3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.
4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits - and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.
5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit - with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments - clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor.

And it makes sense to the mindset of that era. Sir Ken Robinson campaigns vigourously for a revolution in the education system, as his talk to the RSA a short while ago attests. In the talk I link to, he says:
It [the education system] was conceived in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment, and in the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution. [ ... ] I believe we have a system of education which is modeled on the interests of industrialism, and in the image of it. [ ... ] We still educate children by batches, we put them through the system by age group. Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are?

Gatto would answer that it serves the interests of industry. Lewis Mumford would point out that the ‘owners’ of the machinery hold the machinery in higher regard than the people it is supposed to serve. Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is replete with imagery conceived and composed in angry reaction to this basic truth.


Buckminster Fuller’s account of a childhood experience demonstrates clearly that mode of thinking (scarcity- and fear-based, mixed with what I think of as paternalistic and patrician pragmatism):
Just before I went to Harvard University in 1913 [ ... ] an “uncle” gave me some counsel. He was a very rich “uncle.”[ ... ] “Young man, I think I must tell you some things that won’t make you very happy. [ ... ] Those few of us who are rich and who really have the figures know that it is worse than one chance in one hundred that you can survive your allotted days in any comfort. It is not you or the other fellow; it is you or one hundred others. [ ... If] you have a family of five and wish to prosper—you’re going to have to do it at the expense of five hundred others. So do it as neatly and cleanly and politely as you know how and as your conscience will allow.”
“Utopia or Oblivion”, pp161-2

If you have the responsibility of keeping things going, if you know for certain there’s not enough to go around, of course you need to control the beast that is The Proletariat. The alternative is anarchy and revolution, a bloody waste of time since the outcome can only ever be the rebuilding of the same system with a different ‘elite’ at the helm.

I see no evil here, only people working with what they have. And that’s what we all do. Only, for various reasons I won’t go into here—apart from to again mention that nothing lasts forever, not even paradigms—we are confronted with the challenge of changing course. Our dying (or dead) paradigm is causing terrible damage to the environments which sustain us, social and ecological, and we need new tools and technologies (I use those words in the broadest possible sense) that were not taught us in a school system designed not only to perpetuate the status quo, but also to prevent critical thinking, as well as retard emotional and political maturity.

At the moment I’m studying to become a teacher (oh, the irony). The coursework has brought me again to my John Holt books. In “Instead of Education”, Holt has this to say:
You cannot have human liberty, and the sense of all persons’ uniqueness, dignity, and worth on which it must rest, if you give to some people the right to tell other people what they must learn or know, or the right to say officially and “objectively” that some people are more able and worthy than others. Let any who want to make such judgments make them privately and in the understanding that such judgments can only be personal and subjective. But do not give them any permanent or official position, or the liberty and dignity of your citizens will soon be gone.
pp8-9

For these reasons and others I often shout that we must self-educate, and support each other in our efforts. This is not an easy undertaking, and of course people will, and must be free to wander different paths. While we are engaged in this stage of our journeys and encouraging others to leave the existing paradigm and join us in creating the new, we must bear in mind that we are like a walking wounded, that self-education is also self-healing; that it must be, in some way, about community, and that we need each other too.

Meanwhile, we need not beat ourselves up about not having a ready plan to kick into gear, that our nerve failed, that our beaten down imaginations are having a hard time seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Nor need we despair (though that is part of growing out of the safety of the devil you know), for we can create, we can think critically, we are intelligent, we can find friends and like minds; wisdom is something we can all develop.

Indeed, there is wisdom everywhere we look. We just need to acquire the imagination to see it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Given To Dream

The smell of early
punctual morning haze.
Grow out of bed into
your next move. The coffee

of bacon and cheese, orange juice,
the drive. In your movie, graded
to beauty, to best bland,
your next move still far

from the credits, the closing song.
No marketing campaign for you.
(But there is.) No product placement.
(But there is.) You are

on every screen you watch,
an actor, wool pulled over, vacuum packed,
fresh as the front-lawn daisy
your minty-breath dreams.

You are given to dream. Without it
you would not be. With it
you are much less; worn film
of tawdry fabric flecked

with the gold of our imagining;
a tube of toothpaste,
a deodorant, a new oven,
a holiday abroad. Earn it all

dreamed dreamer, and more.
Move on. Move, and move.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

From Here to There

This week I watched an hour long presentation made by two German pioneers (Andreas Popp and Rico Albrecht) in money-system thinking, which laid out the situation we're in, and what we might do about it. My wife, who yawns loudly at all talk of usury, compound interest, bonds, credit money and high powered money etc., found it inspiring and easy to understand. Since we were both of the same opinion, I thought it only helpful to pass on in English the meat of the matter to any and all interested. What is particularly exciting about their presentation to me, was how closely it echoes Charles Eisenstein's plan (which can be read online for free, by the way).

The pair have coined a new word they base on an ancient Greek term for 'usurer' or 'moneylender' (danista) to denote the entire system we suffer under today; "Danistacracy" (Danistakratie in German). I imagine you've already heard of alternative names for our compound interest system, such as Corporatocracy or Kleptocracy, which are instructive enough, but I think this one nails it, since the dynamic that really does the damage is compound interest. Far be it from me to assert this or that term as the best, and Danistacracy is certainly not catchy, but in its meaning the word is accurate and descriptive.

Just as with Charles Eisenstein and Franz Hoermann (and others), the pair are at pains to point out that it's not individual, evil people who are in the way of a Better World, but a system which organizes society along particular lines, with a particular flow and dynamic. To quote Charles Eisenstein once again:
This movement isn’t about the 99% defeating or toppling the 1%. You know the next chapter of that story, which is that the 99% create a new 1%. That’s not what it’s about. What we want to create is the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible.
We can't stay as we are, lop off a few heads, and expect anything other than a 'hello new boss, just like the old boss' event. Until we build from out of our own wisdom and ingenuity a system which transcends and improves on this functionally rapacious Danistacracy we are glued to its inevitable collapse. We have to work on ourselves, do that work, before the systemic and broader social solutions can flower from those efforts. Happily (or frustratingly, depending on your point of view) work on self and work on better systems is more or less the same thing. "The more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible" can only grow out of our intent to build it, and the know-how we learn while trying.

And now on to some graphics:


Popp and Albrecht use the classic pyramid shape to denote the hierarchical and upward flow of wealth to the 'controllers' of the compound interest system. The highest level are the owners and controllers of money themselves, the Danistacracy, who have placed between themselves and the lowest level the dual fogs of "Mainstream media" and "Political theatre", which together represent a kind of virtual reality the producers and doers are surrounded by at the logical bottom.

By the way, I have tweaked their graphic to make it appear more seamless than the original (theirs deploys distinct colours for each segment, and separate blocks to build the pyramid shape), preferring to try to reflect the general oneness of things. Of course there are lines of separation, but I don't believe they're absolute or impenetrable.

Of note is that Media sits above the "Political theatre" segment which, in the Popp/Albrecht presentation, is further subdivided into 'corrupt' and 'stupid' politicians; those who know the game is crooked but play it to line their own pockets, and those blindly loyal to this ideology or that. Either way, the media/politics region is, in its broad effect, a show, a self-sustaining virtual reality to divert attention from what the Matrix film so poetically called "The Real". This virtual reality hides the system's deepest dynamic, which is ongoing extortion of the producers and doers, an insatiable rapacity (how can usury be satisfied?) creating "The Desert of The Real", the destruction of the planet we are not permitted to see. Some figures to that end:
Professor Senf mentions the marriage of a poor boy to a rich girl. The figures are startling: Poor Boy earned 4,600 DM monthly, before tax, Rich Girl earned from interest over 650,000 DM daily (quoted from Bild, 27/7/1990). [snip] I wonder if Ms Quandt and Mr Klatten are still married, and if happily so.
Source

Albrecht informs his audience that a billionaire with a normal investment spread in various stocks and bonds would earn 50 one-family homes every year simply as a 'reward' for possessing that much money. (And no, money cannot 'work for you.' While the money might have been 'earned,' the interest on it most certainly is not.) Whether your earnings on interest are 650,000 DM a day or the money equivalent of 50 houses a year, that kind of money-growth has to be backed by something. In other words, there have to be millions upon millions of not-so-rich producers and doers creating the goods and services that give that 'earned' interest its value. How could it be otherwise? If all of us 'earned' from interest that kind of income, what would we do with it? It would of course be hyper-inflationary. In brief, the Danistacracy system requires, by design, extreme rich-poor divides. And they are stubborn divides, precisely because they are systemically generated and required.

Another factoid or 'data point' Albrecht brings to our attention, is that having some money in the bank, say, 300,000 euros, does not mean you are a net beneficiary of the usury system. The 6,000 or so you might earn a year (gross) does not compensate for the hidden cost of interest repayments passed on by manufacturers, shippers and retailers everywhere. Prices are up to twice as high as they would be in an interest-free money system, according to Abrecht. That is, even if you are a net saver, inflation corrodes your wealth 'invisibly'—as the money supply grows faster than goods and services can—, while the simple passing on of debt-costs to customers, concealed in prices, 'steals' wealth too, hands it over to the Danistacracy. Albrecht tells us it is only those with 1,000,000 or more in relatively liquid assets who actually net-benefit; the famous, symbolic 1%. Again, and very importantly, this does not make them the enemy. As Gandhi said,"Love the sinner, hate the sin."

Also prominent in Albrecht's talk is the exponential function. He cites the German Green Party's demand for 2.8% growth, but points out that such would mean Germany producing twice as much as 25 years from now, four times as much 50 years from now, eight times as much 100 years from now, and so on. Why should we want to do this? Why is economic growth Good Beyond Question? Why aren't we discussing the obvious absurdity of such proposals? Because the usury system—which its beneficiaries will protect at all costs—must be left behind if we are to leave the Perpetual Growth Grave Train behind (yes, I do mean "Grave"!)

So, what to do? Here is their suggested 'solution' in graphic form:

(I have translated "Soziales Bodenrecht" as "The Commons", even though "Allmende" is the proper German word for "commons." Any help from my German readership would be appreciated!)

Econosophy's slogan is, "Demote money, promote wealth", which I see as a description of a direction, not of a goal. The point is of course that the journey is the destination, the means are the ends. There can be no end point we reach where we say, with relief, "Finished! At last we can stop working!" Change is the only constant. However, humans still need 'where we are now and where we're headed' linear-thinking crutches, so graphic representations serve us still, and help focus the mind on the broader points. They are:
  • A money which rewards investment in community, which captures the Piraha saying, "I store my meat in the belly of my brother." Hoarding 'wealth' to protect Me And Mine is actually, seen over the long term, a fear-based addiction which exacerbates itself—self-fulfilling prophecy—while slowly destroying community. Investing in the health of the networks which enable our healthy living makes far more sense. Negative interest money is a way of promoting such a wisdom. It demotes money and promotes wealth.
  • A guaranteed income, which decouples money and work, ends the notion that we must 'earn' a living. If we each receive a share of those fruits generated by the collective ingenuity of humanity and nature, we are notionally freed by these gifts to carry on contributing to that process which sustains us. It demotes money and promotes wealth.
  • Expanding the commons encourages us to recognize that property is a harmful illusion, which can only engender more fear and greed. To promote true wealth, which can only be the health of the broader system—including environment and community—we must be invested in it, 'know' we are components of it, that as we treat it, so we treat ourselves. The commons is the correct domain for encouraging this deep sharing.
  • A free press is part of the open and transparent dissemination of information, which I feel would be an absolute inevitability should we manage to construct a social system based on the other three themes thus far discussed. I would have had "Open education system" (or similar) in its place, but hey, I don't agree with anyone on everything, and a free press is certainly something humanity could use right now.
As to the steps they—Popp and Albrecht—propose to get us from here to there, it starts with legal measures, and proceeds to what I think of as secession should the 'legal' path fail.

First, they will draw up the details for a truly publicly owned central bank with a monopoly on money creation—no more commercial bank money creation. They think of this as a money commons in a left-wing way; a money creation process owned by the state. Now, I'm not a 100% fan of this idea, because it concentrates too much power in one organization, but would support it with reservations; negative interest money, an expanding commons and guaranteed income are part of the plan. I also have not heard Popp and Albrecht state that no other monies (e.g., Ithaca Hours) would be permitted, so my reservations are minor. At least Popp and Albrecht aren't proposing this and only this.

Second, national debts are to be forgiven. Or, they would arrange a pro-actively organized sovereign default. The details here involve buying back bonds from e.g. pension institutions and 'ordinary' citizens who have invested in government debt, by exchanging them for what Albrecht refers to as Bankguthaben. This is, to my English ears, a strange choice of words, since Guthaben can be variously translated as 'credit,' 'assets,' 'balance,' 'deposit,' and even 'money on account.' So in the absence of information to the contrary, I'm going to assume they mean negative interest money, which is what Eisenstein proposes; the targeted buying off of existing government debt with non-debt, negative interest money. In that all pensioners would be the recipients of a guaranteed income, this is nowhere near as draconian as it might seem. As for inflation; yes, says Albrecht, this act would be a one-time inflationary pressure, but considering the current system is suicidally inflationary by design, a short burst of inflation followed by a balancing out is the wiser choice, particularly when the alternative is driving the usury system ever onwards, until there's nothing left but blackened toast to peck at and squabble over.

(A brief aside on 'all money is debt:' When I say non-debt money, I mean money the government prints into existence, not borrows into existence. I believe the distinction is an important one.)

Albrecht then asks, somewhat rhetorically, if the solution is so obvious, how come representative democracy isn't delivering us from the insanity of the current money system? He supposes, for the sake of pursuing the 'legal' path, that the parties might be Too Busy dealing with the humdrum to put together the necessary laws for enacting such a plan. Popp's and Albrecht's institute are, therefore, with the help of constitutional and other lawyers, preparing precisely such a body of law, which they will present to the German government shortly. At least then it cannot be said this 'legal' avenue was not trod.

Should it transpire that the Popp/Albrecht Statute (or whatever such proposals are called) is not greeted with euphoria, they plan, as a necessary second 'legal' step, to write a new constitution for Germany. Such is granted by existing law in the event that citizens feel the government is not acting in their best interests. Again, the likelihood such a new constitution would usher in the sustainable system proposed is vanishingly small, so where they expect to be most active, and where they are investing their real energies, is in building the new system from scratch; secession, more or less.

The virtual reality created by the Mainstream media and Political theatre is very effective. We cannot expect to attract anything close to a majority with such ideas. Indeed, Popp reckons 5% of the population a tipping-point amount. In Germany that would be about 4 million souls. That's a whole bag of bananas right there, enough to include a rich vein of skills such as farming, plumbing, housebuilding, car maintenance, energy production (renewables), doctors, hospitals, IT expertise, lawyers, and so on. The point is to network, pool resources, build, learn, prepare. The act of 5% of the population leaving the existing system behind would collapse it, but there would then be something new to move over to, the requisite experience to take the strain, so to speak. Of course, there are no guarantees, but I don't see Doing Nothing as a reasonable option, and agree with Popp and Albrecht that we are in fact morally obliged to rebel. The system is that decadent and criminal, and obviously so.

I want to close with a quote from Europe's new banking overlord, Mario Draghi (thanks to Charles Wheeler for this):
What is clear then is that any fiscal integration will require fiscal discipline aka austerity and this in turn is the prerequisite for any imminent ECB liquidity and for Eurobonds over the medium-term. Yes, budget cuts will deepen the recessions in the periphery. But, there is no way around it; politically, no solution in Europe will unlock the sovereign debt crisis without fiscal consolidation. All of the political leaders are aware that this is so.
"All of the political leaders are aware this is so." Money is God. Obey, or perish. Price is the One True emissary of value. If a thing does not make economic sense (money-sense), it does not make sense. If it does not make money-profit, if it does not generate Economic Growth, it is not worth considering.

This is the binary thinking we are up against. We are morally obliged to rebel.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Now I’m Mad. For a While, Anyway

I shouldn’t be mad, I should be Wisely Calm. Serenely intelligent, with a gentle but knowing smile. Sadly, I’m very human, quite naïve, desperately romantic, and want this absurd system behind me, done with, over. Of course that’s going to take years, but I’m impatient. And sometimes, the old sense of being tiny in the face of a crushingly enormous juggernaut blind to the damage it does, it gets to me. It does. I want more power. There. I said it. And this is why.

Central banks have acted in a globally unified move to reduce central bank to commercial bank lending rates by 0.5%. Even more than on the rumour of the IMF boning up a cool 600bn euros for Italy, the markets are climaxing over this. There's coke and jism all over the shop. Adam's Invisible Hand is hard at work, pumping those boys good and proper. And it isn't even Friday yet! Here are some choice quotes from a Guardian article I just perused:
The Bank of England joined the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the ECB, the Bank of Canada and the Swiss National Bank in taking the measures. Stock markets around the world surged after the central banks said they would cut the price of emergency dollar loans to cash-strapped banks by 0.5 percentage points, and extend the scheme until February 2013.

[snip]

"Clearly the world's central bankers have had enough of all the political mud-slinging and intransigence and they've decided to take the situation by the scruff of the neck."

How nice to have had enough of politicians who can’t seem to cure the worst debt crisis in history by forcing their underlings to pony up their futures, without rioting, for generations to come, as tribute to the system that serves only two functions; growth and enslavement. How meek and incompetent of them. How indecisive. How immature. Not that I’m a fan of politicians, but doesn’t that financial-expert view of things sum it up nicely.

It’s the money, stupid. No money; no planet. No credit; no planet. No debt; catastrophe, mayhem, disaster, raining fire, earthquakes, boiling seas, kraken devouring lambs and babies. You name it, we’ll do it.
The central bankers fear that if financial institutions rein in credit, it will hit ordinary consumers and businesses, and threaten a double-dip recession in the world economy.

"The purpose of these actions is to ease strains in financial markets and thereby mitigate the effects of such strains on the supply of credit to households and businesses and so help foster economic activity," they said in a joint statement.

Scary, huh? The very last thing we want is a double dip recession. Just think, wages might stagnate. People might lose their jobs. Standards of living might fall. Crime might rise. Any one of those would be, quite frankly, unacceptable. Nobody in their right minds would want all of them at once. So thank the central bankers that the markets are rising again. Because if there is one thing that is crystal clear by now, it’s that we all benefit, people and planet, when the markets are surging upwards.

Trot out the bonuses! Those ‘hard working’ folk in finance can buy their wives and Class Act Escorts another Porsche Cayenne or Audi Q1.

The Audi Bonus. “One in each colour, sir?”

But this is boring, isn’t it? This is like the twentieth time this month a ‘fresh injection of liquidity’ has revived the fetid rot this system clearly is. Squeezed some noxious activity out of it. I mean, apart from it being historic and everything, this is getting just a tad repetitive. Let’s try and spice it up a little, remind ourselves what we’re dealing with here:
"This may have been a signal that the money markets were a short shove away from complete collapse."
Complete collapse? Ooh! I think I can ... yep, there’s a butterfly in my stomach. Thanks, Jeremy Cook, for bringing a little excitement back into my old body. The Cinema of the Media sure knows how to knock us out, eh? Wham, bam, boom, up and down like jet fueled yoyo. It don’t get much better than this. And the only way to fly in this beast is passively. Lie back, let the Masters take care of business, and hope you don't belong to one of the billions about to get squished under the juggernaut's weight. Like a bug.


[ADDENDUM, 18:51 CET: This point should have made it into the article, but them's the breaks. Lowering interest rates worked like a charm so far, got banks lending again, right? It says in the text books that low interest rates = cheap money = lending and then Even More economic growth. It's in the text books, clear as day. With charts and everything. So let's do that again, because last time people didn't notice enough. There wasn't a sufficient Attention Quotient (AQ) operating at that moment in time (2008, 2009, and 2010 or so, roughly). It didn't really bite, you know? Didn't quite find purchase as we'd hoped. This time, now that the problem has been taken "by the scruff of the neck", those eye-wateringly low interest rates will have the effect the text books promise. Everybody knows that!]

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Know?

Do not know. Turn that off now.
Run down these words a while
knowing nothing, especially not
where all this is going.

Sand gives underfoot;
balance shifts. Tip with it.
In a tree—if you still climb—
new balance again. Swim

through curved sea, be curved.
One by one never adds up.
Anger strums a wave into you,
then out, a wind to brave, or buck

into its being, its dizzy self
dazzling as reality. The circled food,
coming back to you and new you,
roots in the pocked depths

of Everywhere, like branch
or dune, wave or shout, bright face
or wake for a sleep. You
cannot know. I know I don’t.

Scatter sand to other forms.
Thrash water to settled pools.
Wind back the weather again
to clouds of trees that bow.

Breathe them in. There is no time
so particular
its every nano can be noted,
jotted down; it vanishes

just as you get there,
like the threads of your thoughts,
these words, their meaning
slipping out of every crack

your cupped hands leave. It is
as if this never happened.
But of course it did. At least
this much you know.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Nailed it Again! Econosophy Shouts, the IMF Listens

The IMF could bail out Italy with up to 600 billion euros ($794 billion), an Italian newspaper reported on Sunday, as Prime Minister Mario Monti came under pressure to speed up anti-crisis measures.
Source
Of course, that's not a cast-iron promise, but it's a good start.

The last thing humanity wants is for growth to stop. As I penned a few days ago, what we're all longing for is nonstop growth of economic activity into all aspects of our lives, without exception. Reading my heartfelt plea, the wise folk at the IMF stepped up to the plate, and promised to Do What They Can.

A trustworthy source at the IMF I'm not permitted to name, said:
These are troubled times, Toby. After reading your words we realised action had to be taken. We hastily met in a meeting room designed for these sorts of things, and put it out to our friends in the press that there was money to be loaned after all. It sure as hell looks that way. What with digibits being as cheap as dirt, and zeros cheaper still, we felt the least we could do was sink Italy further into debt. There's nothing like the cold hand of fear to get things moving, I've found.
Asian markets surged higher with relief, Europe has nosed upwards with the glimmering vigour of a rambunctious dolphin, and the US is expected to be giddily euphoric now that fair Europa is flush with cash once more. Even I, old man that I am, have a new spring in my stride and am waxing lyrical again. Oh, happy day.

I don't expect thanks, because I'm very humble. A quiet life is all I ask for. With a little luck and a wisp of magic we'll all get what exactly we want very soon. Christmas is coming!

(You heard it here first.)


UPDATE (15:45 CET): IMF "very angry" with Econosophy, trusted source tells Toby to watch his dirty little mouth, and not to call her anymore. This just in:
Stock markets boosted by rumours of bailout deal for Italy, though IMF denies reports of aid package proposal
Source
Nevertheless, the markets are aiming for the moon, riding the creosote fumes like the drunken old pros they truly are.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Perpetual Growth? Yes Please!

“Fomulare, formulare, von der Wiege bis zur Bahre!” (German saying, meaning, "Forms, forms, from the cradle to the grave!")

Finally, after world champion procrastination on my part, and a warning letter on their part, I filled in the form my German health insurance company had sent me, to record my change of status and Keep Them Informed. I didn’t enjoy a second of it, and the process had my wife and I shouting at each other angrily, with our children looking on. Later I posted it. Soon I will have the insurance company’s response. My wife’s and my reaction to this overall hideous experience of staying ‘insured’ was to plan leaving Germany at the earliest convenience. For now, I’ll just chalk that up to emotion. I mean, where would we go?

At around two o’clock this morning, it occurred to me that forms are the perceptive organs of companies, bureaucracies and other organizations. And there is probably a relationship along the lines of; the bigger the organization, the cruder and more insulting the form. Anyway, it occurred to me as I lay sleepless in the 2 a.m. gloom, that The Form is similar to money in that it is a crude and poor measure of value. I am Toby Russell. Only the tiniest fraction of my value can be recorded by ticking boxes on a form. But there I am, split up onto various pieces of paper and as various bits and bytes, scattered across the storage space of various companies and bureaucracies, in Form form, the information on me therein owned by them. It occurred to me, again, that ‘measuring’ people is best done intuitively, organically, dynamically, artistically, scientifically, patiently, flexibly, forgivingly, wisely, and that there can be no prescription for doing so. But we’re stuck with The Form and checking boxes; in fact, more and more of it as the economy grows, or tries to. Because whether in the government or private sector, creating forms, reading them, responding to them, is all Paid Work. And, the more Paid Work there is, the better the world is. The more money changing hands, the richer we are. We all want jobs. We all need money. Bring on those forms. Hand over that money.

The gloom is a fertile place for an imaginative man in a bad mood awake in the wee hours for the second night in a row. I found myself writing a heartfelt paean to my love, Economic Growth. Enjoy.


The year is the future, and Global Government has just decreed, in the interests of economic growth, to sell language to the highest bidders, then establish a public-private partnership by part-auctioning words to the people. Virgin Vocabulary won the lexis, Microten$e won all tenses, and GM Grammar got the rules and punctuation. Buying part-ownership of a word meant earning money for every usage of that word, with 1% of that money going to Virgin Vocabulary for administrative costs. Ownership of tense and grammar was deemed more sensible in wholly private form. The incredible complexity of monitoring language use across the planet was child’s play, due to biotech advances enabling scientists to ensure every human born was genetically equipped with bio-recording equipment, Genetic ID (GID) account, and a Frequency Interface Device for automating money transfers from GID account to GID account. No one needed to worry; the whole thing worked Like Magic.

Still, there were some small problems. Wealthy bidders bought up all the common words, like “the,” “and,” “that,” the pronouns, “thank,” “you,” “no,” “yes,” “please,” “bankrupt,” and the swear words too. The poor got the scraps, like “obviate,” “panegyric,” “extemporaneous,” “antidisestablishmentarianism,” and “abstruse.” Nevertheless, GDP figures showed huge gains in the opening months, so economists could afford to ignore the rising levels of debt among the poor, who were increasingly forced to use morse code, semaphore, sign language and doodles to communicate with one another. State education suffered terribly. However, the poor couldn’t always avoid speaking in the public-private language; private companies and government agencies alike would only listen in English.

“Necessity is the mother of invention!” smiled cloned president Obusha III, and commended the poor for their hard work and making the planet proud, but gently hinted too that socks ought to be pulled up, lest our most precious, commonly owned treasure, language, fall into disrepair. “I love freedom!” he beamed, before stepping back into the White House.

But, as is the nature of things, boom became bust as debt became unsustainable. The initial flush of growth tapered off to become Anaemic, and plans long in the making were finally rolled out before a grateful public. The people were informed that airplanes had been spraying the planet’s atmosphere for weeks, and that this harmless spray was made of a nanobot swarm whose programming it was to barcode every molecule of air in existence, as well as equip every person with a barcode-reader at the back of their mouth. The nanobots had since self-destructed, having fulfilled their mission.

“Mission accomplished!” declared Obusha III.

“We love technology, we love Obusha!” the people found themselves chanting (the only Free Words reserved for Free Use, in that combination and tense, exclamation mark optional).

The government, it transpired, had decreed and conducted a fair and impartial Initial Public Offering, fully automated, which had assigned an equal portion of the planet’s air to every citizen of earth. All were equal owners of air, and the poor set about training themselves to need less breaths per day, and spending more time underwater, somehow. They were up for the challenge, inspired to work hard and move up that ladder.

However, equality is not built to last. Polluted air was bought up by the rich on the Free Air Exchange, its price rose, and the poor living in over-populated, polluted areas found themselves owing more per breath than they earned. Days after the initial public offering, Artificial Air Inc was established, and began selling Synthetic Air Creators (SACs) to those who could afford them. SACs took the form of an ingenious device worn invisibly under one’s nostrils. The devices harnessed zero-point energy from the vacuum to literally rearrange free radicals and other atomic material not covered in the Public Air Act into pure, non-barcoded air. CO2 breathed out was barcoded by the device and owned by the device’s owner. Vegetation processing that CO2 into oxygen was engineered to keep the barcode, and hence ownership, unchanged. Of course, SACs sold like hot cakes. The poor found themselves sinking deeper into debt, and could only afford imitation SACs (if at all), which were unreliable, even to the point of poisoning many.

But it was all GDP growth, thus was good while it was good. Bust followed boom again; you can’t change nature! Necessity is the mother of invention, and the ingenuity of humanity knows no No More. Eyes became recording devices as morse code, semaphore, doodles and sign language became privatized. GDP grew, then tapered off. Smiles, hugs, laughter and winks all fell under the auctioneer’s gavel. GDP grew, then tapered off, this time in weeks as GDP measuring technologies were by now fine tuned down to the nanosecond. Market’s panicked. Mother’s milk was next, then the pleasure felt while enjoying a quiet moment. Biotech delivered the goods the very next day to prevent systemic collapse yet again, by privatizing thinking itself with yet more ingenious brainwave recorders.

At last everything we do, from gazing out of windows, to stroking our beards, petting our pets, feeding our fish, waving hello to a friend across the street, burping, farting, scratching our behinds and everything you can think of, Dear Paying Reader (see below), cost money, and everything that was, was embraced by GDP Almighty.

The End. (Literally.)



You owe me $5,343,694.45 for reading this, which I think is a bargain. (I owe more for writing it, so help a brother out, won’t you!?)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Health, Health Insurance, and Totalitarianism

[This post is a bit of a moan. Apologies in advance.]

It’s been 21 days since I left my job, on purpose, to become something else; a better Toby Russell, a better husband, a better father, and a better Earthling. Though I had wanted to leave work for many years, the decision was, I can assure you, very difficult to reach; I have a wife and two daughters and happen to be, for many reasons, our family’s sole bread-winner. Nevertheless, my wife and I arrived at that decision together (I did all the pushing, it must be said!), and I still believe it to have been both brave and wise. And noble too.

This latest leap into the unknown has not, however, been without its shocks, even in these first few weeks. The one I want to discuss in this post was served to us cold by Germany’s health system.

My wife and I, plus one three year old daughter, arrived in Berlin in July 2000. I had no job, no German, and no health insurance. None of this was a ‘system problem,’ since I had both savings and income from my recently deceased father’s dry cleaning chain. And, back in 2000, one was allowed to live in Germany without health insurance. That is, any visits we made to the doctor before I had found employment, we paid for in cash. This included my wife’s overnight stay in a hospital for an operation she needed after miscarrying shortly after our arrival in Berlin.

Three weeks ago, we learned precisely that loose, temporary ‘opting out’ we enjoyed eleven years ago is no longer legal. I am not allowed to step out of the system and receive medical care, even though I could afford it should such prove necessary, even for a few months while I train myself to become an English teacher. It is illegal not to have explicit health insurance. I have paid roughly 65,000 euros over ten years into the German health system, but my enforced ‘largesse’ has afforded me close to nothing, it seems; now that my income is zero for a while appears to be irrelevant. Even though I am now income-poor, still I must pay a hefty amount to cover our four-person family, close to 600 euros a month, from zero income, if things don’t go my way.

Here’s the deal. I plan to become self-employed (all things being equal), which is a social status distinct from employed, unemployed, student, housewife, and so on. The reason for this is to stay as far away from corporations as possible, and as close to gift and alternative currency communities as I can manage. But when you’re self-employed, the health insurance companies, as instructed by the government, assume you enjoy an income of around 3,700 euros a month, which equates to health insurance contributions of close to 600 euros per month. That, or they take your last year’s income and calculate from there. In my case, that happens to equate to about 600 euros a month, even though I’m changing from an income to no income.

Now, our family costs the health system nowhere near 600 a month, which, while employed I didn’t mind, since that excess pays for those who earn less than I did. Or so I thought. Now that I am earning much less than I did, so as to do something noble and brave, I am asked to pay as I did before. Pray tell, whither did that 65,000 go?

Of course, if it turns out that in the first year of my life as a self-employed person I only earn a total of nothing, they’ll pay back a portion of my contributions, but that doesn’t help me now. And that I could pay the monthly 600 for a while isn’t really the point; my family does not cost the health system anywhere near that much. Combined, we visit the doctor a total of something like ten times a year.

Here’s a brief rundown of our load on the system these last ten years. My wife gave birth to our second daughter in a hospital in Berlin, and her pregnancy included two or three yoga classes, one night in the hospital, and two post-natal visits by a midwife. Maybe that cost one to two thousand euros. I had a shoulder operation and physiotherapy, but paid for the three nights at the hospital, and about 20% of the therapy sessions before and after. I should point out that the operation was necessary in the first place because of medical incompetency (five week delay of the MRT and two false diagnoses of the originating problem). I did not sue, because I know no system is perfect, and hate all that acrimony, not to mention it would take years and get me nowhere at all.

Anyway, too much griping for one post I’m sure (and others have it far harder than I do), but what I’m getting at is the state’s inability to deal with us citizens as unique human beings. It is utterly irrelevant that I try to live honourably, that I try not to burden the state, that my shoulder operation came from a cycling accident (I cycle to be environmentally friendly and stay healthy), that I did not sue the health insurance company for the delayed MRT, nor the doctors who erroneously misdiagnosed my condition. The state simply cannot perceive any of this. The state is too big, my life details too tiny, too unusual. We each exist in the state’s clumsy eyes as something that must fit into one box or other. If we don’t, we are an annoyance, something to be sorted, categorised somehow, which means extra work, hassle, etc.

Furthermore, my health insurance company, “Barmer GEK”, is a corporation under public law, a strange Germanic institution I don’t fully understand. It is public, hence not categorised as private, but this seems to be more a nicety than anything else. However, it is not funded by taxes generally, but by members’ payments; an employer is obliged to pay half an employee’s contribution, but the wage slips only shows, in the taxation section, the half paid by the employee; mine used to show about 300 euros. A self-employed person pays 100%, hence I would be asked to pay 600 if I adopted that status. Barmer also has legal autonomy; it, not the state, runs it. Its public nature is therefore somewhat cloudy and impenetrable. I’ve been unable to work out its ownership structure and profit requirements.

I went to Barmer for for face to face advice, trawled its enormously confusing web site for information, and the strong sense I get is that it wants as much money out of me as possible, not what’s best for Toby Russell. The very notion that 600 euros is a lot of money for someone on no income does not compute. I, a 45 year old ‘head’ of a family, just should not give up a paying job to do something ‘nobler.’ The woman I saw at Barmer could not relate to my story at all, and advised me to register as unemployed, because, I assume, that way tax payers would be footing my bills, but at least Barmer would be getting its money. (I will not register as unemployed.)

(Most likely the health system/financial category I must assume is that of ‘student,’ since that is what I am right now—students pay far lower contributions of around 150 euros a month (still very high in my opinion). However, whether the state is capable of recognising me as a student remains to be seen; I’m doing a remote learning course from a college based in England, though it’s affiliated with an American university.)

This is all very personal stuff, most unlike what I normally write for Econosophy. My reason for burdening you with all this runs as follows; to work towards something better than that which currently exists, we must at least irritate existing structures, and thereby isolate ourselves too. Doing so quickly makes very plain how cumbersome and inhumane The System is, how machine-like, how insensitive. In the (purported) interest of ‘efficiency’ and handling enormous numbers of human beings in as uniform a way as possible, we have murdered most of our humanity, destroyed our ability to deal with each other sensitively, case-by-case, with familiarity, community and care. This feeds through into our treatment of the environment of course. This includes too our broader concept of health, which, in a Money-God System such as ours, must make a profit (whatever that is). Which means disease and ill health are good for GDP, which is Good by default. Which means my tiny attempt to Do Good for family, humanity and environment alike are in fact problems, not cures, are greeted with suspicion and annoyance, not with open arms. And this while we all complain that things have to change.

What is hard during transition is finding a minimal platform within the system strong and free enough to be the financial/economic ground I can stand on, while launching myself and my family into a new way of being. The German system has a strong grip on its citizens. We are not allowed, for example, to take our children out of school and teach them at home. Alternative schools pursuing a healthier and wiser attitude to teaching children all cost lots of money, and state sanctioned ones are quickly losing their funding. Organic food costs far more than its poisoning counterpart. Hence, only the rich can afford not to damage the environment, to put their children through a sensible school system. Or, put another way, it costs more to do good than bad. Unhealthy. Unsane. There can be no true profit in such a system.

It may well be that a radical change of life-style is soon necessary for my family and me, including selling our flat and leaving Germany (to where??), but that has to wait for now. For now this awkward middle road is a necessary evil.

My conclusion is that doing good is ‘bad’ and painful when the good you choose to do fundamentally opposes the paradigm of the existing system. It is not that this system can do no good, but rather that all paradigms outlive their usefulness eventually. That’s when the trouble starts. Today, The System is global, tightly integrated, monstrously banal, insensitive and greedy. It is an immature, growth-addicted beast screaming for more, and can only rage at those voices calling for it to no longer be what it is. Any fundamental change is effectively death (systems are what they do), and even what I am doing with my attempt to earn less, do more for community, submit less tribute to The System, is infuriating anathema to it. And though what I am doing is peaceful in intent, it can only be perceived as ‘violent’ by the monster it threatens. In fact the more peacefully I oppose, the more threatening, violent and alien my actions appear. This truism scales up of course. So though I am small, and want to stay that way, though the net effect of what I have thus far ‘accomplished’ is infinitesimal, we are many. The more of us cohesively ‘opting out,’ pursuing new ways of building and being community, the more upheaval we will unleash. We must know this, and deeply. Knowing this we must, as the main part of our opting out, Build the New; food networks, transportation networks, currency networks, skill networks. Unless we have some roughly viable collection of systems and methodologies well practiced and (almost) running, all we are doing by opting out on masse is initiating chaos. An angry revolution is not going to cut it. Only the mad want that. Not being mad (I hope!) I’m thinking long term, but within the context of The System I am not permitted to escape, even my little beginning is an annoyance, and filled with daunting frustrations.

The Way is long and hard it seems.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Property

To be able to freely buy and sell something means that is has been dissociated from its original matrix of relationships, in other words, that it has become “alienable.”
Charles Eisenstein, "Sacred Economics", p70
We have perhaps a general principle: to make something saleable, in a human economy, one needs to rip it from its context. That’s what slaves are: people stolen from the community that made them what they are. As strangers to their new communities, slaves no longer had mothers, fathers, kin of any sort. [p146]
The mere fact of their [slaves’] existence set a precedent. The value of a human life could, sometimes, be quantified; but if one was able to move from A = A (one life equals another) to A = B (one life = one hundred cloths), it was only because the equation was established at the point of a spear. [p144]
David Graeber, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”

Property is a deeply flawed concept, because it divides the indivisible. Imagine you have some land with a fence around it. The fence says, “Within this perimeter everything belongs to me. Everything outside this perimeter does not.” What does this claim mean?

I think we can eke out its meaning by stripping Universe of everything except that which falls within the perimeter of the fence. So imagine a plot of farmland, with pigs, goats, sheep, crops, part of a stream, house, apple and pear trees, and sheds. Then imagine completely isolating that ‘property’ from everything that lies beyond the fence. Everything; the rest of the stream, weather, air, the rest of the planet, the sun, stars, gravity ... everything. What is that property then? Absolutely nothing. Fully isolated from Universe it can have no meaning whatsoever, yet this is precisely what we attempt to do with the concept of property; to isolate a ‘thing’ from everything it is not. To rip it from its context. To enclose it. To enslave it. To be in control of it. To own it.

So why do we have it? Well, sir, it was an accident. And very involved. I didn’t mean it, it just sort of happened. Seriously. What with one thing and another it was only a matter of time before we sapiens started experimenting with seeds, building more permanent shelters, and enjoying the feeling, however self-deceptive, of ‘controlling’ nature in that way. Perhaps it made us feel secure and powerful, perhaps it was just exciting and interesting, like when the penny drops and you ‘get’ it. Anyway, such was the beginning of farming, and farming is the beginning of My-Realm=Domesticated, Not-My-Realm=Wild. And an early stage of science too; if I do this, what happens? Farming is at root one consequence of the famous Self-Other split, The Fall, Expulsion from Eden, exit from the Mother-Child Symbiosis; Now I Am And Know It, therefore You Are Not Me.

This Separation is not all bad (nothing is), but it did of course begin in ignorance of the consequences of its outcomes, just as we all remain in ignorance of the consequences of our actions, just as ignorance is an absolutely inescapable part of striving to know. But all this is only the background.

Property as we enjoy it today in the legal and therefore practical sense stems from Roman Law. And property in Roman Law stems from slavery; that is, what rights a slave owner has over a slave. Of course total, including disposal, or destruction. And it is disposal that distinguishes between full access (say as a renter of a property) and private ownership of it. If I legally own a thing, I can destroy it, if I only have access rights, I can’t. And yet there are qualifications; burning flags and such, as well as burning money. Are we legal owners, in the proprietary sense, of the notes and coins we have in our pockets, or of the national flags we purchase? Or are we mere part time users of them, temporary guardians? Is it legal for an ordinary citizen to burn notes or melt coins? Wikipedia:
In the United States, burning banknotes is prohibited under 18 U.S.C. § 333: Mutilation of national bank obligations, which includes "any other thing" that renders a note "unfit to be reissued. In an amicus brief for Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, Solicitor General Seth Waxman writes that arresting an individual who removes the corner dollar values "may expose a counterfeiting operation". It is unclear if the statute has ever been applied in response to the complete destruction of a bill. Certainly people have publicly burned small amounts of money for political protests that were picked up by the media — Living Things at South by Southwest, Larry Kudlow on The Call — without apparent consequence.

And yet the state shreds cash when it is handed over directly in payment of taxes. So money as private property is probably quite a grey legal area, since money is a commons even if the state-market apparatus promotes it otherwise. Being fiat, it ‘belongs’ to the sovereign. And the fractional reserve system is a multiple-claim, multiple-use system; each central bank dollar endures multiple claims on it in the form of credit money. Credit money issued by commercial banks is nothing but a claim on central bank or high powered money, which only the sovereign can create and destroy. We only use the notes and coins that pass through our pockets and purses; we are not their proprietors. Can a sovereign be a legal private property owner? Even a King is several. A democratically elected government more so. Kings are The Land. Governments are The People. They ‘own’ severally, on behalf of. So it’s not clear what’s going on here, right at the root of all exchange, when it comes to property. The very medium we deploy to exchange ownership, we do not own. I see that as a profound contradiction. And that money is a medium; that is a contradiction too. How can we be owners of a medium, like language, or inches?

This is something of a tangent, but it plays into the central idea; property as a concept is illogical.

Let’s look at the human body. Is my body my private property? I argue that the question is absurd, since it implies there is ‘in me’ some Not-Body component which could conceivably be ‘owner’ of my body. Let’s call this Not-Body entity “Soul.” To ‘own’ ‘my’ body I, at the conceptual level, need to have a Soul, a component sufficiently Not-Body actively to do the owning of Body. We have to separate ourselves (strange word, isn't it) in two to talk of ownership of self. To bring this into sharper relief, we would not ask if a tree owns its body, or a mountain. What about cats and dogs, or cattle, pigs, sheep? What about chickens and ‘their’ eggs? It is only because we think, at a very deep level, that humans are somehow Soul and Body (not only Body, or only Soul—to my mind they are the same thing) that we can even come up with the nonsensical idea that a human has ‘ownership’ of his or her body. As for 'control' of the body, how total is it really, and where does it come from? Do you choose your skin colour and gender before you are born? Control your every thought? The aging process? The air you breathe, and its constitution?

In exactly the same way, arising from exactly the same error of thought, we think we can be proprietors of ‘things’ ‘out there.’ We do not have a body, we are body. Or, we do not have a soul, we are soul. (See how it sounds awkward to express reality closer to its ‘truth’? “I am body inextricably embedded in Universe.”) Furthermore, as David Graeber points out, body cannot be separated from its context without either killing it—if the separation is total (e.g., into a vacuum)—or deeply harming it, as in slavery. And aren’t such things always done at the point of a spear?

There is violence of some kind in the birth of property.

And then there’s scarcity. I asked why we have property, and have suggested an error in our understanding of reality gave inexorable rise to the concept, and I think this is a valid observation (it’s not mine; this analysis ‘belongs’ to the anarchist tradition). But there is a ‘practical’ reason for property too, and that is the perception of scarcity, which also arises from the Expulsion from Eden, the conceptual division of the world into Me and NotMe.

Because I am Separate, I must defend myself against those parts of the environment that are dangerous or deadly. Fair enough, and a living system does not need a Separate Self to be capable of self-defense. But as this gets tangled up with farming and self-awareness, the portion of reality I claim as ‘mine’—because I have developed it, worked it, made it into what it is—stays permanently insufficient, even with ‘surplus.’ This is complicated and requires long, winding arguments and discussions to bring into focus, but I hope a short version can do the idea some justice. I’ll begin with a couple of quotes.

What we now call scarcity can only emerge out of these exclusive rights of the proprietor.
“Property, Interest and Money”, Otto Steiger and Gunnar Heinsohn, p44. My translation.
The economic way of seeing the world automatically creates shortage. [ … ] Shortage does not precede the economic communication. Shortage occurs as a result of the binary division of the world into have/have not by the economic code; which, moreover, produces the possibility of economising on the scarce resources whether these be money or as translated into other problems of shortage such as a shortage of competency, shortage of food, shortage of oil, etc.
“Polyphonic Organizations”, Niels Aakerstroem Andersen, in “Autopoietic Organization Theory”, pp156-7, Tore Bakken and Tor Hernes (editors).

Not only at the pragmatic level of crops ruined by intruders, pests or weather anomalies must surplus be a scarce thing we economize the distribution of, but, more subtly and more importantly, our product is scarce because we are now ‘at war’ with a nature we are trying to manipulate to our ends, to force into our service. Nature is no longer a partner, or a seamless extension of what we are; it is Not-Self, mercurial, deceptive, capricious. This fundamental perception-shift—most likely engendered accidentally by idle experimentation—gives rise to the perception of scarcity. Scarcity means we no longer have faith in nature’s bounty, no longer passively accept death and disease, now we want to live forever, cheat death, are fearful, untrusting. We begin to escape, to Ascend, to rise to the stars, to become gods over Earth, are even made in God’s image, born to be Masters of All. To fulfil our destiny we must control unwanted and wanted variables, generate less of the former and more of the latter; we must control everything so that Bad Things don’t happen to us. To control everything we have to own Not-Self, subjugate it to our wills, make it obey us, force it to deliver only the Good Stuff, then fight off the Bad Stuff and all other Enemies, and Ascend. (And what is the state but a monopoly on force protecting private property? What is market but a mechanism for exchanging the private property the state sanctions? One system, ascending, growing, destroying.)

But nothing makes sense in isolation. There is no separate place to ascend to. There is no such thing as Only Good. Diversity is the stuff of life, ‘control’ of it is death, or anathema; diversity controlled is not diversity at all, rather its Frankenstein. Don’t we see this lifeless monster today in the pallid, monotonous, characterless blitz of glamour, glitter and bling that is supposed to be what we want? But we don’t want an anodyne, prescribed-from-on-high cornucopia of shiny consumer goods, totally clean and safe, ‘risk free,’ all disease eradicated, an endless selection of junk to choose in malls which are as close to Hell as any other banal ‘evil’ I can think of. We want an authentic, risky, enriching, meaningful life, and we are waking up to this in our millions.

Back to property:

In that it is obviously about the illusion of control it is illogical.

In that it is about fear and self-protection at the cost of others (zero sum) it is dangerous, seen over the long term; this fear of uncertainty, perversely, generates belief in infinite growth.

In that property has at its conceptual heart “disposal,” it is destructive at its root, and requires ongoing violence to be sustained.

And that the system of exchange underpinning property’s very meaning and existence deploys an ‘unownable’ medium (money), property is a non-thing, a fantasy, a cultural blind spot. Money, the root of property, is a nothing, a mere measuring unit doubling as a claim on unpurchased wealth. And wealth only makes sense in a broader context.

Nevertheless I do not preach the abolition of property. Maybe we naked apes can mature beyond it, learn together how to distribute the fruits of our peculiar genius in a less destructive way; I certainly hope for this outcome. But we have to earn such a new wisdom. Forced abolition on an indignant wave of rage cannot work for long; only an evolution of consciousness can generate the right cultural conditions for transcending that which is dying. In the meantime, we owe it to ourselves to understand as well as we can the system breaking down all around us. For only an informed pubic can select the wiser options. Since the system is the problem, it is outside its remit and paradigm that those wiser options are to be found and created. Look there where the mainstream is not shining its glittering lights, and we'll find each other well enough.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Money is a Jealous God

We have made a god of money.

Money is a symbol of the agreement (we somehow) reached, that a number attached to some sign ($, £, €) accurately denotes the value of a thing. It is a ‘natural’ idea to us now, something we accept unquestioningly, but imagine explaining to a !Kung bushman that his loin cloth is ‘worth’ $50 on the ‘open market.’ What is a dollar? How much is one worth? What does it mean to measure the value of a thing with a simple number attached symbol? Can you even explain it to yourself? What is the dollar value of your right hand, to you? To the market? To me?

We have made of god of money, and we are not allowed to question that god.

In Hindu religious art, the eyes of the gods are whited out. We mortals cannot look at them and live. Money is like that. It is like the smell of your nose, there always, intimately familiar, and yet totally indescribable. After we have penetrated money’s mists and seen the vacuum that lies beyond them, we are changed. The old person ‘dies,’ the new one sees the world in a very different light.

What is the value of a loin cloth? What is $50? What information in “loin cloth” cannot be contained by the information “$50”? How about the following guess at the value of a loin cloth:

O snug second scrotum,
o status of my manhood,
o evidence of:
my skill with a blade,
to track all day then kill clean,
to skin and cure, to share the meat,
to make from what I have what I need!
How could I ever want another’s!?

That’s 47 words. Have I just valued the loin cloth at W47? Stupid question. What if I had put it to music? Or painted an image of my loin cloth on a cave wall? Words, music and images work together. They cooperate, expand on, go beyond. There is grammar, context, rhythm, style, rhyme, tone, colour, culture, etc. But $50 is always and only $50.

Why is it that the consensus required to create money—this ‘somehow’ agreement reached as if by magic, that $1 is always and only $1—is so powerful? To my mind it is precisely by magic we have concocted equivalence from its absence elsewhere in nature. If you can, try to name two things that grow or emerge from Universe, even two apples or grains of sand, that are exactly identical. Even two protons proceed through a different trajectory, have different ‘destinies.’ No two Decembers are identical, no two experienced seconds, or smiles, holidays, Mondays ... nothing. Everything is unique and in a constant state of flux. Only measuring-units such as inches, miles, meters and money posses this quality of perfect equivalence.

Why then have we made a jealous god of money, but not of inches or ounces?

The more of us capable of answering that question, in depth, the better chance humanity has at making it through the coming challenges.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Crisis of Imagination

At the supermarket buying a loaf of bread and a jar of yoghurt, I saw a German newspaper (Die Zeit) sporting the headline, “What is the alternative to capitalism?” Underneath, dominating the front page, was an appropriate graphic of a big fish eating a smaller fish eating a smaller fish, maybe five fish long. It’s a graphical gesture we all understand. Sadly, the article does not appear to be available online, so, not having bought a copy of the paper, I cannot comment on its content.

A couple of weeks ago, on a mainstream German channel (ARD), Franz Hoermann was allowed his five minutes of fame (his star appears to be rising though, so perhaps more than five minutes are coming his way). In his rapid-fire, academic style, he described the fiat, fractional reserve system. There appeared to be no shock in the audience. The minister for the economy, Philipp Roesler, sat to Hoermann’s left. Next to Roesler sat the finance minister and one of the architects of the Euro, Theo Waigel. Opposite Hoermann sat some markets expert, Dirk Mueller. Of the quartet, only Waigel seemed content to propagate the idea that the money system is fine as it is, is somehow immortal, and needs no substantial adjustments. That a thinker of Hoermann’s oddity should be given any airtime at all on such a mainstream talk show is quite surprising, that the other panelists, and the host too, should (more or less) sympathize with his position (Waigel excepted) more surprising still.

Apparently the BBC (principally Radio 4 and Newsnight) are also broadcasting what I think of as the voice of reason, that is, the type prepared to highlight collapse. Not doom and gloom necessarily, but a deep systemic problem which must be addressed. The Guardian online yesterday morning had a headline in its business section proclaiming the European situation was spiraling out of control, that France and Germany were contemplating a restructuring of the Eurozone. Strange days, as they say, are most certainly afoot. And yet despite this media flurry, a combination of rigged markets, desperate belief, a few heads of state tumbling down the career ladder, some reshuffling, and the situation suddenly seems less desperate. For a while. Nevertheless the taste of profound change in the air can’t be ignored any more. Defenses are crumbling, and I suspect growing numbers of the so-called elite are losing heart. Fewer and fewer of us care about this system as we once did, fewer desire ever growing consumption, ever higher salaries, an ever more frenetic rat race. What’s the point? To be cliched about it, surely there’s more to life than this!

So, is capitalism doomed? Well of course it is, just as is the sun. Only sooner. But it’s the wrong question (sort of).

I’ve covered this topic before, probably too often, so am going to be brief here. What I want to say is that what is being called into question, although labelled “capitalism” by everyone and their aunt, is in fact the price system, and includes the variants of socialism, communism, and fascism humanity has toyed with thus far, though these systems do have important differences.

A price is a piece of information generated by market activity (supply and demand) that tells us—allegedly in an uninfluenced, non-political, ‘value free’ way—what each good and service is worth. Price is therefore Value. Price information as generated by the market is—in ‘free’ market ideology—always true and accurate, as long as the State does not interfere with Price Discovery. Any interference muddies the water, poisons the accuracy of the information, and things no longer work optimally. It’s an elegant and powerful idea. Something organic and ‘natural’ takes place, constantly, no one dominates, and clear, helpful information emerges from the melee, information that guides important matters like how many Ferraris to manufacture, how many potatoes to grow, how many twenty carat diamond rings to produce, and so on. And via the labour market, who gets what amount of purchasing power is similarly discovered, in a ‘value free’ way. If only it were that simple!

As readers of this blog will know, I don’t subscribe to this theory (as it stands), since there can be no such thing as a ‘free’ market. Hence the price system cannot work as advertised. Hence ‘capitalism’ cannot work as advertised. The differences between ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’ are important, but also somewhat cosmetic. In communism we have the monopoly of State fixing prices. In capitalism we have the monopoly (or oligopoly) or the Corporation fixing prices. Either way we do not have clean and true information contained in prices. Externalities are but one other aspect of this general problem. That we even try to nail value down using a linear scale like Dollar is another.

There are many problems, but perhaps the central one is that the confected dichotomy between Market and State serves no purpose other than to bamboozle and confuse. It is a Punch and Judy show, just as the Left-Right Drama is. One telling sign of this is the infrequency with which lobbying (the modern name for bribery) is discussed as Market interference in State. If Market only works best when ‘free’ from State ‘interference,’ why do we not hear any mainstream discussion of how a ‘free’ State works best when free from Market ‘interference?’

Of course the answer is that the price system is corruptible, corrupted, and benefits approximately 10% of the population at the cost of the remaining 90%. It is an elitist system by design. And that applies to both Market and State. Elitism, entrenched class divisions, wealth, health and education gaps, are systemic properties of the price system while the money system is set up as we have it.

Underneath all of this writhe, like uroboric world serpents, the core assumptions of Competition, Selfishness and Greed, as projected onto nature via misunderstandings of Darwinian theory (Spencer’s “red in tooth and claw”). Of course a millennia old dynamic of elitist control of an exploited non-elite, as established by the state long ago (a HUGE topic), predominantly engenders the kind of competition, selfishness and greed history has delivered thus far. We cooked ourselves in that soup and now see its flavours everywhere we look, even in our imagination. That there is far more to nature than this simplistic Triumvirate of Evil is becoming plainer and plainer, but changing the system forged in those elitist fires, the system which found form and life in historical processes set in motion by farming and ‘taming’ fire, and as these accomplishments gave birth to scarcity and property (twinned phenomena in my humble opinion) which in turn shape our view of All That is; changing a system that old, that much a part of what we all are, is no easy task.

Back to the price system. As we can see, its roots go deep indeed. We ‘need’ it, because we have ‘discovered’ scarcity via farming and property. Because there is not enough to go around, what better way to ‘decide’ who gets what, while keeping the constant threat of a Hobbesian Warre of Each Against All at bay, what better than some ‘anonymous,’ impartial, and incorruptible system? Capitalism. Free Market. The Price System. A force of nature for harnessing our brutish forces of nature.

Cool, only atop the foundational assumption of scarcity no market can stay free. Big fish eat little fish (competition, greed, selfishness), in the twinned realms of Market and State alike, and before you know it, the biggest are writing the rules to suit themselves and their own. ‘Twas ever thus, and ever thus shall be. Until we update the Triumvirate of Evil and embrace abundance, cooperation and faith.

Back to the money system. It is the motor of state apparatus, is its core dynamic embodied in financial infrastructure. Forged in those Competition, Selfishness and Greed fires, the money system stimulates and assumes these three forces equally resolutely. It also requires, by design, perpetual economic growth. Ever-growing economic activity. An ever-expanding money realm into the non-economic realm. An ever-accelerating rat race. What was once done for free, what is ‘idly’ doing nothing—like forests and schools of fish—must be converted into either goods or services. If it’s not working, if it’s not earning money and delivering price information, what possible value can it have? How can we measure a thing, assess it, extract it, profit from it, unless it is sucked into economic life? Look at air, that useless, ubiquitous stuff. It has a price of zero! Let’s earn money from it, put it to work somehow, make it earn its right to exist! But what happens when there’s no nature left to convert into goods and services ??? Let’s not contemplate that.

Except, the mainstream has begun to contemplate just that. We are the mainstream, even we Fringe Nutjobs. The more eloquent we become at presenting our case, the quicker and more effectively the message can spread to others. Then our imaginations can begin the work of envisioning a new system, and put ideas into practice.

Fellow travelers, through this period of upheaval, crisis and opportunity, the time of the Fringe Nutjob has come. People will be asking, in growing numbers, what the alternatives are. Sadly, the “no one knows” answer can be annoying. I suggest pointing out that the system we have is based on profound misunderstandings of the workings of reality, and, as a consequence, has become addicted to perpetual growth. We have designed a system which, were it a car, could only accelerate. Forever. Pressing on the breaks causes it to crash. Designing things differently requires, urgently, a new money system, which will further and necessarily require a redesign of pretty much everything else. All of it can only begin when we are ready to initiate the task. When we badly want something new. Right now recognition of the urgency is paramount. The ideas are there. We need safe-as-possible mechanisms and methodologies for testing them.

It has begun in earnest. Now we have to kick our imaginations into gear, have a lot of faith, and believe in ourselves.

(After reading this please check out this talk, given towards the end of October at Occupy Wall Street, on money, value and information flow. Fascinating stuff. Thanks, Karl, for the link.)