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.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The State Can Wait

Food production forces property relations on the species, because it is based on resource utilization of longer duration than human lifespans, while simultaneously providing advantage to larger local property-owning groups. In evolutionary terms these bedrock correlates of food production are a constant basis for inequality within and between polities. Unequal access to resources is therefore an unalterable and inevitable accompaniment of mankind’s adaptation to food production, especially agriculture.
Ronald Cohen
There seems to be no objection to the view that one of the characteristics of the state—and perhaps the most important one—is the existence of classes.
Henri Claessen and Peter Skalnik
The state can wait. Never were truer words spoken. Yet never were those true words more conditional than now.

The state is very old. We can trace its ancestry over perhaps five millennia, though its current national form (western version) is a mere baby, clocking in at around one hundred years old (depending on whom you ask). The ‘well-trained’ (indoctrinated) modern western mind reflexively thinks of The State (in contradistinction to “the state” of this article) in terms of taxation, welfare and democracy, but these are merely its latest fashion accessories and have altered next to nothing of its core extractive dynamic (more on which below). The state has only recently been able to afford these Luxuries of the People thanks to two things; cheap oil and modern technology. As cheap oil dwindles, and as Economic Growth and debt-money evaporate in front of our media’s mostly blinkered eyes, so the ‘real’ state increasingly reveals its spots. First casualties of this latest financial debacle are, or course, democracy, education and health care, peripheral elements. Protected at all costs are the core elements; money-system control, debt obligations to the owners of capital, and state force (armies and police). In other words, the tools that sustain elitism.

(By the way, when I say “the state”, I refer to that dynamic concealed behind the infamous The State vs. The Market Show most left/right wing loyalists and ideologues get so hot and bothered about. I think of that dynamic as elitist exploitation of the majority, as hinted at above.)

The state can wait, yes indeed. It controls both money and force and has exquisite propaganda and monitoring technologies at its disposal. It has guaranteed our meek conformity through its money and mind-numbing education systems, alongside a few carefully nurtured legacy religious platitudes (work before pleasure, work is not fun). It is prepared to torture and kill, lie, cheat and steal to stay alive and kicking. It will take your property from you, impoverish and imprison you, rob you and throw you in jail for the crime of being robbed, and keep on doing so for as long as it takes. 

The state can wait. While we protest and chat, bicker and squabble, strike, foment and pontificate, the state just waits. It knows full well hippies become dentists, radicals die off, that fringe thinkers are ignored. The state grinds on.

But it cannot be forever. The state is mortal, is subject to change, just as is the sun. 

Firstly, dearest ladies and gentlemen, we are it. We daily co-create the state through our interwoven interbeing. State arises from us like heat from fire. It is made of us, we of it. We are the state prisons of our minds. Therefore, when we change, so too must the state, but the change must be profound and broad indeed for the state’s fundamental elitist dynamic to change. This simple truth is both a liberating and bitterly sobering reality, for until we want deep change and know how to effect it, we cannot help but perpetuate the very dynamic which is killing us.

And besides the state’s all-too-human fabric and its subjectivity to change, there are the not inconsiderable matters of the perverse fantasy of Perpetual Growth, and the game-changing issue of technological unemployment. The state cannot wisely and humanely deal with these because it is (we are) too elitist, too hierarchical to react intelligently, wisely. This rigid hierarchical structure means state needs (we need), by definition, a large pool of poorly paid grunts to exploit, to ride atop, to do better than, to donate clothes to, to rape, belittle and abuse over time. And the inverse; leaders to look up to, to be guided and instructed by. From rigid, class-based elitism only this structure, this dynamic can emerge. A fundamentally elitist dynamic can give rise to society of no other shape.

And we have to Grow, forever transform ‘idle’ resources into all important Money and Jobs, more and more, faster and faster! The entire universe is a mere sector of the economy, it says so in state-sanctioned economics text books. Only now there are too few idle resources to exploit, and there appears to be no new economic domain left to expand into. We are learning (state is learning) resources are not truly idle, that forests do useful things like provide oxygen and process our waste, that fish feed us, that soil fertility must be protected and nourished, and so on.

And do we (The People, the state) truly want absolutely everything we do to be governed by the economic domain, by market forces? Absolutely everything? If economic growth is not allowed to stop, will we one day pay cash for every breath we take? Every friend we make? Our very biology makes wanting this bizarre outcome impossible, ladies and gentlemen, for, more than we need iPods and sneakers, we need friendship, trust, community, love and respect to be real. Paid for, they can only be cheap imitations of their real selves. Seen from this perspective, we see that money impoverishes. Economics must be released from modern money’s grip, challenged to rethink it.

So let’s step back a little and look at how we got here, short form. It all ‘starts’ before the state, which means before the beginnings of the institutionalised hierarchical management of society and economic production. Following Charles Eisenstein’s analysis (which I find very sound), humans got the hierarchical ball rolling by acting on the idea of causing to grow in their preferred local vicinity the fruit and veg they liked, and domesticating animals most useful to them (a.k.a. farming). This sets up the ‘controlled’ home domain which must then be protected from the ravages of the ‘wild’. It brings into being the data and technology needed to begin to perceive ourselves as ‘masters of nature’, to control variables, to encourage the wanted and discourage the unwanted (progress). This is the ‘origin’ of the split of Universe into clearly demarcated Good and Evil, Us and Them domains. From this co-created situation, the fiercely egalitarian mode of the hunter gatherer steadily diminishes in efficacy. Instead of storing our meat in the bellies of our brothers (sharing), we hoard (in ‘defiance’ of nature’s rhythms) in clay pots, barns, salt, store rooms, fridges, made by our own hand or purchased with money we earned. Instead of being jacks-of-all-trades, specialisation starts to make more sense, and out of this new soil, this new social weave, enabled and freed up by the new circumstances, alpha-male types now find lasting purchase and become chieftains, fighter-types become specialised soldiers dependent on the chief for their special positions. That is, where before too egotistical an attitude could get you killed for putting yourself before the group, it is now a ticket to ‘riches’ in the new social arrangement. Animist ‘superstition’ becomes religion, religion becomes specialised, produces its own hierarchies of priestly classes, which join forces with the military hierarchies, and thus emerges the early state.

What earlier was unquestioning faith in nature’s bounty (and capriciousness, to stretch the metaphor to breaking), morphs into ‘state’ manipulated dogma which must be adhered to. The pyramidal structure stratifies into classes, with power and control increasingly concentrated to the upper class, the elite. The state takes centuries to find its feet, but its groping experimentation is always about improving control and effectively controlling needed expansion, since ‘out there’ are weird enemies who will kill us and take our stuff if we don’t get them first. And because population control is not something humans do willingly, and because the founding paradigm is increasingly competent technological ‘mastery’ of nature, as population grows, so the expanse of the state’s domain must grow to please that population, keep them healthy enough to provide the soldiers, farmers, scientists and artists the elite exploit in the name of the state. Hence wars of conquest and expansion. Hence perpetual growth as a necessary function, an inescapable emergent property of the dynamic of ‘mastering nature’ via farming and property as they give rise to specialisation and state.

The money system currently dominant across the planet is a growth-backed money system, which is hardly surprising given the above analysis, since it serves the state’s dynamic so neatly. To create money ‘from nothing’ as an interest bearing loan (P < P+I – or, Principle is less than Principle+Interest) is to set up the dynamic of a Ponzi scheme, a money-growth whirlwind which collapses if it is not growing. When there are too few people willing to co-create new money (with the banks) by going into debt, which new money can then pay off the interest owed on existing debts after filtering through the economy as wages and purchasing power, then the ongoing repayment of old debts becomes the too-quick shrinking of the money supply. If not checked, this initiates a positive feedback loop of fear and hoarding, fearful sentiment spreads and the problem gets worse, as taking on debt (money creation) is taking on risk. Debt-repayment is money destruction, as it is designed to be: the loaned principle is fully expunged upon repayment, and only the interest ‘earned’ by the lender remains in circulation. Thus only a small fraction of the loaned (created) money remains, i.e., a shrinking money supply. So when no one is borrowing in an interest-bearing debt-money system, the economy stops functioning as the (credit) money supply starts shrinking. Economic growth is thus the very air of our money system, its gold. If it is not growing, it is collapsing.

But we have to grow. We don’t want to die. We don’t want to decay. We want to win, control all variables, stay forever young, do more and more faster and faster, never grow old, never give in, never surrender. So we want the state. We are the state. We fear loss of control, are now stiff with fear, pyramids of calcified fear unable to let go and accept our mortality. In our paralysis we can imagine no other way; growth or death.

The state cannot wait. It has to grow and grow and grow, it may not sit idly and enjoy the view…

But into which new space can it grow, what energy and resources should it manufacture into More State, and inspired by what vision? What is your vision of a happy/healthy/good-enough life? Bigger Better Faster 4Ever? Or something less frantic? What would your answer have been ten years ago?

The state can envision only increasing control and expansion, since that is its core operating dynamic. It fears loss of control, fears anarchy (its shadow-self), fears ‘the wild’, demonises weeds, sloth, the ‘unearned’ and ‘simple’ pleasure of just being. Were it possible for the state project to ‘succeed’ as it envisages, it would produce the nightmare of an even more atomised society in which each atom-citizen can take no step, draw no breath, make no friend without first filling out a form and then parting with money for the privilege of living. Dystopia is State-Money-Economics everywhere, as far as the eye can see.  Cynicism, suspicion, and fear fill every heart.

If the wasteland of total state victory I sketch, if the prospect of fascism or some other dread dictatorship crushes your hope, this is proof of the state’s necessary transformation, since you and I are the state. It is proof we the state want change, deep and broad. The right questions will put us on our preferred path, the right perspective of what we are and what makes us healthy will generate change. The right questions will reveal to us the possible imminence of a new way forward, a new way of (inter)being society, of co-creating a sustainable domain as a dynamic and emergent partnership between all social and environmental forces (which must include friction for there to be creation, but more sensibly and maturely than our current state of affairs).

That said, I ought to point out that some remnant of the state will always be with us, some set of institutions and mechanisms for managing the commons, though we might choose to call that Democracy or something else when the time comes. However, in some fashion, state-like apparatuses will always exist. Just as there is nothing ‘wrong’ with anarchy, so there is nothing ‘wrong’ with hierarchy. New perspectives of each are emerging simply because change is the only constant, but the global paradigm change currently being born through us is unprecedentedly difficult and will be very rocky indeed. So I would say we are going through the pain of birthing some new hybrid, not a return to some romantically imagined idyll. It will help to remember that our only enemy is our very human tendency not to see when we are projecting unresolved internal immaturities ‘out’ onto ‘alien’ others (onto the ‘elite’ for example).

So, because you despair and fear state dystopia, there is hope. Darkness engenders light engenders dark. Horribly, many are suffering and can see no way out. Horribly, there is much tragedy and destruction to come. Because we are the state, we think in state terms, imagine in its language and imagery, are afraid of the dark spaces we do not quite know how to light up (e.g. anarchy and direct democracy, peer-to-peer networks, flat power distribution, local currencies, the ‘poverty’ of steady-state and de-growth economics), so must be awoken and driven to new creativity and experimentation by deep shock. That shock is happening now, rapidly in historical terms, though in modern media terms almost imperceptibly, in that the state/money system itself is not questioned, and radical ideas are given no space in its outlets (though even this is changing, as we change and want to learn). The state is/we are in fact unravelling very rapidly, and newly rich soil is being created by that ‘decay’. From it we will emerge into and become The New.