Monday, November 23, 2009

Giant Monsters

A few years ago I bought a sailboat from a fellow who I am sure wishes to remain unnamed, but who at the time made much of his boat restoration skills. He had made a number of alterations to the boat, some ambitious, some less so, while I was, at the time, quite inexperienced. In spite of my relative inexperience, I was already able to discern certain imperfections in the results of the seller's efforts. But I was very impressed with the boat itself (and the boat did turn out to be quite excellent) and so I chose to gloss over these slight imperfections in the seller's workmanship.

For such a large man, the seller had a very soft and gentle tone of voice. He did disclose some things along the way that should have alarmed me. I believe that the reason they didn't was because his tone of voice had a calming, soothing effect on me. For instance, he could have said something like "I ran out of caulk while installing this thing, so I mounted it on a slice of cheese from my lunchbox" and I probably would have thought "Mmm... cheese... lunch?" Also, the boat had recently returned from an extended ocean cruise, and the seller looked quite alive to me, leading me to think that none of these imperfections was life-threatening. And so I bought the boat.

As I already mentioned, it turned out to be an excellent boat, but I turned out to be overly nonchalant about the non-life-threatening nature of the seller's workmanship. During our shakeout cruise most things that could break did break, causing me to question many of the seller's practices and techniques. Is it proper to cut pieces out of random structural elements with a reciprocating saw in order to make room for one's head? (Apparently the seller was one or two inches taller than the boat's designer had considered it to be humanly possible.) Is a piece of Masonite an acceptable substitute when the manufacturer specifies that a block of hardwood should be used to mount the autopilot? Is it sufficiently safety-conscious to seal a disconnected through-hull by plugging it with a rubber stopper from the inside? The good part in all this was that I, in the process of tackling these questions, along with a multitude of similar ones, one by one or in combination, sometimes in circumstances when I had my hands full just sailing the boat, gained immeasurably in knowledge and in confidence.

Although confronting these questions one by one, sometimes in challenging circumstances, was an excellent (though sometimes unnerving) way to learn, eventually I realized that there was an important first question that I ought to ask of each thing on the boat: "Did the seller do it?" If he did it, then the next question would be, "What does it take it to rip out and replace it?" If it is neither very hard nor very expensive, then that is automatically the next step. If it is, then the third question becomes, "What's wrong with it?" If answering this question turns out to involve ripping it out and replacing it, then so be it, but leaving a stone unturned would not be conducive to either peace of mind or safety, because, although there are now very few of them left, I am yet to find A Thing He Did that does not have major issues.

To be fair, the seller did do one very good thing: he kept afloat and sold to me a very good boat. Also, I can't fault him for trying to maintain a boat on a shoestring (I actually have immense respect for people who are able to do that well). Whatever he does, and however he does it, it clearly works for him. I see him leaping about the wave-tossed spindrift-swept deck in the midst of a howling tempest juggling a hammer, a screwdriver and a soggy box of rusty drywall screws. Maybe he is happy, maybe he is sad, who knows...

As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, consistency is "the hobgoblin of little minds." I agree, but I would go a step further and ardently wish that each and every little mind had such a hobgoblin to call its own. If someone's work is consistently excellent, that is better than sporadically excellent work. Although much excellent work can be undone by a single reputation-destroying, career-ending blunder, short of that, sporadic excellence is better than none at all. But if someone's work is more often than not of an abysmally ghastly quality and in general a monstrous travesty, then consistency can still be its one redeeming quality. If it is consistent, then one knows what to do with it, all of it, at once, and not waste any time trying to cherry-pick salvageable exceptions where none might exist.

Allow me to present an example. Suppose you are wondering whether a particular public institution has any particular merit that would serve to justify its continued existence. It might be the health care system, or national defense, or the tax code, or any number of other similar boondoggles. We might consider each institution in and of itself, apart from all the others, to see whether it is consistently bad, or whether it has some redeeming qualities. Or we might save ourselves a lot of time by asking ourselves just one simple question: "Is it Bolshevik?" Because if it is Bolshevik, then that tells us right away that it is just one element of a perfectly monstrous entity called the USSR. This particular monstrous entity is already defunct, and so there is no need for us to go out and slay it, but were it not, we would know immediately that none of its institutions are in need of reform, because what would be the point? Making a perfect monster into an imperfect monster does not seem like a worthy goal.

Allow me to present another example. Currently in the USA we now live surrounded by institutions that many of us readily concede are quite broken, but it still takes most of us considerable effort to declare any of them irredeemable. It is natural for us to look for redeeming qualities, to think that a certain negative outcome is the result of a mistake rather than the fullest possible expression of its true nature. It takes time and effort to collect enough evidence to be able to declare, based on a preponderance of evidence, that what we have here is something perfectly monstrous, and then to be ready to debate people who hold opposing viewpoints. Few of us are equipped to handle the task of outright condemnation. There are some experts whose job it is to condemn buildings, to decommission vessels, and to sentence people to death, and they sometimes have to exercise judgment, but mostly they just follow rules. And when there are no rules to follow, we are all helpless.

This is where monsters come in handy: we all know what we must do to them. Like so many things that bedevil our lives, they have a notional rather than a physical reality, but in spite of that the effect they have on our lives can be quite real. Take corporations: the term "corporation" is actually a clever misnomer, because a corporation is, in fact, incorporeal — lacking a body. It has many of the same rights as a person, but in place of a body it has a "corporate veil" which, once pierced, usually reveals some cringing nincompoop who screwed up the paperwork and is now personally liable for his corporation's debts and transgressions. Since a corporation has personhood but lacks a body, it is, in a technically precise way, a phantom. Like other kinds of monsters, it is immortal, and very specific steps must be followed in order to kill it. Now, not all phantoms are monsters, but I hope you will agree that the potential is there.

Just like us, monsters must follow certain rules. Vampires must drink human blood and stay out of the sun. Werewolves must turn into wolves and start mauling people at the sight of the full moon. Zombies must eat brains. Corporations must produce high share prices and dividends for their shareholders. This last one seems comparatively innocuous, but it is sufficiently abstract to make the transition between mere immortal phantomhood and complete monstrousness quite automatic, because usually there are both monstrous and non-monstrous ways to create value for shareholders, and the monstrous ways are often more profitable in the short run. Some corporations may not seem particularly monstrous at the moment, but given their monstrous propensities we can never let down our guard.

Monsters require different treatment from most other things out there. We don't generally try to reform them. There is hardly a point in teaching a vampire good hygiene (rinse between meals, please!) or in muzzling a werewolf and clipping its claws, or in making zombies eat a balanced diet and observe Lent. Rather, we generally prefer to slay them. There are specific ways to kill various monsters. A vampire is dispatched by driving an aspen stake through its heart. Werewolves are shot with silver bullets. Zombies require a shotgun blast to the head. Corporations dissolve upon being doused with red ink, a bit like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Now, a question arises with regard to the USA: is it more of a country (like, say, France) or is it more of a corporation (like, say AIG or GM or GS)? Looking at its politics, it is apparent that it is more of a country club than a country. Corporations are clearly the ones in charge, through electoral campaign donations, lobbyists, and the revolving door between corporate and government positions. The periodic electoral monkey-business and fake media frenzy are just there as an ad campaign to keep the brand fresh. It does seem more and more like a corporate entity, with a small and shrinking number of shareholders, whose latest scheme (now that the whole thing is spiraling the drain) is to have the government print lots of money just so that they can pocket huge sums of it.

Just as a vampire must drink blood, the USA is compelled by its corporate nature to produce value for its shareholders, and the only way it can do so in a collapsing economy is by printing money. Monstrous, isn't it? So, how many more buckets of red ink will it take before we all get to hear "I'm dissolving! I'm dissolving!"? If you are not quite ready to hear that, then I recommend that you run home immediately, bar the door and get busy with the garlic and the crucifixes. Slaying monsters is not for everyone, you know.


knutty knitter said...

I've always seen the Usa as more of a cult than anything. Complete with the brainwashing etc.

viv in nz

Degringolade said...

Even Adam Smith thought poorly of corporations. But in a sense, they are proof that the tortured works of Marx are great at describing the disease.

Pity about his solution set though.

Tony said...

The problem is this: Scientists Predict Catastrophic 6°C Rise by 2100, which includes this gem: On average, the researchers found, there was an annual increase in emissions of just over 3 per cent during the period, compared with an annual increase of 1 per cent between 1990 and 2000. Almost all of the increase this decade occurred after 2000 and resulted from the boom in the Chinese economy. The researchers predict a small decrease this year due to the recession, but further increases from 2010.

Obviously indicating the positive relationship between a growing GDP and increasing threat of environmental catastrophe.

Only two (well, maybe three) ways out of this mess: (1) international accord (a miracle in Copenhagen); (2) international discord (i.e., collapse and consequent decline in CO2 emissions); or (3) some mix of 1 and 2, leading to a few more decades of Earth-smashing emission increases that make catastrophic climate change inevitable and irreversible into the foreseeable geologic future.

I suppose it's time to stop wasting my time hoping for #1....

Anonymous said...

Excellent as ever.

Minor quibble on consistency - did he not write that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?

Pohl and Kornbluth's 1950s vision of corporate life The Space Merchants appears almost a reality nowadays.

Anonymous said...

the saying 'we all fall down' from a childhood game came to mind reading this.

corporatism worldwide [even china's subsystem of such].

so i couldn't remember the game, & of all things:
by scribe here;

"Ring around the rosy..
One of the first symptoms of the plauge was a red rash around a red bump. The rash would have appeared as a ring to the casual observer.

pocket full of posies..
A common belief at the time was that the plague was spread through "foul air" so by putting the flowers in their pockets people could protect themselves from catching the disease. It also served to cover the smell of death and decay. This was used by the healthy as a way to push the reality of what was happening out of their minds, as well as by the already sick to cover the stench that was another symptom of the disease in order to protect themselves from the angry mobs.

One of the final stages of the illness was internal hemoraging. This sometimes triggered sneezing when the breathing passages became irritated. "Ashes" could be a childs view of the sound made when someone sneezes. Another explanation of this verse is that the property of the sick was often burned, as well as the remains of the sick themselves to prevent spreading of the disease. The ashes would then be referring to the burning performed to prevent catching the disease.

we all fall down!
This line becomes obvious once you realize what the poem is about. During the reign of this plague, half of Europe was wiped out. It was rampant and very hard to control due mainly to the squalor people lived in at that time and the fact that they still viewed bathing as a dangerous habit that could cause pneumonia and only did it once a month, if then.

tis kinda like a plague; most of us got/get it.

nice turning of words dimitry; & use of sailboat culling, & monsters/witches.

snuffy said...


You have the gift of using words as a mirror to show us the state of things.I am always delighted to read your musings,as they have the gift of showing me my country in quite a different light than it is usually seen.

Yes,we have many,many monsters in this land,and they are very powerful,now,but, the majority of them require tremendous amounts of energy to survive,

The rocks and stones of prehistory tell of a time when meat and bone monsters ruled in the lands we now live.T REX and the rest could not tolerate change,and so they vanished like the morning dew in hot summer,leaving only bones and traces of their existence in the rocks of this planet.

It may not be in my lifetime,but at some point,the modern human critter will figure out a way,as the various indigenous peoples of the world have,to remove/prevent those with sociopathic tendency's from gaining leadership positions.

Be it a .gov structure,to a cut-your-throat corporate ladder climber, the majority of those who make it to the top do not do so on a meritocracy basis,

More like a "cut your competitions heart out and eat it raw.".

This sort of attitude will force any new, ambitious young member to learn as fast as possible every nasty trick in the book to advance. And is the basis for the way the company /government system is run...

Keeping sociopaths out of leadership positions is one of the greatest hurdles mankind faces.I am sorry to say that I have no "Idea" how to do this,but it is one of greatest challenges we face.


On a side note,you mentioned once that you had some considerations for anyone who was considering using a sailboat as a refugee during troubled times.Is there some way I could review them?i am thinking of a small sailboat as a "Plan B"should things get too weird here...snuffy

Anonymous said...


"Few of us are equipped to handle the task of outright condemnation.:

One problem that the US has, and it is a huge problem in my opinion, is the belief in the dialectical method. This method does not work well in real life (actually, it does not even work well in books). Far more often than not there is no "synthesis". This habit of dialectical thinking leads to paralysis, and it manifests itself in a taste for little polemics about everything. It is, at least to me, a sign of total decay. It resembles, more than anything else, the now ridiculous scholasticism that we make fun of. Increasingly, the questions or "issues" as journalese likes to call them, are scholastic exercises. Not only no synthesis is possible but the thesis and the antithesis are nonsensical!

Meanwhile, Mr Orlov, keep up the reasoning, the brain kind I mean!

Kevin said...

An excellent and entertaining column. You have a way of cutting to the quick of the system under which we languish.

Like Snuffy, I too am interested in sailboats. I read your article on that topic with great interest recently, and am seriously considering (re)learning sailing and acquiring a boat. I'll follow developments with the Sail Transport Network, and anything more you may have to say on the topic.


Sticomythia said...

Thanks for brightening an otherwise dark morning here in Vermont, after reading the latest 'I just got laid off' eMails from old friends.

The secessionists here say that a corporation must pay full market value for its special privilege, Corporate Personhood... that it's no different than taking (or polluting) surface water, draining an aquifer, running an aged nuclear reactor without financial security (no $$$ to decommission it and clean it up), or using the atmospheric sink as a place to dump CO2.

I wonder how much value corporations'd be able to create for shareholders, if they paid the real cost of doing business... no wonder the US have invaded countries that exerted sovereignty over their natural resources.

I wonder if the potential of invasion is what keeps potential secessionists repeating the Empire's ideology, and keeping their heads firmly in the sand. Is it fear?

Tom Crowl said...

This is a depressingly refreshing blog! (Or is it the other way around?)

I've been enjoying it for a while and couldn't resist diving in for the first time.

You are so right about our country's country club leadership!

It's really such an old story as I suspect you realize. In the old Soviet Union it was a similar scenario... OLIGARCHY!

Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx seem to have seen the problem, but neither managed to solve it...

other than by everything fall apart so there's no choice except to start over!

As a cultural anthropologist I've got a few rough ideas on the source of the problem which may have to do with:

The limits of biological altruism

Something hypothesized as a natural human community size ( Dunbar's Number)

and the disconnection between this original social network and the social organism which was required to govern it with the birth of agriculture.

If interested I have a few pieces on this as I begin to lay out how this leads to at least an approach to some possible solutions.

Though, like you, I'm not terribly optimistic. We seem to have as much group survival capability as a colony of bacteria in a petri dish... just keep eating till the agar's gone!

(But, you know, we cynics are really just very disappointed romantics... a characteristic very well displayed in Russian literature!

I hope these offer something for thought:

How would hunter-gatherers run the world? (pssst... They Do!)

Ayn Rand & Alan Greenspan: The Altruism Fly in the Objectivist Ointment

The Foundations of Authoritarianism

Chagora & Civilization Systems

Chris R. said...

Wonderfully funny and on target. Can a monster yell "I'm too big to fail" and be spared?

Christopher R.
The Localizer Blog

Anonymous said...

The USA's "government" is not so much a corporation as a bacteria colony where each bacteria is a multi-millionaire, reacting reflexively and mindlessly to perceived threats to its well being.

At the moment, this parasitic colony is doing quite well, sucking happily at the latest bottle of money in the world's public treasuries.

There is, of course, and end to that, after which the colony will transform itself into a rabble of individual and smaller groups again, shouting, "country, loyalty, patriotism" or whatever to rally their individual defense systems.

Tim Smith said...

Well communism has failed, and US-style "democratic" capitalism is failing. What's next? Probably Chinese-style autocratic capitalism. Of course that too will fail, eventually. Maybe our species is just doomed to fail. Nothing last forever.

Anonymous said...

Scandinavian social democracy is still alive and well, although diluted in recent years. A sense of community, unity and attitudes in favour of acting socially responsible and in everyone's, not only one's own, interest is ubiquitous if you're going to have... community and unity and responsibility, and efficient society and no corruption.

And, what about places like Qatar, Bahrain, Syria and Libya. Nobody knows a lot about them except through myths, but they're said to be good places to live.

If it's true that the Chinese have 20 IQ points more than people in the West on average - and thus a huge advantage - we should search for the reasons why. Maybe they're not as stressed out, and feel safer in their every-day life?

Liberal westerners have idolized India since the hippie age. That may seem like a huge mistake.

Anonymous said...

"What society sees and calls monumental, God sees through and calls monstrous." Lk. 16:14-18 (trans E. H. Peterson)

Happy Thanksgiving, D. Keep on keeping on!

Tim Smith said...

Interesting. Assuming that there are still literate, civilized people say 50 years from now, I can imagine them writing: "Back at the beginning of this strange, horrible century, there was this guy named something, something Orloff, who wrote all these very prescient things. Stuff about corporations, politics, and so on, that no one took very seriously. Perhaps they should have."

jpwhite said...

I'm always curious when you mention boats, especially your own. Did you not have it surveyed before you bought it? I'm about to close the sale on my own dream, a 30-foot Island Packet that I intend to sail around the world. I spent a year looking at boats and several thousand dollars in travel and survey fees before I came close to making a decision.

The only boat I looked at that I would have felt confident buying without a survey was a well-kept Cape Dory owned by a writer for the cruising mags, but it was too small. You'd be surprised at what an experienced surveyor can save you in future grief. Just my two cents for anyone thinking of buying a boat.

By the way, while my dream was inspired by the writing of numerous individuals, it was "The New Age of Sail" that started me down this path. Many thanks for that inspiration and all of your great writing over the years.

Dmitry Orlov said...

jp -

I had to get a survey in order to get insurance. You don't get very far in Boston without 300k of liability coverage. The survey was largely a waste of money. I can interpret ABYC dictates as well as anyone. They are a bit of a travesty. Nanny nations do not go down to the sea in ships. I was selecting a boat out of a total selection of one: the one uncapsizeable blue-water shoal draft boat built like an icebreaker that was for sale. I had spoken with the builder, and was sure of the original quality of construction (which is quite beyond what commercial builders can ever manage) and knew that I could fix whatever damage was caused by the various owners along the way.

I am happy that TNAOS inspired you to get into boats. I wrote it as I was closing the deal on Hogfish. I knew so much less than I know now, but what I did know turned out to be mostly correct and in some ways prescient. Poseidon (a.k.a. Neptune) must find me amusing, so he keeps me around. Either that, or it's just dumb luck.

I'll write about boats again. At some point into Stage 3 collapse it's all going to be about boats for me.

Kevin said...

It's Poseidon, definitely. Without his help it can take ten years to reach your destination, assuming the Cyclops doesn't get you first.

RanDomino said...

"Well communism has failed, and US-style "democratic" capitalism is failing. What's next? Probably Chinese-style autocratic capitalism. Of course that too will fail, eventually."

How about anti-authoritarian anti-capitalism? Maybe we should try to take Bakunin's side in the First International's split instead of only considering Marx, hm?

subgenius said...


You might want to check out for boat insurance. They have pretty acceptable coverage (not that I like insurance, but it is a necessary evil to get a slip here in hell-A) with agreed valuation for any age of vessel, and no survey required.

oh - and they cover you the entire US seaboard, lakes and inland waterways, and up to something like 50 miles offshore...US and Canada

and it's relatively cheap.

...just a thought

Sticomythia said...

> How about anti-authoritarian
> anti-capitalism? Maybe we should
> try to take Bakunin's side...

I'm from the Second Vermont Republic, and we are advocating nonviolent secession in advance of Collapse, rather than waiting.

We have to build durable institutions to weather the storm, such as a Vermont Bank, and a currency based on actual Capital.

Our current, left-leaning state representatives won't touch the sacred cow of resource-land speculation, and put their effort into deciding on which boondoggles will recapture more of Vermont's tax loot back from Washington.

Since Barack Husseinovich was elected, they've even silenced their protests about Afghanistan/Iraq, our kids are nothing but cannonfodder.

jpwhite said...

Hi Dmitry,

It must be nice to have a background like yours and the confidence it engenders. Those of us with a more limited base of knowledge and practical skills (at least in matters mechanical) need all the help we can get. In addition to surveyors and boatyard folks, I've talked to diesel mechanics, sailmakers, marine electronics specialists, boat riggers and just plain boatheads. Everyone who has looked at Sedna with a knowledgeable eye (more so than mine, anyway) has assured me that she is a fine craft that will serve me well as a starter boat.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the marina (in Sequim, Washington) where I'm going to spend the winter is a hub of Sail Transport Network activity. Sailing organic produce to market is in its infancy here in Puget Sound, but more and more people seem to be taking to it. I'm eager to get involved myself. (There's the little matter of learning to sail first).

And while I'm not looking forward to Stage 3 collapse, anything you write about boats will definitely go to the top of my pile.

P.S. There is a local guy here (Bellingham) named Jay Fitzgerald who advocates a lifestyle not too dissimilar from what you described in TNAOS. He calls it “Seasteading,” and I can highly recommend his book of the same name.

Dmitry Orlov said...

jp -

Email me off-line and I'll introduce you to some STN types in your area. If you run across Jerry Fitzgerald, you can tell him that his ultraparanoid anchoring technique saved my ass when I had to ride out a string off tornados on the Intracoastal in Georgia two springs ago.

subgenius said...

Jay Fitz is now in Fern Forest, Hawaii building small proas and homesteading of 3 acres...

on/off blog at:

Forum for Hawaii homesteaders: