Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why I hate progressives (part 1)

An article that appeared recently at Common Dreams about the rise of something called “the sharing economy” provides some minor insight into the deep delusions progressives suffer from.

Examples of the sharing economy include Minneapolis’ Car2go car sharing service, where for a membership fee you are given access to “smart cars” that you can drive and then leave at your destination for the next Car2go member who finds herself in the general vicinity and in need of transportation.

As the rich get richer and rarer and the masses gain in mass and poverty, I suspect that this sort of thing will become more popular as a way for corporations to continue to sell their products to people who are no longer able to afford them individually.

This sort of thing has superficial appeal to those of an anarchist persuasion as well. It smacks of the collectivist ideal and provides an illusory sense of cooperative community involvement that is compelling.

But the author takes a trip to the emerald city by invoking the idea of “the commons,” calling the cellphone signal airspace and city streets that are being used by the Car2go members part of the commons, and then claiming that by combining a sharing economy with the commons we are on the verge of “a whole new economic and political paradigm.”

By expanding the notion of the commons and reducing the reliance on private ownership, we are heading toward an economic techno-utopia, a “techonomy” that, “With a few tweaks, an Uber-like system, for instance, could help low-income people get to work” (which is of course where all zeks belong—forced labor being the reason they were created in the first place). Eventually the masses won’t need to own anything themselves, so they will be able to live on far less than the exorbitant wages their corporate masters have to pay them now.

The article ends with: “For when we operate as though we are all in this together—because we are—we will discover a tremendous abundance of goodwill, imagination, and the drive to create the kind of future we want to live in.”

Welcome to Oz.

I’m going to set aside the “who’s we?” for now. I’m also going to forgo discussion about how one would go about ensuring mass cooperation in a “techonomy” without resorting to massive coercive force. Instead I want to focus briefly on the chimeric incoherence of combining industrial mass technology with the idea of the commons. The idea of a technological commons makes no sense outside of utopian (or dystopian) science fiction fantasy.

Lets’ take the example she uses of cellphone airspace. The commons is supposed to represent a resource shared by all, something that everyone has access to or can participate in as they pursue their own goals and needs (the original commons was a pasture that anyone in the village could use for grazing livestock—food, unlike portable Facebook access, being a real need). The sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum allocated to cellphones hardly qualifies as something shared by all. For one thing, you and I would never be allowed to set up our own personal two-way intercity radio system and talk to each other over frequencies in the cellphone range. In addition, cellphone communication requires—duh!—a cellphone, and, typically, monthly payments to a cellular service provider. The industrial infrastructure supporting cellular communication is commercially owned and under the control of immense corporate bureaucracies and buoyed by intricate international trade agreements underwritten by an unimaginably massive and incomprehensibly deadly military. It does not qualify as a commons if there are restrictive entry conditions, if you and I are free to use it as long as the corporate gate-keepers get their ransom.

Maybe the internet would make for a more potent example. The internet has long been referred to as a kind of commons. But the same corporate entry conditions apply here as will. I need a device to access the net. Yes, I could go to the local library and get access on devices there—but someone (you and I) had to purchase those computers through offerings of corporate tribute called tax dollars.

The gatekeepers must have their blood sacrifice one way or another.

In order for cellphone airspace or the internet to be true commons, we would first have to eliminate corporate industry. We would have to eliminate the need for factory wage-slaves. We would have to dissolve the entire commercial consumer fabric of industrial society.

We can have a technological commons, perhaps, but not while the leviathan still breathes.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A response to Ernest Becker

Ernest Becker was a mid-20th century cultural anthropologist and prolific writer. It is a potent irony that The Denial of Death was the last book he published before dying of cancer in 1974 at the too-young age of 49.

From a 21st century standpoint, Becker’s perspective on human psychology seems hopelessly backward and out of date, part of the long death rattle of Freudian psychoanalytic mysticism whose echoes still reverberate in the clich├ęd advice offered by “experts” on daytime television talk shows. But Becker was no champion of Freud, and the “denial” he speaks of is something more than a simple defense mechanism.

His main thesis starts with the existential condition of human beings. In trying to make sense of our lives, we confront a fundamental dualism. On the one hand, we are vulnerable animals perpetually at risk from the larger and uncontrollable universe—creatures with bodies susceptible to accidents and disease, bodies that are destined to decay and disappear forever. On the other hand, we are meaning-making beings with an unlimited capacity to create symbolic worlds. We are at once restricted by our bodies and the physical reality of our inevitable death, and at the same time we inhabit an abstract world of cultural meanings in which we can imagine ourselves as part of something transcendent and immortal.

For us to see reality for what it is, including our own complete dependency on external things and our own complete and thoroughgoing powerlessness and ultimate meaninglessness, would be too terrifying. Fortunately, culture provides us with all kinds of ways to disguise the truth. According to Becker, culture is nothing other than a reservoir of meanings for hiding ourselves from the truth—culture is a gigantic ego defense mechanism.

Our lifestyles are “vital lies” that include “a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation.” The vital lies we tell involve a heroic component: we see ourselves as heroes of one sort or another. Society has a hero structure throughout, with ready-made storylines so that people can fit themselves snuggly into the tale of immortality. “In other words, men use the fabrications of culture, in whatever form, as charms with which to transcend natural reality.”

The need to be a hero, to stand out as an individual, is a means to deny the truth of our status as contingent beings, the truth that nothing that we do is really in our control. We need the illusion of being self-caused beings. “As one’s whole life is a style or scenario with which one tries to deny oblivion and to extend oneself beyond death in symbolic ways, one is often untouched by the fact of death because he has been able to surround it by larger meanings.” As a consequence, we live lives of cultivated and ultimately destructive ignorance. “Even if the average man lives in a kind of obliviousness of anxiety, it is because he has erected a massive wall of repressions to hide the problem of life and death…but all through history it is the ‘normal average men’ who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.”

But Becker is talking about life within the oppressive grip of civilization. The need for immortality—or the desire to extend life beyond its earthly allotment—seems a natural result of the emptiness of civilized existence and the sense we get that something is missing, the feeling we have that life should be something more than what it is. A hunter-gatherer is surely as aware of the transient nature of her own life as I am—and perhaps even more so, with the regular exposure to death in close proximity and unsheltered by slaughterhouse or mortuary. But the transience itself is absorbed as part of a complete and fulfilling existence. Immortality is built-in from the start, in a sense: as a part of the land, as a part of the ongoing life-and-death coming-and-going that is all around at all times. There is never a chance for the experience of separation—alienation—to find foothold. Mere transient authentic human existence is immortality. The possibility for anything else is incomprehensible.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Anarchism that is not also primitivism is incoherent

In a pamphlet published in 2003 entitled Anarchism vs. Primitivism, the author, Brian Oliver Sheppard, provides a scathing attack of primitivism and the primitivist strain in anarchism.

Sheppard tosses all of the usual anti-primitivism bombs, barely taking a breath between volleys. For example, primitivists are moronic Luddites who want to take us back to a make-believe golden age when humans lived idyllic lives as noble savages with no technology, no agriculture—and no language (!), and the ad hominem classic: primitivists are hypocrites because even as they promote their anti-civilization message, they are gleefully partaking in all of the accoutrements of civilization: electronic communication, vehicular travel, etc.

As near as I can see, his piece is of real value in a couple ways. First, it contains numerous examples of straw-man reasoning, and might be quite useful in an introductory logic class. Second, if we spend the time to take the straw out of his flaming primitivist effigies, the irrationality—and actual incoherence—of non-primitive variations of anarchism becomes sparklingly clear. He makes this simple for us by providing an appendix that includes a convenient list of “primitivist conflations” designed to help the reader with “decoding primitivist babble.” Let’s take a quick primitivist look at the first five.

1. Conflation of civilization and coercive social relations
Here we are told that primitivists consider civilization to be the source of all oppression. Patriarchy, division of labor, warfare, etc., all emerge from civilization. Sheppard dismisses this in a single sentence by pointing out that all of these evils existed before civilization, and so therefore, presumably, the primitivists are all wet.

That’s a bit like saying that radiation exists naturally in the earth, so spent nuclear fuel rods are nothing new. Really? The firebombing of Tokyo was just a tribal skirmish with bigger spears?

But what about those coercive social relations? How do the non-primitivist versions of anarchism deal with them? Social power is the capacity to make other people do what they would not do freely otherwise: aka coercion. By removing the state and placing power in the hands of some abstract collective, coercion somehow vanishes? Civilization cannot function without massive coercive capacity, whether that capacity falls to a state or to a worker’s collective. Someone has to be made to do the actual work, after all. Coal doesn’t mine itself.

2. Conflation of technology and coercive social relations
The true conflation here is to lump all technological processes and objects together into a single basket. Humans in their natural state are technology-dependent creatures. But without an organized division of labor—and some kind of coercive authority to enforce the divisions—you can’t get technologies any more complex than simple crafts.

Here Sheppard tosses a softball for us: “The onus is on primitivists to demonstrate that technology is invariably predicated on coercive or environmentally hostile relations.” Even a cursory glance at the history of technology (beyond simple craft) satisfies the onus with genocide-levels of oppression and several degrees of global warming to spare. To say that actual history does not provide evidence that technology is predicated on “coercive or environmentally hostile relations” is to beg the question.

3. Conflation of “industrialism” and capitalism
I’ve got to confess that this one makes the least amount of sense to me. Apparently, industry—factories and the labor and natural resources necessary to run them—works differently when it’s “owned” by the people who run the machines than it does when it is “owned” by the capitalist (or the corporation, or the state, or an alien super-being from a galaxy far, far away): the mercury coming out of the smokestack becomes less toxic, and black lung disease is less deadly.

4. Conflation of poverty with freedom
The idea of poverty only makes sense within the framework of oppression and inequality. More than just a lack of access to resources, poverty is specifically a lack of resources that other people have access to. Freedom does not necessarily mean that you have unlimited access to resources, but poverty cannot exist without imposing systematic limitations on the degree of access a person is allowed to have (aka, limitations on freedom).

5. Conflation of group decision making and statecraft
State bureaucracies are groups specifically designed for decision making (and the enforcement of compliance with the result!). There is a vertical hierarchical structuring within state bureaucracies that is not supposed to exist within (horizontal? networked? rhizomic?) anarchist collectives. But that in and of itself doesn’t mean that the decision making process would yield better—or even substantially different—results in any given situation. Nor does it change anything with respect to the need for compliance enforcement. It’s here where the incoherence emerges most clearly. From the perspective of the dissenting individual forced to comply, it makes little difference whether the decision came from a worker’s collective or state bureaucracy.


It’s all right if you call yourself an anarchist and still want to keep your toys, I suppose. But if you are going to accuse me of incoherent babbling, you really need to be a bit more articulate yourself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Even NASA thinks civilization is doomed

Speaking of irony, NASA recently funded a study showing that global industrial civilization is on a path to irreversible collapse.

It turns out that there are two critical co-occurring precursors to the collapse of past civilizations, both of which are in full swing right now:
1. resources being stretched beyond carrying capacity
2. increasing inequality in resource distribution, with a powerful elite controlling an increasingly large chunk of the pie

And, no, technology won’t be able to fix things:

“The study challenges those who argue that technology will resolve these challenges by increasing efficiency:

Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.

Productivity increases in agriculture and industry over the last two centuries has come from ‘increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,’ despite dramatic efficiency gains over the same period.”

The study has been heralded “a wakeup call,” which suggests that it’s not a done deal, that there might still be (or ever have been) some magic policy changes or some social-political restructuring that could reverse the inevitable.

Wakeup call? I think we’re dealing with more of a “you slept through your alarm and now you missed dinner and the party is over” situation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fighting dragons

Don Quixote’s delusion that windmill’s were dragons was not so much a delusion as a prescient vision of the future. Windmills were, after all, state of the art technology of the time.

To resist modern technology is something a bit more futile than tilting at windmills. Technology has acquired a collective inertia that makes it inevitable and quite literally irresistible. To even suggest resistance is clear evidence of insanity. To suggest that there might be another way to live our lives—or, even stronger, to question the very notion that we should live our lives according to some kind of “way” in the first place—is to speak in a language for which there is no translation.

Only a madman would think such thoughts. And only a complete monster would contemplate acting on them.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hipster hypocrites

A few decades ago it was popular to sport a “save the whales” bumper sticker to let everyone know you were the kind of person who “really cares about things” as you made your daily commute—with its obligatory offering to oil corporations whose leaky tankers were busy rendering whale habitat around the world uninhabitable.

Bumper stickers have been replaced with more subtle and more intimate methods of sending similar “I’m cool because I care” signals. For instance, I had a discussion with a self-proclaimed “hipster” not too long ago who bragged smugly that she refuses to support sweatshops, and buys almost all her clothes at secondhand stores. It may say “Guess” on the front, but she gave her money to Goodwill.

Ah, the irony of hypocrisy. Or is that the hypocrisy of irony?

Let’s think about this for a moment. First, the “Guess” or “GAP” or Nike swoosh plastered across your chest is corporate advertising, so you are a de facto sweatshop sponsor regardless of where you bought the clothes—and the kicker is that you actually paid money to serve as a walking billboard. But even more to the point, if the clothes were originally made in a sweatshop, you are still partaking in the spoils of violence and oppression even if you bought them second hand.

How so, you ask? The clothes already exist. The damage has already been done. Wouldn’t it be wrong for them not to be used to their fullest—especially considering the violence of their origins? (Hmm, a similar kind of argument is often made for repurposing plastic)

So then, suppose that you found a lamp at a flea market that was made out of the skin of a Nazi death camp victim. It is a perfectly good lamp, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste. And besides, you didn’t kill and skin the person yourself. Nor did you purchase it from the person who did. And it really is a good lamp. Would you feel comfortable buying it, taking it home, and displaying it in your living room?

Note: that was a rhetorical question. If you answered “yes” or even if you considered “yes” as a potential option, I have nothing more to say to you.

If you are not a monster and answered no, then please tell me how the secondhand clothing example is any different. If you think that a death camp and a sweatshop are qualitatively distinct things, then perhaps a trip to Bangladesh is in order. Or maybe you could take a tour of a Nike factory in Thailand, or visit the GAP’s New Delhi clothing plant powered by child labor, or Levi Straus’ operations in Mexico or Turkey.

If you agree with me that the difference is merely a matter of degree, then you need to tell me where you would draw the line and say “this much” violence is too much but “this much” I can live with.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ignition

A condition with my water heater: the pilot light won’t stay lit. Probable cause: a defective thermocouple.

The thermocouple is a device that responds to the heat of the pilot light by generating a small electrical current. The current trips a magnetic switch that maintains the gas flow to the pilot light. No heat, no current, no gas flow, no pilot light, no flame, no hot water.

Lighting the pilot light requires manual ignition (by rapidly depressing an ignition plunger like flicking the wheel of a cheap butane lighter) and depressing and holding a pilot switch until the temperature of the pilot flame is sufficient to activate the thermocouple mechanism.

My dysfunctional water heater provides an admittedly pedestrian metaphor for conceptualizing the present malaise among my comrades, the oppressed (although comparatively privileged) corporate slaves in the US who content themselves with bickering about politics—as if there were any differences among Obama, Bush, and Mussolini other than their graveside rhetoric.

Of course, the pilot light itself is too weak to alter the temperature of the water in the tank. Rather, it burns a solitary blue teardrop of flame as a source of ignition for a much larger and far hotter blaze. I know there is still a potential for fire within us—a fire as hot as it was with our ancestors when their lives (and land) were first stolen from them. The structure is intact and the potential for conflagration lurks ever close to the surface.

But there is no ignition. The pilot light is out and will not hold a flame.

So the metaphoric question: What is it that corresponds to the thermocouple? What is it that could provide the small but vital current necessary for an enduring flame? And once we have identified this, what must we do to bring it back on-line?

It may be important to note that the thermocouple requires a preexisting flame. So the pilot flame is maintained only when it already burns (a bit of a catch-22). And once extinguished, the pilot requires manual ignition. Will we have to force the flame upon ourselves and actively feed it—hold the pilot switch down—until it acquires sufficient heat to burn on its own?

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe the first step is to find the metaphoric matchstick.

Friday, March 7, 2014

What are you doing and why?

Suppose that someone came to you one day out of the blue, handed you a shovel, and told you to start digging. And when you asked what you were digging, he told you that you were digging a ditch. And when you asked him why you needed to dig the ditch, he pointed a gun at your head and said that if you don’t dig, he will shoot you. And when you asked what right he had to command you to dig, he said that the fact that he held the gun gave him that right and that you could choose either to start digging immediately or take a bullet.

Suppose that you decided to start digging.

Suppose that someone else wandered along, saw you digging, and asked you what you were doing and why. What would you say? The situation is pretty clear cut. You are being forced to dig a ditch against your will by a man threatening your life with a gun.

Now consider the same scenario, but replace “man” with “government bureaucracy.” And replace “shovel” and “ditch” with “job” and “amassing corporate wealth,” respectively. And replace “gun” with an impossibly vast system of economic, legal, and physical coercion involving private property and debt and prisons and millions of trained professionals with weapons of every imaginable configuration.

Now suppose that someone wandered along and asked you what you were doing and why.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A life of unfreedom

You are not free. You have been force-fed lies since you were born. Your first meal, your mother’s milk, was laced with lies, infused with hormones and chemical flavors and colors added to her own meal—lies of wholesomeness designed to mask the nutritional vacuity of the factory.

You are not free. Your very first steps were on the floor of a prison. You learned to walk in a house with windows that latched and doors that locked and baby-gates stretched across thresholds between rooms to protect you from acting on your inborn impulse to freedom. Your early playground was a yard encased in a cyclone fence, a stockade.

You are not free. Your days have always been parceled into tightly monitored segments of time. As a youth you were shuttled to school where you learned to conform and adopt a reflexive posture of obeisance to authority. Later you were taught to think that you were truly free only when every fiber of your being had been bound and directed toward goals that were not your own. Still later you were taught to believe that those goals were in fact your own. Eventually you forgot how to discover what your own goals should be, and you now depend on corporate marketing to tell you.

You are not free. You are trapped by the rules of the game. The game is one of labor and debt and merchandise and consumption, but no one seems to realize it is a game. You don’t realize it is a game. You don’t think you have options. You don’t have options. There are no options. There is only labor and debt and merchandise and consumption.

You are not free. And now you come to your own death. But you are not allowed freedom even here. While you yet breathe, there is money to be made by prolonging your suffering. There are drug companies and medical device manufacturers and hospitals—and all of the people who earn additional points in the game when you die slowly with tubes in your arms and machines in your chest.

You are not free. And then you are not.