Tag Archives: capitalism

LOCAL ECONOMY: NEW GAMES NEED NEW NAMES

(From the Transition Honesdale newsletter a few years ago…)

“You cannot change a game by winning it, you cannot change a game by losing it, you cannot even change it by refereeing it. … The thing we found out in the ’60s is that you can change the game by turning your back on it and going away and starting a new game, and if that is a more interesting game, then people come over to play it.”

— Stewart Brand, founder, New Games Foundation

One day, when I was about ten or so, I found myself playing a game of Monopoly with a kid I had just met, the son of one of my Dad’s Army buddies, whose family we were visiting in Gettysburg. Things were going along fine, until he started to add houses to Park Place even though he hadn’t acquired Boardwalk yet…

Now here, of course, let me stop for a moment and apologize to those of you for whom that last sentence might not make sense – but if you’re familiar with the rules of Monopoly, a game based on conducting real estate transactions in Atlantic City, you know that what my new acquaintance was doing was simply not kosher. I pointed this out to him, of course – but he settled the matter with a simple dictum:

“My game – my rules.”

Well. I certainly knew where I stood at that point. So, by the time I inevitably landed on Park Place, he had turned it into a veritable high-density multi-use luxury development, with several hotels and a neighborhood’s worth of houses, and the game was over.

At heart, any economic system is, simply speaking, a game – that is to say, it’s a set of arbitrary rules that serve to organize some kind of human activity. The rules of the game define goals, explain how the goals are to be reached, specify rewards for achieving the goals, and exact penalties for behaviors that contradict the rules.

The economic “game” is a little different, of course. Usually, we voluntarily choose whether or not to participate in a game, and we can leave the game if we’re not having any fun. (Or if the other kid cheats!) We either know the rules before we start, or they are clearly explained to us in fairly short order. The rules frequently have safeguards built in, to minimize (if not entirely prevent) injury, and to keep the game “fair.”

But in the case of the economy, we usually find ourselves born into the middle of a game already in progress. We have to try to puzzle out many of the rules as we go along, and frequently we find that the rules can change on the fly. We do not, generally, have a realistic option of leaving – although it can certainly be done, if one doesn’t mind putting one’s health and well-being at considerable risk. And increasingly, the safeguards are disappearing.

For millions if not billions of people, there never has been much “fun” to be had in this now-global game; grinding poverty, exploitation of the vulnerable, and environmental despoliation have long been the norm. Those in the middle classes, even if they weren’t exactly “winning” at the game, could at least expect to enjoy some creature comforts – but in recent years, as wealth and power have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, they’ve seen their expectations and assumptions begin to crumble.

So now, in keeping with the spirit of Stewart Brand’s quote above, there are new games being devised – despite the attempts of our dominant economic players to convince us all that theirs is the only game in town, or to use Baroness Thatcher’s immortal words, “There is no alternative.”

These developing institutions and methodologies turn existing economic models on their heads. Locally-focused, they run counter to the trend of increasing globalization. They aim not for more accumulation, but for better distribution. They are sustainable and restorative while the old systems are extractive and exploitative. They replace the ethics of competition and dominance with cooperation and mutual assistance.

From worker-owned cooperatives to CSAs, asset-sharing programs to “B” Corporations, these innovative ideas are frequently lumped under the heading of “the new economy” – a term, unfortunately, that says nothing at all. Indeed, the very term “new economy” is hardly new. It’s been used for years to describe various economic trends, from the shift away from manufacturing to the dot-com bubble, and is used now to describe the ways that high-tech companies, especially those in information services and biotechnology, do business.

“Sustainable economics,” “community-based economics,” “partnership economy,” “sharing economy,” “gift economy” – these are some of the other terms that have been bandied about to describe this process of economic transformation, but none of them have gained wide currency. (I like “syneconomy” myself, but unfortunately folks are likely to confuse it with “sin tax.” Ah, language!)

New games need new names. As we develop this new game together, I am sure one will eventually emerge – a brand, if you will, that we can stand behind and promote.

And who knows? It might be even more fun than Monopoly.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: FIFTY YEARS AFTER

In his memoir WOODSTOCK NATION, Abbie Hoffman paints a telling portrait of  himself at the festival’s end – staggering aimlessly around the deserted, trash-strewn field, stoned out of his mind, and crudely propositioning every female he encounters.

That image comes to mind when I try to figure out what happened to the optimistic peace-and-love vision of the hippies, and why 50 years later we find ourselves in a world that seems in many ways the exact opposite of what they were hoping for.

Part of the fault was our own, of course. (I am lumping myself in with the Woodstock generation here, though I was a little bit younger – still only in junior high when Woodstock happened.)   To put it succinctly, I think we were right to claim the freedoms we claimed, but we forgot… or neglected… or refused to accept the responsibilities involved. 

But there was also a backlash. The conservative establishment responded to the social unrest and cultural upheaval that marked the 1960’s with a campaign that was breathtaking in its depth, scope, and audacity. It was also, we must begrudgingly admit, largely successful. 

We can start with August 28, 1971, just 2 years after Woodstock. A corporate lawyer (and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice) named Lewis Powell writes a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr. – Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell decries what he sees as a concerted attack on American economic institutions – indeed, on the American way of life itself. But he’s not particularly worried about Communists or leftists:

“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.”

So he recommends that a series of  countermeasures be taken within each of those spheres: education, religion, the media, and so on. And though I can’t say that all these developments below sprang directly from Powell’s memo, we can note the creation of a vast array of new institutions and organizations, and changes in existing ones, within the next few years. (This was not a “conspiracy,” mind you; this was all done quite openly, right out in front of God and everybody.)

Some highlights:

There are many more examples I could cite, of course – from the establishment of think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, from FOX News to the Koch brothers, from ALEC to the Citizens United case. My point is this: these people worked long and hard to bring us to the present situation. Whatever happens to the Trumps and their supporters and enablers, it will take at least as much time, money, effort, and dedication to undo the damage they have caused.

Maybe by the Woodstock centennial, we’ll be able to really celebrate.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: CIVIL WORLD WAR?

Reports of the recent death of Lyndon LaRouche prompted a flurry of responses on the Internet, most asking the same question:

“Are they sure??”

You may not have heard of LaRouche, but you might have seen some of his followers camped out in front of your local post office at one time or another over the past few years, sharing their conspiratorial views on the world with anyone who would listen. LaRouche spun an elaborate and ever-shifting narrative about politics, finance, history, and current events, one that managed to encompass everything from the British royal family to fusion reactors.

One of his biggest bugbears, of course, was something that has been a common trope among conspiracy theorists since probably the time of John of Patmos – the imminent establishment of an overarching one-world government that would eradicate religion, squash freedom, and enslave humanity. Organizations from the Catholic Church to the United Nations, and individuals from Napoleon and Nero to George Soros and Barack Obama, have at one time or another been depicted as the evil masterminds behind this dastardly scheme.

But here’s the funny thing: during all this time, and despite all these frantic warnings, a real transnational government has slowly been establishing itself – not as the result of any bizarre occult conspiracy, but “right out in front of God and everybody.”  If by “world government” you mean an entity more powerful than any nation-state – one that could tell otherwise sovereign nations what to do, enforce its will, and expect to be obeyed – then I submit that the international finance system fills the bill. This system can not only punish those who try to defy it, it has managed to make itself practically immune to outside control.

A recent article on a website run by the Transnational Institute goes into more detail. Entitled “Offshore Finance: How Capital Rules the World,” the article explains how this system evolved – one might say inevitably – from the basic imperatives of capital: to endlessly expand itself, and exploit whatever resources are available. So it does everything it can to remove “stifling” government regulations at every level. In democracies, this means controlling political discussion as much as possible, influencing elections, lobbying and pressuring elected officials, and dangling the hope of rewarding employment at the end of one’s time of “public service.”  And when these means don’t provide the desired effects, it just moves somewhere else. “Offshore finance,” say the authors, “is not solely about capital moving beyond the reach of states, but involves the rampant unbundling and commercialization of state sovereignty itself…. Capitalism only triumphs when it becomes identified with the state, when it becomes the state.”

Such a system would seem at first glance to be invulnerable. But it isn’t.

And that is because there is another “world government.”

In this case, when I say “world government” I mean a set of laws to which all humans are subject – that everyone must follow. Acting in defiance or ignorance of these laws carries severe and unavoidable penalties, without appeal or mercy. This other “world government” predates the first one, and is inherent in Creation itself. I refer, of course, to the laws of nature – of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, all the rest.

These two “governments” are now on a collision course.  The government of global capital has in effect declared war upon the natural world.  It is a war that spans the globe, but being fought for control of one entity – the planet itself. This is, in a sense, a civil world war.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: AMERICAN PSYCHOSIS

I don’t mind telling you: back in January, when I got back to America from my yearlong sojourn to Europe, I was a mess, in many different ways.

Fortunately, I had three things going for me: a well-knit community, a network of supportive friends, and access to decent mental health services. These things have made it possible for me to start the process of pulling myself together and getting on my own feet. I’m not out of the woods yet, by any means, and I have a lot of work ahead – but these resources have really come through for me, and I am grateful.

Not everyone is so fortunate, however. As I wrote in this space a couple of months ago, depression and suicide rates have become a increasing concern, one underscored by the recent high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain.

And now many people are starting not just to ask why, but to look past the simple, facile answers and search for underlying root causes – things that may not be easy to face. CNN analyst and former FOX News staffer Kirsten Powers, in a column for USA TODAY, makes a bold statement: “…most Americans are depressed, anxious or suicidal because something is wrong with our culture, not because something is wrong with them.”

There is such a thing as “endogenous” depression – depression caused by internal, physical factors, such as chemical imbalances in the brain. This can be addressed by medications. But more frequently people struggle with “exogenous” or “reactive” depression, brought about by external traumatic events or circumstances. Medications can help, along with various kinds of counseling or therapy, but only to an extent.

The “medical-industrial complex” would, of course, prefer that we only focus on the endogenous kind. They can make money, after all, off of a pharmaceutical approach to the problem.

But we know in our bones that this will not be enough… because we are all, I suspect, feeling the effects of the dysfunctions inherent in our present society. We are working harder, but with fewer tangible results and greater economic uncertainty. Even people who “succeed,” as did Bourdain and Spade, may find that mere material prosperity is not fulfilling in and of itself.

“Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong,” Powers writes. “We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.”

She also cites a recent bestseller by journalist Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions. Hari notes that “we exist largely disconnected from our extended families, friends and communities — except in the shallow interactions of social media — because we are too busy trying to ‘make it’ without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.” (Click here find some interesting videos where Mr. Hari discusses his ideas.)

Now, I don’t know if Ms. Powers is quite ready to take the next logical step and recognize the role played by modern American capitalism in creating the conditions that have led to this crisis…

But I think it might be a good place to start.

my problems with pure capitalism

Here are some of my problems with pure capitalism:

  • It only works if you can truly account for all the costs and consequences of production – but there are instead strong incentives to externalize costs onto the environment and society at large.
  • It only works if consumers have all the information they need, and the ability to make rational decisions – but there are entire industries, marketing and advertising and public relations, dedicated to the express purpose of ensuring that consumers instead make irrational decisions based on insufficient or misleading information.
  • It only works if you can assign monetary values to everything – but there are many intangibles to which such value cannot sanely be assigned.   Capitalism seeks to commoditize everything, and what it cannot commoditize it throws away as unprofitable.  Capitalism, faced with the invaluable, conflates it with the worthless.
  • The desire for profit, like any single-minded ideology, skews perception, clouds judgment, and corrupts the search for knowledge.