We continue to hover over the fork of a timeline: Will the US launch war against Iran this spring, or will open fighting somehow be avoided? Polls show that once again (just as in the winter of 2003) Americans are quivering like abject slaves, think that the next sign of terrorism will be a mushroom cloud, and see the necessity of attacking Iran with force.
Or do they? Never one to be optimistic, I nevertheless remind myself that the polls themselves are part of the war propaganda.
In any case, now is the time to act for peace:
In the war-fork of the timeline the US faces physical destruction this year, nuclear or non-nuclear. In the no-war fork, the worst is postponed, or actually avoided.
Today I am interested in the no-war fork, and the possibilities that lie beyond a lesser, non-war, crash.
Next door, at European Tribune, Chris Kulczyki has a very nice article, on the front page, on the question of economic systems and planetary survival. He quotes Robert Newman:
Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production in a finite planet. And yet this ideological model remains the central organising principle of our lives, and as long as it continues to be so it will automatically undo (with its invisible hand) every single green initiative anybody cares to come up with.
Mr. Kulczycki disagrees.
Take it as a given that Newman is right and Kulczycki is wrong. But I will go over there to argue that. Here, I want to look at the backstory of what lies behind economic systems.
Recall that Capitalism is an outgrowth of Mercantilism, and both together are only five hundred years old. They were made possible by the particular political situation in Europe and the rise of Protestant Christianity as necessary conditions. Innovations in military technology undermined the feudal relationships of the Middle Ages, gradually increasing the relative power of the merchant class, while Protestant Christianity emphasized personal over public or organizational standards for the just and the good. The early Protestants hated the traditional sins as much as anybody, but it took less than a generation for the authority of individual conscience to be corrupted into individual excuses for greed. General acceptance of mercantilistic thinking followed.
For over a thousand-thousand years before that, humans in all lands, including Europe, organized their political economy in other ways. While it is possible to analyze the economy of ancient Rome, or Golden Age Greece, or even a traditional fishing village, from the standpoint of capitalist economics, the utility of such analysis depends a great deal on one’s purpose. Needless to say none of these peoples viewed themselves in such a way, moreover, a capitalist analysis leaves some important things out.
The first thing it leaves out, is one’s proper relationship to the world. Neither monotheists (Christians, Jews, and Muslims) nor atheists like to face this, but the foremost concern in sustainable cultures is one’s proper relationship to the gods and the spirits. This comes before material wealth. Why is this? I am not sure, but I do know this means the probabilities are against our creating a sustainable world without the proper reverence. And history suggests that monotheism won’t work for that. Why not? My guess is that it is like monoculture–simplifying the real spiritual world, reducing it, and reducing the natural web of connections, beyond the point where sustainable life is possible.
Secondly, and more obviously, Capitalism takes an exceptional attitude toward greed. All other ways of life have noticed the existence of greed, but have felt the need to suppress it in the interest of common good. Capitalist theory says greed generates the common good. Now, both cannot be right, and I think we are soon reaching the point where it is obvious who has the right of the matter.
Thirdly, Capitalism accepts and embeds an incorrect notion of wealth and poverty. Wealth and poverty are opposites only in the narrow sense that they are extremes, but in fact they are part of one single thing: You cannot have one without the other. When capitalist economies create more wealth, an increase in poverty is the result. This is inescapable.
More could be said on this. In 1987 Ann Wilson Shaef wrote a book called When Society Becomes Addict. In it she compared thinking processes of Capitalist (and masculine) society to the thinking of alcoholics, and contrasts them to people who are in recovery or truly sober. If you look at how capitalism stacks up against signs of alcoholism, it plainly looks like addictive behavior.
In the early 1960’s, a lawyer named Bazelton in a book called The Paper Economy took up the point that although industrialization had produced an amazing surplus of goods, it made no impact on the extremes of wealth and poverty, nor on the existence of outright want. The reason for this lay in Capitalism’s need to ever and eternally produce a profit. Simply put, there is no money to be made in giving poor people what they need. A further consequence, since the physical world is finite, is that the ever-inflating paper economy would have to find a way to detach itself permanently from the material economy, or else face a crash. Since the holders of paper expect their paper to translate into real power, such detachment seemed unlikely. It still does. The crash he alluded to is imminent.
Since the 19th century, capitalism has been embodied in forms called corporations. Bazelton describes how corporations got their start a century earlier, when national goverments chartered private organizations for special purposes, and brought in share-holders as a way of funding the ventures. Essentially, these corporations were private branches of government, whose existence was justified by the policies they carried out for the public government and the taxes (portion of profits) that they returned to it.
Corporations proved so successful at raising money that they became ubiquitous, and gradually the public government lost control over these forms of private government. Since private governments were never responsible to anyone but their share-holders and the public government that held their charters, the loss of control means we came to be surrounded by private governments with no practical responsibility whatever. That is, we have replaced public government by irresponsible, private government.
Why irresponsible government is called freedom is no mystery: as long as the public believes this obfuscation, the irresponsibility can continue–to the detriment of public well-being, but the increase of profit. The final turn of the screw comes when corporations are relieved of the duty of paying taxes, thus eliminating their last justification for existing. Literally they have become a cancer, existing only for themselves.
The true opposite of wealth/poverty might be called prosperity. Prosperity is when one works to create what is needed, and receives (perhaps in exchange) what one needs. Prosperity concentrates on the flow (rather than the accumulation) of goods and energy: Are they getting to where they need to be? If anyone in the economy is conspicuously wealthy or conspicuously poor, the answer is obviously no.
The idea of prosperity can be extended to one’s entire ecosystem. To people with a spiritual understanding of the world, this comes naturally, which is to say, that is the practical meaning of spiritual understanding.
Finally I come to my point: Economics is the physical representation of social status. All societies recognize differences between people, and create signs (such as clothing) and representations of those differences. Some societies do not extend those representations into limitations on physical well-being; others accentuate displays of exhaltation and abasement.
When we choose an economic system which extends social signifiers of physical abasement to include physical distress and destruction of its members, and extends this destruction to its environment (biosphere), this is a social choice, made politically. It is a social decision about who we are as a society.
As a society, this is an exhaltation that leads inevitably to self-destruction. The Greek myth of Erisichthon represents and describes this.
We have reached the point where survival depends on creating a new form of society that does not value exhaltation, and does not encourage its members to seek it. Such a society will encourage us to develop our relationships to the world that sustains it and us.