A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Trade Trap

Ari Berman’s piece from The Nation, ‘How The Austerity Class Rules Washington’ (Oct. 11, 2011), discusses an interest-based collective that he calls the ‘austerity’ class.  This designation is, however, misleading: this grouping should be called the ‘austerity for others’ class. The naming is clumsier, but much more accurate.

The ‘austerity for others’ class is offering nothing new.  Self-centered bandits have been robbing those least able to protect themselves from the beginning of biological time; that is all that they stand for and ultimately argue for: a reinvigorating of the ‘strong over the weak’ principle of naked, unadapted biological confrontation. They have their apologists, like Butler Shaffer, who argue for them that their guiding economics and politics are based in evolutionary principles while ignoring the vastly greater body of evidence that ecosystems are naturally cooperative systems that only function by Hobbesian principles when disturbed, that is, as they are most often seen by humans when the juggernaut of “development” rolls through the environment [1].

The ‘austerity for others’ class arises from what I call the Trade Trap and has been with us for a long time. People trade for advantage.  In the origin of exchanging and trading objects and behaviors, advantage was derived from spreading nets of obligation through the community, giving it order and stability, rather than in the amassing of material excess or even in individuals acquiring the means of meeting essential needs. But, people trade for advantage.  Originally the advantage was to the whole community; eventually advantage was realized as possible for individual community members.

Exchanging goods and services becomes a trap when the various utilities of trading disguise the loss of the capacity to meet primary needs without trading.  Trading, in this circumstance, ceases to be voluntary and becomes essential, and advantage goes to those people who have either least lost their capacity to meet primary needs or who have used their trading advantage to build sufficient military capacity to take what is needed (or force the trades they desire).  And thus the trap is sprung:

A community that maintains its self-sufficient capacity cannot also build a military force for either defense or offence against another community that uses trading advantages to acquire its primary needs, and can, therefore, devote, time and material to an army.  Our recorded history is largely of the resulting organizational and arms race.

Trading and the panoply of activities and motive forces generated by trading is both salve and whip.  Once the trap is sprung and a community or society can no longer survive, without trading, in the form to which it has become accustom and assumes to be necessary and connate, then trading supplies powerful motives to maintain ordered relations with trading partners.  It also supplies powerful motives to use significant resources to build and maintain defensive and offensive armed forces, exacerbating the trap since these resources can only be had by trading at greater and greater advantage.

A particularly devilish aspect of this process is the way the Trade Trap turns back onto the community.  Individuals begin to be seen as trading their time and work for the necessities of life rather than as members of a community structured on patterns of mutual obligation.  The spreading of material and behavioral wealth begins to be motivated more by individual advantage than community relations.  Labor is no longer voluntary.  The building of nets of obligation becomes fragmented and disrespected in favor of both subtle and explicit force, modeled on the relations characterized in community force: the trading of labor becomes a form of slavery.  This has been obvious throughout our history: slaves, serfs, servants, bond-servants, wage slavery – any of those occasions when the “laborer” has only the choice among working for the benefit of another, abject poverty or death.  Thus, Marx’s critique.

It is a mistake to get too caught up in the details of the activities or personalities of the actors in our present drama: it is like thinking that there can be no basketball without Michael Jordon or no fascist extreme without Hitler.  There would have been no Michael Jordon without the game, the other players and the fans; there would have been no Hitler without human process and organization.  As long as we have the game of basketball great players can express their talents; as long as we have the present economic and political design the ‘austerity for others’ class will have its peferred court to play on also.

There is only one solution to the circular roller-coaster that we are riding; it is simply, though seemingly impossible, to get off.  Unless communities can begin to restructure in ways that support self-sufficiency, reducing the force behind involuntary trading of labor, the playing field for despotism will not be changed.  Great psychopaths will continue to have a place to express their talents and the masses will continue to be their involuntary game pieces and audience.  The real struggle in the current structure is between plutocracy and oligarchy, whether the top dog is to be corporate power or government/military power.  People at the level to actually contest these matters understand that one or the other has to come out on top – it is in the nature of the situation and the players.  This also makes an opening for fascist players.

The deficit issue is, of course, of no real concern to the ‘austerity for others’ class; simply a handy device to steal from the masses. As long as Mr. Berman and others of intelligence and capacity are persuaded to focus on the details as if they were the real issues, then the people’s pockets can continue to be picked with impunity.

The facts are that no system can use more energy than is available; the idea in the form of a money budget is generally recognizable to the population.  Therefore, deficit creation is an activity to be avoided over the long run.  It is also true that certain populations and segments of populations will have to reduce their “standard of living” – greater austerity, if you like.  The totality of human consuming activity on the planet must be reduced.

What is not true is that it is necessary for the whole of austerity to be delivered to the already economically stressed, though it is easiest for the wealthy to abuse the poor.  The ‘austerity for others’ class is using its wealth power (trade advantage power) and access to military power to force all but a tiny few into greater and greater extremes of austerity while collecting princely and kingly situations for themselves.  This is the simple and correct understanding.

Increases in austerity will have to be accepted by large parts of the populations of the US and Europe and the elites of the poorer nations.  But few will give up advantage without a fight.  The ‘austerity for others’ class is using the conditions of the Trade Trap to get the slightly, to somewhat, advantaged middle classes of the world to, for the moment, support their thieving from those very supporters; even as they construct the collapse of those middle classes into a condition of serfdom and extract a huge one-time infusion of wealth with which they hope to ride out the coming economic and environmental storms.

The middle classes and the poor need to realize that they are true partners in the confrontation with the ‘austerity for others’ class; they are only separated by small numbers economically, 10 or 20 to 1.  The greater differences are found in education and expectation, but, significantly, not in so many primary values, and no difference in the capacity to live life and to act in the world.  It has been to the advantage of the ‘austerity for others’ class to attempt to divide the poor, races and ethnicities, white collar, blue collar, other economic divisions and any other identifiers.  There is some evidence in the Occupy Movements that these artificial distinctions are weakening.

The dilemma is that almost all humans are in the individual version of the Trade Trap, they must trade their living time and their labor for life’s essentials; supporting the ‘austerity for others’ class is required.  This is the game; no tweaking of the rules will change it.  I think it fine to know the details of who is playing and their stats. But this game is rigged; there is no solution to be found in sorting endlessly through the game films, but becomes part of the game itself.  The only solution is to walk away, as impossible as that seems to those in the trap, and leave the players in an empty stadium.

[1] Humans are easily confused about what constitutes the biological unit of adaptation. The most common error is to identify the individual genetic unit with that unit – this is actually rare. If, for example, we assume that the interaction of individual arthropods in a forest glen is the model, then it is a desperate and dangerous world indeed, but if we look at the interaction of species from all the kingdoms of life in the same glen it is world of exquisite harmonies.  We humans have used our great capacities to be dangerous to each other; we now must use those capacities to discover how to control our integration into the world’s ecologies and how to design our communities to give value to the living of life rather than the accumulation of the material consequences of uninhibited human action.

Friday, October 14, 2011

An Evening at Lake Meredith, Texas

Sitting on the rim of the canyon that contains the Canadian River – when there is a river – I look across the broad flat bottomland that would be covered by Lake Meredith – when there is a lake.  It is a long canyon, a mile wide, lined on either side by cliffs a hundred feet high.  The river cut this canyon over many hundreds of thousands of years.  Melt water from glaciers in the Southern Rockies and the more abundant rains of the Pleistocene ice age carried the land away bit by bit, across what is now Oklahoma to the Arkansas River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.

A dam several miles to the northeast would not have been here then and the river would have made its own course wandering back and forth in the wide flat bottomland, flooding grandly from time to time and always cutting its way down through the ancient stone layers so clearly displayed today in the canyon walls, still holding the river – when there is a river – to its main course.

I put my binoculars to my eyes expecting, as I do every time (immune to either learning or disappointment) to see a river and its inhabitants as I have instantly constructed them in my mind: 15 thousand years ago; the trackways of the megafauna crisscrossing the valley.  The river – always a river – snaking its way, in wide meanders, across the green valley floor; in places it would form channels of liquid lace, large and small rivulets punctuated with beaver ponds, taking most of the valley from steep side wall to steep side wall – and these were not ordinary beavers, but 6 feet or more long with a head as big as a bear's. In places where the valley bottom was more plain than river channel or willow forest, I imagine groups of the bigheaded, short-legged horses of the really old west; fifty in that clearing, a hundred in another.

Of course, when the binoculars touch that spot just below my eyebrows where they rest, and as I focus them and my eyes, the image is just the one that I was looking at a moment ago, only 8 times closer.  Unlike an astronomical telescope, they will not look into the past.

Today there is no river. 2 months ago there was no river and the remains of the lake was even smaller, in the rainless 110ยบ heat, than it is now. I don’t know when the river was last a river, but the National Park Service has taken to calling the southwest end of the valley a wetland, not a river or a lake. New Mexico has not been a reliable source for rain or snow and also the water flowing out of that region is corralled on its passage in Conchas Lake and Ute Lake, as well as being taken for various domestic and agricultural uses.

I search in vain with the binoculars, having given up on them as a time machine, for signs of rivulets and flows strung together sufficiently that a river might be speculated or imagined.  There were some places where water had flowed in miniscule proportion from a recent rain.  The bottomland sands were a wet tan and not an almost bone dry white; but no secreted away little channel wending its way as some final trickle of the mighty Canadian River.

Over half a mile away a little finger of shallow water from the lake wetted the sand to a real brown. On the water were 300 or more birds, perhaps ducks – not the Pleistocene horses, but I thrilled a bit as I saw them.  I knew a man long ago who would have been able to tell what they were even from here; to me what are no more than black specks, some with flicks of white showing as they moved.  There was a pair of large white birds further away sitting on, or near, a small bar well out in the water; swans by size, though maybe not. Several great blue herons took up their solitary posts along the waters edge.  And various other birds in small groups: a few white specks gathered in one place and a few black specks gathered in another.

I present this inventory because I first take an inventory, looking through my time-locked binoculars, as part of the comprehension of the place,.  Denied the ancient megafauna, I’ll make do, even seek fulfillment, in present reality; and I enjoy being reminded of Sievert’s supernatural skill at identifying birds from the smallest clue – in the comparison of my incapacity to do so.

Then again maybe they are not ducks.  There was a flight of the birds, for reasons that birds do these things, and they took off and circled away like shore birds.  Perhaps the water there is only inches deep and the birds are wading.  So now I wonder if they might not be willet sized shorebirds and not small ducks at all.  The big white birds are still swans, at least they are not pelicans; I’m still just happy to watch them.  A tiny black dot at the head of a water comet pacing slowly along in the smooth water near the shore is almost certainly a grebe.

As the sun moved lower in the sky, the angled light defined the smooth bottomland sands and I could make out small trackways tracing out from the valley edges: coyote, deer, mastodon?

(Later in the night, in the bright darkness of the full moon, some of these questions were answered.  Flights of many tens of ducks circled up the valley along the steep edges, lead and followed by frenzied calling.  Since I was sleeping, at least at this point lying down, right on the valley rim the birds flew close by.  At one point I tried to see them with the binoculars and was shocked to focus, quite by accident, on no more than ten birds filling the field of view – shallow rapid wing-beats of quick moving ducks flashed by in an instant and were gone.  I could easily imagine hungry coyotes harassing the ducks in the shallows, sending them in the duck version of angry noisy circles of flight.)

I knew, as I fell asleep, that soon I would need to incorporate this experience and others like it into the other images of the trip, the giant gas-drilling rigs and gas collection facilities that spread like black Mad Max time cities along the low upland ridges, the land plowed to raw dirt from horizon to horizon, the little towns with empty buildings at their centers, the helpful and friendly people all along the way… It was like with the birds and coyotes; all too far away to see clearly and too dark, even in the light of the full moon, to make out the details: all clues to the present and the future; a world with which we must all come, individually and collectively, to grips.

Gratuitous motorcycle traveling photo

Thursday, October 6, 2011

We Are Entering the Zone

As I enter the zone – of absolute certainty that only a tiny few years remain for the existence of my conscious awareness – I see how my reflections on my own mortality, across the years, relate to the way in which societies understand their ‘mortality.’  In essence, societies do not and cannot comprehend their own end; they are always in the condition of the young, because they are continually replenished by new young.  But societies become decrepit in their institutions and forms when they either lose contact with the realities that inform them or are unable to respond with adaptive forces: the young drive on; the society’s systems strain and fail.

The fantasy of eternal life has almost always been built around the rejuvenation of the body – it is usually the body that fails, leaving the mind to flounder helplessly without the support needed for its exercises.  Individually we most often scale back our expectations, but with regret. 

In my own experience, I have refused to accept the aging of the body, which then must keep up with the desires and demands of a youthful mind, and am in that way like a society; the institutions, the public ideas, the social values have all gone stale and sclerotic and yet are still driven onward by each new youthful infusion who can know no better.  But, the most basic condition of the body or society is not improved by the youthful demand or wish; it may only appear so for a time: me on my motorcycle riding across the country and my nation spending its energies on wars of choice and the destruction of its own people.  It seems that neither one of us will stop until the end.

The present boiling over of frustration, anxiety and fear for the future is the bubbling up of the youthful mind without regard to age of the body.  Of course, it has no direction; and, of course, the powers-that-be desperately want ‘the movement’ to proclaim its demands, its policies, so it can head them of at the pass, so it can put its professional sophists to work distilling and diluting the messages in its Big Lie Brewery.

But the youthful minds have reached the end of their capacity to accept the twisted reasoning and actual twisting of their lives to fit into the failing world – so clearly failing as families begin to move from foreclosed homes into the public campgrounds, as middle aged, middle class and middle-valued men and women hold signs on street corners proclaiming, not a demand, but an entreaty for work.

I’ve been traveling again; watching and listening.  I heard and watched my camp neighbor get up and leave the free camping area at 6 am to drive the 2 hours to work.  The well-dressed gentleman holding the sign on a corner near an exclusive restaurant, it begged simply, “Work.”

The bubbling up and boiling over of America’s youthful mind is not yet frightening to the economic elite; they have us all by the _____(add our own diminishing sexual reference) don’t you know!  Once they fully realize that the incipient demand is that they cease and desist, that they join the rest of humanity, then you will see a reaction.  You will see the real reaction, not the foolish, lying condescension that passes for honest awareness in the media. 

But this body-politic will not be rejuvenated by a youthful mind, though it is pleasant for a time to try.  This is a struggle that will come to blows, and there must be a real death of the old body and the birth of a new one with all the primal reality that such changes entail.  

Sunday, October 2, 2011

How Much is Too Much?

How much wealth is too little, too much and just right?  Lets us dispense immediately with the argument that there is no amount that is too much, that societies, and their governments, have no business setting lower and upper limits. 

The entire purpose of societal mores and rules, enforceable through governing institutions, is the stability and health of the society. Individual members of a society devote much of their effort to recognizing and following social rules…and they also devote a significant portion of their effort in discovering how to express personal desires by circumventing and defying of those rules.  The stability of a society requires the balancing of these agreeable and disagreeable tendencies by the tricky process of setting limits.

The health of a society is somewhat more difficult to consider, but is obviously as important as stability.  Stability can be attained by stasis, but health only by homeostasis.  A healthy society is one in which all of its parts are in functional relation, no part can be said to be dominating or irrelevant.  Think of a living body: Where would be the brain without the liver? Could the intestinal wall survive without the sweat glands?  To follow on with this analogy: fat is the storage of energy against future need and in that way resembles wealth. It might seem, in the most simple analysis, that one could, therefore, not have too much of it.  But clearly that is wrong since the whole functioning of the body is damaged by excessive concentrations of fat – the fully functioning homeostatic relationship is distorted and many different destructive and damaging conditions take control of the body; just as in a society, concentrations of wealth will disorient and distort social functioning to the detriment of the society’s health.

At the minimum, a stable and healthy society must be broadly understandable to its members, from the street sweeper to the college professor, from the employee of a nail salon to a bank president.  Though the community sets expectations, the interests of the members of the community must have clear and established routes of influence. The society should be seen as a need-meeting system from which the individual can explore the vicissitudes of life, and even more importantly, it should actually be that!  A society that parasitizes some of its members for the benefit of other members is not in homeostasis and is not healthy [1].  Concentration of wealth is the primary source of such imbalance.

So, there can be too much wealth, not only held by individuals and collective entities, but by the society as a whole; by this thinking, a pure collective society could have too much wealth, though not as readily as a capitalistic one.  The other end of the scale is obvious: there clearly can be too little wealth held by individuals, collective entities and societies as a whole; first defined by biological want and then by the social imbalances of exploitation and deprivation of the needed wealth to function fully within the social order [2].

It follows that if there can be too much of a thing and if there also can be too little of it, then there must be an amount or a range of amounts that are functionally “just right.”  This is the basic principle of homeostasis; the ill effects of too much trigger a mechanism for slowing down, while the (different) ill effects of too little trigger a mechanism to speed up.  Human societies are biological entities and must also follow these rules or fall to dis-ease.

Beginning with the easy and proceeding to the disputable: Too little has a clear floor of biological insufficiency; too little food, water, protection from the elements, safety and so forth.  Humans, like any animal, fight back when forced into these conditions as they attempt to establish the basic minimums for survival.  They can be successful when they fight back as coherent communities.

When is an individual responsible for basic biological essentials or at what point is the society to been seen as the primary force in the supplying and withholding of these essentials?  If the individual is completely responsible, then societies (collections of humans) are always at the near edge of anarchy and exist only as a momentary comfort.  If, on the other hand, human communities are recognized as the human unit and it is the community that is seen as the primary adaptive agent supplying both resource and order, then the society that doesn’t function to make it possible to acquire a minimal level of wealth to fully function in that society, is dysfunctional.

Land based communal societies all around the world clearly define this minimum and the varieties of social structures that support and enliven them.  They share a general form: materially simple, several levels of property rights and responsibilities with communal property as primary, interpersonal relations and obligations as the binding social glue.  The poor of every society always end up replicating this design in the ways available to them; it is not necessary to have a plan, humans are the plan.  These ways of organizing and living can be beautiful as well as brutal; the world abounds with example.

At the opposite extreme, as wealth begins to accumulate in a community, the disposition of it becomes the issue.  For this problem there are no innate guides; great accumulations of material surplus have never been a condition of human evolution and are only recently a concern.  And, just as with the excess of fat in a body, the excess of wealth in a community presents it with problems for which it has no ready solution.

Human societies are, like bodies, ‘flow through’ systems; when the flow of energy and material stops the system dies. “Wealth”, when it is distributed in the ecosystem where every detail is exploited and magnified in an adaptive design billions of years in the making, can be tapped on an as needed basis – as long as in kind compensations are faithfully made.  But when material accumulations are pulled from the ecosystem, walled off from it and made part of a closed system that refuses to compensate the source, then a sclerosis begins that spreads into both the biophysical systems and the wealth based human societies.

The full range of consequences that follow from either accumulating wealth primarily as communal property or as discrete packets of accumulation in the control of individuals or collective entities is not my subject here, but must be touched on. When the accumulation of material surplus comes into the control of individuals and collective entities rather than assignable to the community as a whole, the situation is easy to understand: those who have control of accumulated material surplus enjoy the consequences and will fight to maintain their position.  Those who have too little for security and comfort will naturally go to where the surplus is and try to take from it sufficient to ease their condition. 

Those with surplus will trade some of it away as a means to gain the help of a few of the less wealthy and these people will become dependent on the wealthy for their needs as they become the protectors of the rich.  But in giving some wealth away it becomes clear that they will need more to have more and to protect the more that they have.

Control of the surplus begins to be seen by both those who have it and those who do not as an attachment of the surplus to its controllers; it becomes associated with them in the ways of both classical conditioning and instrumental learning; such an arrangement begins to seem natural when, in fact, it is completely contrived.

Undefined assignment of resource and wealth to community leads to the problems that Garrett Hardin discusses in his much misinterpreted 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  The key, of course, is the designation, ‘undefined.’ The solution is really not so difficult: define the resource.  Mitigating the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ effect can be achieved by a community regulation or by assignment to an individual overseer – what is different is where power is vested and the form of the consequences.

But let us not forget where from comes the concern in the first place: the accumulation of surplus in the community.  All communities, human, other species and ecosystems exist in a world of surplus, it is being stored and renewed in the biophysical and ecological cycles.  Most organisms only store tiny increments of extracted surplus as fat in their bodies, caches of food and labor products like beaver’s dams; and this is vital, they have all evolved instinctual (genetic) inhibiting regulator structures that organize, in exquisite detail, the ecosystems in which they live.

This is where and why it is necessary to discover the levels of wealth that lead to social dysfunction and then work out the design of social ‘homeostatic’ mechanisms that limit the total amounts of wealth that can be extracted from the environment and stored outside of environmental systems.  It is vital we (a critical mass of opinion setters) understand that humans have evolved an adaptive tool of great power, a tool that has slipped the bonds of the controlling agency of the Living System of Order; a tool that must, using its own agency, come into control of itself.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the present order is unraveling from both its internal design and its consequences on the environment and especially the ‘free services’ supplied by the environment.  I believe that it is more important to develop a conceptual structure that can respond to and from a variety of social and structural conditions than to try and develop a detailed plan for getting from our exact present state to some proposed ‘new’ one.  Our present state has become a kaleidoscope of forms, each an almost random result of the last set of events driven only by the wealth powers and no other vision. 

It is to the end of setting a foundation for a vision of the future that I make these arguments.  The first necessity for limiting total societal wealth is the storing of primary extracted wealth as communal property.  Private wealth as a base model will always create an exponential accumulation of excess with all the dysfunctional manifestations of our present condition. 

Economic systems need to be localized so that total accumulations are within the capacity of the communities to comprehend and control.  Levels of property rights must form so that individuals and family-like units have control of tools and other basic materials empowering self-reliance and responsibility [3].   “Business” must return to being a community-controlled function.   No individual should control more wealth than can be understood by the community as appropriate for community benefit.  The ethic must become that wealth is to be left in the ecosystem, only withdrawn as needed and with a clear expectation that the ecosystem will be compensated in meaningful ways for the taking.

These proposals contain great dangers, but certainly no more than the economic and environmental collapse, exacerbated by the possibility of nuclear Armageddon resulting from political collapse of nuclear nations, that we currently face.  I can think of many arguments against such proposals ranging from them being impossible (certainly true currently) to their creation of small warring city-state like entities clashing over resources and fundamentalist principles.  And there will be no testing of them or others like, and unlike, them until the present concentrations of wealth and power have exhausted themselves, but those living then will need some models from which to go on.

[1] In ecosystems ‘mutualism’ is the model.  The typical analogies from animal behavior for aggressive wealth accumulation, the lion and wolf, are really functional elements in the maintenance of ecosystem health; they have powerful instinctual inhibitions against attempting to collect excess using their great capacities as predators.

[2] An evocative presentation of this distinction can be seen in the Italian film, The Bicycle Thief.

[3] One of the great ironies of capitalism – especially as manifest in the present rhetoric – is that the ‘workers’ are supposed to be mature, responsible citizens trading their labor to the owners, but without any control over any of the conditions of their work, their lives while working or the terms under which they make the trade.