Saturday, April 19, 2008

What has been lost? - III

"In the wake of 1989, with boundless confidence and insufficient reflection, we put the twentieth century behind us and strode boldly into its successor swaddled in self-serving half-truths: the triumph of the West, the end of History, the unipolar American moment, the ineluctable march of globalization and the free market." Tony Judt - New York Review of Books

"These days you hear a lot about the world financial crisis. But there’s another world crisis under way — and it’s hurting a lot more people. I’m talking about the food crisis. Over the past few years the prices of wheat, corn, rice and other basic foodstuffs have doubled or tripled, with much of the increase taking place just in the last few months. High food prices dismay even relatively well-off Americans — but they’re truly devastating in poor countries, where food often accounts for more than half a family’s spending." Paul Krugman - New York Times

"Almost all the food we eat - 95% - is oil-dependent, so as oil prices rise, the cost of food does too. Oil is central to fertilisers, mechanised production, transportation and packaging. However, between 1950 - when mechanisation and fertilisers transformed farming into agribusiness - and 1984, world grain production increased by 250%. The consequent cheapness of food kept inflation down and allowed for the postwar consumer boom. For years experts have been asking what will we eat when the crises of climate change and oil depletion converge, with the possible end of our globalised food supply." Rosie Boycott - Guardian

"The social theories of Karl Marx were long ago discarded as of little value, even to revolutionaries. But he did warn that capitalism had a tendency to generate its own crises. Indeed, the spread of capitalism, and its accelerated industrialization and wealth-creation, may have fomented the food-inflation crisis — by dramatically accelerating competition for scarce resources." Tony Karon - Time

"The hedge funds are now active in commodities and are playing the futures contracts, where upwards of 30 million tons of soybeans for future delivery are contracted for every day. They are also buying the companies that stock grains.(...) Futures purchases of agricultural commodities classically have been the means by which a limited number of traders stabilized future commodity prices and enabled farmers to finance themselves through future sales. Speculative purchases have no other purpose than to make money for the speculators, who hold their contracts to drive up current prices with the intention not of selling the commodities on the real future market, but of unloading their holdings onto an artificially inflated market, at the expense of the ultimate consumer. Even the general public can now play the speculative game; most banks offer investment funds specializing in metals, oil, and more recently, food products. It is astonishing in the present situation that the international financial institutions and government regulators have done little to control or banish this parasitical and anti-social practice. The myth of the benevolent and ultimately impartial market prevails against all contrary evidence." William Pfaff

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What the United States is facing at this moment, although few seem to realize it, is an ideological collapse. This happens when a mind set is no longer appropriate for confronting reality. An example would be an American Indian confronted with a steam train for the first time... "iron horse".

I think it strange that so few people recognize the symptoms of this collapse, when we so recently witnessed a similar galloping, ideological, wasting disease in another seemingly healthy patient: the USSR.

Listen to this imaginary dialog from the last years of the Soviet Union.
Scene: the Kremlin.

(Enter a flunky in the minister's office)

Flunky: Comrade Minister, a messenger has just arrived from Siberia.

Minister: A messenger, why didn't they just phone?

F: The phones aren't working Comrade Minister.

M: (sighs) Oh well, what's the message?

F: There is no toilet paper left in Siberia, Comrade Minister. They want to know what to tell the masses.

M: That is easy Comrade, since the telephones aren't working, tell them to use the pages of the telephone book.

F: But, Comrade Minister, the only telephone books are in Party headquarters.

M: (galvanized) Give the order immediately for the party to distribute phone books to the masses!

F: (fawning) Brilliant, Comrade Minister!

M: (drawing himself up) We are building Socialism comrade.
Now tweak that dialog around a little bit, change a few names and such and you might be hearing similar dialogs today in the World Bank or the IMF... not to mention the hapless White House.

As William Pfaff says in the snippet at the head of this post, "The myth of the benevolent and ultimately impartial market prevails against all contrary evidence." We are as trapped in our own ideology as the "Comrade Minister" in the sketch above.

What we are facing is a world that, contrary to our ideological mindset, needs to be heavily regulated and controlled if we are not to sink quickly into universal, dystopic barbarity of the sort that science fiction writers thrive on.

To avoid endless warfare, famine disease and genocide, everything we think and do must be reexamined, especially our idea of individual choice as expressed in consumption. This reduction of personal choice and freedom of action among peoples in developed countries, seems inevitable, either before or after a universal hecatomb... Whether we like it or not.

Where does democracy fit in?

More or less the democratic choice would be to either democratically choose to forgo our lifestyle or to have the choice imposed on us by whatever tyrant emerged triumphant from a world drowned in blood and ashes.

There is a slogan that you sometimes hear in May Day celebrations in Spanish speaking countries:

¡Socialismo o Barbaridad!

I don't think that needs translation. The problem is that "Socialism" is an unacceptable word today and previous clumsy versions were suffocated by this cornucopiac view of life that we now find is asphyxiating us in turn.

In the previous post I gave an example of how it was possible for Ekhardt Tolle to extract and retell the core of Vendantic Hinduism, at its most sophisticated, in plain, jargon-less English, so that the strange and exotic terminology wouldn't repel seekers who needed that essence.

At the bottom of whatever impulse that led thinking men and women to embrace Socialism in the first place is also a core of truth that has to be rethought and respoken.

And the wider that inquiry is and the more people participate in it the more democratic the process will be and the more humane will be the final society that emerges, however the change will come whether we participate in its gestation or not.

Sadly, nothing I have seen or heard in the American presidential campaign gives me the slightest reason to hope that anyone, with any chance of a leadership role in the United States, is any more ready for the challenges looming ahead than our "Comrade Minister" of the Soviet twilight was. DS

3 comments:

stunted said...

This post is a homerun. I live in south Florida and work on the houses of the .1% in Palm Beach. Many of my colleagues are from South America, here pursuing their American dream of a better life. Just a few days ago I was haranguing a friend from Ecuador with thoughts along the lines of socialismo o barbaridad, which were met with stunned silence because, I imagine, socialism is the last thing Latinos were seeking in leaving their homes for a life in America. This friend views Rafael Correa and his socialist tendencies very suspiciously, and is convinced that someone (Chavez, although the name was never mentioned) is behind all the current tension with Colombia. This is just a clumsy way of saying that you are so right in observing that the core of truth in the idea of socialism needs to be rethought (repackaged?). It is widely seen as something unsavory, to say the least. In 1989, I was living in Paris and the fall of the Wall was met there, as well, with crowing about this vindicating capitalism. The current crop of philosophers in France (Henri-Levy, Finkelkraut) are neocons who have shed their early left-wing passions like a bad habit. This will not be easy.
I would also like to thank you for the link to Billmon's archives, and bring to your attention,if necessary, one Immanuel Wallerstein and his bi-mensual commentary from the Fernand Braudel Center at the State University of New York, Binghamton. They can be found at fbc.binghamton.edu/cmpg.htm, where you can sign-up to receive them by email.
Thanks for the terrific post. This is right up there with your post on James Brown for sheer energizing synthesis.

stunted said...

And, by the way, that is a fantastic photo.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Thanks for the tip, I already receive Wallerstein of a weekly basis. He is very good.