Our Grand Illusions vs. Survival

I was an undergraduate student in anthropology when I saw a remarkable documentary film depicting the lives of the !Kung people. Also known as the San, they lived in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa as hunter-gatherers, still undisturbed by outside forces in 1952-3 when some Harvard ethnographers shot the film. The social structure of the small band met the requirements of that harsh environment in intricate ways. The San people worked very hard to survive yet had plenty of leisure time and seemed quite happy. Later incursions of Europeans seeking diamonds changed all that.

In stark contrast, the victims of America’s “sacrifice zones” such as Camden, New Jersey, and Pine Ridge, South Dakota, live very hard lives in environments devoid of ecosystem resources from which to build a life. They are dependent upon the larger industrial-consumer economy from which they are structurally isolated. The rest of us live in consumer bubbles, where we are equally dependent but allowed to participate. In both cases, people have no direct connection to the land where they live; all relations are indirect, mediated by large national or international institutions over which we have no control.

The Cultural Problem of the Illusions Complex

Having long since abandoned any sacred or direct relations with the order of Nature, industrial-consumer economies have briefly enriched some, excluded many, but at great peril to all. Their elites have constructed a story of unending progress through industrial expansion. But that story of unnatural ambitions is no longer valid on this finite planet. The foundations of our grand illusions crumble as we seek to build more on top of them. The Great Transformation that launched the industrial age began by “enclosing” traditional communities in England and Scotland to accelerate industrialization and never looked back.

I was fortunate to have grown up experiencing much of nature through involvement with the Boy Scouts, despite living in a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. We learned so much about the natural world beyond the suburban bubble that was a small part of the “Great Acceleration” of fossil-fueled economic expansion of the late 1940s and 1950s. I will never forget those adventuresome days. I understood later experiences of people whose lives were entirely urban partly in those terms. Their lives and beliefs develop entirely within the culture of industrial consumerism, devoid of any sense of the natural world.

Devolution of Education

The education system has not helped much. In college, I believed that education could be the source of solving most of the world’s problems. However, educational institutions, like science itself, developed as part of the modern world built on the foundations of rational humanism that viewed “Man” apart from and meant to dominate Nature.

The Earth seemed an unending source of materials to be plundered at will. The emerging industrial system became the vehicle for exploiting the natural world. Education became a means to prepare workers for obedient contributions to the growth of that system, not a method for cultivating the skills of thinking citizens. In the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, the American education system expanded with the rest of the economy. That growth allowed some slack for faculty to explore learning in diverse ways, partially fulfilling the goals of developing thinking citizens.

From the very beginning of my university career in 1970, for thirty-five years I watched the quality of education in the U.S. decline as corporate economic interests pressured for the university to produce trained workers. Elimination of the progressive income tax system severely constrained public budgets, putting additional pressure on education to operate like a profit-making business instead of a public service.

Education became a commodity delivered like a sack of potatoes. Now we have the sister of the head of the private Blackwater mercenary army heading the U.S. Department of Education, attempting to “privatize” all education for corporate profit. Education today sidelines intellectual development, critical thinking, literature and the arts in favor of training new workers for technical performance in corporate environments. From George Bush’s “no child left behind,” to the privatization of educational institutions, the decline of education in America serves the corporate state, not the people, and sets the stage for the rise of fascism.

The broader attack on the public sector through “privatization,” whether schools or prisons, parallels a range of policy choices favoring corporate control of both politics and the economy that Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.” Trained workers, whether on the factory floor or in corporate offices become technical functionaries with little sense of citizenship other than by adherence to the group- think of the “righteous mind,” cultivated by corporate propaganda and economic insecurity.

Dumbing Down the Culture, Anti-Intellectualism, and Social Chao

Culture is the collection of our beliefs. In our marketed consumer culture, efforts to exploit personal anxieties and collective resentments work directly in opposition to “thinking for ourselves.” Fads grow out of people trying to “be different.” Branding manipulates the desire to express our “individuality.” Persuasion works best on imagery and emotion, not on rational thought. The dumbing down of education aids the dumbing down of the culture, leaving more and more people susceptible to commercial advertising and political propaganda. Demagogues express distinctly anti-intellectual beliefs that exploit anxiety and fear while inciting hatred of any group not part of one’s own.

A shrinking job market and diminished incomes deplete the middle class formerly dominated by white male workers who resent the “browning of America.” Techno-toys provide distractions from dwindling prospects for a life with any intellectual content or personal meaning. Hate speech distracts attention from one’s own problems, allowing their projection onto feared groups of others deemed outside the pale. People form their beliefs in groups of like-minded people, not in contemplation of facts or evidence.

Confirmation bias allows “peace of mind” by acknowledging only beliefs consistent with one’s group perspective. Well-documented facts disappear before emotional imagery supported by group identity. When realities are too hard to face, such as loss of status and opportunity, people become more vulnerable to political manipulation. It all blurs together as opportunists tout scapegoats such as minorities, immigrants, Muslims and uppity women as the source of personal losses.

Two hundred years have passed since industrial culture reduced the person o an artificial commodity known as labor and economic individualism severely constrained the viability of communities for increasingly detached individual workers. Individual freedom became the veil hiding alienation and limiting severely the apprehension of reality.

Defending Society from Its Grand Illusions

Numerous attempts to protect society from the damage caused by free-market economies have occurred throughout the industrial era, with mixed but discouraging results.

The English poor laws and the American New Deal offered temporary palliatives without addressing the underlying problem. The revolutions in Russia and Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba replaced the tyranny of capital with political totalitarianism. Western “democracies” substituted growth and the “McDonaldization” of consumerism for the resolution of social problems.

The grand illusions of multinational dominance over societies have gone global, right when the impacts on the entire Earth System approach tipping points toward collapse. The crises of ecosystem and climate, caused by pushing the limits of economic growth, continue to deepen. The limits to growth are physical, not ideological. Yet, corporate controlled media and political institutions perpetuate ideological illusions that threaten our very survival. Nevertheless, growing numbers of people realize that something is very wrong.

Creative Destruction of Our Grand Illusions for Survival

Here’s the thing. A New Great Transformation of humanity’s relations with planet Earth upon us. If we continue to ignore the deep changes humans have triggered, leading us into the unknowns of the Anthropocene, we will lose all control of our fate. Our grand illusions support a headlong rush to planetary chaos and potentially human extinction. Survival – never mind the “good life” – will depend on whether humans are up to the revolutionary task of paying the debt we have incurred to the planet and finding new ways to live in harmony with the Earth System we have already changed so radically.

Trapped by Finance Capital: Business as Usual While Planet Burns Part III: Creative Destruction

Humanity must minimize the chaos of a catastrophic convergence of accelerating climate destabilization, growing poverty and food shortages, armed conflict, and massive migrations around the world. Otherwise, while the old plutocratic order will be destroyed, nothing viable will emerge to replace it. A new form of “creative destruction” must occur for human survival. A new Great Transformation of humanity’s relationship with our earth systems has to happen. It will be very complex and difficult, and “success” is unpredictable.

While it is hard to imagine, a massive social transformation in all industrially developed nations is necessary very soon. Social transformation is no simple matter. How do you turn around the most powerful institutions in the history of humanity? How do you redirect the fundamental thrust of distorted economies? Well, maybe you don’t. It just might be that the only way to stem the tide of anthropogenic economic and climate destabilization is to resist its continued domination. But that resistance must be indirect, since the corporate state has a monopoly on physical power. Resistance must take the form of replacing the very institutions that individuals and groups do not have the power to directly transform. As R. Buckminster Fuller is often quoted:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

While that may not always be true, it certainly is when confronted by the overwhelming power of the corporate state and all the physical force that entails. The New American Revolution will be one of replacement, not of fighting the existing reality in order to overthrow or destroy it. In the intellectual history of economics itself we find a concept that recognized the destructive power of replacement through creativity. Joseph Schumpeter [1] popularized the notion of “creative destruction” in economics as a theory of economic innovation. It refers to a process within economies “that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

The concept has since been used by orthodox neo-liberal “free-market” economists and politicians to justify the destructive effects of any innovation produced by technology or the investment of capital. Innovation may destroy environments or peoples’ livelihood or health, but that is deemed okay because it results in “economic growth,” the end-all of finance capital. Ideologically, it has been a defense of the unregulated right of finance capital to plunder the planet.

However, we may take the liberty of re-framing the concept of creative destruction in an entirely new light, given the circumstance we find ourselves in. We must turn away from the destructive economics of finance capital. We must resist its inherently destructive force by withdrawing from participation. We must replace it by creating new ecological forms of economics in local and regional contexts.[2] Economic systems exist only by people participate in them. We must form new human scale economic relationships, thus creating a new economy. If we do that on a sufficient scale, much of the perpetual-growth economy that finance capital sustains will inevitably be destroyed. Its markets will simply contract into oblivion. In Fuller’s terms, we must build “a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

The perpetual-growth economy driven by finance capital certainly is obsolete. By executing the innovations needed to create a new ecological economy, we will automatically destroy the old, mostly by ignoring it. It will wither away by disinterest and disuse. Now that would be a far more positive form of creative destruction than imagined by either Marxist or neo-liberal economists. Unlike them, we must realize that there is no inevitable course of history; there is no invisible hand or inevitable stages of development. We must choose.

Progress” may very likely come crashing down upon us – or not. It is our choice. We must create our new ecological economy amidst the ruins of financial capital. The path to human survival will be extremely difficult, if taken. The ‘business as usual’ alternative would be beyond difficult; it would be suicidal. We are at a crossroads between following the old path of ecological destruction by repeating the mistakes of our economic history, and forging a new path of creating a viable ecological economy that we can live with.
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[1] Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942). New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.
[2] David C. Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015) conceptualizes a new way to envision human economies and to create them in harmony with the living earth systems upon which we depend for survival.

Creative Destruction Transformed

The concept goes way back in the intellectual history of the West, also the East.  Simply put, “creative destruction” suggests that in the creation of the new, something of the old is destroyed.  Innovation often makes “the old ways” of doing things obsolete.  Not surprising.  Examples abound in the history of the growth economies of the industrial era.  An obvious case: The American family farm virtually disappeared with the mechanization of agriculture driven by fossil fuel energy mostly in the twentieth century.

What is Creative Destruction?

Like so many fundamental concepts, creative destruction has a history of ideological dispute, at least in the West.  The Hindu god, Shiva, on the other hand, has offered a consistent vision of change.  Shiva, “the transformer,” is the god of creation and destruction in the world of the Hindu — he creates and he destroys.  Thus, he is seen as both the fearsome and beneficent agent of all change in the world.

In the West, however, the idea of creative destruction has been shaped by a history of philosophical debates about the politics of the economy.  The Hindu idea was brought into German philosophy by Herder, then used by Hegel in his dialectic of history.  Then Marx turned it on its head as his own dialectical principle of material (economic) change.  Later, for Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter the idea was used  to explain how innovation transforms an economy from within.

Today, the Austrians, especially Friedrich Hayek, are the philosophical darlings of the quasi-libertarian anti-government neo-liberal economists.  These are the economic ideologists whose ideas about innovation are used to justify corporate actions that may have destructive consequences for society.  For Example, they use “free markets” to argue that the destructive consequences of unlimited financial “innovation” — manipulation of financial markets — are necessary and good for promoting economic progress.

That creative destruction is so easily adopted by both left and right economists should raise some questions.  Does it explain everything and thus nothing?  No.  But it is important to understand why its application is so broad, and with such different political implications.

For the capitalist, the importance of creative destruction is found in the effect of innovation on markets.  When capital is invested in new technologies, the result is said to be “disruptive,” and often is.  That is defined as good and healthy for economic progress.  In fact, it may wipe out existing industries and jobs.  But new and better ones are expected to result.  While people can be put out of work and factories shut down, the ultimate outcome is said to be good because of the growth and new products and profits that often result from such disruption.  “That’s progress.”  And, of course, it is all based on the idea that growth is always necessary for a healthy economy with full employment.  The argument is all internal to economics, as if it were a closed system.  But it is not.

Karl Marx admired the creative destruction he saw in capitalism resulting from the innovations it stimulates, but he saw within the capitalist system inherent “seeds of its own destruction.”  Without external constraints, it was never clear when Marx’s internal contradictions might actually produce the revolutionary end of capitalism as he had predicted.  Both the Russian and Chinese revolutions were largely agrarian in origin and did not really fit Marx’s model, although they adopted his terminology as their ideology.

The historical realization of Marx’s image of industrial revolution never quite materialized.  But the vision of Werner Sombart — that capitalism’s internal contradictions would lead to periodic crises — has been repeatedly confirmed by historical events.  The biggest and most obvious U.S. example was the Great Depression.  The New Deal was capitalism’s relatively effective response to that crisis — it worked for several decades.  The Great Recession of 2008 is another — it was caused in part by elimination of the New Deal financial reforms.  But in this case the responses were denial and bailouts, which are pushing the crisis down the road without real economic adjustments.  Be that as it may, Marx made the same mistake that today’s corporate economists make — they all treat the economy as if it were a closed system.  Internal contradictions aside, they all assume that the economy is unaffected by any environmental constraints such as resource limits or ecological destruction.

The Destruction of Creation

Neo-liberal economists attempt to justify the concept of creative destruction as inherent in innovation, the driving force in developing the economy.  It is required for capital growth and investment in new technologies, which have new resource-extraction and waste production requirements.  But their vision of economic growth has no direction or meaning, except that of an irrational faith that whatever innovation occurs and whatever the destruction, the result will be good.  After all, the illusion of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is still at play in their minds.

Economic theory is often not very empirical.  Of course, money is the easy measure of all undifferentiated economic activity.  But it says nothing of the value of an investment, an innovation, or a business decision or practice for humanity.  It’s about that darn externalization of costs, which is always ignored in the investment of capital.  What are all the consequences of an economic decision?  Well, consequences external to the unit in which capital is invested are routinely ignored.  The creation of phantom wealth by destroying the environment it attempts to dominate can be clearly seen as destroying creation.

Ending Destructive Capital, Creating a New Economy

One of the most important — and destructive — innovations in the use of capital today is the corporate application of micro-electronic computing power to the processes of capital investment, or, I should say, “programmed trading,” in the stock markets.  “High-speed institutional traders” — computer programs — can “capture” minute differences in price from one nano-second to another and issue buy/sell orders that intercede into an ordinary trade and in effect steal pennies that the ordinary trader would have received in a trade while the price information is being transmitted to the trader.  At super high rates of programmed trading, this results in millions of dollars skimmed off the market in any given week.  Yet the SEC does nothing.  This is only one of the many corrupt practices that are tolerated in a culture that deems whatever you can get away with as the highest value.

Only by setting human and ecological values as the primary criteria for allowing or banning economic system “features” can a new ecological economy be shaped in the public interest.  The highest public interest in the economy is to foster practices that support the health and well-being of people and the planet.  Any economic practice or institution that conflicts with that value must be destroyed.  New practices and institutions that serve the interests of life on the planet must be created.  Creative destruction is an economic process with limited justification.  Only if an innovation supports life and the practices and institutions it destroys are damaging to human life and the biosphere that supports us, can it be justified.

Chaotic Convergence

In the New Age idea of “harmonic convergence,” there are a few “power centers” around the world. Near the beautiful cliffs surrounding Sedona, AZ, for example, people are said to experience converging forces of spiritual energy. But another convergence is taking place and it has nothing to do with stunning red-rock landscapes or mystical feelings of harmony. Far from it. Instead, I have noticed an extraordinary set of outwardly unrelated indicators of increasingly chaotic societal trends in the U.S.A., cascading throughout the world. And they appear to be converging.

Random Anomalies?
A recent Homeland Security report* concluded that “sovereign citizens” are perceived as a greater threat by law enforcement than are “Islamic terrorists.” Of course, it’s hard to even find an Islamic terrorist in the U.S. – racist targeting of any Muslim aside. But the Cliven Bundies are definitely out there and growing in numbers.

The extreme individualist anti-government meme has taken hold for a growing number of people. But these folks usually don’t understand the source of the dysfunctions of the governmental they hate. Of course, their hyper-libertarian ideology itself is seriously dysfunctional. It sees all problems as inherent in government itself. But in politics the biggest problem for democracy is the widespread distortion of governmental functions by the corporate imposition of money and power.

“Stand your ground” legislation and its expression in morally unjustifiable shootings point to a growing cultural need to express personal power with violence. Bizarre “open carry” imbeciles marching into restaurants with their AR-15s appear to be expressing their twisted juvenile sense of manhood. But there is more to it than that. Instability breeds fear; fear breeds hatred; hatred finds its target, even school children.

Racist Congressmen refuse to act on anything proposed by the African-American president they find inherently illegitimate and “un-American.” They even reject his proposals that originated in Republican ideas. The obsessiveness of their loathing is quite astounding, though consistent only with rabid racism and the gut urge to bring down that “Other.” There is no “post-racial America.”

Automated programmed trading at hyper-speed by powerful financial institutions obtains market information nanoseconds ahead of ordinary traders. This allows them to make pennies a trade so fast that they skim millions of dollars from the stock market every week. What is a “free market,” really? Cheating is pervasive and tolerated in U.S. business and political culture, and markets are not free.

Cities are going bankrupt and are forced to raid their retirees’ pension funds because Koch brothers funded politicians legislate to serve their rich patrons, not the public. The people are an inconvenience. Who protects the public interest? Almost nobody with any power, actually. Corruption is rampant.

The “change we can believe in” president elected on an ‘end the wars’ platform, bombs wedding parties in Afghanistan and funerals in Yemen. His lawyers draw up secret legal opinions authorizing him to assassinate American citizens along with anyone else he deems a “threat.” His drone kills a teenage American boy visiting his grandparents in Yemen. In response to disclosures about the CIA crimes, he responds, “we tortured some folks…and it’s important for us not too feel too sanctimonious in retrospect…”
Absurd levels of secret “intelligence” spy operations capture nearly all the private communications of Americans. No particular reason or authorization is needed other than the stated institutional goal of amassing full-spectrum of information about everyone. You may “have nothing to hide,” and foolishly accept it. But spying on everyone by powerful agencies whether federal or local, has ominous implications for everyone’s political freedom. The NSA director lies to Congress and is tolerated. That alone heralds an emerging totalitarian corporate state retaining only a thin veneer of democratic formality.

The Convergence
Collectively, these ostensibly uncharacteristic and unrelated trends provide a context for understanding part of where the “sovereign citizens” paranoia comes from. They seem unconnected, though each is disturbing. But are they simply anomalies? I doubt it.

The personal, the social, the economic, and the political uncertainties we experience or observe today are real, if confusing. They are exacerbated by the recognition, sometimes subliminal, that we live in a society that is increasingly unstable and violent – a bad combination. As if that were not enough, the stability of the biosphere we are part of is itself is being placed at accelerating risk by our institutions and our way of life.

We look around and find little to justify a sense of security. Many escape into the smaller worlds of their everyday lives or stupefying mass media. We see the largest institutions, whether military, corporate, financial, or governmental, and notice the growing trend. Each is expanding its own surveillance/security programs. And in all institutional sectors, the security and secrecy measures are directed at protecting those institutions’ ability to control the population – us – in some way. Why? Because we know that as they grow more irrelevant and opposed to our needs, these institutions increasingly resort to force and violence.

Yet, those hierarchical control structures are themselves engaged in increasingly chaotic reactions to environments that they cannot control. The most powerful institutions in the world were not designed to engage conditions they never anticipated. It seems clear that we need a process of non-violent “creative destruction” to transform these institutions. But what we are getting is a growing process of destruction of humanity emanating from the institutions supposedly serving the public.
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* David Carter, et al, Understanding Law Enforcement Intelligence Processes. Report to the Office of University Programs, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (July 2014), p. 7. Accessed at: https://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_UnderstandingLawEnforcementIntelligenceProcesses_July2014.pdf