Sunday, July 28, 2013

Riding the Dragon We Hatched


Human societies are addicted to their ruling ideas and their received way of life, and they are fanatical in their defence. Hence they are extraordinarily reluctant to reform. “To admit error and cut losses,” said [Barbara] Tuchman, “is rare among individuals, unknown among states.” Instead of changing their minds, leaders redouble their efforts to do what no longer works, wooden-headedly persisting in error until the bitter end.
William Ophuls, 2012

I saw the above quote at Naked Capitalism the other day, was struck by it and am now reading the book it is taken from (Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail). The quote struck me because it echoes my thinking on the state.  As such I felt inspired to repeat myself here in a new-ish formulation, suspecting – for a change – that my Cassandra Compulsion to share with anyone who’ll listen is not the deluded raving of a loon. Ah, sweet, brief relief.

(A quick note on terminology: where Ophuls uses “civilisation” I use “state” or the more generic “system”. For my purposes here, these terms are sufficiently interchangeable. I see the dynamic they designate as a manifestation or surface presentation of Eisensteinian Ascent, or better, a vehicle/vessel for its manifestation and development.)

Civilisation’s “leaders redouble their efforts to do what no longer works” – Einstein’s definition of madness. We should expect nothing less during collapse; how could leaders lead a system and also purposefully and publically bring about its demise? The danger for humanity today is that civilisation – composed of the nation state and corporation as value-extracting dynamics – has become truly global. It has crushed perceived threats wherever they emerged. If a group were able to get a tentative alternative up and running – as visibly as possible so as to attract more people to their cause – the current system would annihilate that alternative with violent thoroughness, as it has done across the centuries of its ascent and now as zenith has tipped into collapse. The more viable, the more hopeful the alternative to it, the more violent is the system’s opposition. It sees alternatives as viruses that could spread if left unchecked. (Don’t we all?)

Once we have woken up to this, we appear to be confronted with an unpalatable, binary choice: 1. Try to survive and develop alternatives with others on behalf of humanity and risk social exclusion or even annihilation. 2. Stay in lockstep with the mainstream and knowingly participate in the self-wrought extinction of our species.

Is there a middle way? Yes and no. Let’s start by grubbing around in some dark stuff:
  1. Living systems – humans, rabbits, spiders, coral reefs, political parties, football clubs, states and so on – are characterised in part by some sort of ‘will’ to survive, however this manifests (living systems theory). A living system like the nation state (which we are concerned with here), with its subsidiary the corporation and its current flavour, capitalism, is no exception. It will therefore do what it must to survive. That its continued survival is a threat to its survival cannot compute.
  2. Leaders are representatives, promoters and defenders of the system they lead. They are thus ‘congenitally’ constrained to act in the interests of that system come what may. If they fail to do so, the system will replace them with someone more loyal. All sorts of gymnastic rationalising is performed to justify whatever behaviours are adopted (mainstream media and academia), something humans do very well indeed, individually and collectively, deliberately and autonomically. Leaders’ lack of freedom in this regard is clearer during times of collapse when decadence and criminality run wild. Even ‘good’ leaders fall in line as wiggle-room evaporates.
  3. Nation states plus corporations etc. represent a global system. One of this system’s defining characteristics is perpetual economic growth, which is perhaps the main reason this system is global; it can’t stop growing. As a defining characteristic, it cannot be relinquished without causing the death of the system. This is a controversial point, but I’m fairly convinced by it. “As a process, civilization resembles a long-running economic bubble. Civilizations convert found (or conquered) ecological wealth into economic goods and population growth.” (W. Ophuls, 2012.) This dynamic is a positive feedback loop. I repeat, its continued survival is a threat to its survival. Quite the Catch 22.
  4. Nation states plus corporations etc. also comprise all those humans born and living in them. In other words, you, me, and almost everyone else on earth are part of the problem, are necessarily dependent on the survival of that which threatens our survival. Our habits of thought and living have been shaped and are sustained by the system we/they constitute.
  5. There is no thus escape. On the one hand, we cannot escape ourselves; wherever we go to conduct experiments in establishing new systems, we bring our habits of thought and living with us. Starting from scratch is impossible. On the other hand and as mentioned above, where radical and successful alternatives do start to bloom despite the odds against them, they can only be perceived as threats to the current dominant system, which has the power to crush them. Lastly, even collapse is not escape. Collapse is terrible and cannot wipe the slate of our conditioning completely clean. The new always emerges from the old. This time, that emergence looks like being very painful and troubled indeed, due to the global nature of the crises.
  6. Because the system is global, its collapse is global too. How rapid it becomes is anyone’s guess, but what is important to bear in mind is how devastating – psychically, physically, spiritually, environmentally and emotionally – it must be. Cultural disorientation will pervade. Indeed, we see it more and more today.
  7. Taken together, all of the above means that present cultural denial about impending or currently unravelling collapse will be / is especially visceral and determined. Expect no meaningful change at all from appointed leaders or from the moral majority any time soon.

But I write none of this to spread despair. We cannot durably prepare ourselves for what is upon us (or rather, what we are generating) unless we appreciate some of the scale of the challenge; knowing all effects is impossible. Hopefulness is important, even naïve hopefulness, as stories like Hans im Glück or those involving an ingénue or fool tell us. Indeed, many groups are ‘foolishly’ engaged in building different aspects of the new and are doing sterling work. Velcrow Ripper even talks of the emergence of a movement of movements and has traced its contours in his wonderful films (I know of and recommend Occupy Love and Fierce Light).

Personally, I do not write this stuff in the belief that all hope is lost. I passionately believe that those of us who see various aspects of the end of this version of civilisation are obliged to add their perspective to the mix. However, this cannot be an act that seeks fame and fortune, in any of their guises. It is an act of service which cannot know what good it is sowing, or what harm.

We will despair. Much of what we attempt, as individuals and groups, will ‘fail’. We cannot know fully what is bathwater and what is baby, nor which parts of what we think we are cutting out are being reintroduced in our shadows, nor the long term effects of our continual experimentation. But a mature approach to this work of renewal should, I feel, keep firmly in mind the points I’ve listed above (and others). To allow a radically different system to emerge from the fertile soil of the old requires, paradoxically, that its very newness be a bloom on the old. Of course, the old must first become fecund ruin for this to happen, but that’s ok: “Systems prepare their own overthrow by a preliminary period of petrification.”  (R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.)

Know thine enemy. Know thyself. It’s not about you. Out of the very contradiction of this trinity, the middle way begins.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Productivity



This post is of course tightly linked with work (and wages as reward/payment for productive work), but warrants its own entry in Econosophy’s annals, such as they are.

One of the thought-avenues that has been catching my attention of late is productivity. I’ve explored work’s two apparently separate domains – economic and non-economic as we currently envision them – but my explorations remain incomplete without a similar exploration of productivity. When I draw the distinction between economic and non-economic, the word ‘productive’ is loud and bright in my mind. It’s a positive word; it’s a Good Thing to be productive. Non-productive work is a Waste of Time. From this (protestant) vantage, we can despair of the non-productive, lazy South. We can say “Work before pleasure” and mean the former is productive while the latter is not. We can split work and pleasure and not think twice about it. We can feel guilty for being paid to do something we enjoy. None of this represents profound insight on my part, but the negative effects of this antiquated mind-set are now rising to the cultural surface, even in Germany.

I strongly suspect this love affair with productivity is a primary emergent property or network effect of Eisensteinian Ascent: ever-increasing ‘control’ of Enemy Nature in pursuit of Progress. Productivity and Progress can be thought of as the twinned offspring of Adam and Eve’s mythical ejection from Eden. We could even say rewards. Once we were naked savages rutting, burping and lazing our way through subsistence existence, now we have progressed to civilised productivity. Behold! Skyscrapers, streets, automobiles, cities and electric light, conjured into existence by State-Money-Market, now reign where once idle jungle and ocean blindly recycled stuff for no apparent reason.

From this self-aggrandising perspective it is easy to believe that cleaning your own house is not as productive as being paid to clean someone else’s. Staying at home to raise your kids is not as productive as being paid to raise someone else’s. In short, work is productive if and only if its product causes money to change hands. (I exaggerate, but only a little.)

Why are money and productivity now so inextricably intertwined? Perhaps because the work that produces the stuff that characterises civilisation is mostly unpleasant. Its unpleasantness is a consequence of its machine-like anonymity, and must thus be explicitly rewarded. Perhaps, too, because waged work replaces the land as the soil from which the stuff of survival, money, grows. Obviously it is a mix of these and other factors. I happen to believe that capitalism is largely responsible for this process, is this process, though it too has its own deep roots of course, with sweat-of-thy-brow Protestantism no innocent bystander.

Capitalism began, in part, by cutting people from land and self-sufficiency (enclosures), people who were then ‘free’ to work for money to survive (I am not saying that being tied to the land is more or less free than being tied to waged work, only that freedom is a difficult word to define). The entrepreneur’s ‘rational’ pursuit of profit must mean poor working conditions, typically speaking. Work is unpleasant. It must be rewarded. Work is unavoidable. It must be rewarded. Without payment, you cannot survive. Work has thus become intertwined with money, where money is now the one conduit to survival; specialisation has come to mean dependence on anonymous others to produce that which we do not and cannot.

After a few centuries of this, we can today boast that subsistence is no longer subsistence because of Flat Screen TVs, Entertainment, Shopping etc., which are apparently more important than health and contentment. If you doubt this, ask yourself which set produces more profit.

Anyway, over time our sense of productivity has been boiled down by the heat of economic progress to mean economic work judged valuable by the Invisible Hand (where “economic” narrowly means exchange of goods and services for money).

But ecosystems! Ecosystems pay for our ride, and yet we have not been all that aware of their needs or our total dependency on them these last few hundred years. To grow the economy forever so as to increase productivity and human productive work forever requires enabling systems (the environment) that allow this. Infinitely forgiving and generous environmental support systems do not and cannot exist.

But automation! Automation is becoming ever more sophisticated. Machines and computers are now responsible for most ‘productive’ work. But because productive work is Good while non-productive work is Bad, by definition, we must find ‘productive’ work for everyone. If you don’t work, you should earn no money. Why should someone receive money for doing nothing? Doing nothing is not productive. It should be punished, not rewarded. We must find productive work for everyone, even though doing so makes no real sense under current cultural definitions.

This is a circle that cannot be squared, but few want to accept this. Consumerism plus infinite growth plus automation cannot be sustained. By extension, our cultural sense of productivity cannot be sustained. It is wildly out of date, far too narrow. While we cling to it, we wring our hands and hold futile discussions on what is to be done to perpetuate the system, we castigate scroungers and prescribe Austerity, we reject ideas that come from outside the dominant paradigm while paying lip service to Change, then recycle defunct solutions to ‘solve’ the crises generated by repeated application of those solutions.

And what is nothing, exactly? There is certainly no action which consists of nothing. Our frantic system of economic growth ad nauseum cannot alter this fact, even though it has engendered stubborn cultural perceptions that insist sleep, rest, spending time with friends, travel, etc. – all activities requiring energy exchange – are somehow non-productive, somehow constitute Doing Nothing. We fear breakdown if we relax our grip on proceedings, if we enjoy ourselves too much or yield to our ‘bestial’ nature. If we ease up even a little, everyone would decide to laze around or collapse into pointless warring (Human Nature), harvests would fail, factories would lie idle, productivity would cease. Civilisation would go to seed: a fear as old as civilisation, as old as elitism. Until now, civilisation’s engine has been precisely this control-based fear. And I am as riddled with it as the next guy.

Consequently, recuperation, pleasure and adventure have no economic value (unless they are causing or will directly cause money to change hands). Surely we can enshrine their obvious value in a new economics? Surely we can at least agree that there is intellectual and practical room for manoeuvre in this area, that our attitudes must change, that our survival depends on new thinking? Must we always see pleasure as ‘reward’ for ‘productive’ work? Must one always precede the other? What would need to change to allow their merging? If we need distinctions between forms of work, what mix of ‘economic’ and ‘non-economic’ makes sense? How dynamic and flexible should this mix be?

Questions, questions…

Can we begin to imagine other ways of socially valuing each other and our work?

Can we imagine agreeing on a larger definition of work, of productivity?

Dare we imagine that we don’t have to ‘earn a living’ anymore? Of course we will always have to earn respect and admiration and other effects of social standing, but there is far more to this than measuring and rewarding successful work via price and money and calling only that work productive. In other words, if the economic system must change deeply for humanity to have a shot of outliving this century, we need not fear that respect and admiration will be rendered impossible should we embark on a path of radical change. We need not be paralysed by fear of collapse into chaos, into Hobbes’ Warre. Indeed, they are upon us because we lack the courage, compassion and imagination to change.

As I see it, changing our cultural attitude to productivity can only happen as part of a larger process of changing our cultural attitude to value and measuring value (if the latter is at all possible). A simple observation to make, a mighty challenge to overcome. Together, we are the system in which social value is measured almost exclusively via money, price and market exchange. While we do not need to and cannot change in lockstep, social change cannot be other than a collective effort, the sweat of the brow of the global mind. Though perhaps effort is the wrong word. How easily ‘work before pleasure’ slips through into our analysis, even when arguing against it!

Courage, compassion and imagination are called for. Maybe one day the right mix of these will produce a social form which lauds and rewards ‘non-economic’ work as wisely as it lauds and rewards ‘economic’ work, assuming such a distinction remains valid.

All work is productive by definition, since work is necessarily any action which causes change to happen, any action which produces a discernible effect, as all action must. The trick is reaching dynamic, flexible and durable societal consensus on how to value work’s produce. Money and price in their current form can no longer fulfil this function constructively, because state, paid work and infinite economic growth are inescapably interdependent and thus required in their current forms for today’s money to be beneficial to society. Joined at the hip, all three are quickly going the way of the Dodo at the hands of constant change.Their joint crumbling is highly disruptive.

Of course it would be infantile to demand a society in which each individual spontaneously obeys every single urge then unilaterally declares its outcome productive. There will always be creative (though upsetting) tension between a person’s particular desires, evaluations and needs, and what their friends, family and society perceive and want. Tension is good, the grain of sand in the oyster. Work is good. Work is inescapable. Even resisting work is work. What is needed is a new relationship with and understanding of productivity (as one of many other things).