Thursday, May 14, 2015

Letter to a Loser

Salve!  Hearing of your recent misfortune (the job you lost, the class you failed, the savings you burned in a hedge fund, etc.), I decided to be kind and compose this letter.  Rather than commiserate with you in the usual maudlin fashion (which certainly has its place), I am going to be frank--for we are very good friends, and I honor our friendship.

I am very happy that Fortune has denied your bid to check out on life.  Over the last few years, I have watched you slowly disintegrate, breaking yourself into pieces (public and private, polished and rough, good and bad) and hawking those pieces in the marketplace.  Up until this moment, you always found a buyer for something, and so you kept excavating--kept digging that hole in your heart a little deeper, searching desperately among your entrails for shiny things to polish and feed to the market.  You felt very nervous about this process, clearly, and there were times when you thought about cashing out--taking a break, doing something else, finding a way to exist that didn't involve betting your livelihood on people's finicky taste for whatever shit you could scrounge to offer them.  You said you would take that break if Opportunity knocked.  Well, she is knocking now--very loudly.

Listen to what she says.  "Look, buddy, I'm going to do you a favor.  I'm going to cut through all the bullshit everyone else in this marketplace will give you--about how you're a wonderful person with some impressive skills and you just have to try harder next time, blah blah--and tell you the truth.  Being a prostitute is no good if you have to beg for clientele.  Trust me on this one: the clients you want are the ones who come begging to you, not the other way round.  Never give your soul to any of the vultures here.  Don't go into a job interview you must ace.  Don't take a class you cannot fail.  Don't bet any money you cannot lose on a hedge fund.  That divine fire that people rave about?  Those 'impressive skills' you spend so much time honing?  At some point these gifts turn against you, becoming the weapons the market uses to destroy you rather than the tools you use to better yourself.  Have you reached that point yet?"

"People are weak, and the Market makes some of you weaker.  It pretends to love you, to want you, to need you, to value you, and so on.  The wise among you know that it is lying, that what it really wants is something impersonal (some quality or value that exists independent of individual personae such as you).  The Market is secretly very happy when there are too many people vying for its limited favors (that will always be limited, by nature): the issue of a room full of eager prostitutes is that the Market always gets well laid, but it cannot sleep with everyone.  It cannot love everyone.  It cannot make everyone its special one-and-only.  What it can do is lie.  The wise are not hurt by its lies, because they have learned not to make their livelihood at the Market.  They are available to take the Market's favors, but they do not require them (as you do).  They are not dependent on the Market (as you are, right now).  The Market is only really good for people who do not need to be there.  Become one of those people.  Until then, stay away from the Market: it will always break you more than it makes you."

Where am I to go? is naturally your next question.  You need a larger perspective than the one you have right now--the close-minded perspective of the narrow Market you have been courting in vain.  Your Market was too little for you, too small and specialized.  You have to find a larger Market (one that allows you access to more clients, more needs, more opportunities to put yourself together without pulling yourself apart).  You have to re-assess your persona.  What do you really need to survive?  Food?  Clothing?  Shelter?  A community to which you can contribute something meaningful?  There are many ways to have these things.  Many poor people have them.  Many losers.  Be the loser you already are: just enjoy it more, and waste less time wishing you could find some other way to lose (e.g. the kind of loss that your petty little Market calls success).

Is it really true that there is no such thing as life without loss?  I think this is true, for we are all mortal.  That means everything we do leads eventually to death (at least as a way-station: even those who embrace immortality do so by making death a gateway gods must pass).  You must learn to love loss, to love yourself as a loser.  You must see that losing contains valuable information, particularly when it is mitigated loss (rather than the total loss you have encountered recently).  Success is a dream, a lie, a fairy-tale that unscrupulous Markets sell to prostitutes that they want to have on the cheap.  It weakens those who pursue it, because they fail to learn from their own loss, and it weakens those who gain it, because they fail to learn from others' loss (and see a false security instead of the volatility that Nature makes).

Since you must lose, make yours a beautiful loss.  Don't lose someone else's game.  Don't let the Market define your loss.  Lose your own way, doing something you believe in.  Instead of cutting yourself apart in desperate hope that someone else will love your guts, cut yourself apart because you already love them.  The best loser is the one who loses his own game, on terms that he has made purposely for himself.  Be that loser.  Vale.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Opium of the People

A missionary-minded friend sent me a link to an evangelical Christian book discussing the Marxist dictum: "Religion is the sob of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world ... the opium of the people."  I cracked the book and had some ideas of my own.
 
To me the title of this book--Opium or Truth?--begs an important question.  In what way is opium not truth?  Regarding Marxism, I agree with Karl Popper, who called it a modern humanitarian religion (which the Bolsheviks and their ilk practised the way the Holy Inquisition practised Christianity).  So Marxism is just another kind of opium, subject to the same accidents and afflictions that attend the brands it aims to displace in the marketplace of ideas. 

I think the Daodejing is a better book for understanding the world, from the perspective that Life (or God) has given me, than is the Bible.  That does not mean that I resent people reading the Bible (or similar books), only that I don't personally find in it the deep meaning that they do.  I thought I found that meaning, for many years, but I kept searching the world and experiencing new things--and at some point I realized that the Bible is not the only or even the best guide for my life. 

My religion is not primarily about books or beliefs, in the end.  Books and beliefs for me are just tools, means to enable a kind of existence that is bigger than they are, that includes more things.  I need some connection to people, people who don't live on the other side of the world (or in an office building I can never visit in Salt Lake City).  I need some connection to the non-human environment around me that I can believe in (as I cannot believe in the gods I meet in the Old and New Testaments, the way these are commonly interpreted).  I need friends, nature, and service. 

The Bible does not offer me any of that.  In fact, it seems to take that away, when churches founded around it want to spend all their time talking about the Bible, instead of living what I see as a holy life.  I understand Jesus differently today than I once did.  I think his message was likely a bit different from what many people seem to think.  He did not write anything.  He did not command people to write.  He came to fulfil the Law: so why are we still reading it?  The Old Testament is done, gone, a curio--no different to Christ, in my mind, than the Epic of Gilgamesh.  The New Testament is not really much better: somewhere in the midst of miracle tales, sectarian rants, and pseudo-philosophical speculation (not to mention the straight-up insanity known as the Book of Revelation: that is some strong opium there, maybe LSD), the basic Christian message of universal love and political renunciation ("my kingdom is not of this world") gets buried and lost, so lost that hardly anyone finds it (especially not the people who spend their entire lives bloviating about the secret meaning of the impossible riddles we find in Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, or the Book of Revelation).

I know you love the Bible.  It allows you to build a coherent life, one in which you get some kind of regular access to whatever it is that you need to be a good person (relating well to God, to yourself, and to the rest of us).  That is great.  Not all of us can have that the same way.  I don't want to take your life away and replace it with mine.  I am not sure that reading the Daodejing would improve your life.  I don't know precisely what it is that you need to live well.  I leave the negotiation of that problem to you and God (without any definitive idea myself of what that means: deity is a mystery for me, a mystery that people don't understand--especially not when they think it is clearly visible in some book like the Bible).  I rejoice when you are happy in your religion.  I am sad when you are sad.  I am here to help you in any way I can. But I cannot share your faith anymore than I can share your mind or body.  We are not the same--similar though we might be, much as we might share (in terms of inheritance, of culture, of history and experience). 

If I were to identify myself as a practising Christian, a thing which could happen, I would not make the Bible central to my Christianity.  What appeals to me in Christianity is not the Bible, but the renunciation of attachment--to the world and its ideas, including all the worldly ideas in the Bible (which is a very worldly book, in my experience, one that includes reading many books).  I could see myself becoming some kind of Orthodox (probably not Catholic) hermit, monk, or recluse--retiring from life to pray, sing, and grow a nice garden someplace remote, with a cave or cell I might inhabit peacefully (with or without a Bible: I don't particularly care).  At this point in my life, this option is not really a good one.  I have a family to look after, and the Christian traditions that surround me are not really friendly to contemplative approaches that eschew theology.  Instead, everyone wants to debate the Bible, to establish orthodoxy, to get the sacraments right, to make the kingdom of heaven come down to earth so that we can all see it the same way, in the same things.  I really dislike this vision of religion, of Christianity.  It is not my religion.  It really never was, not even when I was a good Mormon.  I did not want to impose faith on people; I was not interested in convincing or converting folks against their will.  I just wanted to understand myself better, myself and the mystery I know as God.  That is all I have ever wanted.  I am still pursuing my quest; I have just left behind the conviction that it must lead me to active affiliation with religion that is not mine--with life whose integrity I cannot know and embody for myself. 

We don't all react the same way to the same opium.  When the truth sets us free, we don't all use our freedom the same way, to do the same things.  This too is part of the mystery we call God.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Commentary on Sex

A friend pointed me to this article, which inspired a small rant on sex.

Good grief. I simply don't understand the "sex is violence" meme. That is not how I see it--and I find those experiences, all vicarious for me since I have never been party to violent sex, the opposite of inspiring. Unless the point was to make me want to avoid intercourse (and maybe fight someone, or least punch something).

The idea that one could have sex without any emotional hang-ups is similarly ludicrous to me. I just don't get it. There is no way I find myself in the position of not caring what happens to someone I know that way. So I don't understand the "sex is meaningless fun" meme, either. I do not think of myself as particularly prudish (though I certainly was that way at one point in my life). Even when I was a prude, that prudishness was something I aspired to apply primarily to myself (sometimes pretty harshly) rather than to others (whom it was never my place to judge). Getting married was very helpful when it came to defeating the negative aspects of this prudishness where these existed (primarily as reflections of self-loathing on my part); but that did not make sex meaningless for me, something that didn't particularly matter or connect me with other people (as people). More like the opposite: I became more acutely aware that people matter, that one cannot relate effectively to caricatures or stereotypes, that real love-making is about building people rather than breaking them.

Breaking people isn't even fun, from my perspective. If I were offered the chance to have sex without natural consequences, without emotions--I would not want it. The same way I wouldn't want to eat 'food products' deprived of all their nutritious value. The prospect of being allowed to eat meals of empty foodstuffs constantly (or ingest endless rounds of cheap alcohol or another 'fun' drug) would not make me happy. I would not choose it. In the same way, I would not choose to have sex without any emotional consequences, without any kind of relationship existing outside the particular expression of love that sex is. Eating one breakfast means not eating another one, at some point. Making love with one person means not making love to someone else. We cannot relate equally to all human beings. We cannot love all alike (unless we deliberately isolate ourselves from the kind of particular relationships that are familial, becoming monks and nuns, who are often celibate--not because they are prudes, but because they recognize the consequences of sex and seek to avoid them, to cultivate goods that sex obviates or negates). I think there are people for whom non-monogamy works better than it will work for others. But even these folks must recognize some limits, some boundaries beyond which they do not pass--unless they want to dissolve their relationships (and that will be hard, often really devastating, even if the relationship in question is a bad one).

We used to advise people to "think of the children" when letting their romantic fancies roam. We might also advise them to think of their spouse(s), who will always have (strong) feelings about the integrity of their relationship. We might even advise them to think of themselves, as beings incapable of transcending the need for human companionship that is more than momentary, that has more than sex to sustain it. To me it seems that the fetishization of sex, its reduction to the most important activity in romantic relationships, has impaired our ability (collectively anyway) to recognize that other things are at least as important, that sex without those things is not really worth much.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why Do Wealth and Peace Exist?

A friend asked this question, and I wrote an answer.

Wealth exists because we invented agriculture, which gave us year-round access to stores of food from which some people can exclude others. This is why poverty exists, too, incidentally. I see wealth and poverty as two aspects of the same thing: scarcity. Foraging societies (like the Hadza in Africa) don't have the artificial scarcity that we civilized folk have, because every individual (including even fairly small children) knows how to go out into the bush and get food, shelter, and friendship (the basics we all need for survival: they don't call this wealth; it is simply life).

Peace exists when depopulation (from disease, famine, or war) gives agricultural societies breathing space to grow their wealth without having to protect it from other people. I see peace and war as fundamentally the same thing, complementary expressions of agricultural demographics. When foraging societies settle down to live in villages and cities, they become more fertile (producing more people in less time: this is peace--e.g. the Ara Pacis in ancient Rome, with pictures of motherhood on it). More humans (the outcome of greater fertility) means we need more stuff (wealth). Since we are sedentary and can only get wealth by access to land that we own (fence and work extensively)--we have to go out of our native habitat (overcrowded and overworked as it is) and occupy other land (virgin land). Eventually, we encounter other people--and the outcome of that meeting becomes war (not just the feuds of individual hunters and clans, which transcend agricultural society, but the organized genocide that is civilized war: we don't want mere revenge or justice or whatever; we want your land, and its wealth).
 

Mercantilism and colonialism (or in their latest guise, globalization) allow us to enjoy peace and war, poverty and wealth, simultaneously. I send troops to Peter's land to take it or its wealth for me, and then sell that wealth on a "free" market to Paul, who has no idea that his diamonds come from the death of child-soldiers abroad. Poverty and war are outsourced to the frontier of civilization, so that the rich urban center can enjoy wealth and peace. To quote one of my favorite historians on the essence of peace: Auferre, trucidare, rapere falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.  

In sum: wealth and peace exist because somewhere someone died (often miserably and involuntarily, sometimes voluntarily or otherwise nobly).

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Back to Nature

Why do so many body-builders and strength athletes die relatively young?  In response to this question, whose empirical validity I am not concerned to question right now (but witness this), I offer the following meditation. 

Keith Norris has written eloquently somewhere about the empirical reality that survival and performance become increasingly separate and even opposite goals as you reach the limits of human capacity for exertion. At some point, exerting more now means trading in longevity. I cannot go full-blast all the time, or most of the time, without burning my chronological candle down faster than I would otherwise.  

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that civilization teaches us to avoid "down time" in the name of achieving more. The elite athlete aims not to live long and happy, as an athlete, but to achieve something extraordinary with his (or her) body. There is no such thing as "resting on one's laurels" (as always happens in foraging societies: a big kill or brush with death is followed by a lot of napping and doing nothing, except maybe eating). The result of civilization's lack of contentment with survival is that we approach athleticism (especially the elite kind) as work, as a job. We seek short-term profits (big achievements) at the expense of longevity. When we go, we go full-bore (and burn really bright before going out early). When we stop (retiring with some career-ending injury or accumulation of injuries), we quit entirely. The forager works hard, yes, but he also rests hard. He cannot stop, unless he wants to die, and his life-rhythm is very different from the "all or nothing, win or lose" pace set by elite athletes. 

Civilization seems to represent a kind of ongoing fragmentation in humanity whereby accidental strengths--and their concomitant weaknesses--are allowed an exaggerated expression. If I am predisposed to be very quick and strong, then civilization offers me the leisure to become an extreme phenotype. If I am predisposed to be mentally agile, then civilization offers me the leisure to become an extreme phenotype. The viability of extreme phenotypes is always less in nature than in civilization, and even in the latter we observe that extremity is often associated with early mortality (and other material handicaps: I am thinking in particular of purebred dogs here, as well as humans; one could also think of domestic sheep and cattle, which offer their human masters more milk, flesh, and wool at the expense of being too stupid and fat to survive without supervision). 

'Uncivilisation' as a corrective to the extremities that civilization increasingly pushes requires some 'return to the mean' where physical and mental activity is concerned. If humans want to avoid dying early and prematurely crippled in some facet of their phenotype, they need to return to a life more like that of their ancestors--a life that offers them unstructured time for recuperation from strenuous labor. We need strenuous labor. But we also need rest. And we need both, the labor and the rest, to take place in environments less structured than the boxes constructed by civilization (the job site, the gym, the university). We need to return to nature, to learn again how to work and rest under the sun, moon, and stars. We need to learn the rhythms of nature outside in addition to the rhythms of our own internal humanity.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Real Education

The power of degrees to draw salaries wanes as more people obtain degrees: this is one viable lesson that they still teach in economics, though many PhDs seem to have missed it (or to think that creative mathematics can make it disappear, more or less the same way astrology used to correct character flaws).

What matters more than "education" is the right kind of education (i.e. training in a viable, sustainable method of living). Given our current circumstances, this sort of education is really unpopular: it does not put money or influence or raw power into the hands of established interests (who consequently found few institutions to teach it, endow few scholarships or professorships to facilitate it, and use whatever political and social clout they possess generally to mock and undermine it). The right kind of education requires a student able to imagine living a life unlike that of his parents (or the rich people of his parents' generation, whose mores he is constantly bombarded with as desirable insofar as they make him easier for established interests to manipulate--via debts, social obligations, and desire for "nice things" made in a sweatshop somewhere). It requires radical freedom of thought--not the kind of regimented bean-counting that stops short of articulating any idea remotely threatening to established interests (who understandably position themselves as pillars of social and political and economic stability, even as history reveals that they are built upon sand that is shifting as we speak).

Real education involves living, not just thinking. It cannot come from a classroom, not even when that classroom has been outfitted with all the best technology that a committee of experts can imagine and acquire. Real education teaches us how to adapt and survive along an entire lifetime--and beyond. (One utility of studying history is that it reminds you of a time when people didn't think in terms of single generations, let alone market and election cycles measured in terms of a few months or years.) Real education does not teach us how to get and maintain jobs in a narrow market defined by scarcity and fragility. It teaches us how to maximize independence rather than servility. It costs a lot in terms of effort, and little in terms of cash (the reverse of many degrees offered by modern universities). It incentivizes process over completion, independence over employment, integrity over profit, and virtuous failure over depraved success.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Coming Age of Bust

If capitalism is the pursuit of monopoly, then I must be anti-capitalist. The question is how to do this. How to offer meaningful opposition to something so ubiquitous as the pursuit of zero-sum games in which winners embrace unlimited growth. This is not easy. I suspect it involves re-imagining what constitutes wealth (in ways that people who think like Peter Thiel will find ludicrous, perhaps dangerously ludicrous as they realize that my intent is to become less involved and less susceptible to involvement in business that will make them richer, on their own terms). The current, integrated economy needs to shrink, so that smaller, decentralized economies can become larger (but not too large, never again as large as the system we have now). The immediate outcome of this will be economic depression and conventional poverty ("austerity"), but I think the long-term prognosis is better for people who know how to live well with less than for people who think the solution to all economic woes is more of Keynesian stimulus (administered by public or private powers that be, via "free markets" rigged by monopolists on the Right or "fair markets" rigged by monopolists on the Left).

I do not think that there is such a thing as reforming Wall Street or Washington, if by that we mean making them serve their current populations in such a way that our conventional wealth increases without limits. I think the current system is running pretty close to optimal (as close to perfect as it gets without crashing prematurely), and that it is over-taxed (set to blow, with the real question being one of how to manage fallout rather than how to avoid crashing). Life exists, it seems to me, as a series of boom and bust, with the volatility occurring in less devastating fashion as society depends less on any one market (or regime) to serve its needs. We need more markets, not better versions of the ones we already have. We need more businesses, not better monopolies than the ones we already have. We need more (and smaller) governments, not a bigger or better version of the one we already have. In light of the economic depression that is clear on our horizon, we also need plans for living well with less (less wealth in the conventional sense: less growth, lower wages, fewer luxuries, weaker businesses, less taxes, weaker governments, etc.). The boom is over; now is the time of bust. If we manage the bust correctly, it might be a good time for us. We might come out on the other side alive, with a better appreciation for what it means to be wealthy in really straitened economic circumstances. We might have more control over our own destinies (in material terms) than our richer grandparents (who were able to out-source production to social conglomerates whose existence we can no longer support). Or we might be like those people on the side of the road out of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  That is not what I want.  I do not want to hang about as the hurricane approaches, praying that the crumbling levee holds.  I want to build a boat ahead of the storm, or pack whatever vehicle I have, and move out--with the idea of making new worlds, new societies with mores and expectations that match our new human environment.