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Saturday, September 21, 2013
The Real Austerity, part 2: Significant Questions
There are several places in the previous essay where I would expect the reader’s incredulity button to be pushed. Anyone reading this blog, quite far into marginal social, economic and political thinking, will have a finely tuned sense for recognizing those moments when the writer is sliding past some difficult or inconvenient bit of reasoning or data. The subject, the whole region, of austerity as a necessary human condition is especially filled with such difficulties.
Reading part one of this essay again, after letting the silt settle in the glass, there are suggestions and assertions that stand out as begging for either explanation or revision. The following are answers to my primary concerns; I challenge the reader to inform me of theirs.
In the forth paragraph, the one that begins with “Get this straight,” the sentence, “This can only be done by becoming self-sufficient,…” sets my bells to ringing. In fact, the whole process by which the Great Many might bring about an adaptive necessity toward a reasonable relationship with biophysical reality is mighty blurry. And worse, I try to slip away by claiming, that while self-sufficiency and “reducing” living standards are essential, such changes will not happen by thoughtful human action.
First, without getting into how these things might happen through some actually possible adaptive process, here is a proposed scenario: a percentage of the general population of adequate size, say 20%, reject the consumption culture. An important part of their active day is spent providing directly for their personal and community needs from primary sources: growing, storing and preparing food; collecting and producing building materials; designing and producing the local use and control technologies and energy sources to meet a variety of needs .
People living in this way could not be coerced by normal economic means – the threatened withholding of food, housing and general protection from deprivation. The “standard of living” of such a population could be called ‘lower’ than their consumption-driven neighbors if measured by the amount of material and energy consumed, but by other measures, it might be considered higher – sense of purpose, economic and material security of directly supplying needs, community support and commitment.
(The economic elite would fight such a movement, tooth and nail, by criminalizing self-sufficiency, by embargoing regions and life-styles, by designing any number of “legal” restraints and by all manner of attempts to undermine any positive perception of these ways of life by the larger population. This will be discussed later.)
One of the consequences of any large scale rejection of the consumer society would be an increase in the unemployment of those in the Great Many who service consumerism – just about everyone. In this way the general population is held hostage to the present economic design; and there is no way out but for individuals and community groupings to take on the task of meeting basic needs. A natural pressure toward either abject misery or self-sufficiency would create a positive feedback: a certain percentage of those rejected from servicing consumerism would, by opportunity or fortuity, add themselves to the change community.
As such communities became more common in the experience of the consuming society, as someone’s uncle or daughter or friend turned to living with greater freedom from the oppressive demands of the money-consumption paradigm, the route to and ease of such a transition would be more clear an option to more people. The positive feedback would be further facilitated and the flows of wealth to the economic elite would be reduced by the simple expedient of there being less fungible wealth in the pipeline; people would be trapping real wealth in their immediate actions of self-sufficiency, wealth that could not be stolen from them.
* * *
There are a number of quite difficult to attain needs required for such changes as well as
dramatic consequences that would arise:
• A self-sufficient community-based society would require enough land to supply the majority of food needs as well as construction materials, energy sources and other comfort and protection accoutrements. This should not be looked at as some isolated Medieval village struggling to pull enough food from the ground so as not to starve. As the center of economic strength shifts from the non-productive economic elite to the self-sufficient communities, a demand would be created for the tools to maintain such communities.
• The population supportable by these changes would have to be smaller than the population of the consumer society. This is less an issue than it might seem since the consumer society has grown beyond its reasonable limits and economists are talking about ‘surplus people,’ numbers of people with no use in or to the consumer culture. These “surplus” people could become an adaptive force.
• There could still be industrial, transportation, communication, various professional and agricultural sectors in a larger interconnected economy, but (with the balance of power shifted to the self-sufficient communities because they cannot be easily coerced) this larger economy would exist to service the communities, not the other way around. There would still be the pressure from the players in the larger economy to dominate and monopolize activities, but that pressure could be balanced by the ability of communities to reject the offerings of the much reduced economic central players. Organizations of communities would have the power to limit the amount that the economic elite could take from the larger economic system and to define what were reasonable economic processes and what was theft.
• There would be a great human cost of transition. Many people would not be in a place or in a frame of mind that would allow them to become self-sufficient in the necessary form. Many would try optional means, like creating parasitic economic models – criminal enterprises – the immiserated stealing from the immiserated. It is unavoidable; if the route were obvious to all, then we would already be on it. This has to happen by a process of adaptation; it may appear to be driven by agency (planned, consciously driven action), at least in part, but it cannot depend on agency. A synergy of social (including economic) and biophysical forces playing out on the little acts of human agency is how it would have to happen, if it is to happen.
* * *
There are two other options for the future. One is that the economic elite continue to concentrate power and continue to become increasingly more insane (in denial of biophysical reality) as they connive to find and extract more and more remote sources of wealth, eventually driving the biospheric bus off the ecological cliff into the abyss of a major extinction event. The second is that the economic elite continue to concentrate power, but are informed by enough sanity to attempt to reduce the total human take from the earth’s productive capacity so that a general ecological collapse is avoided. This could only be accomplished by clandestinely, coercively, immorally and, eventually by all manner of force, reducing the numbers and consumption of the Great Many while maintaining enough economic activity to have wealth movement upon which to parasitize. A third option, that the economic elite realize reality and contribute their concentrated wealth to bring about a rational solution that produces the greatest adjustment to ecological stability with the least human suffering – and in the process rejoin the human race – is simply too farfetched to consider.
* * *
The changes that can lead to a stabilizing human relationship with the world’s ecologies, and, necessarily, to economic equities based on lower levels of consumption by everyone, cannot happen in the present framework of social and economic expectation or from the present rules of law; laws would have to be broken by those making the effort, social and economic violence done.
The economic elite always turn to violence, repression and murder when their desires are thwarted – they call it law and order (when on the surface), war against an inhuman enemy or the actions of deranged assassins (when clandestine). When the Great Many begin to stand up for their birthright as full and worthy members of the species they are labeled, by the elite’s sophists, as communists, criminals and terrorists.
If the Great Many turn to overt violence, the elite’s full asymmetry of propaganda and force is brought to bear. This fact creates both a difficulty and an advantage: the most immediately obvious actions are generally too dangerous on the one hand, but the need to think through options carefully focuses action toward the more effective, on the other. Laws must be broken in ways that generally do not excite a crushing response from elite power; violence needs to be seen as necessary and measured.
* * *
Power in one’s life is a function of the ability to control immediate surroundings and to have final say about the supplying of primary needs. This is where honest conservatives have it half right (but too often led astray by the economic elite’s sophists). People must be responsible for themselves, but the other half of that is there must be actual opportunity for such responsibility… and the time and training (by real adult humans) to regain both the sense of and the skills needed for control of one’s life.
The argument was made in the previous essay that the game is now rigged so that almost all efforts to take on personal responsibility are channeled into energizing the economic elite. Most opportunities to make contributions to primary needs are denied by laws created for the economic elite, forcing people into activities with a fungible reward which can then be skimmed or otherwise stolen from them. The very action of trying to meet needs by billions of people funnels their “gains” into the hands of the economic elites. Not only, then, are the people supplying the elites with wealth by their daily attempts to take control of their lives through increasing their own little piles of wealth, they are giving up their power by removing their life experience from the activities that would free them from the control of the elites.
Taking charge of one’s life is not about getting a better paying job, buying organic vegetables or joining a gym. It must be realized that real human worth will only come with rejecting the consumption culture and creating the community structure that allows for the supplying one’s most basic needs with one’s own hand to the degree that weakens the power of economic elite and brings symmetry to the power relationship between the Great Many and those who will do anything, to anyone, for power and money.
 This begins to sound like a description of a slum culture, and it may be that one of the products of the vastly expanding slums surrounding cities will be self-sufficient community movements based in agrarian enterprises. The shear force of numbers might allow such communities to take over land that is legally (sic) titled to absentee “owners.” If such agrarian movements also are generated out of militias, commune seekers, collectives of small farmers on the Grange model and other sources of adaptive pressure, these various beginnings might begin to coalesce into something like the above scenario.