Sunday, January 15, 2012

On Interest, Cyclicality and Sonnets

More nuance today from the man who likes to drive his readership to distraction with prevarication and belligerent fence-sitting. Confession: I am no conviction politician. I believe there are alternatives, even to the alternatives. TINA (There Is No Alternative) can go hang. Which is of course conviction of sorts, but I remain widely open as to implementation and evolution of the new, not to mention being something of a moral relativist.

In that vein, you are today to be treated to a kind of homage to the dying system I have spent so much of my time and energy battling and critiquing these last years. It was a damn good system in many ways, particularly at driving growth, and at generating and sustaining elitism (which has been mostly appropriate for this ‘post-primitive’ portion of the human journey). Nothing which flourishes out to the global scale and produces the degree of cohesion it produced can be called utterly defective, even considering its rapacious heart, its sociopathic soul, its inflexible limbs, its machine-like viscera. For it to be ‘bad’ in net effect, for it to be seen, generally, as broken, requires an evolution of consciousness in the vast majority of us; first we must learn the necessary perceptive abilities culturally. Until that happens, what was once ‘good’ will continue its collapse, something like ‘human nature’ will cop the blame, yet another iteration of this paradigm will be tried again, and the TINA Brigade will have been proven right. Speaking brutally, until humanity builds a flourishing alternative, there is no alternative. We have to earn it. Ideas on pages aren’t enough.

So, what is dying, why is it dying, and why was it ‘good?’ Charles Eisenstein’s analysis in “The Ascent of Humanity” is as thorough an analysis of our paradigm as I have seen, and I strongly agree with it. In his thesis, humanity emerged from undifferentiated unison with its environment, many thousands of years ago, to begin the long, slow process we call Civilization. With the advent of technologies like taming fire, domesticating seeds and animals, humans unwittingly initiated for themselves a developmental arc characterized by ever increasing ‘separation’ from and opposition to Not-Self, indeed created an ever more clearly delineated Not-Self. In the Bible, the myth which echoes this is Adam and Eve’s eviction from Eden. Today we might see a baby’s eviction from its mother’s womb as a similar break. Thus we begin a sense of Us and Them when the area within the warmth and light of the ‘controlled’ fire is safe, the darkness beyond dangerous; when some aspects of nature become clear enemies—insect pests, winter, adverse weather—and others friends—wheat, chicken, dog, horse. The pattern is one of increasingly sophisticated control of both wanted and unwanted variables, so as to maximize the former and minimize the latter. We are still engaged in this fight against Not-Self today, looking for the perfect life, the perfect partner, job, city, system, etc.

One of the many emergent properties of this developmental arc has been elitism (the state), which, to me, is a necessary social dynamic for keeping increasingly complex societies cohesive (specialization plays an enormous role here). Of course there are negatives, but nothing is perfect, so that goes without saying. And there is no master plan. Shit just happens. Early humans taming fire, domesticating seed and beast, had not the slightest idea where their experimentation would lead. It is not better or worse to be differentiated, just as there is nothing ‘ignoble’ about undifferentiated ‘savages.’ Shit just happens, and beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. So, for one thousand and one reasons, elitism emerged and bedded down, no master plan necessary. You can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.

As a brief aside, for a long time I believed elitism’s structure was wedded to growth and therefore inherently unsustainable. I no longer hold that opinion. Elitism is doomed because it suffers poor information flow. As to growth, there is a far simpler explanation for our systemic addiction to it. It is because we tend not to kill our children or old folk when population pressures might recommend such measures (rabbits eat their young); we are inventive, have powerful emotions, and seek solutions that offer the ‘hope’ of letting as many of us live as possible. This simple dynamic is sufficient to explain why the human race has been multiplying, and continues to want to. That we thrive exponentially like bacteria today is an explosive consequence of science, fossil fuels and good hygiene. Elitism (hierarchical state structures of rulers and ruled) is a ‘necessary’ emergent property of differentiated social animals with abstract language dealing with the challenges of increasingly complex tribal life (specialization), population pressures, and war (and other things too, but those are the main factors I feel). We thrived because we wanted to, and could. In many ways, our ‘control’ of nature has proven very effective. Mainly, we still see our continuing expansion as Good, but this is changing quickly. I believe there are two main driving factors for this shift of perception; technological unemployment and Peak Growth (a complex term which includes fossil fuel depletion, climate change, peak debt, etc.).

While we have earned no ‘better’ system; while we have not made it clear to ourselves, culturally, globally even, that an open, egalitarian-hierarchical hybrid based on abundance and sharing is now the more ‘sensible’ arrangement; while we prefer our comfort zones to the perils of change, we will not be able to transcend what, to me and some others, is a broken (not ‘evil’) paradigm. We must evolve out of where we are and into what we might be, which takes doing, trial and error, experimentation, and time. As always, we accumulate wisdom along the way, stand on giants’ shoulders, who themselves stood on others’ shoulders, but cannot know where it will take us, just as our long dead forebears playing with fire could not see far by its light. Clearly, the vast majority of us do not yet want to put in the degree of effort deep change requires, again for a thousand and one reasons. So, competition, scarcity, ‘I’m all right, Jack,’ classism, property, greed, short-termism, etc., will be with us for a while yet, warts and all. Indeed, they are some of the key elements which drove us here, cooked us into what we culturally are. They are the main ingredients of our current stew, and, like the frog which cannot tell it is being cooked alive because the water’s temperature increases so slowly, so we too fail to discern how hot it is getting. This too is changing. We are waking up and smelling the fire.

And yet, back in the day, with the knowledge and ignorance of the time, what ‘better’ money system could humanity have designed, what better social arrangement? Like nature, our system is cyclical; boom and bust, spring and winter, growth and decay. It has an incentive built in; the absence in the money supply of the interest owed acts as a constant flame, keeps things cooking, and fosters growth, rather like the sun around which all earthly life revolves. Believing in human Ascent, a system which helps drive us forward is no bad thing, especially when we ‘know’ humans tend to laziness ‘by nature.’ If we believe, more or less, that we ought to grow our economy forever, with boom and bust included, as fulfillment of our Destiny, then a fiat, usurious, debt-based money system is a ‘good’ way to go. There are casualties of course, but as science developed and fossil fuels were available, population growth these last 150 years is proof humanity did a ‘good’ job of ‘dominating’ nature, generally speaking. What would Malthus say if he saw all seven billion of us now?

What this system has not delivered, is precisely that escape from the Enemy Wild we thought we sought. Today we can look on jealously at ‘primitives’ seemingly at one with their environment, enjoying an easy leisure we can only dream of, a peace of mind which remains out of reach, even on expensive holidays in the sun, even in clean, gated communities protected by armed guards. We brought the wild with us, built concrete jungles every bit as uncontrollable as the ‘unclean’ jungles we fled. There was no separation after all. We are beasts too (which is no bad thing). Still we scrabble towards an illusory ‘top,’ in blind pursuit of something we left behind, pursuing it because we don’t see it right there, under our noses, where it always was.

And yet, that we increasingly see our manic system as unsustainable—though a sign of hope perhaps—is not (yet) as important as our general inability to see reality as a whole in which we are embedded, at a sufficiently deep and broad scale to bring about lasting change. But this too is changing. We are becoming one. To be cute, I’d say we’re becoming an Updated One. Differentiation and spicy variety included.

Positive interest and its development was pretty clever, considering the times. You have a money supply that is generated by and responsive to economic activity (or the promise of it), which can only be an amount too little to cover what’s owed, whereby competition is ensured. The money supply is fine-tunable via various mechanisms; credit-money destruction upon debt repayment, recycling the interest earned back into the system, and encouraging further economic activity with further loans, always keeping things scarce, always encouraging entrepreneurship and inventiveness. What’s not to like? Look at the nature of the challenges the money-system addresses. We have extreme specialization already baked into our cultural and socioeconomic DNA, inevitable hierarchy as a direct consequence thereof, social complexity beyond human comprehension, and a need to keep as many people as possible ‘provably’ useful to society to prevent pointless and bloody revolution. To meet these challenges, we have high powered and credit money in a positive interest-bearing debt system using expunging, default, bonds and taxation as tools to drain money from the economy; private sector credit-extension, and public sector government borrowing, to inject money into the economy; the separation of powers (or the notion thereof, which has its potency even in today’s advanced stage of corruption and breakdown); waged labour; and representative democracy. If we accept that nothing’s perfect, we have to agree it’s a pretty good system, surely? Could you organize a country or planet any better? Could I? Can we? I’m not talking about talking the talk, but walking the walk.

Peter Joseph criticizes consumerism for being cyclical. But so’s nature. Our money system is prone to collapse, but look at forest fires. Great swathes of people are poor, but who really believes life is fair? We’re consuming resources too fast, but so do locusts (fascinating creatures by the way). They suffer population collapse, then start up again when conditions permit. What’s wrong with that? What if human population collapses to about 2 billion and we start the game again? Would that be bad? Why are humans more important to Universe than locusts? Do we have a special destiny? Must we survive? Must there be seven billion of us, or two, or twenty?

Such questions are unhelpful, for the most part. We cannot not want to survive, and we are special, just as are locusts, just as is grass, simply because we can perceive specialness. That ability has evolved in us. As we are of Universe, all we do is of Universe. We ask philosophical questions, we muse, we care, we care not, we struggle to overcome with inventiveness, can imagine the future, want the best for our children’s children, and ‘know’ we want the best. This is our nature, our nurture. There are alternatives.

Dinosaurs died out, furry little mammals didn’t. In time, the furry mammals evolved into apes, now there’s homo sapiens sapiens. Change is the only constant. Change is nature, Universe. And now we say we love life. We know joy. We believe deeply still in a bunch of stuff that is the dying paradigm, but that’s changing. In competing to maximize self-interest, we have rendered ourselves virtually economically redundant, but why should the economy be the only thing that matters? That’s an addressable challenge, because value is no absolute and is very poorly measured with a linear scale like $ or €. We can learn to do ‘better,’ are learning to do ‘better.’ We know burning through fossil fuels to power our creature comforts is highly unsustainable. We are concerned with fairness and justice, suffer when confronted with ongoing and obvious injustice. But we do not want a grey, featureless future of conformity and uniformity. We want to spread joy, live rich, meaningful lives, even if most today are very narcissistic and immature in that endeavour. And it is for simple reasons like wanting to live and loving joy that I put my shoulder to this wheel and push.

And then there is the panda. Billions of cells working in harmony to be a cute animal which has a very hard time turning out new pandas, and is very fussy about it’s food. It is at the edge of its time on earth, kept alive by human intervention. Changing the ‘flawed’ wisdom of the panda, a wisdom it acquired over millions of years of evolution, is hard. Getting it to like a wider variety of food stuffs, or be more fertile and prolific, isn’t easy. All those cells evolved to operate in a particular way. The cells of human society are held together by a paradigm, by beliefs, which evolved over many millennia to become the corpus of structures that make up society today, the ideas, the mores, the expectations. And while it’s easier to change a paradigm than a panda, it certainly isn’t a snap. But the more important message of this comparison is not the relative difficulty, but the absence of a victim, the absence of evil doers. Whom should we blame for the panda’s fate? For humanity’s? ‘Blame’ is a perception-filter we created, but maybe soon we won’t need that filter any more. It’s complex out there. Things evolve, cope, adapt, as they happen to, not as our short-sighted egos desire, from nucleated cells to fissiparous human societies, fractious, avaricious, creative, destructive, evolving.

I am not writing this in a vacuum. The ideas I draw on have been available to humanity for thousands of years. We could call them our genetic social potential, a vein of fertility we have not quite learned to tap. Whether we do or not is up to the gods, up to us, up to chance. Whether we do or not is neither good nor bad. Shit just happens, and nothing can stop that.

Partly because I believe in progress—not that progress is Good or Bad, but that wisdom accumulates and humans now cast value judgments upon those accumulations—I also believe the momentum is sufficiently in the direction of ‘improvement’ to be ‘hopeful’ about coming decades. Species go extinct, and humans might too. But I don’t think so. Universe evolved this way, is finding more exquisite expressions of interbeing as it goes, and we are in that, of that. The appreciation of Universal complexity I have learned these last years is a gift given I share with others. The experiences of joy discovery unleashes, life unleashes, in and amongst the horrors, are gifts we share. Without sharing—sharing too is a gift—, even in the form of competitive enmity, there can be nothing. Without interbeing, nothing can be. We are. This core and simple reality, as it dovetails with change and evolution, is why I am excited about this period. It’s not that the old is Bad and the new Good, or vice versa, but that we can be involved, and can enjoy the struggle of that involvement.
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


Frank Powers said...

A great post, dear Toby. Wished I'd written it. ;)
I'll borrow heavily from your thoughts for the next book, if you're ok with that. You are a very able scaffolder, my friend. I love how you dissect and explain the world again and again on this pecious blog, and it makes me frantically nod my head and mumble to myself, again and again, "Yes, he's nailed it another time!"
Keep on keeping on! :)

Malagodi said...

the road ahead
and the road behind
is covered
with fallen leaves.
nothing is disturbed
by my walking.


life proceeds from the formed to the forming. ~ N. Kitaro

shit doesn't just happen, it forms from what it had become.

what used to be never was ~ O. Coleman

those who say there is only the 'now' are wrong. there is only the next.


the Buddhists believe that to be born as a human being is the highest privilege one can be afforded.

but that is not to say that that will always be the case.

Toby said...

Thanks greatly FP! And absolutely, borrow away. Everyone borrows from everything.

Stephen, on shit just happening, it's that 'cold' part of this post's rendering of reality I'll probably address in the next post—it's an incomplete perspective. Shit doesn't just happen in a vacuum, but it does 'just' happen in the sense of an absence of total control and an inability to see the future, i.e., at the level of credit and blame. However, there are deeper ways of looking at this, at chance, fate, etc., and I feel like giving that a shot.