Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Million Gardens

[Stan has graciously agreed to let me share this article with you. The solution he proposes is one that should be put into practice immediately: unlike other post-collapse solutions that will only become competitive after collapse has largely run its course, opting out of industrial agriculture is something that doesn't have to wait.] 

I love OWS and the Slogan “99%”

It is a great slogan that puts in bold relief the immense power of the one percent of humanity that exists parasitically on the rest.  “We are the 99%.”  It is a declaration that in some significant way, people are more awake to their circumstances than they were.  Around this slogan, we have seen courageous and principled people take to the streets in a great shout of “No!” at the powers and principalities of late neoliberalism; and we have seen that this outburst resonates with far more people than the ruling layer of society expected.  We have seen the protestors demonstrate with their bodies that under their façade of civility, this ruling layer relies in the last instance on truncheons, teargas, guns and jails.  This unmasking is more important in many ways than what will come afterward, because without it, we accommodate – and we all accommodate in one way or another, even those protesting – without any clarity.  Let these thousand flowers bloom.

Still, the 99% are not actually protesting.  99% of the 99% are just doing what they do to get by in the world the best they know how, far from the demonstrations.  We know this is true, and we know the reasons are as numerous as the people who do not protest in the street.  And so we are required to acknowledge that the movement, such as it is, is representative of its claim, not the number 99’s actualization.  And therein is one seed of mischief.

In Latin, it was once said, perversio optima quae est pessima.  The perversion of the best is the worst.  Some protesters will come to believe they are representative of those they do not know.  Some will try and formalize that representation as power.  Many are already spinning out programs (God, save us from parties and programs!) that purport to represent the 99%, though they are mostly utopian projections cobbled together by handfuls of people who still believe something called the “future” can be subordinated to human management schemes.  Some will begin to articulate what it means to be an “authentic” representative; and the divisions will begin.  Nothing stays the same, and this won’t either.  Lord, have mercy.

I am one of the 99% of the 99% this time around.  I had my day in the sun as a protestor; and if I’d have stayed a day longer, I would have taken up more room than one person should, because movements privilege clever talkers and angry writers more than they ought to.  Now I am one of the 99% of the 99% who is restricted in my movements by personal duties and obligations, the lack of money, and the lack of time.  I am far from any urban center, far from the big schools, far from the cohorts and committees, far from those places where people debate social theory and movement strategies.  And I love it out here in the sticks.

I love the Occupy movement, too.  I repost everything I see on Facebook that is not downright offensive (thickheaded sexism in this movement is alive and well, sorry to say).  I promoted the movement in my church with a supportive article in the bulletin, which generated a whiff of controversy that promises a dialogue about this thing we have named “economic inequality.”  I attended a rally in Lansing, though the mayor there agreed with the protest, so we didn’t generate any hostility from the police.  Sherry sports bumper stickers that say “OWS” and “99%.”  This is what we can do right now, so we are glad the demonstrators (I like the Spanish term “manifestantes” better) are out there keepin’ on.  In so may ways, you are speaking for us.  I get a little giddy at how long it has already lasted.

I love the movement’s sense of satire.  My favorite video was a bullfighting spoof around the Wall Street bull statue, with two capering clowns and a matador who mounted a police car and snapped his cape at the 7,100 pound bronze bovine.

I love the energy, and the courage, and the general understanding that the power of the movement is pacific.  Movements succeed when they inspire violence, but only when they inspire the violence of the oppressor that accomplishes this unmasking.

Whether the vandalism and violence of a few protestors is from fools or police provocateurs (probably a measure of both), it has been thankfully minimal.  Those youngsters who got pepper sprayed at UC Davis were more morally effective in their non-resistance than 10,000 macho-boys throwing rocks and setting fires.

I love the way OWS stays unpredictable.  That is absolutely this occupy-thing’s greatest strength.

I have questions, and ideas, however, about what happens next, about follow-up, about what the 99% of the 99% can do and, more importantly, should do.  I’m not proposing, as many leftists will, that the movement “get itself organized,” select leaders, develop a strategy, etc.  In fact, I vigorously oppose strategies on principle, because I believe most of them are simply designed to put a few people in charge of a lot of people who are then charged to carry out the strategy.  More on that further along.

Before I can explain myself, I need to at least describe the premise for these ideas.


The premise begins that all the changes that are implied in the demands – such as they are – of the movement are not applicable to all people in all places at all times.  The greatest value of this movement is not in its ability to expose certain sufferings and change certain policies, but in its ability to expose – with no unified intention to do so – all the reasons we need to abandon the entire system of which “policy” is only one essential working component.

This is an argument that is not won in this movement yet, because many people who are supportive of OWS et al still maintain the sincere and good-willing belief that governments and other policy-making institutions are somehow independent of their actual actions, like machines, and they can be taken over – like exchanging a bad driver for a good one in an automobile.
I respect that belief insofar as it is a belief people cleave to out of genuine good will.  These people are not collaborators or sheep; and those who characterize them that way are both wrong and mean.  I love the people who want to change the policies, because I am convinced that they want to do it out of a genuine sense of care about others.

My argument:  Even machines cannot be made independent of their makers and users.  The problem with the system is not the driver.  It is the car.
This is my premise.  If I am wrong, then ignore everything hereafter.

Failure of the Future

I think this car that is breaking down might be named “The Future.”
The deeply-parasitic infrastructure of society is coming apart, not temporarily, but in the face of some real trends that put real limits not only on the autocratic futurism of the right, but the “progressive” futurism of the left, too.  I ripped off Ivan Illich above with his reference to perversio optima quae est pessima.  I’m quoting him again when he said, “To hell with the future.  It is a man-eating idol.”

I agree with that.  A lot. This car is breaking down and there is going to be a wreck.

Illich wrote in 1973 about the energy infrastructure crisis.  What he said has proven prophetic in both senses of the word.  Prophets are wrongly believed to be people who simply foretell the future.  In fact, prophets are those who speak truth to power and who have visions, not predictions, that forewarn us of dangerous possibilities in the future.

Every generation has some.  Illich showed in 1973, in a pamphlet entitled “Energy and Equity,” that our faith in technology as redeemer of humanity is a terrible mistake.  Now we see the big secular trends that prefigure the collapse of many infrastructures.  Climate change.  Peak resource extractions.  The very economic crisis that spawned OWS.  War for the fuel to make war.  That’s next, and not far off either.

This crisis is not short-term, and it will force people to adopt new tactics for everyday life.  It represents both a trauma and an opportunity; but that opportunity, in my opinion, is not available through policy.  Policies may alter and change in response to material changes.  What has to change is not policy, but our entire built environment based on some more personal and less abstract narratives than Progress and The Future.

This is where the 99% of the 99% can do something, and they can begin doing it right now, without leaving their hometowns.  Let’s put this in another context before explaining why and how the 99% of the 99% can make some of those changes.

Devolution & Design

All social orders eventually devolve and are forced to reorganize, and the globalized world we live in is witnessing the devolution of the social order.  These periods of discontinuity never last forever, because society eventually self-organizes out of these devolutions, and a new order is established.  When an order collapses, there is an accompanying crisis of ideas.  More and more in our own period, we are seeing the de-legitimation of our ideas not only about capitalism and socialism, or their ugly merger into neoliberalism, but about what they held in common that have proven to be dangerous idols.  Progress.  The Future.  Technological Salvation.

When I was part of the organized activist left, I cooked up an alliterated recipe for resistance: de-legitimate, disobey, disrupt.  For the present, I will add a fourth D.  Design.

We are not going to force policy-makers to remake the world.  We have to do it ourselves.  We have to take our entire built environment, one piece at a time, and re-design it.  This will take everyone, because where you live is different than where I live; and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  To hell with policies.  They are people-eating idols.

The Money Grid

One nub of the whole situation at the end of 2011 is a longstanding fact.  People have been captured by their dependency upon a vast, technocratic apparatus that has de-skilled them and rendered them 100% (not 99%) dependent on money.  The technocratic apparatus makes all our stuff, controls our climate, fixes our boo-boos, educates us, feeds us, moves us around, lights our homes, and puts us to work – all inside our most excellent technocratic life support system – and the only thing that makes the system respond… is money.  As it is in 2011.  As it was in 2010, 2000, 1990, 1980…  it just got worse with time.

Money is generated by banks and printed by the government.  It is designed to work a certain way to benefit governments and banks, which are run by the rich.  Governments and banks are never going to be the ally of any movement like OWS, so there is little likelihood that activism will change the nature of money any time soon.  Money is designed to transfer power; and it does it very well.  Money is not a morally-neutral sign any more than a gun is a morally-neutral tool.  Each is designed for a purpose.  Guns are designed to kill.  Money is designed to commodify, that is, to make everything into a thing for sale.  Including you.

The anthropologist Alf Hornborg said that money dissolves cultural and natural systems in an ecosemiotic process.  “Viewed from outer space,” says Hornborg, “money is an ecosemiotic phenomenon that has very tangible effects on ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole.  If it were not for money, nobody would be able to trade tracts of rain forest for Coca-Cola.”
That’s a lot to think about.  Think about it.

The Institutional Grid

Institutions are required to administer the technocracy upon which we all abjectly depend.  Institutions are always somehow imbricated within the system of money that benefits banks and government.  There is probably nothing controversial about saying that institutions can be corrupted by money.  What I am about to say is that institutions – all of them, even your favorites – are inherently and unavoidably corruptible.

If OWS develops “lists of demands” and programs and the like, there will be predictable appeals to target institutions for particular policy changes.  Money controls the institutions.  Money controls the policies.  Money will come to control the institutions that are created to fight the institutions.  As it ever has been and ever shall be.  The movement will become “focused,” it will deploy a strategy, and let the games begin.  The movement will be placed under management to oversee and coordinate the strategy.  The movement will come to depend on money.

Policy games controlled by money will be able to frustrate the original objectives of activists, either by crushing them or co-opting them.  Then the demoralization will start anew, amid more nihilism because the devolution will have advanced throughout the process.

If OWS itself begins to unravel over time, which it hasn’t so far but certainly may eventually, the follow-up options may appear to be (1) play by the rules for scraps or (2) to argue for more direct force against the system.  The latter will increase the probability of outright destruction, and the former might lead people to believe that nothing, in fact, can be done.

Welcome to the institutional grid.

Relations On and Off the Grid

I believe there is a way out of that impasse.  To explain it, I need to make reference to an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar.  He calculated that human beings have the cognitive capacity and the time to sustain a very finite number of caring relationships.  His guess was around 150.  I give this a lot of leeway, but I accept the general idea.  Finite brain.  Finite time.  Finite capacity.  Got it.

These primary relationships are built on trust and empathy, requiring no formal agreements, no contracts, no administration by a third party.  Most close family relations fall into this category, as do friends.  My own trick for categorizing these relations is to think of them as covenantal as opposed to casual or contractual.  Your relation to your boss is contractual.   Your relation to a grocery clerk you see once a week is casual.  Your relation to your friend, lover, child, mother, etc, is covenantal.  These covenantal relations are built on care, on trust and empathy.  They imply certain non-monetized, highly personal duties and obligations to one another that are accepted out of love.  These relations do not require formal rules; and in fact, formal rules would have a deleterious effect on these relations.
“A contract is an agreement made in suspicion. The parties do not trust each other, and they set “limits” to their own responsibility. A covenant is an agreement made in trust. The parties love each other and put no limits on their own responsibility.”
-Wambdi Wicasa
Once a group exceeds this fuzzy cognitive limit, this “Dunbar’s number,” it begins to require third parties to administer, manage and resolve conflicts.  This is the genesis of administration and management, and it becomes inevitable with greater scale, more people.  This new layer of relations is more impersonal, first by some small degree.  With more people and more administrators come greater degrees of impersonality.  The uprooted impersonality of administration is inevitable.  The tendency of these social formations is summed up in the way we can refer to administration as an “apparatus.”

A remarkable moral shift occurs with the emergence of this apparatus.  Doing the right thing because you care for someone is superseded by doing the correct or legal thing because of an impersonal rule.  The rules are necessary because the third parties of these apparati have to be seen as disinterested parties.  In this single moral shift, those who administer the rules gain a new kind of social power that makes them inherently corruptible.

This applies to a corporation, a club, a rifle platoon, a progressive non-profit, a church, a school, a hospital, a town, the water supply system, the food system, everything… because our technocratic society is administered by an apparatus that is approaching perfect impersonality.  Plain size can begin this pernicious process, so small “organizations” beware.  Simply calling yourself an organization carries this risk of impersonality.  The corruptibility of these institutions inheres in the enormous power they accumulate purely through the authority to administer and manage.

The Fetishism of Bureaucratic Competence

So while we are unmasking ideologies – those constellations of ideas that simultaneously conceal and reproduce power – let’s look at this ideology of “progress” and the “future.”  It is entirely built on force, and that power has accrued to the one percent, and we have not unmasked what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the “fetishism of bureaucratic skill,” part of the ideology of progress that both reproduces and conceals this administrative power.  Most of the left and the right have fallen prey to this fetishism.
“The modern American is culturally conditioned to think of nature as nothing more than matter-in-motion, as a standing reserve that through technological and entrepreneurial prowess is converted into a consumer’s cornucopia.”
-Max Oelschlaeger
To this adds MacIntyre:
“The fetishism of commodities has been supplemented by another just as important fetishism, that of bureaucratic skills… the realm of managerial expertise is one in which what purport to be objectively grounded claims [e.g., to the knowledge of the good society and how to achieve it] function in fact an expression of arbitrary, but disguised, will and preference.”
Power.  His qualification is at the heart of it, “to the knowledge of the good society and how to achieve it.”  This is a delusion of the ideology of progress, this notion that people can render the future predictable and manageable.  Experts, managers and administrators take full advantage of this ideology to exert will and preference behind a mask of special competence.

MacIntyre continues, in 1984, that “we know of no organized movement towards power which is not bureaucratic and managerial in mode, and we know of no justifications for authority that are not Weberian.”

As the power of administrators grows, an ethic of care becomes more and more antithetical to the rules-regime of administration.  Impersonality metastasizes, and we wake up to find ourselves not living in the world but moving plugs around on a switchboard to get what we need from the technocratic grid.

Management makes rules that help management.  Management is the administration of administrators.  Administration makes rules that benefit administration.  As Haitians say, ti tig se tig.  “The child of a tiger is a tiger.”
The original purpose of a rule – often created out of good will – is subverted by the administrative application of the rule.  In common parlance, “the tail starts to wag the dog.”  The letter of the law is administered against the spirit of the law.  This dog-waggery leads to the incomprehensibility of the rules and resentment of administration and management, which in turn becomes defensive, setting up a power struggle in which administration is already advantaged by the growing dependency of the administered on administration.  Remember that Stalin accrued his immense power through control of an administrative apparatus.

One of the reasons we have so little power to act creatively in the face of so many crises is not just that we are fragmented, but that we’re cut off in a much deeper way by the lack of social cohesion that can only happen in the small, intimate group.  Covenantal relations are strong bonds.  Contractual relations are weak bonds.

Every infantry squad leader knows that.  Every good mother knows it.  The rest of us ought to, too.

Management is the enemy of social cohesion, because it substitutes secondary (weak) bonds for primary (strong) ones. By re-strengthening primary bonds, we develop a greater capacity to resist power, but also to creatively adapt to (without direct resistance) rapidly changing circumstances.

Strategy and Tactics

Strategy and tactics as they are commonly understood are war terms, and they can’t escape their conflict implications.  Michel De Certeau, however, draws a distinction between them that leaps over some of the martial interpretations of these ideas.

In military parlance, strategy is the identification of key campaigns that are necessary to accomplish the main objective – in most cases, winning the war.  Operations is a level of planning that determines key battles necessary to win campaigns.  Tactics are those techniques that are required to win battles.  So the tactic is subordinate to the campaign, which is subordinate to the strategy.  In other words, “In the beginning, there was Strategy, and without it the world was shapeless and void.”

De Certeau wrote about people in their everyday lives, not conditions of extremity and conflict, in a book entitled oddly enough, The Practice of Everyday Life.

Strategy, notes De Certeau, is always the purview of power.  Strategy presumes control.  Strategy is self-segregating, in the same way administration and management is self-segregating, setting itself up as a barricaded insider.  The strategic leaders become the Subject; and the led become — along with any enemies — the Objects.  Strategy presumes an in-group that executes the Strategy.
“Strategy is the calculus of force-relationships; when a subject of will and power can be isolated from an environment.”
-De Certeau
The financial masters of the universe at Wall Street oversee the strategy.  They are the institutions.  In many ways, the rest of us cannot escape their Grid.  They are the subject, and the rest are the object. They are inside; and we are outside.  They live behind guarded walls.

De Certeau calls tactics, on the other hand, the purview of the non-powerful.  His version of “tactics” is not as a subset of Strategy, but adaptation to the environment (which has been structured by A Strategy).

The city planning commission may determine what streets there will be, but the local cabbie will figure out how to take best advantage of lived reality of those streets.  This making-do is what De Certeau calls bricolage, and it often implies cooperation with others as much as competition with others.
While the masters of the financial universe at Wall Street protect their guarded walls and ensure the system keeps paying the imperial tribute, we are making do.  We do things that they can’t control or fully account for.  We barter, clip coupons, work under the table, trade labor, share tasks and expenses with friends… all those little cheats to bypass the more disadvantageous routes along the Grid.  Making do.  Bricolage.
Bricolage is so detailed, so numerous in instance, so adaptable, that much of it escapes the notice of the Big Strategists; more importantly, it is beyond their power to control.


Strategy makes two presumptions:  control and an in-group.  The contradiction of strategy is that the control is never perfect and the situation upon which the strategy was constructed is always changing, making aspects of the strategy obsolescent.  The self-segregation of in-groups magnifies these myopic aspects of strategy, because the walls that keep others out also obscure their view of the outside.  Strategy becomes self-referential.
Tactics, on the other hand, or bricolage, is action in a constant state of reassessment and correction based directly on observations of the actual micro-environment.  Tactical theorist John Boyd rather schematically diagrammed this process as an OODA-loop, meaning people observe their surroundings (O), orient on the most important developments in the environment (O), decide on an immediate course of action (D), take that action (A), then revert immediately to observation (O) of the environment to see how their last action might have changed it (orienting again, deciding again, acting again…and again).  There is no presumption of how things will turn out, as there is in strategy.  There is, in fact, readiness to take advantage of unpredictable changes; this is called tactical agility.

Ignore that Boyd studied aerial combat for a moment, and we see that this is sense in many other scenarios.  It just requires recognizing the radical limits on our ability to control something called “the future.”  That future has always and always will remain unpredictable. As it should.

Strategies are undermined by unpredictability.  Tactics (bricolage, OODA-loops) can make an ally of unpredictability.

The intrepid street manifestantes of the Occupy movement can benefit from the OODA-Loop.  They are in a tactical contest with the authorities to perform their prophetic tasks.  For those among the other 99%, what kinds of bricolage can begin to directly and intentionally reduce our degree of dependence on the technocratic grid?

Strategic Without Strategy

Nero – both an emperor and a sadistic misanthrope – is said to have wished humanity had one throat so he could have the pleasure of cutting it.  This is the statement of a strategic principle.  The centralized structures of one’s enemy are considered strategic targets.

Sherman’s great arson campaign was principally aimed at Atlanta, where both the railroads and telegraphs of the Confederate forces converged.  His march to Atlanta prefigured what would later become strategic bombing.
As the United States Armed Forces, to their chagrin, discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan is that when there were no longer centralized political structures to attack in Iraq, there was a complete loss of tactical initiative.  The US forces were metaphorically reduced to fighting off a swarm of hornets.  Their strategy became incoherent.  The problem was further magnified in Afghanistan, because there even the material infrastructure lacked centralization.  Rumsfeld’s first complaint about Afghanistan, when the Bush administration was preparing its war, was that Afghanistan presented the US with “no good targets.”

One thing this might be telling us, if we are listening, is that we are safer from the strategies of ill-wishers in decentralized groups.  The more the merrier.

In nature, decentralized diversity generates resilience.  Centralized monoculture, on the other hand, is vulnerable precisely because it is centralized.  One electrical failure can plunge 50 million people into opaque helplessness. One new fungus can wipe out a monocropped food staple.
I bring this up, because I want to suggest a mode of strategic decentralism.  Being strategic without developing A Strategy.  The 99% of the 99% need to have some answer to the question, “What can we do?”  My answer is make new facts on the ground.  Start re-designing the built environment, especially in those spaces that are being ignored or abandoned during the process of devolution.

I want to propose a strategic goal without any general staff, without any hierarchy of any kind, part of which almost anyone can accomplish.  No requirement for management, and no implied requirement for conflict (some will always find you), and no one-size-fits-all instructions on how to get it done.

I want to propose that we begin a systematic effort to reduce our dependency on the technocratic grid, by a lot of people working at or near their homes.  One of the most powerful dependencies we have on the grid is food.  The power of the food institutions is already well known and well understood, from Monsanto, to ADM and Cargill, to the Food and Drug Administration.  Our very survival has been lashed to this grid by food-production monopolies.  The entire world is groaning under the depredations of the food giants.

I have witnessed food riots firsthand.  It is an unforgettable experience.  Our dependency on food is a terrible weapon in the hands of the one percent.
I want to propose we build a million food gardens.  Two million.  However many.  However many conditions.  However many designs.  There is the strategic direction:  make food, and not just for the same reasons Gandhi made salt.  Make food because it puts that much of our lives back into our own hands, and the hands of our communities.  Into the hands of our friends, our families, our covenantal relations.  We can meet one of our own needs without any bureaucratic apparatus.

Making Food

In the town where I live, with around 20,000 souls, we built a garden this year.  A group of people built the first of several food donation gardens on what the city has called “orphaned properties.”  The city owns them, but they have no particular use for them during this devolutionary contraction.  Next Spring, we want to make two more gardens.  A friend from church just offered the use of a portion of her country property for garden cultivation.  We have around a million maples worth of leaf mulch and compost, mountains of chipped wood (from ice storm damage last year), and those long Northern summer days of sun.  We have barely begun to learn how much food we can grow here… off the commercial food Grid.

I, for one, do not intend this to be some strategy to force new policies into the commercial food grid.  Speaking for me, I see this as a way of serving divorce papers on the commercial food grid.  And no one has figured out a way to call helmeted, militarized police out to stop anyone working in the gardens.  The cops I talked to this year said it was a good idea, the garden.
Multiply this by a million, then instead of a quarter acre of re-designed facts on the ground, you have 250,000 acres of re-designed facts on the ground.  These are easier to defend than a policy, and it presents no strategic targets.  Certainly there are threats and potential threats, but there is no one neck so Nero can have the pleasure of cutting it.  Instead there is an accumulation of intimate victories, accomplished by convenantal communities, communities made that much stronger by the reduction of their dependency on the technocratic grid and the recognition of their very personalized interdependency on each other.

Walking on Two Legs

Demonstrating in the street, this unmasking work that OWS has done so incredibly, inspiringly, lovingly well, is not done yet.  I am not by any means arguing that anyone ought to return from the street.  Those of us who can’t be there do need you to represent.  You are the allies of unpredictability, the agile OODA-artists of the street, the magicians who can abracadabra bits of stunning clarity out of your hats.  Your job is exhilarating, exhausting and crazy risky sometimes.  If you can do it, that is where you need to be.

There will never be more than a fraction who have the flexibility at a particular time to be manifestantes.  We love you, and we want you to go on, and we have been both instructed and entertained by your courage, creativity and endurance.

When you can no longer do it, there is something you can do, and so can the 99% of the 99% who can’t be those shock troop manifestantes, right now.
What can be done, and without any strategies involved, is a straightforward and strenuous effort by 99% of the 99% who are at home to make food. If there are 500,000 OWS protestors, then there need to be 1,000,000 more people who are making food in their yards, their neighborhoods, their churches, temples and synagogues, their workplaces, their schools, their land trust plots, their fallow fields, their empty lots, their apartment decks, their patios and their kitchen windows.

Even when the demonstrations end – and they will end – we are not left with nothing to do to continue dissolving that power.  Every square yard of land recovered for food is a material victory in the face of little resistance, and that same square yard is a square yard of independence from the Grid.
Do not pit your weakness against their strength.  Exercise your strengths where they are weakest, where you live.  The system is falling apart, and nothing will stop that.  More and more niches will appear.

Even more important to me personally:  gardens are peacemaking.  Peacemaking is still the most important form of resistance.
Let a million gardens bloom.


Monday, November 07, 2011

The Russian Soul and the Collapse of the West

[Guest post by Sandy, ClubOrlov's Siberia correspondent. A version of this article was run in late October in the newspaper Business Biysk, in the Altai Region of Russia.]

The earliest stirrings of modern industrial society can be traced back to some 6,000 years ago, to the emergence of the first cities, the emergence of agriculture and storage of food surpluses in the Near East. A bit later, analytic and linguistic keys to the forward march of civilization found critical refinement in Aristotle’s syllogistic logic and the founding of the sciences. The current trajectory of the West burst into full self-consciousness during the period of European Enlightenment, with the birth of rationalism and the elaboration of the modern scientific method. These, in turn, eventually gave rise to the industrialization, hyper-specialization, technological innovation and increasing commodification of just about everything that we are witnessing today.

With Europe and, more recently, America leading the way, the path charted and engineered by Western civilization spawned a mindset that is rapidly overtaking the globe, socially, economically, and culturally. This ascendancy has unleashed a domination of values, which, unlike political hegemonies of the past, are spreading with lightning speed, virtually unchallenged, and artfully enabled by the very technologies it has spawned.

Many Americans are convinced that their culture represents the apex of this historical legacy, the best in scientific and technological advancement, as well as political and economic leadership. What America has achieved, so they believe, is a dream come true. It was this “American Dream” that has been held out to (or thrust upon) the rest of the world as the ultimate expression of the “good life”—the proper locus of human happiness. However, it was cheap energy, in the form of fossil fuels, that has enabled this cultural and industrial progress, and the recent recognition that world oil extraction has peaked surely signals the prospective collapse of industrial economy, and, with it, the dissolution of its core institutions. The trajectory of Western civilization, now characterized by accelerating energy decline and global climate change—a trajectory that Homo sapiens had set in motion upon excavating the first coal pit—is nearing its end.

There are yet some dreamers and wishful thinkers who tell us of oil extraction technologies and spectacular discoveries of new supplies that will power our future. Overlooking the insidious exaggeration of these claims, the unintended consequences of technologies needed to deliver on them will surely bring substantial ecological fallout, further limiting our access to survival necessities such as clean air, fresh water, and healthy flora and fauna. Likewise, alternate sources of energy will never replace industrial civilization’s continuous and ever-growing need for transportation fuels. We are living within an unsustainable bubble that is already deflating, slowly for now, more quickly in the near future. Sustainable human existence will require smaller-scale and more local approaches to just about everything.

With the globe facing epic crises—ecological, financial, economic, political, psychological—at whose feet do we lay the blame? Where do we look to better understand the roots of these crises, or to learn how to outrun their dire consequences? While many have identified pursuit of the American Dream as a proximate cause of this global unraveling, the USA was not alone in its reliance upon certain fundamental assumptions about subjugation and exploitation of nature, ineluctably leading to devastating outcomes. All civilized regimes—from the first empires of ancient Mesopotamia to modern nations such as Russia and China—share the responsibility for the current planetary devastation. Industrial progress, economic growth, technological innovation, political expansion and environmental devastation have been the hallmarks of civilization since the beginning of history.

Not surprisingly, there is now growing disaffection in the West (of all places) with the way things are going. Given a global financial meltdown, high unemployment, austerity, endless war, insurrections popping up everywhere, unparalleled greed, irrational terrorism, the American Dream is fading like like the trace of warm breath on a mirror. Mother nature herself seems to be speaking to us loudly, with more frequent and more brutal natural disasters than at any other time in recorded history. Barely two decades into America’s uncontested ascendancy to unipolar imperial power—with the entire planet supposedly globalizing around its neoliberal capitalist dogma—and the whole thing is starting to come apart. If you think this makes the institutional fabric of Western civilization vulnerable, you are right; it does.

Yet do not think for a moment that it is going to come down without a struggle. There are centripetal forces holding this spectacle together as much as there are centrifugal forces pulling it apart. Aside from the greedy and controlling hands of plutocrats, there is too much raw desire out there in the hinterlands, too many people who have been living on the fringes of this “Dream” just waiting for their turn, for a piece of the pie. The entire Soviet Bloc, systematically excluded from all the fun for almost a century, now holds the forbidden fruit firmly within its grasp. These now independent nations are busy chasing the dream as quickly as they can muster the energy and the capital. China has also awakened from its slumber, focused on making up for lost time in securing a position of global prominence. The Indians have decided that they too want to play: Mumbai has made a good beginning in this respect, taking over nearly all customer service functions for major US corporations, siphoning off consumer purchasing power that once went to Americans.

A new generation of Russians is racing to be first at the finish line. The Russian Federation, in concert with its regional administrations, is aggressively stripping forestland, building new roads and expanding old ones, and refurbishing and building-out regional and the international airports. They are doing so with great abandon, as if there is no tomorrow—and perhaps there won't be. Yet no one in Siberia younger than fifty years old seems to want to discuss this possibility. They are having too much fun with their newfound wealth, and are enjoying the spectacle. This is most evident when you look at the younger generation of Siberians and the nouveau riche in Barnaul, Biysk, Belokurikha, and across Altai Krai. They cannot live without their cell phones, their iPods and their credit cards; without their health club memberships, pricey coffee houses and their air conditioners; without their recently financed foreign automobiles and their newly minted driver's licenses. In short, they have tasted the promise of this “society of the spectacle.” They are mesmerized by its allure and hooked on its fascinating appeal. It is not just blue jeans they want. They want it all! Short of an abrupt exhaustion of basic vital resources like fossil fuel, clean water, or fresh air, the only way we could see a quick collapse of this “curriculum of the West” as it moves east, is by prying it from the clutching hands of all those who previously had little, but now choose to have hope for more.

But there is also something ancient and primitive pulling at the emotional core of Siberians, something that once spoke clearly to a more archaic need, and perhaps still speaks to the older generations of Siberians even today. I am referring to the thoroughly mythologized Russian soul: a soul that in the mother tongue is feminine in gender—душа [dushá]—and, as such, is intimately connected with the mystery of Mother Earth. Recall Dostoevsky’s many references to the Russian soul as a reflection of the people’s unfailing and non-negotiable connection to the land from which life springs. There is a well-articulated and indestructible sentiment among our people that does not allow complete separation, physically or emotionally, from the land in which they were born and where they naturally survive and flourish. The Russian people have the greatest appreciation for, love of and attachment to their homeland and families, as well as to the broader ties of kinship these entail. They understand all of this to be intimately connected, as their language makes abundantly clear:

род [rod]: family, kind, sort, genus
родина [ródina]: homeland, motherland
родители [rodíteli]: parents
родить [rodít']: to give birth
роднить [rodnít']: to unite, bring together
родовой [rodovói]: ancestral, tribal
родство [rodstvó]: kinship

Over their historically, Russians have had to endure the hardships and struggles of political turmoil and repeated invasion, and Siberians understand struggle as a given, as part of the cycle of life, death and nature. The normal conditions of existence here, whether in the city or the village, are not what we Americans would consider easy, convenient, or comfortable (although they are improving). Those who live here have preserved some age-old instincts in order to survive, and even to celebrate life in the midst of recurrent hardships and strife. The personal and cultural resolve that personifies this soul has been forged over generations of people facing down aggression, natural and political, then calmly and courageously returning to their roots and rebuilding their lives upon an archaic foundation in which they never lost faith. It is impossible to understand the depth and mystery of this soul separately from its rootedness in the simplicity of the Russian peasantry and the inviolability of the Russian soil. There is an earthly sensuousness that infuses the Russian experience; this culture remains drenched in the primacy of the body and the natural world that nourishes it. This autochthonous connection to the land—the Siberian’s more elemental experience of life in wilder, mysterious nature—may still be capable of influencing the future trajectory of both the new Russia and Western civilization.

Perhaps Russia’s long-suffering messianic mission still stands firm in the Siberian wilderness, albeit less vociferously than before, quietly recalling humanity from the abyss of alienated spirit that haunts the self-absorbed West with its scientific rationalism, its consumerism and its otherworldly transcendence—a self-misunderstanding that seems to be marching all of us mindlessly toward global collapse. Perhaps the more primal Siberian awareness can summon us back to a feral memory trace, helping us recall our essential rootedness in Mother Earth and the earthly sensuousness of our flesh, the flesh of the world. But the delusion of ‘manifest destiny’ that drives Western hegemony and its commodity culture is chipping away relentlessly and callously at that archaic Russian soul, perhaps more rapidly than she is able to redirect and dissipate the self-destructive energy of Western imperialism and its global appetite. Siberians, and those of us living here in Altai Krai, must rethink their commitment to this Western curriculum as it continues to lead us relentlessly, mindlessly, toward a precipice.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

ASPO 2011: Post-Collapse Planning

Hubbert's Third Prophecy

[A timely guest post from Gary. tl;dn: Hubbert was right. Again.]

In light of recent events such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street I thought it would be pertinent to review Hubbert's Third Prophecy about the cultural crisis he expected.   He wrote about it in the attached article entitled "Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History". In case you are not familiar with Hubbert's first two prophecies, he predicted both the US and world oil peak very accurately.

In 1956 Hubbert predicted the US oil peak would be sometime between 1969 and 1971.  For this he was ridiculed and laughed off the face of the earth (almost).  Turned out the US oil peak was in 1970.  This is something the drill-baby-drill, it's all the environmentalists' fault, ditto heads don't know anything about.

Next in 1974 Hubbert predicted the world oil peak to happen about 1998.  However he DID say that if OPEC were to restrict the supply, then the peak would be delayed by 10-15 years which would put it at 2008-2013, or exactly right.  Here is what Hubbert's prediction (to scale by MBPD) looks like overlayed onto a reasonably close estimate of the actual global oil peak which started in 2005 and has continued as a plateau up to now.

OK, now is anyone willing to make a bet that Hubbert's THIRD prophecy is wrong?  Didn't think so.  Here it is:

Hubbert said, "The third curve (on the left) is simply the mathematical curve for exponential growth.  No physical quantity can follow this curve for more than a brief period of time.  However, a sum of money, being of a nonphysical nature and growing according to the rules of compound interest at a fixed interest rate, can follow that curve indefinitely...Our principle constraints are cultural...we have evolved a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of behooves begin a serious examination of the...cultural adjustments necessary...before unmanageable crises arise..."

Ok, anyone see any cultural crisis happening?  Yeah, what about a worldwide uprising of the 99% against the 1%?  What does this have to do with Hubbert's Third Prophecy?  EVERYTHING!
Here is a graph of total US debt in all sectors up to end of 2009:

Here is same curve overlayed with same time scale on global oil peak:

Looks kinda like Hubbert's graph above doesn't it?  That's because it is.  Debt can continue to increase indefinitely, while oil can't.  And since our entire money system is based on debt with interest attached there is no way to escape it.  All money is debt because we have allowed banks and the fed to create all our money through interest-bearing loans by using the fractional reserve system.  The details are unimportant, the main point is that our money supply is created by interest-bearing loans of banks and the fed.  Therefore, the economy must always grow in order to pay back the interest.  When the economy can't grow anymore...collapse.

Here is what has happened to US debt over the last several years:

2008 US Debt:GDP ratio = 350%

2009 4Q US Debt:GDP ratio = 425%

2011: US Debt:GDP ratio = 475%?

Debt has continued to grow because we don't have a real economy anymore, we have a fictitious funny-money phantom economy of mostly financial speculation.  Here is what happened in 2008:

As we all know, we had a stock market crash, a housing crash, an oil price spike and crash, and an employment crash.  Because we don't have a real economy any more we have papered over these problems by creating more debt.  The taxpayers bailed out the criminal fraudsters on Wall St., taking on more government debt, and the fed bailed out many bankrupt banks internationally ($12 Trillion), indenturing the taxpayers for future debt.

Since debt represents ultimately a claim on real assets, debt cannot continue forever if growth of the real resource based economy has stopped.  This is Hubbert's Third Prophecy:  When economic growth cannot continue due to the lack of affordable oil, then we will have a cultural crisis.  Well here we are folks.  The solution of the powers that be?  Create more funny money through the fed's "quantitative easing program".  The solution of the Keynesian economists?  Take on more government debt through interest bearing loans by selling Treasury bonds to the fed, China, and other parties (stimulus).  The solution of the right-wing "deficit hawks"?  Cut government (social) spending to the bone to "cut the deficit" which they created through monstrous military spending, and tax cuts to themselves.  Guess what.  None of these are going to work.  The solution is structural in the monetary system itself.  When all money is debt, there is always interest to pay and growth is required.

Hubbert didn't mention one other notable feature of a debt-money system.  It systematically pumps wealth from the bottom 80% of the population in wealth to the top 20%.  The bottom 80% pay interest while the top 20% collects it, and of course most of the interest is collected by the top 10%.  When all money is debt, that's a lot of money going to the top.  The Occupy Wall Street people aren't stupid.  They know the game is rigged.


A solution is some form of Public Credit Money.  That means that money is issued without interest:

1. 100% reserve requirements (abolish bank money)
2. Abolish Federal Reserve notes (end private central banking)
3. Issue Treasury Notes INTEREST-FREE (Greenbacks)
4. Issue state or local currency (warrants, bills of credit, zero interest bonds)
5. Social Credit (CH Douglas)
6. Kucinich NEED Act

Each of these topics could have a separate article, but I will summarize briefly.

1. The small reserve requirement of ~5% means that the banking system can create 1/.05 = 20X the money from deposits on hand.  Most people think banks loan out money that people save and deposit, but that isn't how it works.  With 100% reserve banks can only loan out money on time that you deposit, and you cannot withdraw it during that period of time, so it is like a CD (certificate of deposit).

2.  Abolish the fed or put it under the treasury department.

3. The Treasury department could then issue Treasury notes, not Treasury bonds.  Treasury notes are credit money that is spent on public goods, or loaned for projects creating public goods.  It is returned to the government through taxes or repayment of low-interest loans.  The colonists used colonial scrip, Lincoln issued GREENBACKS, and Kennedy issued Treasury notes.  These were all credit money, not debt money.

4. States or local governments could issue warrants, bills of credit, or zero interest bonds.  Some people feel the national government is too unaccountable to be trusted with money creation and it should be devolved to lower levels of government.

5. Social Credit (CH Douglas):  Part of public credit money could be to resurrect the idea of social credit.  Government issues credit directly to the public as a guaranteed minimum income and they spend it on things they need.  The fed gave money free to banks.  Why not give money free to us?  This is similar to the scene in the recent movie "In Time", when they rob the bank and announce to the crowd that the bank is giving zero interest loans, and you don't have to pay it back.

6. Dennis Kucinich has introduced the NEED act which incorporates many of these ideas from the American Monetary Institute.

Debt-based money is incompatible with the post oil-peak world.  It's only a matter of time before it collapses in default.
For further reading see:

ASPO 2011: The Bright Future of Too-Big-To-Not-Fail Finance

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Stadien des Kollaps Revidiert: „An der Brieftasche verwachsen“

[Auf Englisch]

Meine nette, geordnete Taxonomie des Kollaps, „Die Fünf Stadien des Kollaps“, wurde allein auf meinem Blog mehr als 70,000 mal gelesen seit ich ihn im Februar 2008 veröffentlicht habe. Der Artikel ist immer noch populär: alleine in diesem Jahr gab es über 10,000 Hits auf der Seite. Die Leute müssen ihn immer noch für hilfreich halten.

Und doch verläuft der Kollaps bisher nicht nach Plan. Was mich bewog den Artikel zu schreiben war der finanzielle Zusammenbruch von 2008, der zunächst nach einem Schachmatt für die westliche Finanzwelt aussah. Davon gehe ich immer noch aus. Damals schrieb ich über den „credit event“ von 2008:
Die Regierung könnte als Reaktion einige hilfreiche Predigten über „der Sünde Lohn“ halten und ein paar Suppenküchen und Absteigen an verschiedensten Orten, darunter auch an der Wall Street, eröffnen. Die Nachricht wäre:“ Ihr, die ehemals Schuld- und Spielsüchtigen, habt es wie man so sagt 'verbockt' und dies wird euch eine Lange Zeit leidtun. Wir werden euch nie wieder in die Nähe des großen Geldes lassen. Schafft eure Hintern in die Suppenküche und bringt euren eigenen Napf mit, denn wir waschen nicht ab.“ Das Ergebnis wäre ein stabiler Kollaps im ersten Stadium – die Zweite Große Depression.

Das ist allerdings unwahrscheinlich, denn die US Regierung ist nun mal der Schuld- und Spielsüchtige Nummer eins. Als Individuen können wir noch so tugendhaft sein die Regierung wird dennoch exorbitante Schulden in unserem Namen anhäufen. Jede Ebene der Regierung, von lokaler Verwaltungen und Behörden die den Kreditmarkt zum finanzieren öffentlicher Dienstleistungen und Aufträge benötigen, bis hin zur Bundesregierung, die für ihre endlosen Kriege auf ausländische Investitionen angewiesen ist, ist von privaten Schulden abhängig. Sie wissen dass sie nicht aufhören können Schulden zu machen, also werden sie alles in ihrer Macht tun das Spiel so lange wie möglich am Laufen zu halten.
Ich dachte zwar der Regierungsintervention ins private Finanzwesen die Qualen etwas verlängern würden; doch dass sie sie bis zum Tod der Regierungen selbst verlängern würde hätte ich nicht erwartet.

Der Effekt der Einmischung in den USA und Europa war das Niederreißen jedweden Schutzwalls zwischen privaten und öffentlichen Finanzen, mit dem Ergebnis das wir uns zwei monströsen, furchtbar kranken, siamesischen Zwillingen gegenüber sehen. Der Tod des einen bedeutet den sicheren Tod des anderen. Sie mit einem Hackbeil zu trennen wäre zwecklos: sie würden nur rote Tinte bluten und früher sterben als sie es ohnehin müssen.

Vielleicht wäre ihr frühzeitiger Tod hilfreich. Jetzt, da es mit wirtschaftlichem Wachstum so gut wie aus und vorbei ist, stellt die Großfinanz und hohe Politik nur ein Hindernis dar für ein geordnetes Einschrumpfen der Weltwirtschaft. Was ich mit einem „geordneten Einschrumpfen“ meine, ist ein Prozess bei dem die Wirtschaft in einem gesunden Maße schrumpft, bei etwa der Rate, die man einst als gesunde Wachstumsrate bezeichnet hat. Aber auf eine Weise die es den meisten Menschen erlaubt zu überleben, indem man einige Notwendigkeiten zur Verfügung stellt. So etwa Nahrung, Unterkunft, Sicherheit, der Zugang zu Medizinischer Versorgung, die Möglichkeit Kinder groß zuziehen und so weiter.

Die endlosen, leidenschaftlichen Gebete, für nicht existentes und physikalisch unmögliches Wachstum, sind verräterisch: Ohne Wachstum muss man die befristeten Tricks der Regierungen und Geldinstitute die das Spiel am Leben halten als unbefristet erachten, und unbefristet funktionieren sie nicht. Da gäbe es z.B. den „versteckt den Dreck“ Trick für die Bilanzen der Zentralbanken. Der würde funktionieren wenn der Dreck irgendwann wieder etwas wert wäre, was mit Wirtschaftswachstum denkbar wäre. Ohne ihn bleibt es Dreck.

Ein anderer Trick ist die massive Aufstockung der Rettungsschirme unter Garantieversprechen seitens der Regierungen; Dieser Trick könnte funktionieren, wenn das Wachstum wieder anziehen würde, denn dann würden die Garantien niemals in Anspruch genommen. So wie es steht werden sie aber garantiert in Anspruch genommen. Und da die öffentlichen Gelder hinter den Garantien nicht existieren, dürfte die Behauptung, dass Billionen an Rettungsgeldern zur Verfügung stehen, sicherlich schnell seine Wirkung verlieren.

Ich hätte mir eine geordnete Kaskade kollabierender Institutionen gewünscht, mit genügend Abstand zwischen den Ereignissen, damit sich allgemeine Psyche und Habitus an die neue Realität anpassen können. Doch die fast vier verschwendeten Jahre, in denen die Finanzwelt und Regierung nun schon auf eine Zukunft setzen die nicht existieren kann, und dabei jeden Einsatz verdoppeln den sie verlieren, haben diese Hoffnung zerschlagen. Ich denke der Effekt wird lediglich der sein, dass sich finanzieller und politischer Kollaps in einer einzigen chaotischen Periode verdichten. Der wirtschaftliche Zusammenbruch wird dann nicht lange auf sich warten lassen, denn der globale Handel ist vom globalen Finanzwesen abhängig, und sobald internationale Kredite austrocknen fahren Tanker und Frachter nicht mehr. Kurz danach gehen die Lichter aus.

„Die Fünf Stadien des Kollaps“ war eine nette Theorie. Ach hätten wir doch nur so viel Glück gehabt! Ich schreibe das um Sie zu warnen: erwarten Sie besser nichts derart geordnetes.