Sunday, February 19, 2012

Don't Feed the Beast

Of course we're going to watch the drama, we're human. Greece is/was (take your pick) about to pop, is a tragedy in full swing, full of suffering and misery, and the mainstream will be full of it.

I haven't paid much attention to the mainstream for years now, and yet the dribs and drabs which do filter through on blogs catch my attention. I get excited, worried, frightened, the whole shebang. There's been some well-sourced rumours flying around for a couple of days now, that Greece will be forced/allowed (take your pick) to default in the second half of March (23rd). As part of this the major banks have been given advance warning, to give them a chance to protect their assets. The little guys will take the hit. Too Big To Fail means far more than rescuing 'systemically relevant' banks. It is about protecting the exploitation system, the state itself, the Hobbesian, inflexible hierarchy of rulers and ruled only a tiny minority truly benefit from.

This morning, Zero Hedge posted an article on the ECB's latest move, shocked that the 'Rule of Law' is arbitrary, can be amended retroactively, is not sacrosanct. But this has been so since forever. Cheap oil and the profits therefrom have merely masked it. Now that easy growth is impossible, the system is doing whatever it has to, to keep itself functional, and its core functioning is extraction of the ruled by the rulers. It's that simple. Here's a quote from Zero Hedge:
The ECB, on its own and without judicial or parliamentary review, has swapped their Greek debt for new Greek debt that is not subject to any “collective action clause.” They did this unilaterally and without the consent of any other sovereign debt bond owners of Greek debt. They did this without objection of any nation in Europe. They have retroactively changed the indenture, the contract made by Greece with all of the buyers of their bonds, when the debt was issued. There is no speculation involved in these statements, there is no longer any guesswork on what might be; the ECB swapped their bonds for new Greek bonds with the assent of the Greek government and it is now a done deal.
What else were they going to do? The system is in an advanced stage of collapse. Whatever it takes, whatever must be sacrificed to survive, will be done. And this is a fight for survival. But this system cannot survive, too much has changed. We cannot grow economically as it needs us to, we are increasingly disenchanted with Consumerism, there is the Internet spreading information faster than the control structures can control, technology is rendering the work-for-wage model obsolete (if it isn't already), and easy oil is not sufficiently plentiful.

Our focus should be on what world we want to build in the new circumstances, not on the quickly-changing details of the economic and political day-to-day, as 'exciting' and horrible as they can be. This requires of us that we don't feed the beast. Don't vote. Consume less. Study alternative currencies. Support endeavours you resonate with which offer elements of the new, such as gift economies and renewable energies, organic farming or permactulture, etc. Don't send any money, or send as little as possible, to the mainstream media. And make your voice heard, maturely, patiently, humbly, in independent outlets, among friends and neighbours. In such little steps we can contribute to a more gentle collapse of the old, a more vigorous emergence of the new. It is not that we rush childishly into the sparkly future, rather, we act in accordance with reality, foster our and others' common humanity and civility, and be as constructive as possible.

It is not going to be easy, and I strongly suspect terrible tragedies lie between us and whatever new stability results from all this upheaval, but this is how history unfolds. Change is difficult, profound change profoundly so.

Perfection: A Very Human Curse

We are still entering the Age of Aquarius, said to be the age of brotherhood, or of our common humanity. I suppose we have our foot in its door, but not much else. The famous song heralding the dawning of this new equinoctial era promises a golden age, the kind hippies once loved to love and wax lyrical about. I’m not interested in the impossibility of any causal relationship between the procession of the equinoxes and human behaviour on earth, but I am interested in myth, because myth is about as rich a source of Freudian slips as one can imagine; myth is a repository of our musings about ourselves and reality, at a time when introspection was unknown. Myths are therefore the ‘honest’ expression by the human psyche of its own processes, as recorded by antiquity. Dismissing them would be like dismissing our imagination and psychology, or refusing to listen to our deeper past.

In that vein I can ask: What is aquarius? I know a lot of astrology, since I studied it feverishly for many years, so know what I’m talking about here. It is the symbol of the urge to smash the too restrictive Old and usher in the New. In astrology, all signs have ruling planets; aquarius has Uranus, or Ouranos, the ancient sky god, son and lover of Gaia (Mother Earth), and father of the Titans. He is said to have hated his monstrous offspring, whom he imprisoned in Tartarus, in the belly of Gaia. Aquarius is the proselytising ideologue, the passionate idealist whose clear logic and faultless reasoning others follow, believing the New Way he urges will usher in a golden age. Mao’s Great Leap Forward is aquarian/Uranian in its dynamic. ‘Out with the old, in with the new.’ The ugly and unwanted are to be done away with, they have no conceivable utility, are not as good as they should be, could be. We are to strive for perfection. We are gods. Anything less belittles us.

This dynamic, though gruesomely dramatic in myth (as I develop below), is as humdrum as grass. Think of any urge to create we might have, say, to write a poem, or paint a picture, compose a song, found a company, marry a loved one, become a parent, etc. The reality will almost always be a disappointment on some level, sometimes crushingly so. No matter how clearly we conceive it at the outset, our control of the process cannot be total. Our creation takes on a life of its own, goes where it will, evolves under pressure of life’s infinite variability in ways we cannot foresee. Sometimes the urge to destroy our creation is too strong, even to the point of infanticide, or burning years of work, or selling a company, divorcing a childhood sweetheart, etc. Even if we are more proud of our creation than we dared hope, once in the world it becomes a creature of Universe, taking on, as I said, a life of its own. Or we try to hide it away, keep it to ourselves somehow, as Ouranos imprisoned his offspring in Tartarus. But even there it lives on, evolving, developing, subject to change.

The urge to perfection is one of humanity’s qualities which causes us to create. But when we create, we necessarily interact with the infinite, and thus, by introducing something new into its totality, relinquish the control we think we have during the creative process. Tension is thus unavoidable. Everybody knows the stereotype of the choleric, moody artist; depression, which follows creation, the fertile dark from which the new idea emerges, raising the artist's spirits to euphoric heights during much of the work, only to crash them again to begin another cycle.

Ouranos locked his disappointing creations away, not wanting to have to deal with their ugliness, but Gaia suffered horribly with all her children locked up in her womb. In her pain, she pleaded with them to castrate Ouranos and so end his reign. Only ambitious Cronus agreed to act, and there is at least one famous painting depicting this.

Cronus castrating Ouranos

But Cronus’ ambition, also part of the creative urge, caused him to lock away his siblings as his father had done. For this cruel act, Ouranos prophesied that one of Cronus’s children would overthrow him. In fear, Cronus devoured his children, and the dynamic of control is seen again. We work towards something, carry it out (create it), then fearfully protect what we feel we have earned. We want to keep things perfect, free of unwanted interference. Such can drive us mad.

Cronus devouring one of his children

And just this minute our pet cat, Ember, meowed his deep and ugly meow at our flat’s front door, wanting to be let out. Here I am, the artist at work, lost in my perfect world of thought, my creating, and yet ugly reality intrudes. I instantly wanted to strangle the damn tomcat. He was so cute as a kitten, with a meek little meow. Now he is big, less cute, and meows like a foghorn. I want my children to be perfect too, and have to fight hard to hide my disappointment when I feel it. My children are wonderful human beings, but they are not perfect, as I am not, and this creates tension and challenges. We get to be creative in dealing with that tension and those challenges, but in being creative set ourselves up for unforeseeable other challenges and tensions a little further down the road.

And I am an idealist too. I want the New Way already, now, yesterday preferably, work hard to help bring it about, have changed my life dramatically, having been inspired by Gandhi’s words to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” But I disappoint myself, fall short of my expectations as the task throws up challenges and tensions I had not foreseen, or whose intensity and difficulty I had underestimated. It all looks so easy in the planning phase, especially when we are talking ourselves into taking a mighty risk.

All this to say, that though there is no such thing as perfection, the drive towards it is very real, very necessary, very human, and inevitable. It produces wonders and horrors alike, both of which go on to produce their own wonders and horrors, ad infinitum.

I am most fascinated by that train of thought which attaches itself to and arises from what Jacque Fresco calls resource-based economics. The Venus Project is, to my mind, a very Uranian project, all blue skies, sparklingly clean cities and utopian promises, and I write this knowing full well they say, and rightly, what they propose is no utopia. And yet it is utopian, equally rightly. For it is dissatisfaction which causes us to perfect, to tinker, and risk change. When a stern but affectionate father figure of the Uranian type—which Jacque Fresco most certainly is, whether he means to be or not—says, ‘This is the way to a better place!’, his audience sees Heaven, The Promised Land, Utopia. In that sense it is doomed to fail of course, but then, everything is on some timescale. The Venus Project is also doomed to succeed, only in ways neither Fresco nor anyone else can now imagine. Such things are out of our control, though it is also imperative we work to bring The New Way about. Actually, we can’t not so strive, we just can’t know the harvest we sow.

Even conservatism, the adherence to the hard-won wisdom of tradition, is idealistic. Though it protects the old and fears the new, in seeming opposition to the Uranian dynamic outlined above, even it cannot escape idealism, fanaticism, and the destruction of that which interferes with or threatens its inherent rightness, its obvious, self-evident perfection.

And finally, to make all this still vaguer and more complex, success and failure are like beauty; they lie in the eye of the beholder. Yet I believe there is a creative fusion of this striving dynamic, humanity—or rather nature—is catching scent of now. We are about to write new myths, weave new stories. Of course this is the idealist in me speaking, but in giving voice to this I do not seek to call anyone to arms, to overthrow any oppressor and install a new oppressor. Change is the only constant. It is our relationship with our own power and our blindness to our ignorance we must transform, embrace perhaps, see clearly. History may rhyme, but it most certainly does not repeat. Speaking personally, I have a soft spot both for old traditions and new-fangled crazy talk. My intuition and experience tell me growing numbers of us see things this way too (though there is much cause for dismay). My crystal ball tells me it will be from our ability to creatively fuse seeming opposites our most fruitful endeavours will be born. The future, if we're lucky, will be more BothAnd, less EitherOr.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mornings at Eight

Below is my translation of “Morgens um acht”, written by Kurt Tucholsky in 1923. Tucholsky was writing at a time when one had to be careful what one said, so there are elements of the text hinting at, but not saying outright, that the authorities are paranoid oppressors. Tucholsky seems to have been an extremely sensitive soul, who did not let his career as a journalist prevent him from writing stories, poetry and songs. He left Germany in 1924 for Paris, moved to Sweden in 1930, then, in a depression, committed suicide in 1935. His work was condemned as “degenerate” by the Nazis, and burned, an ironic and somewhat prophetic outcome considering the line: “But of course it’s always better to train than to make mischief in a black cap and gown.” I hope the sense of this becomes clear after you’ve read the piece.

Enjoy.

I saw a dog the other day — a dog going to work. He was like a stuffed, cylindrical sofa-cushion with long fur-tassels wobbling down Leipziger Strasse towards Berlin. With full sincerity he walked, looking neither left nor right, sniffing at nothing. And did none of that other something, either. He just went, without any doubt, to do his business.
And why would he have done otherwise? Everyone else was doing it.
The stream of business-goers whispered through the city. Morning on morning they did the same. They trotted thither, to that holiest holy a German knows; to work. Actually, the dog had no business being there — but if even a dog went to business, no doubt it’d be welcome.
There sat two serious men on a train, smoking, rotund, shaven and perfectly content, looking out of the windows. At such moments, one longs for a miracle, say, for balloons to float out of that soldier-policeman’s* helmet, there, on the corner, so that, if just once, everyone would unbolt their muzzle and nose! The train passed by a tennis court. The golden sun played on the pale-yellow surface — it was beautiful weather, far too beautiful for Berlin. And one of the serious gentlemen grumbled: “Look at that! Nothing to do! Mornings at eight and playing tennis! They should be off to work —!”
Yes, they should. After all, work is why we’re on this planet, serious work, the kind that fills in all of you. Whether it makes sense, whether it harms or helps, whether it’s pleasant or not (“Oooh, work’s to be plezzun’ now is i’? Yuh’ve lost yer marbles mate!”) — it’s all the same. There must be work. And mornings you must be able to go to it. Otherwise, life has no meaning.
And should everything jam up at work, or the rail workers strike, or even if it’s a bank holiday: then they sit around at a loss as to what to do. There’s nothing inside them, and nothing outside them either: so what can be done? Well, nothing whatsoever.
So they walk around like schoolchildren, suddenly at a loose end because of some cancelled lesson. They can’t go home, and they don’t feel like having any fun… They doze and wait. For the next workday. For this, among other reasons, the German Revolution failed: they had no time for revolting; they had to go to work.
Then again, it’s true one can doze off during sport, which is run like a card game nowadays: highly regulated and outstandingly dull. But of course it’s always better to train than to make mischief in a black cap and gown.
Yes, they go to work. “What do you do for a living?” — “We don’t do anything, sir. It does us.”
The dog didn’t jump. One doesn’t hop down the street. The street serves to — we know that already. And that enticing, low-hanging, patriotic poster … the dog didn’t even consider it.
He went to work.
(Kurt Tucholsky, 1923)

*”Polizeisoldaten” can’t be translated into an English word (it’s not military police, by the way) as far as Im aware, so I picked my own invention. The word seems to be reserved for soldiers doing civilian police work, but it may have some historical reference here I’m not aware of.

Friday, February 10, 2012

We Are Fungi

In the silt and from the silt. Weave up to wormy spark of soil, the grit of growth, delicious wastes pass through bedrock, magma, rain. Air’s tango of beast and tree. Wet report to desert dry. Going through us from and back in to all. Nowhere an escape. Filter, process, be.

Filter. Process. Be, in cycles of both, the rhythmic becoming of it all. Rhythm in waves, the might of breath, the forest age of leaf, the ululation of seas, the rancour of steel, the bust and boom of seed. Filter, process, be. Fungi are the way, always in all states; awake and asleep, growing and decaying, rising and falling as life’s lungs. All goes through all.

Dust of motes of light to pulse of rage as fires surge from star to chest to barbaric yawp. Dust of motes of light as wave, embrace to warmth that blooms as arms encircle their embrace. Ashes igniting flames. Change to change. Poison broken down to use and use, new poison’s chain, magic too slippery to restrain, magic our trickery can but sustain, healed by each cut, strengthened by blows, nourished by all poisons read to our eye’s evolving mind. All unknowing known.

From your arms my arms grow. While radiating from every hurt cold the hot wave that carries us on.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Brightly Normal on the Economic Front

My mood these days is up and down like a jet-powered yoyo, and being me—a person who likes to see the oneness of it all—I tend to project what I experience out onto everything. Probably we all do. We see with what we are and therefore see what we are; we cannot not project. Anyway, this moodiness suggests to my ever-alert intuition that humanity is moody too. Not each individual without exception, but that a vibration of wildly fluctuating hope and despondency characterises humanity’s emotional/cultural state. Movements like The Tea Party, The Arab Spring, the uprisings in Spain and Greece, and Occupy Wall Street bloom, promise, then seem to decay. There seems to be a seesaw of wills between The Powers That Be and the New Powers That Want To Be, with the markets and economic data as trotted out by government the mounted knights of the former; mass protest and people power the raggedy band of outlaws fighting for the latter.

The situation is perverse and conflicted. Speaking for myself (though I’m sure I am not alone in this), I get a cheap thrill when economic data and markets show signs of weakness. Then, when they strengthen, a smidgen of despair, yet also a flicker of hope; all that good news might filter through to my little old life—perhaps finding income (which I really must do) won’t be too difficult. I am emotionally and intellectually invested in the new—which requires the collapse of the old—, while still needing the old to feed me and mine. This dissonance is the source of my mood swings, and I suspect the source too, more widely, of the societal schizophrenia I intuit.

I tend to refrain from peddling data here, because I don’t trust it. Last week the stock markets obediently surged on ‘good’ news from the US employment statistics. 200,000 jobs added! The UK has recently posted encouraging figures in both manufacturing and services, Germany coughed up warmer than luke GDP growth figures, and the Euro has not imploded. These are the ‘victories’ of the status quo. (Good articles by Golem and Karl Denninger help expose how manipulated this data is, in case you’re interested in how irrelevant to Main Street the figure are.)

Meanwhile, Greece and Spain and Hungary are in obvious free-fall. Greek government revenues fell by 7% in January, against a ‘predicted’ 9% rise. A 7% fall in a month is catastrophic. The country is down and out.  Spain’s youth unemployment rate has touched 50%. 50%! Greece is not far behind, with Portugal putting in a good showing. Europe wide, youth unemployment is at 20%. These are catastrophic figures. Hungarian debt was downgraded to junk last month, and Austria’s nose is deep in that doggy doo. Growth cannot emerge from this barren soil, but other things can, and are. Violence is one of course, but so is a new way of thinking, a new set of ambitions not coaxed forwards by consumerism. These new desires are the biggest threat to the status quo. 

Contagion, folks, contagion. We’re all interconnected now. So, against these hurricane strength headwinds, the ECB and the US Federal Reserve are printing money like there’s no tomorrow. There is indeed no tomorrow. Even if conditions on our economic ground were conducive to growth, the environment will not have any of it. As northern Europe endures a bitter cold snap and pipes burst across Russia, the UN is calling for new economic thinking. Yet on blogs and nooz sites discussing this lefty temerity, concern for the environment is equated with socialism. The ‘free’ market must be given more head, the money data proves this. For the love of life, are we ready for the end of growth? Can we, culturally and deeply, really appreciate what this means, tell ourselves new stories, fashion new desires?

Jein. Sometimes I think yes, sometimes I think no. Today, I think, ‘no way no how.’ Death is coming, and he’s mad as hell. The virtual reality of Nooz, Game Shows, MTV, Gadgets and Perpetual Human Ascent is too strong, its web too complex and bewildering, the erosion of trust too complete, our cynicism and ignorant cleverness too brittle, shallow and vain. We are infatuated with the wrong illusion, the one with its hands around our necks using our infantile love of it as the energy it needs to squeeze ever tighter. And as we begin to gasp and retch, as our faces turn purple, all we can muster is limp tantrums going nowhere.

Friday, February 3, 2012

On Education II

[My earlier musing on education is here.]

My children are bilingual, German and English. They both attend bilingual schools. In the case of our younger daughter, this is still a primary school (Grundschule) which insists the children are more or less locked in from eight in the morning till four in the afternoon. On top of this they receive plenty of homework. She is at home this week on holiday, but has three projects to complete, plus plenty of new French vocabulary to learn for a test on Monday morning, her first day back. Our elder daughter is at gymnasium, kind of like an English grammar school, and there it is much easier. The days are shorter, the homework load lighter. Odd, but true.

Both of our daughters had (our youngest still has) a particular German/maths teacher neither responds well too. Their grades were/are poor in both subjects. This sets up additional stress, because every child receives a recommendation from the primary school to go to the higher quality gymnasiums, if and only if their grade average is very high (2.3). Grading at primary school is far harsher than at the gymnasium. Under 98% is a 2. 98-99% is a 1-, 100% is a 1. So you need to be consistently in the high 90s to get a recommendation. I consider this to be a considerable amount of stress for eight- to ten-year-olds to bear. On top of that, it is only in rare cases the primary school teachers children are assigned to actually enjoy their job and are good at it. In the case of our younger child, my wife and I would like to home school her, at least in her weak areas, since we feel it would be better suited to her particular personality and needs. This is illegal in Germany. Parents have been sent to prison for keeping their children out of school, or had their children taken from them. In 2007, a German couple fled Germany to the US. The US granted them political asylum in 2008. I believe the pair are now US citizens.

This is a very odd and harmful situation, to my mind. In my post on health insurance, my main point was that the state is a clumsy machine incapable of dealing with individual situations. There are instances when parents are more harmful to their children than a state school would be, true. But there are occasions when the opposite is true, and the work of John Taylor Gatto, John Holt and Sir Ken Robinson suggests the latter far outweighs the former. It is my strongly held belief, that not one element of what I believe is necessary to change cultural direction—away from Consumerism and Growthism towards more sustainable and healthy social systems—is possible until education is aligned with what our future (and present, by extension) demands of us. Education is, for me, absolutely pivotal in our transition towards a more rational and less robotic human future. The Khan Academy (thanks for the tip, Farmgirl!) is one example of how we might begin opening up education, and allowing passion and fun to bring a juicy vitality back to life’s most fundamental process; learning.

Below is my translation of an article by Rainer Hank which appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Novermber, 2007. I hope you find it at least food for thought. One part of it which stood out for me was the (up to) $1000 a month given by the Canadian state to parents home schooling their children. This is how I imagine a guaranteed income might help ‘free’ people from the state, or minimise the depth to which it seeks to control our lives. It would also ‘privatise’ or ‘localise’ education down to community level, causing money to cycle through the community in both a GDP- and society-friendly way. The Internet might expand this out across the planet, and connect learners everywhere. The Canadian example demonstrates, to my mind, how a guaranteed income would not be about people no longer having to work, but freeing them to work in areas closer to their hearts.

On to the translation:

"School in Germany is a matter for the state. Whoever wants to open a private school must reckon with great difficulties. Whoever teaches their own children or sends them to a private tutor has the police to deal with. For they would be committing a misdemeanour.

In Germany, compulsory schooling is absolute and punishable. To most of us, that sounds natural, self-evident even. But it is not, neither historically nor on the European or even international stage. German compulsory schooling is, if we forget a few dictators, the exception and not the rule. In most other countries, there is instead a monitored compulsory education. Whether or not children go to school to cover the required curriculum is up to them (and their parents and caregivers).

Compulsory education, not schooling

Why is it in no other free country of this world, parents who would like to raise their children are as harshly criminalised as in ours? After the crimes of National Socialism there was, supposedly,  a quiet and amicable agreement between parents and state, that bringing up children to be democratically capable of cooperating in a successful commonwealth, was inalienable, and that this upbringing could only be organised through the state, (so argues Volker Ladenthin, a pedagog from Bonn). German parents have a deeper trust in the Caregiver State than our neighbours in other countries.

And they have every right to have it. But why are parents who want to raise their children themselves kept forcefully from their wish? Wouldn’t compulsory education be superior to state compulsory education? Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 to 1835), the German education reformer worried about the state as raiser of children. “If education is only there, irrespective of particular civic forms granted the people, to educate people, so it lies not in the remit of the state.” Compulsory state education, in Humboldt’s opinion, leads to parents delegating to the state their responsibilities to raise their own, for which there is a high price to be paid: instead of free and educated people, school children become state residents, that is, underlings.

A poorly justified monopoly

The state’s education monopoly is indeed poorly justified—as with most monopolies. Financially, we are asked to believe it is more efficient to teach children in classes than for families to seek private tutors and governors (for a statistical 1.3 children), or to prevent parents from teaching their young. State-trained teachers guarantee, it is claimed, a certain professionalism in the manufacturing of the education “product.”

But not only do repeated Pisa Studies speak against the quality of the state’s performance, so too does a growing emigration into private schools. Were there the freedom to teach children at home, no doubt parents would take advantage of it. At the latest, it would be clear where the better education was to be found after prescribed tests. In all countries where education has been decentralised, such freedom has been met with approval, albeit with a three to four percent of parents actually “home-schooling”—although with a strongly rising trend. Even in Austria, home-schooling has recently been allowed. Parents in Canada receive up to $1000 a month to educate their children at home. Such largesse helps level the playing field, reduces the state’s advantage.

What should be the rule, what the exception?

Originally, compulsory schooling was not the rule, but the exception. “Compulsory schooling was introduced, because those classes who saw the least need for school kept their children at home to help with digging up potatoes and harvesting the grain”, says the pedagog Ladenthin. This was damaging to their children. The offer of subsidiarity, which in Germany receives high praise in commemorative speeches, says: The state need only intervene when the private sphere fails. The state may only protect schoolchildren from their parents when it fears education is kept from them, or when they are being dangerously indoctrinated.

And with that a weighty objection to home-schooling can be swept to one side. Many contemporaries fear radical or religious groups could abuse home-schooling, and raise their children as enemies of European values and the rule of law. But the fear of parallel worlds is there and cannot be dismissed. Even if we overlook that state schools don’t prevent parallel worlds (Neukölln [a rough part of Berlin]), the state retains the power to take children from parents who abuse or fail them.

And anyway, it will be the educated elite and not the lower classes who make use of the freedom to home school. Yes, even this assumption is tossed into the ring as an objection. Growing inequality and the increasing privilege of rich kids raised by private tutors would be the outcome, apparently. But today we have the intellectual bourgeoisie pampering their young with cello lessons, language courses and other private lessons. Or they send them off to foreign shores. That in Germany talents lie fallow, and money and social background determine educational success, is true. But state education cannot prevent that misery."