Monday, December 31, 2012

Hopelessness: the Engine of Hope

Our lives are not our own.
From the film Cloud Atlas
 [W]hen the early Spanish explorers first saw what non-Native Americans now call the Grand Canyon, there was nothing in their conceptual repertoire – in their language – to enable them to perceive its dimensions accurately. For example, they thought the Colorado River, at the bottom of the canyon, was only a few hundred feet away. As a result, foot soldiers in full armor were ordered to reconnoiter the area – to run down and have a look around – and to the surprise of their countrymen, they never returned. This example illustrates how conception (what we think) precedes perception (what we experience through our senses) and how our expectations, beliefs, and values – all of which are carried by language – determine the way we experience our world.
Critical Theory Today, Lois Tyson (2006:257)

So, friends, we are about to enter 2013. Predictions are a dime a dozen, but there seems to be a fairly robust consensus emerging that the coming year will be very turbulent indeed. 

I don’t like predictions, nor do I seek them out; there is an inevitability to history, a vastness, that renders all prediction casuistry and chicanery in my opinion. And yet we would not be human if we did not try to impose sense on past, present and future events. Perception is interpretation, and interpretation is rooted in conceptual frameworks. Broad consensus is a vital battle ground, particularly in hierarchical, state-based social systems in which an ‘elite’ seeks to control as much as possible. Prediction is thus in part ongoing propaganda for controlling and shepherding ever-emerging consensus, to define ‘reality’ as it unfolds before our eyes. Currently, many pundits not normally given to ‘doom and gloom’ are predicting just that: doom. It is as if we are being spoon fed hopelessness under a glittering veneer of ‘business as usual’. Or it is as if we are selling despair to ourselves due to some collective cognitive dissonance we can’t (won’t) quite perceive. 

This is all standard fare, but deeper change is afoot than simple economic turbulence leading painfully but inexorably back to ‘normal’ – growth, Growth, GROWTH! of the economic realm. I believe we are transitioning from primarily ego-based interpretations of ‘reality’ – in which fear, control, ‘selfishness’ and ‘competition’ rule – to a paradigm in which we are far more consciously aware of the ego’s role in our perceptions and can therefore operate/react with greater consciousness and wisdom. A paradigm is emerging in which the sense that “our lives are not our own” is not reflexively dismissed as ‘socialism’, and money (whatever that is) is not a commodity to be hoarded, but a non-valuable record of economic transactions fostering cooperation and inventiveness in the interest of a growing commons which serves each ‘individual’. We are leaving behind one sense of what freedom is all about, and developing a different, perhaps more mature definition of freedom. Also up for redefinition are wealth, value and success; dessert, reward and punishment; obligation and responsibility; health and much else besides. We are not going through a simple economic downturn, but this has been true since 2007, and actually far earlier. 

There is no hope for the old system. Hopelessness is thus justified. I suspect many of us feel it. For many across the world, conditions are so terrible only suicide offers any hope of release from the pain. Indeed, hopelessness is pervasive enough, the absence of a clear, alternative vision palpable enough, to make it sometimes seem like the only possible way is down, forever. For that which is dying, the only way is down, but it is precisely this death which feeds the birth of the new. As Charles Eisenstein argues in his latest article, we are in the space between stories. On one hand we see decadence, decay, oppression, fascism, open corruption and criminality unimaginable even months ago. On the other we dimly perceive something vague. The former thus seems far more real, far more worthy of our attention. If we gaze at it for too long, we panic, do whatever we can to prevent its collapse. This is hopelessness, this is desperation. The new, the unknowable alternative, is so vague, so silly, so untried and untested, so impossible, it cannot inspire us. Hopelessness wins.

Ralph Boes* was interviewed in Basel on the 23rd December this year (a few days ago). He describes a hopeless situation in Germany due to Hartz IV. He says many pregnant mothers on Hartz IV have committed suicide in despair. The pressure from the state system is so inhuman, so counter to the realities of people’s lives and the job market, that death offers the only release. And yet, just as we recently passed the winter solstice, just as we know 2013 is upon us, just as we know 2012 cannot be revived, we know spring must come. Of course, tired clichés aside, there is the matter of the timescale, there are the significant matters of war, environmental stress, fascism, dystopia. I agree that these are precarious times; I am not here selling some assured transition to flower-filled meadows alive with love and life. Boes uses the analogy of marching across a frozen sea. The weather warms, the ice breaks. For a while, marching forwards still makes sense, and swimming remains unimaginable, foolish. But at some point, after enough ice has melted, swimming becomes the only option. We are just about at that moment, and as we abandon what was once solid, what once stretched out all around us as far as the eye could see, we are called upon to be inventive and creative, and to begin imagining the new as we build it. Not just fringe loons like myself, but everybody, all talents, all perspectives. In this sense, we are becoming the 100%. 

Just as the Spaniards did not have the conceptual experience required to gauge the scale of the Grand Canyon, so we cannot appreciate the task in front of us. We are our habits, our patterns of thought, our beliefs. In this sense, the old travels with us into the new and does not die, but is transformed. Indeed, old and new are little more than opinions, perspectives. There are no endings, no beginnings, only ongoing emergence, and our lives are not our own. Hopelessness gives rise to hope as surely as Yin and Yang birth their opposites at each of their extremes. But hopelessness and hope are, at one level, ego-effects (as are all ‘opposites’), and dwelling on them, as on predictions, misses the point. How many of us make it through the turbulence is anyone’s guess, but that’s not the issue either, and applies equally to good and bad times. It’s not about individuals in the ego-sense, in the ego-perspective, and never really has been. We are wholly caught up in, and are generated by the infinite interconnectedness of everything, tasked with somehow making the ‘best’ of our lot, our ‘fate’, our biology, our history, come what may. 

There is free will, but it is not the ego’s plaything as ego would have us believe. Perhaps Jung had it right after all; “Free will is doing gladly that which we must do”, but I think there is more to it than that. As we are forced to let go of what we once held precious, as we jump unwillingly into what appears to be an inhospitable sea of endless uncertainty, the deeper meaning of free will becomes apparent; it is rooted in (and perhaps generates) circumstance, reflex, reaction, experience, bondage, limitation. And yet there in the ego’s blind spot, something gives birth to creativity and new forms, and we can be privileged to be part of that as one gift of interconnectedness. I like to think of this mystery as free will, but it is not ‘ours’ to wield. I see our egos as being on the receiving end of free will, not in any way as masters of it. From the ego’s point of view, ‘true’ free will is thus a paradoxical and magical thing, but a magic which destroys as it creates – forests, people, cities, civilisations … everything, causing both suffering and bliss, tragedy and good fortune, suicide and survival, hope and hopelessness, blandness and vibrancy: binary opposites as ego-effects.

To the extent that binary opposites exist at all, it can be helpful to see them as creators of both unity (“We”) and diversity (“I”). Our perceptions/experiences thereof, rooted in and shaped by slowly changing conceptual frameworks, are as much a part of their composition as is their endless, autopoietic spiralling. As the African word “Ubuntu” has it, I am because we are. I believe this wisdom is going to be increasingly helpful to us as we navigate the uncertainty ahead, as we deal with the exhausting see-saw of hopelessness and hope, as we build the ‘new’ from the collapse of the ‘old’.

The title of this article is thus deceptive, the content’s message purposefully muddled in a contortion of contradictions. Regardless of current or impending horror, regardless of imminent bliss or utopia, our lives are not our own. And yet we are indeed confronted by a daunting transition to something potentially ‘better’, we are indeed called to act, to be agents for positive change and to be creative through a transition that is, because of its enormity, very painfully disruptive. We must act despite the fact that this transition is far mightier than any of us as ‘individuals’, even though our actions can seem futile, a drop in the ocean. 

In this convoluted, long-winding way, I wish you what is most appropriate and beneficial both to you and us for the times ahead, and a creative relationship with your ever-changing circumstances.

Brace yourselves, it's going to be a bumpy ride. 

*Ralph Boes' 90% sanctioning was revoked towards the end of November. According to the employment agency, there had been an unspecified legal complication/error. Boes is eating normally again. We can reasonably read into this that the state does not want a public martyr in the Hartz IV colosseum and knows it is on shaky legal ground when it comes to Hartz IV.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Changing Direction

[Edited for flow and a touch more humility, 16.01.15]

There is something frantic eating away the heart of modern societies. My intuition tells me it is speeding up, fear tells me there’s no escape. Not only are those in employment often asked to do more and more for less and less, even those out of work are faced with falling wages for the job offers they might get, or no opportunities at all. The void they are left in is far from immune to the acceleration I’m describing, which works on them like ever-thinning air. School children feel the pressure. Full-time mothers and fathers feel it too. Teachers, police, health care workers, business people, professionals, with a few exceptions, are very aware of this increasingly frantic scrabble to maintain what I think of as our crumbling culture. And the third world is suffering terribly to keep us lucky ones distracted by gadgets and cheap stuff so we don’t notice how untenable the situation is.

The Tower of Babel is falling, obviously so, and yet, because of the ‘forward’ momentum of our frantic efforts, of our stampede, we still need to tell ourselves the tower can be restored; with just a little more effort, a little harder work, more efficiency and ingenuity, we’ll soon continue our ascent. We cannot accept, in sufficient numbers, how wrong we are.

So we are wholly occupied by unending, desperate activities which are, taken together, damaging an environment now increasingly incapable of supporting us. The total effort is itself debilitating, utterly non-replenishing and vacuous, and on top of its fundamental absurdity the massive effort we exert actually worsens our situation, requiring yet more effort, more acceleration. A cultural death spiral.

We are driving ourselves insane. Ascent, in the manner we have been pursuing for centuries, is not coming back, and we are going crazy in our valiant refusal to acknowledge this.

Of course I am saying nothing new and have borrowed heavily from Charles Eisenstein. But that’s ok, culture is like that. I didn’t invent the English language either, nor any of my philosophies. Again, nothing new there. But this perspective needs to be laid out by as many of us as possible, as clearly as possible, from as many angles as possible. Together we bring into focus a sound perspective of where we are, how we got here, where we’re headed, and how to change direction if we agree such is necessary.

Changing direction is not easy, especially when billions are heavily invested in the current course. It’s all we know, how we grew up, and enough stuff is working just about well enough to sustain the illusion that normal is just around the corner. And the state, the market, our obsession with numerical values as wealth with final control of all variables just within reach ... this paradigm is so uniformly pervasive, so globally successful, there is now no Getting Away From It All, though some try. My own efforts have proven too little too late. Once you have a family, you have debt, even if you have no monetary debt. You have a debt to your family’s habits, friends, to the roots of your slowly built-up life. One’s life is a momentum that has a will of its own. It cannot just be stopped in its tracks and repositioned somewhere more sensible, less stressful, less environmentally damaging. We are each of us part of the system, steeped in it, coloured by it, made of it. We take it with us wherever we go, and besides, it’s there waiting for us when we arrive. And the token things we can do locally to Make a Difference (recycling, fair trade) are very far from satisfying.

As if in stampede, we are in this together. If you don’t stampede with the rest, chances are you’ll get trampled. Culturally, this adds up to a seemingly unstoppable momentum. We are not going to choose to try and change course prior to a mighty slap in the face, an enormous collective wake-up call.

Here’s my summary of where we are and why we’re in lockstep.

Growth. First but by no means most importantly, our money system requires constant growth to work, by design. If the economy is not growing, it is collapsing.

This unhappy design flaw has its far-distant roots, in my view, in the larger-scale state project (a.k.a hierarchical civilisation, thousands of years in the making). What I call the state project began innocently with farming. Farming stems, crudely speaking, from the domestication of plants and beasts, and ourselves. This experimentation set up a rift with (or even created) a very distinct Other, creating for the first time the two realms of Tamed and Wild, where Tamed is good and Wild is bad. Tamed begets Home and Hearth, which begets private property to be protected against the vagaries of the Wild at all costs, eventually as enshrined by law and the state, and sustained as a social dynamic by money, market and price. The Wild finally becomes ‘idle resources’ to be turned into economic goods and services, which transformation is endlessly accomplished by Hard Work (see below). By way of confirmation, I offer the fact that economics text books show nature (a.k.a. the wild universe) as a subset of the economy. Ah, sweet hubris.

Within this basic paradigm, once you start purposefully manipulating your (now enemy) environment to improve your situation, you can’t stop tinkering. With the beginning of the perception of problems-to-be-solved in a threatening world of Other, the unending journey (Ascent) can be begun. Tinkering to solve problems always creates new, unanticipated problems. So, solve them, create unintended and even newer problems ... rinse and repeat forever. It starts with the human ability to perceive certain situations as solvable problems (a far-from-obvious perception), then builds on or accrues to itself in the form of increasing cultural wisdom, aided and abetted by the spoken then written word, essential as recording mechanisms for handing knowledge down across generations. This dynamic, couched in the Tamed/Wild split, has slowly but surely led us into our perpetual growth cul-de-sac, because we came, in our naïve hubris, to see ourselves as somehow above nature, a view reinforced by the fact that we have been very ‘successful’ in our endeavours at this Progress thing. Also, and not unimportantly, because we have such strong emotions we’re not prepared to kill our young, say, as rabbits do.We’re not fond of resets. We establish dynasties, legacies, etc.

Thus the (now money-driven) growth/progress habit is very old and hard to break. It is civilisation’s deepest and most entrenched back story. (This dynamic also, in a way, describes evolution generally, but this is a short essay, so space does not allow me to develop this aspect fully here, nor address the distinctions. Let me just finally add that I am not at all against tinkering or progress! Indeed, we have to tinker to change course.)

Dualism. Secondly and for less time, we have been more or less convinced that reality is made of matter, that the immaterial realm is mere illusion, or at best something distinct and fundamentally separate. Either there is no spirit, there is no god, no heaven above, no hell below, and consciousness is an illusory epiphenomenon of the material brain, or the ‘religious’ among us represent a set of beliefs that relegate the immaterial realm to the afterlife, to some fully separated dominion beyond us and belonging wholly to God. The ‘physical’ universe is here and now, is thus our domain, and we are its religious and secular masters. This perceived separation informs our strong cultural conviction that Out There is a complex machine we can master and improve, an Alien Other to be tamed, perfected. With time, this attitude promises, we will master everything there is

Of course, the materialist position, a child of dualism, leads not only to scientific positivism, it can also give rise to primitivism, or the idea that nature is a certain way, that man should not tinker with it, that civilisation was a wrong turn. I subscribe fully to neither mindset, and see merits and flaws in both views. I also happen to believe both are flawed by their dualist roots, the philosophical dead end of Mind versus Matter brought into cultural focus by Rene Descartes. To put my cards on the table, I’m a systems theorist with a strong ‘spiritual’ bent (i.e., consciousness (whatever that is) is the ground of all interbeing (whatever that is)). In my view, there is no static reality Out There to be learned and thus mastered. Reality changes constantly as we do; we are of it. There is no separation, only one endlessly unfolding story created and sustained by unimaginable diversity. Nature is change, and ‘spirit’ is ‘matter’ is ‘spirit’. In sum, I assert that our cultural sense of reality as a (very complex) machine is wrong, but that unlearning this habit of perception is very, very hard.

Work. Thirdly, we also have extremely outdated beliefs in productivity and Hard Work, which arise directly from our sense of reality as a machine to be mastered and conquered in a threatening universe. We must grow forever, are Evolution’s/God’s chosen creatures with a Special Destiny, and if we don’t all work harder and harder the whole thing breaks down. It would be a secular and religious sin to flunk that destiny. Laziness is therefore Evil. If you’re not productive, you are of no use to society, and that which qualifies as productive is described entirely within the framework of the points touched on above, i.e., it earns money.

Taken together, this coarsely presented trio of memes means it is specifically and only economically valuable work that counts, that delivers the goods. It is the economic sphere that must grow. It is not more and more play, nor more and more rest, nor more and more family time or time with friends the infamous System demands. No, it is Hard Work we need to perform to sustain The Project, the glorious growth of the human species. Paradoxically, this means we are culturally driven to create ever more economic work for everyone, even though we don’t remotely need it, even though our frantic efforts in this direction are producing less and less real wealth. Our vaunted inventiveness has been automating production for centuries, and we’re getting ever better at making human labour redundant. Furthermore, and worse than not needing more economic work for humans, we happen to live on a finite planet. Consumerism is killing us. Why should we whip ourselves into a frenzy to sustain it? Better the devil you know.

Economic work—activity characterised by monetary exchange or barter—never has been and never will be a priori superior to other kinds of work. This Holy Cow is a mere assertion and has no basis whatsoever in reality, other than in a cultural misperception, however understandable. The rigid conviction that paid work is better than unpaid paiwork must be honestly examined. There’s far more to reality than money. Surely it’s ok to accept that machines can do much work for us. Let’s take this wee gem on the chin and learn to relax a bit, eh? Stop shouting at the ‘lazy’ unemployed and take a fresh look at this issue, shall we? Slow down a tad, stop consuming as if gadgets were the be all and end all. It’s a thought.

To recap: money is wealth because numbers are control because control is good because look at all these gadgets and their price tags so lets do more and more of that. The universe is a machine, therefore we can, and should, master it. Evolution/God gave birth to us, we are history’s zenith, we thus own the whole shebang and are alone in the universe, which thus belongs to us by default because we are so very intelligent. Would you like to buy a piece of the moon?

We have built machines that can create the goods, and the accelerating consumerism stampede does not make us, or the environment, healthy. We all know this. So, while we can explain why we believe Growth is God, that does not mean Growth is God. Look around you; it’s good that things mature, stop growing, and perish.

To repeat, economic activity is merely one kind of activity. It is not the best of all possible activities simply because it causes money to change hands, simply because we can ‘objectively’ measure its value, or believe we can measure its value (how much is the moon worth?). We don’t have to grow economically for biological or spiritual reasons, there just happens to be a design flaw in the money system, as understandable as that flaw is, historically speaking. Let’s change the money system to suit reality instead of fighting reality to suit the money system.

While we stampede towards the edge of the cliff, hope for humanity’s future lies in our ability to recognise where we’re headed and work out how to change direction. Sustainability is part of this, renewable energies are part of this, humility is part of this, a revolution in farming is part of this, guaranteed income is part of this, love is part of this, revolution in education is part of this, a new money system is part of this, direct democracy is part of this, as are many other bits and pieces, not one of them a silver bullet. And we are all of us parts of this. We need to get better at talking this out, and remembering where true wealth lies: in time, in health, in soil, in community, trust, inventiveness, work, joy, meaning, exploration, accomplishment, sharing, competing, cooperating, and so on. Let’s get on with that.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ralph Boes Update Plus

This is a translation of the beginning of an email I received recently from Ralph Boes:

“Berlin, 26th October, 2012
Dear friends,
It has happened at last.
After challenging the Hartz IV system via my Brandbrief, and after those I challenged tried for a long time to ignore me, I am now to be harshly sanctioned.
For starters, a mere 90% reduction of the absolute minimum needed to live! That works out to a princely 37.40€ (instead of 374.00€) per month to live from.
The punishment can, however, be made harsher still. A 100% cut, plus loss of health insurance and home, is in their power.”

Of course, this is what Ralph Boes wanted to bring about, yet I fear for him. He begins his political, public and state-imposed starvation on 1st November, when the sanctioning takes effect (he asserts it is not a hunger strike, but a public demonstration of the violence of Hartz IV). He hopes to attract media attention. I wonder if he will get it, and what quality it might have should the media pay attention.

Should the authorities escalate and stop paying his rent too (as is their ‘right’), should they stop paying his health insurance, he would be as the other homeless of Germany, unable to get a job for lack of an address, with no right to any medical care whatsoever, and with the payments still owed monthly for health insurance now amassing an enormous debt to be repaid should they ever find work again. A 100% sanctioning is thus, more or less, a death sentence, an eviction from society (if you have no one around to look after you). 

Boes is a brave man. His fight to expose and right the injustices of this inhuman and unconstitutional system is noble. I hope he and his lawyers can take this battle all the way, and win.

Boes is at pains to point out that his punishment does not represent the will of employment agency employees, and calls for his supporters not to be angry with them. This is the machination of a system unable to adjust intelligently to new realities, primary among which is the cold fact that there is not enough work to employ sufficient numbers of people at a decent wage. If we are to live sustainably, efficiently and intelligently, we must first accept that our obsession with wages for labour, any old labour regardless of its consequences, is doing more harm than good. Again, it is not that there is no work to be done, but that there is less and less paid word to be done. Were the tax, benefits and money systems to be made sensible, transparent and simple, there would be even less paid work. However, what today constitutes paid work in this money system within the context of complex and obtuse tax law, and what may well become paid work in an updated system, is another matter.
My own interest remains transition to a resource-based economy, whatever that turns out to be. My definition of that transition is the concerted and purposeful demotion of money and promotion of wealth. Such a transition will require and generate new definitions of money and thus societal value, definitions we can only crudely sketch out at this distance. Today, in the UK, around 20% of employed people earn less than a living wage. Spain has reached 25% unemployment in its official statistics, with youth unemployment at around 50%. Greece is in free fall. Italy is teetering on the brink, ditto Portugal. Germany is not anywhere near as robust as its surface reputation would have you believe, and France is hardly problem free. Elsewhere in the world, the story is similar, with very few exceptions. Perpetual economic growth, which is basically the conversion of ecosystems and society into goods and services, is impossible on a finite planet. Debt-based, usury-based money systems require perpetual economic growth to function; if they are not expanding, they are collapsing, and that is a deadly design flaw. Add to this rapidly increasingly technological innovations (today only 163 million of the planet’s 7 billion humans are employed in factories worldwide, and this number is shrinking fast), the need for radical change is immediately apparent. (Did I mention peak everything?)

Many know it. The Pirate Party in Germany (Die Piraten) have accepted the need for a guaranteed income. Mainstream parties are in consultation with them or have their own proposals. The Vatican is seeking to become the first country to initiate a guaranteed income. Radical change is in the air, and yet resistance to new ideas is still strong. As I have argued in these pages before, we are the system. We are blocking ourselves, frightened of the unknown. We demand a perfect alternative, and failing perfection assert there is no alternative. But I have wittered on and on about this, and frankly, I am beginning to bore myself. Either we make it, or we don’t.

About five years ago, I posted on The Guardian’s website that we need a new cultural understanding of wealth. This was before I had heard anything of The Venus Project or a resource-based economy. My position has not changed. We still confuse money for wealth, at ‘best’ seeing money as an accurate—thanks to the divine magic of the free market price system—representation of societal consensus on where value lies, and how society should motivate itself and make decisions on what should get done. To survive the next few decades (time is really running out), we must redefine wealth via new money systems, new money distribution mechanisms, and a fundamentally different relationship with this beautiful planet. As New York drowns, as Spain and Greece burn with others waiting to join them in the fire, as the US wastes resources on yet another razzmatazz election, as billions struggle with hunger and deprivation and further billions live lives of horrible indignity and meek desperation, and as a shrinking few cannot decide whether to party like its 1999 or Do Something, we are in the middle of the very difficult challenge of profoundly changing how we live, what we want, and what we understand. Somehow we must develop new understandings and want something very different, something which allows diversity to thrive and be celebrated, while engendering cooperation and cohesion on an unprecedented scale. 

It isn’t going to be easy. No one has all the answers. Indeed, there is no Solution, no Silver Bullet, only the recognition that a new direction must be trod, almost blindly. But it is not the destination that matters—there is none—, rather the manner and steel of our departure.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Of Turbulence and See-Saws

It’s been settling down for me, turbulently, while ‘out there’ in the rest of the human world turbulence spreads like a cancer, warped and guided by the anomalies of the Olympics, politics as usual, media as usual, tragedy, terror, war, miracle, humdrum etc. As I repeatedly say, This Time It’s Different, and more than the usual grade of difference too. This is a personal impression I can unscientifically validate by looking for good news and bad news on alternate days to set up the see-saw of turbulence I experience internally, but I suspect a power struggle within the status quo is indeed raging, one which threatens (This Time It’s Different) to cut to the very core of the status quo, and rip it apart. The attempt to rescue the core elitist extractive dynamic (a.k.a. the state) via ‘reform’ risks breaking that project. Yet riskier still is blind adherence to the thinking which has generated this mess; the sociopathic pursuit of monetary profit and power for its own sake, an addiction to hollow control and self-aggrandisement I see as a cultural sickness clearly manifested in our politics, business and consumerist culture.

Events see-saw back and forth. The status quo farts out some new spin, some new fear mongering (sustaining an atmosphere of pervasive fear is so very important) to supress the surging emergence of the new paradigm, while within the strongholds of that very status quo, cracks appear. Articles in The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent, The Guardian and a white paper from the IMF have identified the debt-based, high powered money/credit money system as responsible for our global financial woes, as calls for a guaranteed income find friends within the status quo in increasing numbers. This amounts to an identification of commercial banks as the primary ‘cause’ (let’s say outlet) of the financial crisis, and an acknowledgement that there is not enough ‘economic’ work for all, that technological unemployment is indeed one of our era’s key challenges. Radical is the new normal.

Recently, the CDU (Germany’s conservative/right wing political party) released a paper proclaiming a guaranteed income cheaper than the current social welfare system. The party’s Thüringen president, Dieter Althaus, is calling for 800€ per month per citizen. In Holland, a new party (Soeverein Onafhankelijke Pioniers Nederland, SOPN, “Sovereign Independent Pioneers of the Netherlands”) has formed to fight the upcoming elections on the 12th September, and they have guaranteed income as their central policy. In Germany, The Pirates have fully adopted the idea, while the left’s traditional opposition appears to be softening. Ralph Boes (who is about to go on hunger strike in Berlin after being sanctioned 60% of his welfare, starting September) had a conversation with one of the left’s more prominent and powerful politicians for whom he laid out the VAT flat tax proposal as a means of financing a guaranteed income. The politician had never heard of the idea, and was apparently very excited about it. The left worships labour, and thus has traditionally been opposed to guaranteed income, until now. Brazil already has a guaranteed income enshrined in its constitution, is only lacking the legal and financial apparatus to implement it (a pilot study has shown amazing results). Across the political spectrum the idea is increasingly seen as the only way of saving the system. Which is dangerous.

Deep reform of the money system must, in my view, accompany a guaranteed income, as well as a very broad and open debate on the shallowness of consumerism. Not only is economic growth ad nauseum deadly, even if it were possible (as we culturally envision it: gadgets for all forever in ever growing quantities), it would destroy community and commons everywhere. Our current money system collapses if the economy is not growing, which is a terrible design flaw. But one of the many things that is changing, is our cultural relationship with consumption (in the US for example (2010 data), over 750,000 people live off-grid, a huge number). I believe more and more of us recognise the counterproductive addiction inherent in distracting ourselves with Entertainment and Gadgetry from the hollowness of our seemingly pointless lives. While we cannot know what the new vision/story will look like, we are surely looking for it, fumbling to define it, to bring it into being. So the danger of the misplaced and short sighted desire to reignite growth is perhaps not grave, yet we should stay alert to it.

And growing local food is finding strong support in ventures like Incredible Edible (spreading across the world as I write), which I find very exciting. A town in the Rheinland area in Germany (Andernach) has called itself the Edible Town (Die essbare Stadt (YouTube, German)). Fruit, vegetables and herbs in great variety grow all over the town, and anyone can harvest whatever they like. The entire project is sustained locally, with a mixture of volunteer work, 1€ jobs and local governmental funding. What I find most warming about such stories, is that the anticipated vandalism and other cynical abuse of the gesture (essentially free food for all) has not materialised. This is, for me, a reminder that people respond positively to generosity, to well-planned and well-executed endeavours to replenish the commons and strengthen community. Despite decades of community erosion, it is as if something in us is ready to take this idea up and run with it.

There are so many other positive things happening ‘out there’, but, like I said, this is a see-saw. What is dying (calcified elitism and exploitation as a perpetual growth dynamic) does not want to die, and will lash out, defend itself, attack all perceived threats as brutally as is required. And there are ecological and other environmental disasters awaiting us too. All is far from rosy, as a look at the world’s trouble spots will tell you. As I argued a while ago, the state can wait, while not being able to wait, which I see as an explosive tension. Yet it is the positive which inspires us towards new work, and from what I can see, the urge to the new is only growing. The cynical voices sound shriller and shriller, their arguments less convincing, die-hards are softening. A few weeks ago, Franz Hörmann (who’s star is on the rise again) addressed a conference of some 160 bankers, laying out his vision for a moneyless future, in which banks would act as repositories of business wisdom, working in partnership with the community to do what is best for the whole community. Hörmann said their response was enthusiastic. (And yes, business can be conducted without money as we know it. Business is simply about organising projects and harnessing human abilities into constructive action. A root and branch re-understanding of profit would go a long way in this department!)

Many in ‘power’ know this system is broken, and millions of ‘ordinary’ others too. A survey conducted by Die Zeit (a German newspaper, text in German) found roughly 80% of Germans want a new economics, principally one which needs no growth. Approximately 66% of Germans no longer trust market mechanisms to solve economic and financial problems. This is a sea change. What is needed, therefore, are practical and sensible steps out of this quagmire of self-annihilation towards a very different social agreement, vision, mode. Whatever ‘starts’ this change, will need to be quickly accompanied by other ideas. If ‘revolution’ indeed begins with a guaranteed income, it is up to us to press for deeper reform/revolution. One of the things a guaranteed income does give us, is time. Today, that is a precious resource. Imagine what Occupy could accomplish if they did not have to worry about money and jobs! Imagine what movements like Incredible Edible could accomplish. Imagine what types of volunteer work could flourish. 

There is no silver bullet, but I believe a guaranteed income is a very good ‘starting’ point. Accompanied by a revolution in the money system and attendant deep changes in our habits of consumption, this would indeed be, at least potentially, a set of measures to put us, culturally, on a path leading to a resource-based economics.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Letter to Deborah Orr

Dear Ms Orr,

I was very pleased to read your article of the 13 July 2012, Yes, banking’s a mess, but be part of the solution. Move your money!, and further encouraged by last week’s Now Cameron wants us to spend again. And borrow. Have we learned nothing? I don’t follow the newspapers as I used to, so cannot be sure how rare such articles are, but my impression is that the mainstream has yet to grasp this particular, all-important nettle as fully as it ought (I note The Economist, The Independent and The Financial Times have recently identified the money system as a systemic problem). The money system and its relationship with perpetual growth consumerism lies at the heart of today’s many problems, and urgently needs to be addressed. Thank you for addressing it.

I have been studying the money system and money itself for many years now, but am not writing to pound you with the details of that research. My hope in reaching out to you in this way, is that you might tackle a topic closely related to the money system and consumerism: basic guaranteed income. Basic guaranteed income was supported by Martin Luther King and is (was) proposed by various economists, including Milton Friedman. The idea is rare in that it both unites and divides across the political spectrum. It cuts to the heart of why we have an economy in the first place, what it means to earn a living, challenges the received and seldom questioned wisdom that money is wealth, yet somehow also measures wealth (value) accurately, and presents government with the tantalising (yet frightening) option of simplifying the entire tax code to ‘finance’ guaranteed income. Like no other idea I know, this one opens up a can of worms which never fails to excite debate – one we sorely need.

I’ve lived in Berlin for over a decade now, but only last year came to learn of Ralph Boes. Boes is a Berlin-based philosopher-writer who has taken on the might of the German state by challenging what he sees as the anti-constitutional Hartz IV system (unemployment benefit), which he equates with forced (meaningless) labour. The first line of the German constitution is “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” But if people claiming Hartz IV do not accept the work assigned to them by the state (often for 1€ an hour), however real an affront to their dignity, they are sanctioned, and can end up on the streets. Homelessness is on the rise in Germany. Boes himself is claiming Hartz IV benefits, and has written a Brandbrief (an open letter of defiant political intent, which I recently translated into English), which he personally handed to Angela Merkel (among others). His determination is to reject any paid work offered to him by the state on the grounds that he works full-time for no pay, campaigning across Germany for a basic guaranteed income. His action constitutes an overt and public attempt to invite sanctions. Over a year later, he has just received his first threat of sanctions (30% reduction in his benefits if he does not apply for a job in a call centre), but is still working full-time for no pay. He threatens to go on hunger strike if sanctioned and also to take the case to Karlsruhe (German Constitutional Court). My reading of the situation is that he has the state somewhat on the run, though if the state is to remain the biggest bully on the block, it is obliged to defeat this annoyance by hook or by crook.

How does this relate to the UK? You wrote another article some years ago challenging the patronising New Labour position that everyone can be successful, that with a little help and a push, every citizen can shine and be a useful contributor to the economy. Your article changed my way of thinking about the economy and economic activity (GDP activity), and is the other reason I am approaching you with this sprawling topic; I hope to find in you an open and serious listener, since you are obviously well aware of these fundamental questions, and are prepared to tackle them. In a similar vein to that earlier article, Boes talks eloquently about what he calls the “right to laziness”. Here is a quote from his Brandbrief:

“I hold sacred all work which springs from the earnest inner concern of a person
-          regardless of whether it is performed externally or internally
-          and regardless of whether or not it is “gainful”!”

Success cannot be objectively assessed, the path to it cannot be prescribed. People are only free to ‘fail’ and ‘succeed’ on their own terms and in terms of their personal development when they are free of existential angst, a freedom granted by a guaranteed income. Today, after many decades of breathless technological innovation, we simply do not need human labour as we once did. Can we let the primary consequence of this inescapable fact be that those humans not needed for the production of goods and services are treated by society as useless? Killing off the economically unnecessary (e.g. through war) – regardless of moral issues and to be extreme for a moment – would be no solution, since we only need a percentage of the population to be economically active. We already produce more than we can consume, and the unemployed have too little purchasing power. As if to exacerbate this well known capitalist challenge, we have a money system which forces perpetual economic growth on us, since it creates money almost exclusively as interest-bearing debt, as you highlighted in your article. This means that to pay off the interest owed – which is not created alongside the debt – on the debt-money created, more people have to take on more debt, forever. When people stop taking on new debt, defaults increase, the money supply consequently shrinks, and financial crises ensue. The money system we have today is thus in essence a Ponzi scheme: if it is not growing, it is collapsing. Perpetual growth is thus the impossible gold which backs this money system, an obviously untenable situation. We are seeing the terrible negative consequences of this across the planet today.

As sane people recognise, the economy cannot grow forever. And why should it? Where is it proven that of all things, economic activity is so vital, good and supernatural that it alone should grow forever? Why do politicians insist on economic growth? What’s wrong with non-economic activity, such as friendship, volunteer work, parenting, reading, strolling, musing, chatting, lazing, etc.? These things must shrink if the economy is to grow forever.

The pat answer is that economic growth creates jobs (though we now know jobless growth and jobless recovery are possible!). Why are jobs so important? Because they are more or less the only economic mechanism we have of equipping consumers with purchasing power, and also, sadly, the way many of us derive our sense of self-worth (I note suicides among over-55 males are on the rise). A basic guaranteed income flies in the face of this system of values, and says people should be freed by an unconditional income to contribute as they decide, not as money decides, not as The Market decides, not as The State decides. We shouldn’t have to earn money to live, we should be freed to live and contribute by a guaranteed income. To be against guaranteed income is thus to be for the idea that only economic activity (a.k.a. consumerism) is valuable, or that it has far more value than non-economic activity. In Boes’ view, we should not be compelled to earn the money we need to survive, doing work the world either does not need or is damaged by, in the name of something both impossible and destructive anyway: perpetual economic growth. Again, this situation is untenable.

A guaranteed income cannot mean the end of work. There is only work. This is an issue of definition. From a physical point of view, everything is always at work, including humans. Whether sleeping, holidaying, laughing, crying, digging, gardening, breastfeeding, fornicating, etc., we are always doing something. Even decay after death is work. Thus, no longer needing to work economically to survive cannot mean not having to work at all, nor can it mean not having to create a place in your community for yourself: to feel needed and valued by others requires work. Guaranteed income presents us with the cultural challenge of redefining work, utility, reward, success, value, etc. I consider that an enormous challenge, but one we are forced by circumstances to explore and take on.

Why should money and economic activity have such a death grip on our cultural sense of value and contribution, of what is possible, of what we can afford? If ever we needed to free ourselves of this grip, it is now, and to do so we need the help and work of people like you, Ms Orr. Ralph Boes’ efforts in Berlin against Hartz IV and to promote guaranteed income may be local to Berlin and Germany, but need global attention nevertheless, since the connotations of his work are relevant to us all. If we are to take on The Money Power (US President van Buren’s phrase) as you have and others are beginning to, we must be prepared to tackle our cultural relationship with value and utility too, since today both are almost exclusively defined by money.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,
Toby Russell

P.S. Further reading, should this enormous topic indeed interest you:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

W = R&D

A short post for you after the recent long post. I work as a translator now, so am reading material I ordinarily would not read. Everything is food for thought, and one set of documents for chemical giant BASF’s R&D labs got me thinking about research and development as a metaphor for social welfare (W).

To stay viable over the long term, a corporation or other large enterprise must reinvest some portion of its profits (surplus) into R&D. If it does not, it risks being left behind by either other large companies who do have sufficient capacities for R&D, or innovative start-ups eating up their market share.

But R&D is risky. You simply cannot know in advance which money-pit is going to produce the next new wonder product the whole world can’t do without. So it takes courage and faith to invest in this area. Nowadays, the big boys often save on R&D and just buy out successful start-ups, ‘out-sourcing’ R&D costs to pioneers and society generally. But for a socioeconomic system to have sufficient surplus to fund sufficient numbers of pioneers for keeping society ‘modern’ and ‘competitive’, there must be high and well-paid employment, sufficient free time, a good welfare safety-net, and good education. So, we can see that surplus, or excess, or fat, is essential for development of the new.

This is true across nature generally. The number of seeds an apple tree produces every year would be far in excess of requirements if every single seed took root and grew into a mature and productive apple tree. The number of sperm a fertile man can produce far exceeds the number of children he can help to raise, ditto the number of eggs a woman can produce. The examples are endless. Excess is ‘natural’. And you cannot know in advance which seed, which new idea, which egg is going to produce the wonder X the world didn’t know it was waiting for, nor can you know what the ‘negative’ consequences brought into being by product/offspring X are going to be. Uncertainty is inescapable (and beautiful). Not being able to predict and control all outcomes is what makes life worth living.

What is clear, is that evolution/change/innovation/development requires excess, or surplus, or fat. Efficiency is a useful skill or modality, and successful living systems are most often efficient users of energy, for example. But if razor-sharp efficiency is all you have, if you are an efficiency one-trick pony, you spend your entire life merely surviving, until some New Kid On The Block knocks you over with its new tricks.

In this light, social welfare can be thought of as cultural R&D. We cannot know which of the millions of artists, inventors, musicians, writers, poets, philosophers, piss artists, ‘good-for-nothings’, lost souls, etc., are going to be ‘useful’ to society, today or tomorrow, nor what ‘usefulness’ really is, especially over the long term, but we can know, or assert, that a vibrant culture – one not geared to 100% efficiency and capable only of taking care of immediate, day-to-day needs – must take a risk and invest constantly in that which may never produce anything ‘useful’. Cultural vibrancy is the overarching ‘meta-useful’ product of welfare.

And the metaphor I’ve just presented does not consider the perhaps more important factor of morality; what does it mean to judge, either by majority or dictator or monarch, what is valuable to society, and what is not? There can be no list, no top ten or hundred Valuable Things a society should nurture and protect, where everything lower down on the list can just be wiped out.

Then there is the matter of Dignity of Interbeing, which means we should be very careful about consigning anything to the trash heap just because we can detect no immediate use for it. We are not so all-knowing that we can be sure we know what we’re doing. Humility is vital to long term survival and health.

So, things like a guaranteed income, the slowing down of the rat race – which Just Knows that more More MORE! is what life is all about –, the steady demotion of money and the careful promotion of real wealth, are in fact sensible, pragmatic proposals, wise R&D investments back into culture we will bitterly regret not risking, should we fail to do so. And while we suffer the nightmare of Money=Wealth, and insist on using this terrible equation as sole determinant of all society should value, we continue to impoverish ourselves in pursuit of a ballooning vapour-wealth which is destined to vanish anyway.