The Radical Turn

On the Necessity of the Inconceivable to Engage the New Great Transformation

Most of us who have lived through the decades since World War II understand the advancements of the industrial age to be the essence of human progress. First, we lived in an energy-driven mechanical world involving a series of innovations and new “labor-saving” processes and products. We experienced all sorts of new jobs and professions as the industrial project continued. It called for new forms of work needed to produce new kinds of goods and services. Progress seemed the inevitable product of scientific discovery, technical innovation, invention, and production.

Progress and Conflict

At the same time, we felt an evolving series of threats, from the broadly defined “Cold War,” first expressed in the very hot war in Korea – referred to at the time as a United Nations sanctioned “police action” because war was never officially declared. Then there telegraph.co.uk_March-1965-helicop_1626547iwas the war in Vietnam, also never quite declared but an all-consuming national crisis of purpose and conscience. With the collapse of the Soviet Union came a brief euphoria associated with the belief that with just one “superpower” – a benevolent United States of America – would come peace. That turned out to be an illusion, based on the assumption that with the U.S. policing a world devoid of any other super power, a “peace dividend” would allow a shift to domestic priorities such as full employment, general economic growth, and pursuing the “good life.”

Well, that didn’t quite work out as imagined. Military spending continued to grow as concerns about managing “limited conflicts” and retaining global military dominance persisted. A variety of apparent “one-off” incursions, invasions, and interventions, in various parts of Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, kept the U.S. military quite busy. So called “defense spending” did not slacken. Through the latter half of the twentieth century, we had over seven hundred fifty known bases in other nations, according to Chalmers Johnson, a renowned historian and former U.S. intelligence consultant. Johnson raised his concerns about the over-extension in his book, Blow Back.

The growing U.S. global interventionism certainly had its blow back in terms of rising resentments over both military and corporate incursions into many nations, focused mainly on gaining control over the resources needed to continue the economic growth that was the keystone in the U.S. economy. Particularly resented were the U.S. efforts to dominate and control the flow of oil in the world economy, and the continued propping up of kleptocratic regimes. The U.S., as the leading economic actor, required ever-growing quantities of oil. The vast oil fields in the U.S. had begun to decline and talk of “peak oil” grew.

Industrial Capital Transformed the World

There is, of course, much more to the story. That has to do with the continuing cultural illusions of global authority sustained by military-industrial elites, which resulted in both clandestine and overt efforts to control other nations. “Manifest Destiny” lived on by other names, even as the U.S. suffered the attacks of 9-11 and expanded its response to a global “war on terror,” with no boundaries and little success. Yet, one force drove the global struggles for power, the necessity for economic growth to perpetuate the accumulation of wealth.

Underlying it all, a great contradiction and looming crisis developed, at first hardly noticed, then widely denied, and continually misunderstood as the endless-growth economy and wars of choice persisted in the face of growing evidence of their absurdities and failure.

Polanyis Great Transformation_chart

Image credit: SlideShare

In 1944, Karl Polanyi published The Great Transformation. The book received little notice despite its profound implications for the trajectory of the industrial era. Polanyi’s deep research on the industrial revolution and its aftermath led him to conclude that a fundamental unresolved conflict had resulted from the requirements of industrial capital as it overpowered all other elements of society. He noted that various political administrations attempted to protect society from the damaging transformation of human life caused by the expansions of industrial capital. Such efforts included the English “poor laws,” and later the New Deal that responded to the crash and Great Depression of the 1930s in the U.S.

Polanyi did not find an ultimate solution to the “creative destruction” of industrial capital. Neither did the economists and politicians who ignored his warnings. Instead, the consequences have gradually emerged as the global crises of economics, ecology, and climate we all must now face.

The New Great Transformation

The clash between the now global system of economic growth and the damage it does to populations around the world as it enriches the few, is coming to a head. But the damage now reaches far beyond the direct suffering of excluded humans. Both the endless extractive plunder of the resources and living Earth systems we call ecologies, and the ever-growing systems of manufacture, transportation, consumption, and waste, have seriously destabilized ecological systems and climate systems around the world.

Neither the ecosystems upon which humans depend, nor the climate that allows global food production, can retain stability under the assault of the global industrial system. We have already reached an extreme turning point. Humanity and the living Earth systems upon which we depended for so long, have entered a New Great Transformation. We caused it and we have done little to control it. But we must.

The Radical Turn

Only by taking a Radical Turn in the ways humans live on the planet can we begin to control the extreme threats to our very existence we have caused. Yet we continue to see things like resource depletion and climate disruption within the framework of the failing utopian dreams of endless progress through technological innovation and economic growth. Instead, we need to apply what we know from the best science with the necessity of transforming human economies into ecological communities. That means massive reductions in energy consumption and waste.

We must both stop the earth plunder and achieve negative carbon emissions rapidly and restore the many ecological systems that we have damaged so severely. Those systems continue collapsing as nations debate who should take how much responsibility for achieving inadequate global warming targets. Yet, public discussions almost never involve how nations and communities can achieve the necessary radical reductions in ecological and climate destruction. Hardly ever are methods of ecosystem restoration discussed. The denial of the necessity of a Radical Turn in the organization of humanity on Earth continues.

What It Will Take: Living in a World We Made But Never Expected to See, Part I

For most of us the world we see around us is “normal.”  We see little difference between the natural, social, and economic worlds – they are mostly one experience.  We are born into cities, suburbs, small towns, and (rarely anymore) farms.  We see history through the limited scope of textbooks once read as required and through the pop-history of the mass media.  Large historical changes are not easily seen in our everyday lives.  We view the past as quaint times when people didn’t know much or have much.  Yet, increasing numbers of things don’t seem to be quite so normal anymore.

Today we are inundated with technological change and the material “progress” that is made possible by the ever-expanding application of debt and capital to technical innovation and industrial production.  The smart-phone, the iPad, and mobile connectivity, along with all the previous technical innovations that have changed the world of employment as well as social life, are all quickly absorbed into our view of the natural order of things, which is, however, heavily dependent on the pervasive culture of corporate consumerism and an endless supply of materials for their production.  “Server farms” and “the cloud” are vague images of the information age no clearer in our minds than the National Security Agency’s “data mining” of everyone’s phone calls, email messages, and credit card records.  The dominant culture of debt-driven economic growth and the rise of the “security-surveillance state” have become culturally detached from, yet remain completely physically dependent on Nature.

We have lived most of our lives surrounded by rapid change (at least as compared with previous eras in human history).  We are accustomed to the changing conditions that have resulted from the economic-growth imperative that has driven our world since the dawn of the industrial revolution – though we are largely aware of only the present and very recent past as represented by our personal experience and the mass-media shaped “reality” constantly presented to us at various stages of our lives.

We are not paid to engage in critical thinking or to reflect on the course of human history beyond the roles we play – or roles we have lost to “outsourcing” – in the growth economy.  Yet we know that something is terribly wrong.  The contradictions between what we are told and what we experience keep growing.  We know that the “financial crisis” continues as a giant pyramid scheme; we know that natural resources are being used up rapidly; we know that the progress we expected in the form of “The American Dream,” is just not happening for “the 99%.”  We know that while profits grow exponentially, stagnant wages and longer work hours buy less and less of the endless array of the products of economic growth.  Most now realize that it’s time to set aside the propaganda of the industry-funded “climate denial” propaganda and face the known scientific facts of how the biosphere works and is being disrupted by the emissions from fossil-fuel combustion.  And, we have now begun to experience directly the climate disruptions that scientists have been forecasting for a couple of decades and we recognize that something has to be done.

But what is most difficult to imagine is what it will take to avoid the catastrophic results of even a 2º Celsius increase in average temperature on the planet.  Look around.  Where do you see infrastructure that is not dependent on fossil-fuel based technology?  Survival requires that most of that infrastructure be eliminated or somehow converted.  But what will replace it?  The ‘political’ answer is to do more research on “alternate fuels,” which simply dodges the question.  But many alternative technologies for producing and conserving energy already exist and new ones are emerging.  These need to be implemented now.  To describe them all and how they might be implemented rapidly would take a book-length discussion.  But the coming “great transformation” will require that we reorganize the ways we use energy from the local to the national level.  That means reorganizing the way we live.

Even climate advocates rarely talk of the massive societal reorganization needed to achieve their goal of returning to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere needed to re-stabilize the climate.  Speculations are desperately needed on the actual changes in people’s lives and on how to transform social relations and institutions required to meet the challenge of climate disruption so that the biosphere can be stabilized and we can survive on the planet.  It is hard to forecast the future; many have tried and failed.  But it is even more difficult to imagine what everyday life will be like when climate disruptions force humans to drastically reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  A viable response must be comprehensive ecologically, which means we will have to change the way we want to continue living and others (in the third world) want to live.

The societal implications of radical reductions in fossil-fuel consumption and conversion to carbon-neutral and carbon-negative ways of living will take very different kinds of innovations than we are used to – including major cultural change for a new ecological economy.  Those innovations must come in the form of both appropriate technology and appropriate social organization.  Part II of this essay will consider what seem to be some of the key logical necessities and possible strategies for the coming greatest transformation of all time.

Money: Banking on the Economy of the Absurd

Money and banking seem far too mysterious to far too many people.  Read all about it and you may feel that much of your time was wasted, simply because at root it seems not all that complicated.  Oh, the world of money and banking has been made quite complicated, but that’s because of who is running things and why they make decisions over all of our financial lives the way that they do.  With the endless elaboration of the complex institutions from which emanate the decisions that matter for the rest of us, the so-called “financial industry” has emerged as a much larger share of the economy than ever before.  But what does that mean?  Are we all wealthier?  Hardly.  As the “main street” economy has faltered while big corporations and banks grow ever larger profits, why has the financial industry—which claims to be so vital  to the nation’s economy—grown so large?

Along with the ideologically excused deregulation of banking and finance—driven, actually, by the growing influence of the big banks and their corporate companions over the laws that govern economic activity—have come a steady onslaught of banking practices that have made a very few people and corporations very, very rich and resulted in the rest of us falling further and further behind.  By expanding their control over the creation and lending of money, these institutions have expanded far beyond their usefulness to the nation. To big to fail?  Yes, if propped up by government bailouts.  But more important, too big to tolerate!

Have you ever wondered why over many generations people pay mortgages on their homes, yet very few of the succeeding generations ever live in a home without it being mortgaged?  Where is the accumulation of wealth?  Well, while complex interactions of a number of factors are at play, and individual cases vary, the “bottom line” is that we live in a debt-based economy, and it is debt based on purpose.  No, it wasn’t your idea and it wasn’t my idea.  It was the idea of the private bankers who took over the public function of banking way back when.  In a debt based economy, new money has to be created to pay the interest on old debt.  That requires endless economic expansion financed by new debt.  It is a never-ending cycle until one of two things happens:  1) a crash brought on by the excessive speculation in new debt—gambling—by the Banksters; or 2) the whole system expands beyond the carrying capacity of the ecological system on which we all depend.  The Great Depression of the 1930s has been matched by the real unemployment of the “Great Recession” of 2008-present as the absurd economy roars past sustainability.

Banking is an inherently public function.  In fact, money is a public institution.  Whether private banks control it has varied in time and place.  When you are playing Monopoly (the board game) the players are equivalent to the public but each acts as an individual, not as a member of that very small public—which helps to instill in the players an individualistic sense of what money is.  But the “play money” used in the game is “real money” for the purposes of that game.  One player is designated the banker, but only manages the allocation of money during play.  The players agree as to the initial distribution of money (usually equal) and to the rules of the game.

Eventually, through luck and skill, one of the players gathers so much money and property that the game is over—s/he won!  Oh, but then there’s no game anymore, unless the players want to start another game, in which case they have to redistribute the money so each player will have money with which to play.  In fact, once the game is over, there is no money, only amusing little pieces of colored paper in a box with the board and various symbols of property, etc.  But why does someone always win Monopoly?  The widely ignored fact of economic reality also ends every game of Monopoly.  Once a player has accumulated significant economic power, that player’s ability to gain economic power increases.  So it is in the real economy, with the added bonus of increased political power, which means that to keep the game going, something’s got to give.  The result has to be either collapse or some form of redistribution, that’s what history demonstrates.

So, you can see the difference between a game and social reality, or, technically, economic reality.  In the real world, the game can never be over, even when one element—the Banksters in our case—accumulates enough wealth to render the other players powerless to make a successful move.  In the real world, this holds right up to the point where some starve to death for lack of resources.  In the game, with all the money accumulated by a small number of lucky and/or skilled players, everyone else is out of the game.  In real life that is deadly and is bound to result in some kind of chaos, collapse, or major restructuring of the economy.  Look around, both in the world today and in history.  Money hasn’t been in play all that long.  It emerged slowly and in various odd forms when and where some surplus of valued goods was accumulated.  When, at various times when wealth became so concentrated in the hands of the elite, a monarch or emperor recognized that wealth had to be radically redistributed in order to keep the economy going.

The earliest examples of money and debt were in societies where sedentary agricultural practices replaced nomadic hunting and gathering.  Much of this is chronicled in David Graeber’s fascinating book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years.  Graebner is an anthropologist whose analysis of money and debt as cultural phenomena clearly breaks out of the illusions about money and debt upon which our deeply absurd, and equally unjust, economy is based.

Unless we face some very fundamental and widespread social illusions, we will be unable to grasp how debt drives our absurd economy and how deeply destabilized the system has become.  Sometimes these illusions have two sides, neither of which reflects economic or cultural reality.  For example, we have the “gold bugs” and the advocates of “fiat money.”  Gold bugs confuse symbols with reality and fiat money fanciers confuse wealth with abstractions of value.  Both obsess over the form of money, failing to see that the very essence of its existence is consensual rather than essential.

There is nothing in the essence of gold that makes it money and there is nothing in the essence of paper that prevents it from being money.  All manner of items at one time/place or another have been money because the conditions allowed and the people agreed to define them as money, from sticks to shells to stamped pieces of copper or other metal to beads to paper.  In no case did just any stick, shell or piece of paper do.  It had to have certain qualities or it couldn’t become money.

In one fascinating example, a stick with certain inscriptions would be split in two and the creditor and debtor each took a piece.  No other stick could represent that relationship of value-exchange because no two sticks will split in exactly the same way.  That made the stick parts a unique symbol of the value exchanged.  With gold, the size, ie., weight, of a nugget or shaped coin stands for its exchange value.  In every case of an object that becomes money, its value is designated in such a way that it cannot be altered.  So it is with paper.  With paper money, methods are devised to make it nearly impossible to duplicate without detection, but of course some counterfeiters have been very skillful, which results in a technology race between the legitimate and illegitimate printers of money.

Today, of course, most money takes the form of an electronic entry in computerized accounting systems controlled by banks and other financial institutions.  And that brings on an entirely new level of complexity and exploitability of what at base was a very simple relationship. But, as always, who controls the creation of money is still at the root of the way the money system works.

Because the nation so stupidly gave away the rights to control a fundamental public utility—money—to a cartel of private banks, the Federal Reserve, the creation of money (except for coins, which, trivially, are minted by the U.S. Treasury) is controlled not by public policy but by private banking interests.  “The Fed” is owned by its member big-private-banks yet is politically defined as a quasi-public institution even though it is entirely controlled by the cartel of private banks, except to the extent that the political system can influence its actions, which is almost nil.  Power flows from the banks to the government, not the other way around.

Well, you saw how well that worked out when the federal government essentially gave away the commonwealth by “covering” the bad bets of the world’s biggest gamblers—the Banksters, as I prefer to call them—because their agents, from Treasury Secretaries “Hank” Paulson and Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, and the rest of the Wall Street gang were very much in control of the political response to the crisis.  These same Banksters had helped steer the congress to do away with the protections against gambling with depositors’ money that resulted from the Great Depression of the ‘30s.  The recent ‘Great Recession’ was the result of the same kinds of financial manipulations as precipitated the great crash, but now with lightning speed of computerized trading and lax limits on holding reserve capital to cover losses, as well as a whole new breed of “financial instruments” which are “derivatives” of complex combinations of debt.  The whole Dodd-Frank “reforms” were a smokescreen to cover continued abuse by the financial elite.

The whole system is, as they say, rigged.  And because it is entirely dependent on generating more debt in order to sustain profit, ultimately all that debt cannot be paid, since it is really a pyramid scheme basing illusory wealth on ever-expanding debt that cannot be sustained.  No, it is not about “the national debt” and “deficit spending” by the federal government, though they are part of the system.  And the “debt ceiling” is pure political theater.  It is about the centralized private control of the public means by which money is allocated to the actual people who participate in the economy as a way of sustaining their lives—through debt—with that private control being exercised in the sole interests of the so-called “masters of the universe,” the Wall Street Banksters and financial deal makers who have no idea what a real economy looks like.  It’s all about the art of the deal which generates paper profit [or, I should say, electronic profit] out of money generated with no other purpose, but which bounds the people to a system of debt over which they have no participation except as victims.

Therein lies the absurdity of the economy for you and me.  Money, the function of which had been to provide a medium for and a repository of actual exchange value—that is, the exchange of real objects and services of value to people in a real economy—has been perverted into a devise for generating false wealth—paper or electronic profit—which is treated as real wealth by the Banksters who control the Economy of the Absurd.