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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.

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