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

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Real Austerity

What I am going to say will be unpopular, often misunderstood and generally rejected as, at best, na├»ve and, at worst, a justification of corporate interests and actions.  I know this because of the angry feedback I’ve gotten when I make even a turn in the direction of this argument.  But what makes this argument so devastating is that it presents the only solution to the monumental problem of humans living in some functional relationship with biophysical reality.  [Biophysical reality: the cycles and systems that make the surface of the earth a sanctuary for the living condition in a universe 99.999999999999999999999999% hostile to arrangements of organic molecules that are self-replicating and evolving [1]; a universe almost totally hostile to the simplest bacterium much less to a complex organic structure that can generate new forms of information manipulation capable of inventing stone tools, cotton gins, atomic weapons and ideas about its own importance.]
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Most will have seen or heard of the sci-fi plot-line wherein the antagonist is an evil creature or entity that absorbs all the energies applied against it and increases in strength thereby.  Shoot it and it ingests the bullet’s momentum; dynamite it and the explosive force is captured and shunted into the powers of the entity.  All of the obvious actions designed to drive off or destroy the entity are actually the very actions that support its existence.  Ignore it and it will wither, fight it and it uses those very efforts for its own growth.  With some modification this is the nature of our present confrontation with capitalism, corporatism and governments.

The most important modification for our present situation is that the ‘evil entity’ we confront is not only grown stronger by many of our methods for attacking it, it is grown stronger by our simple acceptance of its existence in place; it cannot simply be ignored, but must be actively shunned.

Get this straight: the plutocracy doesn’t care if you protest as long as they still make money, and if they can make money from protests (either directly or through responses to protests), then protest away; god speed.  There is only one way to slow the present trajectory, only one way to get the human animal on a path that returns human action to functionality within biophysical reality.  That way is to starve the plutocracy.  This can only be done by becoming self-sufficient, by first not using the millions of “products” that are supplied by the present consumer society and, second, ultimately not needing those products as life-styles change to new standards of social valuing.  In other words, we can only starve the plutocracy by “starving” ourselves – that is the way it is set up. There is no other way. And that is why it is so unlikely to happen.

A fast-food worker gets paid $18,000 a year for full-time work (costs the employer about $20,000/yr) and makes $40,000 a year for the employer.  This worker does this because he or she has no access to any other way of getting food, water, fuel, physical space in which to live, transportation and so forth.  The employer has no incentive to share more of the gain contributed by the worker, has no incentive to aid the worker in becoming more self-sufficient or more personally powerful or more fulfilled as a human being.

The corporate “conservative” argument is that the person should take “personal responsibility” and work harder to get ahead.  This translates to: the person should do more for the institutional entity as the only means to increase personal power and safety.  Millions of people “trying to get ahead” thereby fuel the corporate malevolent entity and therefore increasingly must live within the social, economic and political order created by its needs, not their own needs.  The only way to “get ahead” is to give up one’s life to the needs of the corporate entity; “getting ahead” is primarily defined as consuming more and more stuff.  Contributions to the well-being of the corporate entity are socially and economically responsible; contributions to personal well-being that do not contribute to the corporate entity are, at best, frivolous and, at worst, criminal.

The argument that the greatest number must take and use less is often seen as supporting the corporate goal of getting the same productive contribution for less compensation.  It is clearly recognized that unless people work, they will not be able get the means to meet their most basic needs.  And so fairness would dictate that people should be compensated for their actual productive contribution.  In other words, the Great Many should have more of the total output of the total human enterprise; the consequence of human effort should not be concentrated into the obscene wealth of impunity held by only a tiny percentage of humanity.

As compelling as this argument is, it misses two important points: (1) the world’s wealth is, in present fact, concentrated into the holdings of a tiny percentage of the population giving them economic and military power orders of magnitude greater than the multitude and (2) the human process exists in biophysical reality whether humans recognize it or not.  We have come to this distribution of the total human product by adaptive processes driven by a combination of forces that must be clearly recognized.  And the present total human product must also be realized as utterly unsustainable on this earth with its available energy, biophysical processes and “free services” budget.

Here are the plain facts:

  The consumption patterns of even the poor in the first world are too large to be sustained on the current distribution and demand for goods and services.

  Those with sufficient wealth to have even the beginnings of impunity will never, as a class, voluntarily reduce their “take” in either absolute or relative terms.

  The current process in which those with international impunity are engaged, the reducing of the wealth in the rich countries and the slight increase of the wealth in the poor countries, is intended to increase the consumer base for the low to moderate priced and minimal quality consumer goods.

  The economic elite see no advantage to having a large and growing international middle class of economically safe, well educated people.  Such a collection of people might eventually be able to enforce their desires, and those desires would conflict with those of the economic elite.
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The austerity (I chose this term with intention) that I am suggesting is argued against as simply playing into the hands of the corporate/economic elite who have taken an obscenely excessive share of the earth’s productive capacity and the productivity of the actual workers responsible for the capture of that productive capacity.  It is often presented that if we could properly distribute the bounty created by human work (socialize the economy) rather than criminally concentrate it [2], then all would be well; then everyone could have a stand-alone 2000 square-foot house on a 1/8 acre lot, a couple of cars, a boat of some sort, other adult toys and enough disposable income to duel with the neighbors for bragging rights.

Absolutely, the lopsidedness of wealth distribution is a major problem, but so is the total accumulation of wealth as the extraction and use of energy, material and environmental ‘free services.’  The lopsidedness drives the engine of wealth accumulation and concentration faster than it might go in a more egalitarian system, but ultimately the accumulation is the consequence of population and technology.

The life-style of the American middle class (the real middle class, $40,000 to $70,000 yearly income in 2010 dollars) is impossible as a general expectation for the future.  In a world of instant communication and international distribution of goods and many services, islands of great abundance will not stand long in a sea of deprivation – no matter how they are defended (the cost of defense alone will reduce them to sea level soon enough). 

The rich regions are only rich because they have been able to concentrate the natural unexploited wealth of the undeveloped and underdeveloped regions.  This can only go on for so long even if the people of the poorer regions don’t discover ways to fight back, but of course they will, are and have been becoming more and more successful at fighting back.  South America, South East Asia, parts of the Middle East and increasingly nations in Africa are challenging the supremacy of the US and Europe.  And the evil entity is growing from the conflict.

The northern Hemisphere is not endowed with specially talented and motivated people, especially talented and motivated white men, more than other regions.  Talent, motivation and ambition are normally distributed human qualities.  The northern Hemisphere, especially Europe, has an adaptation history that concentrated certain forms of power and that power expanded out over the earth (moving its center of gravity into the US, again as an adaptation to aspects of geographical abundance).  That power is in the process of retreat as the other regions of the earth respond and push back as they can.

But that power depends entirely (entirely, totally, absolutely) on the parasitical pathological overuse of the earth’s productive capacity.  There is no trick of redistribution that can solve this problem.  Only using less will prevent catastrophe.  If we are to survive in our present concept of civil society, using less will require both a far more equitable, and socialized, distribution of the benefits of worker productivity… and it will require that the average expectation for the material abundance of personal life – with its apparent ease, convenience and safety – be greatly reduced for much of the developed world.

Such changes are not optional, but how they will finally be implemented is the question of a lifetime (or species time).  You can be sure that the world’s most powerful and informed people are well aware of these realities, and are planning with them in mind.  The only way for the Great Many to be prepared with their own salutary actions is to become aware and informed also.  The strength of the multitude, supported by a generally accurate understanding of their realities is unstoppable.  The multitude without understanding is no more than the overburden of a strip-mine, easily swept away.

Clinging to the so-called American Dream of abundance supporting a near impunity of life-style (action without consequences –“If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it!”) will only feed the energy absorbing evil entity.  And we have all seen that movie.

[1] The calculation is a bit arbitrary.  I determined the volume of the living zone of the earth, about ~1.0 x1010 cubic Km, and compared that volume to the volume of the spherical solar system volume out to Sedna, ~1.2 x 1034 cubic Km.  Actually, life is a great deal more rare than the percentage calculated, but this is the region of space about which we know the most and serves to clearly indicate that, in essence, life wouldn’t exist at all if it required a positive probability of any size.

[2] I am aware that much of the process of wealth concentration has been rendered “legal” by laws passed by governments, but this is no more than pirates claiming that what they steal is their own and finding some host agency to agree with them.  Once enough has been stolen, the accumulated wealth becomes powerful enough to justify itself.