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.