Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Honest Economy

I have been reading a lot of Lewis Mumford lately (of which more anon), and as a result I have some more thoughts about solving the problems of civilization (income inequality, class warfare, starvation, imbalanced use of resources -- a whole constellation of ills which can be neatly characterized as "boom and bust," meaning gluttony for some and famine for others).  Here are my thoughts (provisional thoughts, not definite conclusions):

(1) It is impossible to create a system in which there is no boom and bust.  Nature goes by fits and starts.  Animals live (and die) with feast and famine.  Systems fluctuate.  Stuff changes.  Organisms adapt (or die, and dying is nothing to be paralytically afraid of: when it happens, it happens).  Ever since the agricultural revolution, humanity en masse has been attempting to build a collective "too big to fail."  We have constructed tribes, cities, city-states, federations, nations, states, and the modern nation-state -- increasingly bigger collectives offering a bigger "social buffer" between the individual organism and catastrophic failure (death).  In every instance, nature has flouted us: our collectives could absorb some (relatively minor) shocks better by growing larger, but when they fell, they fell harder.  My toddlers are little guys.  They fall all the time, and they get hurt.  Compared with them, I am large.  I fall less.  But when I really do fall, I get hurt much worse than they do (just as an elephant hurts worse than I when it falls).  The fact of nature is that we are all going to fall (just as we are all going to die): the question is not how to avoid this eventuality, but how to optimize it (make falling -- and death -- as pleasant as possible).  It is silly to design systems "too big to fail" when history shows us (repeatedly) that every system fails.  Some systems do fail better than others, but it can be hard to see that fact when you are not looking for it (as many of us are not, because we are too busy looking for the impossible system that never fails).

(2) When it comes to dealing with failure (death) and success (not dying), people are (historically, understandably) irrational.  If the negative driving humanity to civilization is fear of failure (death), the positive is love for life (not dying).  While death (failure) is concrete, definite, and somewhat final, life (success) is not so easy to pin down.  To put it another way, we all know more or less what too much failure looks like, but we don't have a clue what too much success would be.  Another meal means more life.  Does that mean we should never stop eating, given the chance?  Historically, having things stockpiled can tide us over natural periods of famine: does this mean that bigger stockpiles are always better?  A little sex keeps society happy and alive (staving off failure): does that mean we should do it all the time?  These are serious questions that most people never ask -- they are too busy trying not to fail to wonder whether there might be such a thing as too much success (i.e. a point at which the bow of Heraclitus -- see frr. B48 and B51 DK -- converts success into failure).  As a species, humanity has consistently pursued success as something good by definition (as though it were concrete, known, and pure, such that it never turns into failure and could never, of itself, produce anything bad).  And we keep coming up against this brick wall (which we don't see, because fear of death is more powerful than any nagging doubts we might have about our love of life, which after all is the major obstacle keeping many of us from death, as we think).

(3) Irrational approaches to success cause problems.  We stockpile way too much stuff, then fight over our piles (and decimate them, sometimes utterly destroying them).  We value consumption for its own sake, and actively produce items whose "survival value" is nil (e.g. most plastic toys, sneakers with lights in them, luxury cars, most clothing items).  We try to produce all the time, eat all the time, have sex all the time, etc.  We are never satisfied (as a species): no matter how much we may have eaten at nature's table, we always want more (collectively).  This is an understandable reaction, given our aversion to famine (failure, death), but that does not make it good (for us or the world).  Perhaps the worst aspect of the whole process is that we are innately competitive and possessive, meaning that we naturally compete to see who can amass and keep the biggest pile of junk (as though this were the apex of success).  Historically, this means that we give war a very high value.  Today, we already know how to make nuclear bombs, but our collective knowledge of agriculture (particularly sustainable agriculture) remains pitiful (and in many cases has shrunk, meaning that as a civilization we know less about safe, sustainable cultivation than our forefathers).

(4) Solutions to the problems of civilization have to be organic.  While there is nothing inevitable about the way we live today -- it could change tomorrow -- change is not as simple as electing the right politician or voting for the right referendum.  The engines that drive the modern nation-state (as an institution) are engines of waste (overproduction, overconsumption) and war (which is the one thing the nation-state does well all over the world).  Looking at the historical events that gave us the nation-state, it appears to me that we are unlikely to force it to change by means of sweeping legislative reform (vel sim).  Laws recognize sea changes in human morality: they do not cause them.  (Lawmakers are emphatically not the teachers of mankind, but poets, novelists, musicians, and other creators of culture -- including scientists -- can be.)  Some people will disagree with me on this point, and will want to pursue legislative reform.  That is fine.  I do not oppose them.  But I do not believe in their work, either.  Or at the very least, I don't see that I have anything useful to contribute to it.  What we need is a not another constitution, another parliament, another nation-state -- but a new way of life.  We need a way of life that lets us cultivate success without courting disastrous failure.  We need a way of life that emphasizes not "being to big to fail" (overproduction, overconsumption, war) but "being just big enough to survive inevitable failures" (intelligent production, consumption, and competition).  We need new definitions of success, and we need to make those definitions so present in the public consciousness that people naturally get behind them (at which point, if we ever reach it, legislators will take note and change their books).

For me, the fourth point above is the most exciting.  I think we already have many better definitions of success available throughout the world than appear reflected in the policies of most nation-states.  I think many people are already "on the right side" and are working for what will be a better world (if the rest of us don't cut them short by blowing them up, and if nature decides to renew our lease on life).  I think there are many good communities rising up that value intelligent approaches to success, failure, and resource management.  I don't want to stifle those communities.  I don't want to put any kind of damper on their approaches to the problem(s) I have outlined.  I think a crucial part of outgrowing the irrational part of our human reaction to failure (death) will be learning to let go of the idea that there must be a single, unitary line in the sand to which all people everywhere must hew to make a better world.  The ideal world contains many people, many ideas, many different kinds of communities, and many different solutions to the problems posed by life.  It does not demand universal adherence to an imbalanced "good" that all must worship.  It knows all kinds of goods, and it sees the reality that any good will go bad under certain circumstances.  It frees people to recognize and adapt to their own unique situation in the dance of life that holds us all together.  So, follow the beat of your own drummer -- just be sure to listen to him very, very carefully.

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