More gnashing of teeth

7 02 2017

The Über-Lie

By Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute

heinbergNevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration…It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

This is an excellent article from Richard Heinberg, the writer who sent me on my current life voyage all those years ago. Hot on the heels of my attempt yesterday of explaining where global politics are heading, Richard (whom I met years ago and even had a meal with…) does a better job than I could ever possibly muster.  Enjoy……

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Our new American president is famous for spinning whoppers. Falsehoods, fabrications, distortions, deceptions—they’re all in a day’s work. The result is an increasingly adversarial relationship between the administration and the press, which may in fact be the point of the exercise: as conservative commentators Scott McKay suggests in The American Spectator, “The hacks covering Trump are as lazy as they are partisan, so feeding them . . . manufactured controversies over [the size of] inaugural crowds is a guaranteed way of keeping them occupied while things of real substance are done.”

But are some matters of real substance (such as last week’s ban on entry by residents of seven Muslim-dominated nations) themselves being used to hide even deeper and more significant shifts in power and governance? Steve “I want to bring everything crashing down” Bannon, who has proclaimed himself an enemy of Washington’s political class, is a member of a small cabal (also including Trump, Stephen Miller, Reince Priebus, and Jared Kushner) that appears to be consolidating nearly complete federal governmental power, drafting executive orders, and formulating political strategy—all without paper trail or oversight of any kind. The more outrage and confusion they create, the more effective is their smokescreen for the dismantling of governmental norms and institutions.

There’s no point downplaying the seriousness of what is up. Some commentators are describing it as a coup d’etat in progress; there is definitely the potential for blood in the streets at some point.

Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.

Consider population. There were one billion of us on Planet Earth in 1800. Now there are 7.5 billion, all needing jobs, housing, food, and clothing. From time immemorial there were natural population checks—disease and famine. Bad things. But during the last century or so we defeated those population checks. Famines became rare and lots of diseases can now be cured. Modern agriculture grows food in astounding quantities. That’s all good (for people anyway—for ecosystems, not so much). But the result is that human population has grown with unprecedented speed.

Some say this is not a problem, because the rate of population growth is slowing: that rate was two percent per year in the 1960s; now it’s one percent. Yet because one percent of 7.5 billion is more than two percent of 3 billion (which was the world population in 1960), the actual number of people we’re now adding annually is the highest ever: over eighty million—the equivalent of Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, and London added together. Much of that population growth is occurring in countries that are already having a hard time taking care of their people. The result? Failed states, political unrest, and rivers of refugees.

Per capita consumption of just about everything also grew during past decades, and political and economic systems came to depend upon economic growth to provide returns on investments, expanding tax revenues, and positive poll numbers for politicians. Nearly all of that consumption growth depended on fossil fuels to provide energy for raw materials extraction, manufacturing, and transport. But fossil fuels are finite and by now we’ve used the best of them. We are not making the transition to alternative energy sources fast enough to avert crisis (if it is even possible for alternative energy sources to maintain current levels of production and transport). At the same time, we have depleted other essential resources, including topsoil, forests, minerals, and fish. As we extract and use resources, we create pollution—including greenhouse gasses, which cause climate change.

Depletion and pollution eventually act as a brake on further economic growth even in the wealthiest nations. Then, as the engine of the economy slows, workers find their incomes leveling off and declining—a phenomenon also related to the globalization of production, which elites have pursued in order to maximize profits.

Declining wages have resulted in the upwelling of anti-immigrant and anti-globalization sentiments among a large swath of the American populace, and those sentiments have in turn served up Donald Trump. Here we are. It’s perfectly understandable that people are angry and want change. Why not vote for a vain huckster who promises to “Make America Great Again”? However, unless we deal with deeper biophysical problems (population, consumption, depletion, and pollution), as well as the policies that elites have used to forestall the effects of economic contraction for themselves (globalization, financialization, automation, a massive increase in debt, and a resulting spike in economic inequality), America certainly won’t be “great again”; instead, we’ll just proceed through the five stages of collapse helpfully identified by Dmitry Orlov.

Rather than coming to grips with our society’s fundamental biophysical contradictions, we have clung to the convenient lies that markets will always provide, and that there are plenty of resources for as many humans as we can ever possibly want to crowd onto this little planet. And if people are struggling, that must be the fault of [insert preferred boogeyman or group here]. No doubt many people will continue adhering to these lies even as the evidence around us increasingly shows that modern industrial society has already entered a trajectory of decline.

While Trump is a symptom of both the end of economic growth and of the denial of that new reality, events didn’t have to flow in his direction. Liberals could have taken up the issues of declining wages and globalization (as Bernie Sanders did) and even immigration reform. For example, Colin Hines, former head of Greenpeace’s International Economics Unit and author of Localization: A Global Manifesto, has just released a new book, Progressive Protectionism, in which he argues that “We must make the progressive case for controlling our borders, and restricting not just migration but the free movement of goods, services and capital where it threatens environment, wellbeing and social cohesion.”

But instead of well-thought out policies tackling the extremely complex issues of global trade, immigration, and living wages, we have hastily written executive orders that upend the lives of innocents. Two teams (liberal and conservative) are lined up on the national playing field, with positions on all significant issues divvied up between them. As the heat of tempers rises, our options are narrowed to choosing which team to cheer for; there is no time to question our own team’s issues. That’s just one of the downsides of increasing political polarization—which Trump is exacerbating dramatically.

Just as Team Trump covers its actions with a smokescreen of controversial falsehoods, our society hides its biggest lie of all—the lie of guaranteed, unending economic growth—behind a camouflage of political controversies. Even in relatively calm times, the über-lie was watertight: almost no one questioned it. Like all lies, it served to divert attention from an unwanted truth—the truth of our collective vulnerability to depletion, pollution, and the law of diminishing returns. Now that truth is more hidden than ever.

Our new government shows nothing but contempt for environmentalists and it plans to exit Paris climate agreement. Denial reigns! Chaos threatens! So why bother bringing up the obscured reality of limits to growth now, when immediate crises demand instant action? It’s objectively too late to restrain population and consumption growth so as to avert what ecologists of the 1970s called a “hard landing.” Now we’ve fully embarked on the age of consequences, and there are fires to put out. Yes, the times have moved on, but the truth is still the truth, and I would argue that it’s only by understanding the biophysical wellsprings of change that can we successfully adapt, and recognize whatever opportunities come our way as the pace of contraction accelerates to the point that decline can no longer successfully be hidden by the elite’s strategies.

Perhaps Donald Trump succeeded because his promises spoke to what civilizations in decline tend to want to hear. It could be argued that the pluralistic, secular, cosmopolitan, tolerant, constitutional democratic nation state is a political arrangement appropriate for a growing economy buoyed by pervasive optimism. (On a scale much smaller than contemporary America, ancient Greece and Rome during their early expansionary periods provided examples of this kind of political-social arrangement). As societies contract, people turn fearful, angry, and pessimistic—and fear, anger, and pessimism fairly dripped from Trump’s inaugural address. In periods of decline, strongmen tend to arise promising to restore past glories and to defeat domestic and foreign enemies. Repressive kleptocracies are the rule rather than the exception.

If that’s what we see developing around us and we want something different, we will have to propose economic, political, and social forms that are appropriate to the biophysical realities increasingly confronting us—and that embody or promote cultural values that we wish to promote or preserve. Look for good historic examples. Imagine new strategies. What program will speak to people’s actual needs and concerns at this moment in history? Promising a return to an economy and way of life that characterized a past moment is pointless, and it may propel demagogues to power. But there is always a range of possible responses to the reality of the present. What’s needed is a new hard-nosed sort of optimism (based on an honest acknowledgment of previously denied truths) as an alternative to the lies of divisive bullies who take advantage of the elites’ failures in order to promote their own patently greedy interests. What that actually means in concrete terms I hope to propose in more detail in future essays.





Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (4)

10 09 2016

For your weekend entertainment, here is Nicole’s fourth installment of a mammoth piece of work…..

Holding on to cash under one’s own control is still going to be a very important option for maintaining freedom of action in an uncertain future. The alternative would be to turn to hard goods (land, tools etc) from the beginning, but where there is a great deal of temporal and spatial uncertainty, this amounts to making all one’s choices up front, and choices based on incomplete information could easily turn out to be wrong

This, has utterly convinced me to spend everything we’ve got left towards finishing our Tasmania Project…….. Money IS after all there for spending, not hoarding…….

Some of the stuff in part 4 is truly scary.

Part 1 is here
Part 2 is here
Part 3 is here

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Financial Totalitarianism in Historical Context

nicolefoss

Nicole Foss

In attempting to keep the credit bonanza going with their existing powers, central banks have set the global financial system up for an across-the-board asset price collapse:

QE takes away the liquidity preference choice out of the hands of the consumers, and puts it into the hands of central bankers, who through asset purchases push up asset prices even if it does so by explicitly devaluing the currency of price measurement; it also means that the failure of NIRP is — by definition — a failure of central banking, and if and when the central bank backstop of any (make that all) asset class — i.e., Q.E., is pulled away, that asset (make that all) will crash.

It is not just central banking, but also globalisation, which is demonstrably failing. Cross-border freedoms will probably be an early casualty of the war on cash, and its demise will likely come as a shock to those used to a relatively borderless world:

We have been informed with reliable sources that in Germany where Maestro was a multi-national debit card service owned by MasterCard that was founded in 1992 is seriously under attack. Maestro cards are obtained from associate banks and can be linked to the card holder’s current account, or they can be prepaid cards. Already we find such cards are being cancelled and new debit cards are being issued.

Why? The new cards cannot be used at an ATM outside of Germany to obtain cash. Any attempt to get cash can only be as an advance on a credit card….This is total insanity and we are losing absolutely everything that made society function. Once they eliminate CASH, they will have total control over who can buy or sell anything.

The same confused, greedy and corrupt central authorities which have set up the global economy for a major bust through their dysfunctional use of existing powers, are now seeking far greater central control, in what would amount to the ultimate triumph of finance over people. They are now moving to tax what ever people have left over after paying taxes. It has been tried before. As previous historical bubbles began to collapse, central authorities attempted to increase their intrusiveness and control over the population, in order to force the inevitable losses as far down the financial foodchain as possible. As far back as the Roman Empire, economically contractionary periods have been met with financial tyranny — increasing pressure on the populace until the system itself breaks:

Not even the death penalty was enough to enforce Diocletian’s price control edicts in the third century.

Rome squeezed the peasants in its empire so hard, that many eventually abandoned their land, reckoning that they were better off with the barbarians.

Such attempts at total financial control are exactly what one would expect at this point. A herd of financial middle men are used to being very well supported by the existing financial system, and as that system begins to break down, losing that raft of support is unacceptable. The people at the bottom of the financial foodchain must be watched and controlled in order to make sure they are paying to support the financial centre in the manner to which it has become accustomed, even as their ability to do so is continually undermined:

An oft-overlooked benefit of cash transactions is that there is no intermediary. One party pays the other party in mutually accepted currency and not a single middleman gets to wet his beak. In a cashless society there will be nothing stopping banks or other financial mediators from taking a small piece of every single transaction. They would also be able to use — and potentially abuse — the massive deposits of data they collect on their customers’ payment behavior. This information is of huge interest and value to retail marketing departments, other financial institutions, insurance companies, governments, secret services, and a host of other organizations….

….So in order to save a financial system that is morally beyond the pale and stopped serving the basic needs of the real economy a long time ago, governments and central banks must do away with the last remaining thing that gives people a small semblance of privacy, anonymity, and personal freedom in their increasingly controlled and surveyed lives. The biggest tragedy of all is that the governments and banks’ strongest ally in their War on Cash is the general public itself. As long as people continue to abandon the use of cash, for the sake of a few minor gains in convenience, the war on cash is already won.

Even if the ultimate failure of central control is predictable, momentum towards greater centralisation will carry forward for as long as possible, until the system can no longer function, at which point a chaotic free-for-all is likely to occur. In the meantime, the movement towards electronic money seeks to empower the surveillance state/corporatocracy enormously, providing it with the tools to observe and control virtually every aspect of people’s lives:

Governments and corporations, even that genius app developer in Russia, have one thing in common: they want to know everything. Data is power. And money. As the Snowden debacle has shown, they’re getting there. Technologies for gathering information, then hoarding it, mining it, and using it are becoming phenomenally effective and cheap. But it’s not perfect. Video surveillance with facial-recognition isn’t everywhere just yet. Not everyone is using a smartphone. Not everyone posts the details of life on Facebook. Some recalcitrant people still pay with cash. To the greatest consternation of governments and corporations, stuff still happens that isn’t captured and stored in digital format….

….But the killer technology isn’t the elimination of cash. It’s the combination of payment data and the information stream that cellphones, particularly smartphones, deliver. Now everything is tracked neatly by a single device that transmits that data on a constant basis to a number of companies, including that genius app developer in Russia — rather than having that information spread over various banks, credit card companies, etc. who don’t always eagerly surrender that data.

Eventually, it might even eliminate the need for data brokers. At that point, a single device knows practically everything. And from there, it’s one simple step to transfer part or all of this data to any government’s data base. Opinions are divided over whom to distrust more: governments or corporations. But one thing we know: mobile payments and the elimination of cash….will also make life a lot easier for governments and corporations in their quest for the perfect surveillance society.

Dissent is increasingly being criminalised, with legitimate dissenters commonly referred to, and treated as, domestic terrorists and potentially subjected to arbitrary asset confiscation:

An important reason why the state would like to see a cashless society is that it would make it easier to seize our wealth electronically. It would be a modern-day version of FDR’s confiscation of privately-held gold in the 1930s. The state will make more and more use of “threats of terrorism” to seize financial assets. It is already talking about expanding the definition of “terrorist threat” to include critics of government like myself.

The American state already confiscates financial assets under the protection of various guises such as the PATRIOT Act. I first realized this years ago when I paid for a new car with a personal check that bounced. The car dealer informed me that the IRS had, without my knowledge, taken 20 percent of the funds that I had transferred from a mutual fund to my bank account in order to buy the car. The IRS told me that it was doing this to deter terrorism, and that I could count it toward next year’s tax bill.

 

 

The elimination of cash in favour of official electronic money only would greatly accelerate and accentuate the ability of governments to punish those they dislike, indeed it would allow them to prevent dissenters from engaging in the most basic functions:

If all money becomes digital, it would be much easier for the government to manipulate our accounts. Indeed, numerous high-level NSA whistleblowers say that NSA spying is about crushing dissent and blackmailing opponents. not stopping terrorism. This may sound over-the-top. but remember, the government sometimes labels its critics as “terrorists”. If the government claims the power to indefinitely detain — or even assassinate — American citizens at the whim of the executive, don’t you think that government people would be willing to shut down, or withdraw a stiff “penalty” from a dissenter’s bank account?

If society becomes cashless, dissenters can’t hide cash. All of their financial holdings would be vulnerable to an attack by the government. This would be the ultimate form of control. Because — without access to money — people couldn’t resist, couldn’t hide and couldn’t escape.

The trust that has over many years enabled the freedoms we enjoy is now disappearing rapidly, and the impact of its demise is already palpable. Citizens understandably do not trust governments and powerful corporations, which have increasingly clearly been acting in their own interests in consolidating control over claims to real resources in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals and institutions:

By far the biggest risk posed by digital alternatives to cash such as mobile money is the potential for massive concentration of financial power and the abuses and conflicts of interest that would almost certainly ensue. Naturally it goes without saying that most of the institutions that will rule the digital money space will be the very same institutions….that have already broken pretty much every rule in the financial service rule book.

They have manipulated virtually every market in existence; they have commodified and financialized pretty much every natural resource of value on this planet; and in the wake of the financial crisis they almost single-handedly caused, they have extorted billions of dollars from the pockets of their own customers and trillions from hard-up taxpayers. What about your respective government authorities? Do you trust them?…

….We are, it seems, descending into a world where new technologies threaten to put absolute power well within the grasp of a select group of individuals and organizations — individuals and organizations that have through their repeated actions betrayed just about every possible notion of mutual trust.

Governments do not trust their citizens (‘potential terrorists’) either, hence the perceived need to monitor and limit the scope of their decisions and actions. The powers-that-be know how angry people are going to be when they realise the scale of their impending dispossession, and are acting in such a way as to (try to) limit the power of the anger that will be focused against them. It is not going to work.

Without trust we are likely to see “throwbacks to the 14th century….at the dawn of banking coming out of the Dark Ages.”. It is no coincidence that this period was also one of financial, socioeconomic and humanitarian crises, thanks to the bursting of a bubble two centuries in the making:

The 14th Century was a time of turmoil, diminished expectations, loss of confidence in institutions, and feelings of helplessness at forces beyond human control. Historian Barbara Tuchman entitled her book on this period A Distant Mirror because many of our modern problems had counterparts in the 14th Century.

Few think of the trials and tribulations of 14th century Europe as having their roots in financial collapse — they tend instead to remember famine and disease. However, the demise of what was then the world banking system was a leading indicator for what followed, as is always the case:

Six hundred and fifty years ago came the climax of the worst financial collapse in history to date. The 1930’s Great Depression was a mild and brief episode, compared to the bank crash of the 1340’s, which decimated the human population. The crash, which peaked in A.C.E. 1345 when the world’s biggest banks went under, “led” by the Bardi and Peruzzi companies of Florence, Italy, was more than a bank crash — it was a financial disintegration….a blowup of all major banks and markets in Europe, in which, chroniclers reported, “all credit vanished together,” most trade and exchange stopped, and a catastrophic drop of the world’s population by famine and disease loomed.

As we have written many times before at The Automatic Earth, bubbles are not a new phenomenon. They have inflated and subsequently imploded since the dawn of civilisation, and are in fact en emergent property of civilisational scale. There are therefore many parallels between different historical episodes of boom and bust:

The parallels between the medieval credit crunch and our current predicament are considerable. In both cases the money supply increased in response to the expansionist pressure of unbridled optimism. In both cases the expansion proceeded to the point where a substantial overhang of credit had been created — a quantity sufficient to generate systemic risk that was not recognized at the time. In the fourteenth century, that risk was realized, as it will be again in the 21st century.

What we are experiencing now is simply the same dynamic, but turbo-charged by the availability of energy and technology that have driven our long period of socioeconomic expansion and ever-increasing complexity. Just as in the 14th century, the cracks in the system have been visible for many years, but generally ignored. The coming credit implosion may appear to come from nowhere when it hits, but has long been foreshadowed if one knew what to look for. Watching more and more people seeking escape routes from a doomed financial system, and the powers-that-be fighting back by closing those escape routes, all within a social matrix of collapsing trust, one cannot deny that history is about to repeat itself yet again, only on a larger scale this time.

The final gasps of a bubble economy, such as our own, are about behind-the-scenes securing of access to and ownership of real assets for the elite, through bailouts and other forms of legalized theft. As Frédéric Bastiat explained in 1848,

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

The bust which follows the last attempt to kick the can further down the road will see the vast majority of society dispossessed of what they thought they owned, their ephemeral electronic claims to underlying real wealth extinguished.

The Way Forward

The advent of negative interest rates indicates that the endgame for the global economy is underway. In places at the peak of the bubble, negative rates drive further asset bubbles and create ever greater vulnerability to the inevitable interest rate spike and asset price collapse to come. In Japan, at the other end of the debt deflation cycle, negative rates force people into ever more cash hoarding. Neither one of these outcomes is going to lead to recovery. Both indicate economies at breaking point. We cannot assume that current financial, economic and social structures will continue in their present form, and we need to prepare for a period of acute upheaval.

Using cash wherever possible, rather than succumbing to the convenience of electronic payments, becomes an almost revolutionary act. So other forms of radical decentralisation, which amount to opting out as much as possible from the path the powers-that-be would have us follow. It is likely to become increasingly difficult to defend our freedom and independence, but if enough people stand their ground, establishing full totalitarian control should not be possible.

To some extent, the way the war on cash plays out will depend on the timing of the coming financial implosion. The elimination of cash would take time, and only in some countries has there been enough progress away from cash that eliminating it would be at all realistic. If only a few countries tried to do so, people in those countries would be likely to use foreign currency that was still legal tender.

 

 

Cash elimination would really only work if it it were very broadly applied in enough major economies, and if a financial accident could be postponed for a few more years. As neither of these conditions is likely to be fulfilled, a cash ban is unlikely to viable. Governments and central banks would very much like to frighten people away from cash, but that only underlines its value under the current circumstances. Cash is king in a deflation. The powers-that-be know that, and would like the available cash to end up concentrated in their own hands rather than spread out to act as seed capital for a bottom-up recovery.

Holding on to cash under one’s own control is still going to be a very important option for maintaining freedom of action in an uncertain future. The alternative would be to turn to hard goods (land, tools etc) from the beginning, but where there is a great deal of temporal and spatial uncertainty, this amounts to making all one’s choices up front, and choices based on incomplete information could easily turn out to be wrong. Making such choices up front is also expensive, as prices are currently high. Of course having some hard goods is also advisable, particularly if they allow one to have some control over the essentials of one’s own existence.

It is the balance between hard goods and maintaining capital as liquidity (cash) that is important. Where that balance lies depends very much on individual circumstances, and on location. For instance, in the European Union, where currency reissue is a very real threat in a reasonably short timeframe, opting for goods rather than cash makes more sense, unless one holds foreign currency such as Swiss francs. If one must hold euros, it would probably be advisable to hold German ones (serial numbers begin with X).

 

US dollars are likely to hold their value for longer than most other currencies, given the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency. Reports of its demise are premature, to put it mildly. As financial crisis picks up momentum, a flight to safety into the reserve currency is likely to pick up speed, raising the value of the dollar against other currencies. In addition, demand for dollars will increase as debtors seek to pay down dollar-denominated debt. While all fiat currencies are ultimately vulnerable in the beggar-thy-neighbour currency wars to come, the US dollar should hold value for longer than most.

Holding cash on the sidelines while prices fall is a good strategy, so long as one does not wait too long. The risks to holding and using cash are likely to grow over time, so it is best viewed as a short term strategy to ride out the deflationary period, where the value of credit instruments is collapsing. The purchasing power of cash will rise during this time, and previously unforeseen opportunities are likely to arise.

Ordinary people need to retain as much of their freedom of action as possible, in order for society to function through a period of economic seizure. In general, the best strategy is to hold cash until the point where the individual in question can afford to purchase the goods they require to provide for their own needs without taking on debt to do so. (Avoiding taking on debt is extremely important, as financially encumbered assets would be subject to repossession in the event of failure to meet debt obligations.)

One must bear in mind, however, that after price falls, some goods may cease to be available at any price, so some essentials may need to be purchased at today’s higher prices in order to guarantee supply.

Capital preservation is an individual responsibility, and during times of deflation, capital must be preserved as liquidity. We cannot expect either governments or private institutions to protect our interests, as both have been obviously undermining the interests of ordinary people in favour of their own for a very long time. Indeed they seem to feel secure enough of their own consolidated control that they do not even bother to try to hide the fact any longer. It is our duty to inform ourselves and act to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. If we do not, no one else will.





The Fertile Ground of Bewilderment

9 07 2016

Excellent article by Charles Eisenstein….. originally published at his own site.
The Fertile Ground of Bewilderment 

The other day I was speaking to a small audience at a music festival and thought to allude to Brexit to make a point. Some in the circle looked a bit mystified, so I asked, “Everyone knows what Brexit is, right?” It turned out that quite a few of them did not.

“Congratulations!” I said. “You have ignored what the media has been offering to you as important. Maybe that is because you recognize that the whole thing was a diversionary spectacle.” Apathy about “the issues” is only a bad thing if those issues are what is actually important.

When I was growing up, a responsible citizen was one who read the newspapers, held positions on the political issues in currency, and fully participated in the dominant modes of civic and political life. Today (although it may have been true then too) the choices we are offered take the rules and premises of the game for granted, and it is these, about which we are never offered a choice, that are driving the fatal decline of our society.

Beneath the frenzy, many of us sense a vacuousness in the choice of Stay or Remain, the same one that sucks the meaning out of electoral politics as well. Democrat or Republican, Christian Democrat or Socialist, even Marxist parties like Syriza – when they take office they enact the same policies as before. Their differences, while not entirely inconsequential, are mostly minute compared to the range of what is possible. Moreover, public referendum votes against establishment policies are often ignored anyway, as was the case in Greece and as may well happen in Britain too.

So it is with Brexit – almost. Something is different this time. It is significant, although not for the reasons some people (though not my festival audience) think it is.

On the left, Brexit has been framed either as a blow against neoliberalism or a victory for xenophobic right-wing nationalism. Both framings are problematic: the first is over-optimistic, and the second is invidious.

On a practical level, Brexit needn’t be more than a minor hiccup on the onward march of neoliberal globalism. Even if Britain abides by the vote and does leave the EU, perhaps after much delay, the political and financial authorities will probably cobble together a plan that preserves the freedom of capital while continuing the erosion of wages, social services, and the public sphere. Perhaps they will ride the wave of right-wing populism to enact pro-business policies and further dismantle the social welfare system by associating it with the coddling of immigrants, turning the working class against itself. Alternatively or additionally, they can ride the counter-reaction to the vote, associating opposition to free trade policies with xenophobia and racism. They can also exploit the chaos resulting from Brexit as an object-lesson in the consequences of disobeying the elites. The vote will be called “irresponsible,” and responsibility will be associated with complying with the program of the technocrats and functionaries who administer the present system.

As for the xenophobic nationalism frame, to attribute Brexit to xenophobia is to disregard the deep economic and social stressors that fuel both anti-EU sentiment and resentment toward immigrants. If you buy into that narrative, you have to believe that Britain is home to 17 million bigots, ignoramuses, and nutjobs who foolishly sabotage their own economic wellbeing for the sake of exercising their bigoted opinions. (The same, of course, applies to the X million Trump supporters, about whom the same narrative is applied.) Please take note of the tone of this narrative: patronizing and contemptuous, embodying the same rage, dehumanization, and hatred that it attributes to its enemies.

There are in fact very sound reasons to be hostile to the EU, transnational economic and political institutions, and the authorities who ordain them in the name of progress for civilization. True, the average “Leave” voter is not consciously aware of these critiques; nonetheless the critiques identify a wellspring of discontent that, while perhaps channeled through xenophobic narratives, cannot be reduced to them. How much more convenient it is to the system’s guardians, to dismiss any rejection of their plans as xenophobia and bigotry. It’s the responsible, educated people versus the yahoos.

The European Union was from the outset a deliberate instrument of globalization, deregulated markets, and transnational financial capital. It is a profoundly undemocratic institution that has accelerated trends toward centralization of power and homogenization of culture. It has been an enthusiastic partner with NATO and with US militarism in the Middle East (which, ironically enough, has generated the tsunami of immigrants that has intensified anti-EU sentiment). It has also, especially in the Eurozone, promoted austerity policies that have impoverished whole countries in order to keep debt payments flowing to international bondholders. While the EU cannot be directly blamed for Britain’s own tilt toward austerity and neoliberal economics, which dates back to the Thatcher years, both participate in the same global trend driven by the financial system. The result is familiar to everyone: rising inequality, a frayed social net, and weakening community ties as economies have become delocalized. Britain is no stranger to these trends, afflicted as it is by rising income inequality, youth unemployment, and housing costs, falling wages, falling life expectancies, and one of the highest misery indexes in the developed world.

In other words, the middle-aged white Brexit or Trump supporter has legitimate grievances that cannot be dismissed as white entitlement just because things are even worse for people of color. If they feel betrayed by the system, it is because they have been. Look around at the world. We can do much better than this. Everybody knows it. We don’t agree on what to do, but more and more of us have lost faith in the system and its stewards. When right-wing populists blame our problems on dark-skinned people or immigrants, the response they arouse draws its power from real and justifiable dissatisfaction. Racism is its symptom, not its cause.

The Brexit vote was an expression of anti-elitism, pure and simple. Leaders of the mainstream parties, business leaders, entertainment figures, J.K. Rowling, President Obama, rock stars and literati… everyone urged the public to vote Remain, to uphold the status quo. Does defiance of authority mean the defiant need to be reprimanded and put in their place, or does it mean that authority has abused its position?

The Brexit vote was supposed to be one of those inconsequential exercises that legitimize the system by lending it the appearance of real democracy. Something went wrong though – the public voted no when they were supposed to vote yes. While not quite as unexpected as a victory for Donald Trump would be, it still came as a shock to the elites, not because the damage to neoliberalism can’t be easily fixed on a technical level, but because it shows the fragility of their legitimacy. As such, it evokes a panic far beyond what technical considerations would justify.

It is not only the legitimacy of the elites that is fragile, nor just Britain’s economy; it is also the entire financial system: an overleveraged agglomeration of bubbles that will all pop when one pops. Maybe the Brexit vote induces panic because it reminds the financial markets and their administrators that they cannot hold it together much longer. They can’t even buy public allegiance in one of the world’s richest countries. Who knows, perhaps Brexit will start the bubbles popping.

The Brexit vote marks a rare moment of discontinuity, when the usual normalizing narratives falter and a society experiences a fertile and frightening moment of bewilderment. Brexit, though, is a mere foreshadowing of the vertigo that will ensue with the next economic crisis, which will dwarf that of 2008.

To prepare for it, we have to operate on a level much deeper than current politics offers. It is the tacitly assumed narratives lurking beneath conventional political discourse that need our attention. By this I do not mean merely addressing the neoliberal and imperial motives cloaked in the pro-EU language of internationalism, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism.

To illustrate, let me return to the observation I made above: that the blaming of the Leave vote (and Trump, and all the xenophobic know-nothing parties) on ignorance and unenlightened attitudes is “patronizing and contemptuous, embodying the same rage, dehumanization, and hatred that it attributes to its enemies.” Next time you read the news, especially articles enjoining us to take a conventional political position, pay attention for the subtext of “Here is whom you should hate.” The right-wing populists incite hatred and anger at the blacks, the immigrants, the Muslims, the gays, the transgender, the “libtards,” etc. The mainstream liberals stir up outrage against the bigots, the nationalists, the contemptible narrow-minded over-entitled “crazy” (a common adjective) climate-change-denying Bible-thumpers. Further left, the critics of neoliberal imperialism follow the same formula by invoking images of heartless corporate executives, greedy bankers, cowardly political elites, and drone-like bureaucrats and technocrats who should surely know better.

Herein lies a near-universal political formula: identify the enemy, arouse anger and hatred against that enemy, and then defeat the enemy. It is based on this analysis: Cause: bad people. Solution: defeat the bad people. Problem solved. The media, whether news or entertainment, has immersed us in that outlook, which informs everything from action films to the War on Terror. But I am afraid we cannot blame the media either, because it is part of a mindset that is integral to modernity and has roots going back to the first mass societies. It is fundamentally the mindset of war, in which progress consists in defeating the enemy: weeds or locusts, barbarians or communists; germs or cholesterol; gun nuts or traitors. And that mindset rests on a foundation more basic still: the Story of Separation that holds us as discrete, separate individuals in a world of other, in opposition to random forces and arbitrary events of nature, and in competition with the rest of life. Well-being comes, in this story, through domination and control: glyphosate, antibiotics, GMOs, SSRIs, surveillance systems, border fences, kill lists, prisons, curfews…

It is from this story too that neoliberal capitalism sources its power. It depends on the idealization of competition, encoded in “free markets,” as a law of nature and primary driver of progress; on the sanctity of private property (which is a primal form of domination) and, most of all, on exercising control over others through the creation and enforcement of debt. It finds a natural home within the Story of Separation; it is, perhaps, Separation’s culminating expression, threatening as it does the ecological basis of human existence. We cannot change it without letting go of that story in all its dimensions. Part of that is to let go of war mentality in politics, and replace it with compassion.

This doesn’t mean sitting in a room thinking nice thoughts about race-baiters and vulture fund managers, retreating from political engagement into a safe realm of inner work. It is to enact politics from a different place. Our political reflexes are conditioned by a story that is deeper than politics. If we want to produce something other than endless variations of the same result, we have to transcend the customary terms of discourse and examine the false truisms that become transparent only when things fall apart. I am not sure what strategies, tactics, and narratives will come from a compassion-oriented worldview, from a story that holds us as interdependent, interconnected, even inter-existent with all. Various forms of nonviolent direct action, narrative change, and solidarity movements foretell what they might look like, but I think future politics is largely unknowable at the present time when most of us are still deeply conditioned by the Story of Separation. Whatever it is, it will spring from a basic inquiry – the essence of compassion – that must be sincere: “What is it like to be you?”

The bewildering glitch in the matrix that is Brexit has prompted many in Britain to ask, perhaps with some anguish, “Who are we?” It is time to ask that in earnest, which requires stepping outside the usual polarizing discourses in which both sides play the game of find-the-enemy. To my English friends, I would ask, “What kind of England do you want?” Is it one where the forces of racism are suppressed and politically defeated? Or is it one in which the source of racism has been healed? If we want the latter, we have to recognize the conditions that cause it. What is it like to be a racist?

Ordinarily in politics, everyone pretends that they know what to do. Politicians pretend that to voters, who then inhabit and perpetuate that pretense by voting. When do you ever hear a politician, when asked about an issue, say, “I have no idea what to do about it”? Well, I don’t have any idea what to do about Brexit either, but if I have any advice to Brits (and this will apply to all of us even more when the next normal-destroying crisis hits) it would be not to rush too quickly to a position. Instead, abide for a while in a state of openness and curiosity, pursuing the question, “What is it like to be you?” The kind of socioeconomic analysis (neoliberalism etc.) I offered above might help answer that question in a general, theoretical way, but it is no substitute for actually listening to one another’s stories, temporarily free of the pressure of having to find a solution. If the Prime Minister asked my opinion (I’m still waiting for the phone call), I’d say to declare a national month of listening, in which the immigrants, the angry rural pensioners, the bureaucrats, the financial industry workers, listen to each other in small forums, and in which media publications print unslanted stories of the people they have demonized. The goal of that month would not be to figure out what to do. It would be to understand each other better. The goal of the storytelling would not be to make a point. It would be to be heard and to be known. To hear another’s story is to expand oneself. It is an act of intimacy, of connection, and it subverts the ideology that holds us separate. When we take in new stories, we change and grow.

Of course it is unrealistic to expect people to drop their hidden agendas and listen with open ears. Normally our ears are shut, because we think we know. That is why Brexit and the bigger breakdowns it foreshadows are so potent. It shows us that maybe we don’t know, after all. That moment of stumbling, of humility, is precious. It may be that the Brexit vote isn’t a big enough shock to interrupt the onrush of normative political discourse that seeks to make sense of things in familiar terms. Rest assured: bigger shocks are coming.

 

Image Credit: Flickr, Creative Commons. Copyright CMYK.





Damn the Brexit……..

27 06 2016

The consternation caused by the so called Brexit is truly astonishing. I’ve been watching the debate over whether Britain should stay or leave with disdain really, the entire show is going down the plug hole one way or another regardless. Though now it appears that Brexit may speed the process up. The Matrix has displayed amazing amounts of financial resilience with its never ending machinations, so who knows, they may still invent a way to avoid the plug hole for a few more months.

The more interesting aspect of this is how absolutely nobody in the mainstream media ‘gets it’. Much of the alternative media does though… Raul Ilargi from the Automatic Earth writes “Cameron, Osborne, Corbyn, they have all failed to connect with their people. This is not some recent development. Nor is it a British phenomenon, support for traditional parties is crumbling away everywhere in the western world.”

While the MSM concentrates on racism as a central reason for Brexit, exploding world population and overshoot don’t get a look in. Personally, I think that deep down, people everywhere are finally starting to feel that ‘something’s wrong’, and that certainly ‘the system is no longer working’, and that quite likely it’s our masters’ fault.  And not too soon either…..

John Pilger writes:

The majority vote by Britons to leave the European Union was an act of raw democracy. Millions of ordinary people refused to be bullied, intimidated and dismissed with open contempt by their presumed betters in the major parties, the leaders of the business and banking oligarchy and the media.

This was, in great part, a vote by those angered and demoralised by the sheer arrogance of the apologists for the “remain” campaign and the dismemberment of a socially just civil life in Britain. The last bastion of the historic reforms of 1945, the National Health Service, has been so subverted by Tory and Labour-supported privateers it is fighting for its life.

I do of course wonder if Pilger himself understands that as we enter the world of Limits to Growth, it becomes inevitable that the resources needed to feed the growth monster that supports the NHS in the UK (and Medicare here) are running out, and that the inevitable ‘end of abundance’ horizon is fast approaching. Nor that there are no solutions to fixing this problem, we will  sooner or later be on our own, and anyone not prepared for this is in for a very rude shock… which is of course most people.

Here in Australia, with less than one week to go before we elect our next ‘government’, the ruling party appears quite worried about minor parties and independents winning seats, starting a scare campaign reasoning that such voting would cause chaos without them in power….. as if chaos wasn’t already here! I voted in Tasmania before coming up to Queensland, and put the majors last in the house of reps, and put no numbers at all next to their candidates at all on the Senate ballot paper….. and boy did it feel good.  I wonder how many people will wake up to the fact that by numbering twelve boxes below the line they can actually get rid of the Laborals and retake power of their country, even if at this stage they still don’t know how to regain control over their destiny.

Pilger then further writes:

Immigration was exploited in the campaign with consummate cynicism, not only by populist politicians from the lunar right, but by Labour politicians drawing on their own venerable tradition of promoting and nurturing racism, a symptom of corruption not at the bottom but at the top. The reason millions of refugees have fled the Middle East – first Iraq, now Syria – are the invasions and imperial mayhem of Britain, the United States, France, the European Union and NATO. Before that, there was the willful destruction of Yugoslavia. Before that, there was the theft of Palestine and the imposition of Israel.

The pith helmets may have long gone, but the blood has never dried. A nineteenth century contempt for countries and peoples, depending on their degree of colonial usefulness, remains a centrepiece of modern “globalisation”, with its perverse socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor: its freedom for capital and denial of freedom to labour; its perfidious politicians and politicised civil servants.

He is absolutely correct of course, but still no mention of Limits to Growth, how climate change and peak oil totally stuffed Syria, and will soon cause Egypt to join the melée.

Raul gets it – as you’d expect:

The overwhelming underlying principle that we see at work here is that centralization is dead, because the economy has perished. Or at least the growth of the economy has, which is the same in a system that relies on perpetual growth to ‘function’.

But that is something we can be sure no politician or bureaucrat or economist is willing to acknowledge. They’re all going to continue to claim that their specific theories and plans are capable of regenerating the growth the system depends on. Only to see them fail.

It’s high time for something completely different, because we’re in a dead end street. If the Brexit vote shows us one thing, it’s that. But that is not what people -wish to- see.

Unfortunately, the kinds of wholesale changes needed now hardly ever take place in a peaceful manner. I guess that’s my main preoccupation right now.

Has the revolution begun in Britain? Now that would be ironic, beating the French to it…. of course the UK government could easily ignore the result, as the Greeks did, but then again, as Raul said, that would end in tears and possibly blood. Does the future offer us any other outcomes than blood and tears?

Pass the Hopium……..

brexit

Brexit….  a still life!





Capitalism IS the Crisis….

26 04 2014

I heard this film mentioned by Derrick Jensen at the end of that podcast I mentioned in Why we are still screwed….. Thorium or no Thorium!

It’s a bit long at one hour forty minutes – why is it doco producers seem to think their films can’t be as good if they’re edited shorter?  Anyhow, I still think it’s compulsory viewing….  especially for Australians who can have the advantage of seeing where Canada’s Harper government took its people.  Remember, we are just a couple of years behind, and Abbott could easily be Harper’s clone.