Sunday, August 2, 2009

Escaping The Thanatoeconomic System

For if they do these things in the green tree, what will be done in the dry?”

- Luke 23:31, World English Bible

Thanatos: death (Greek).

Let me begin with some insightful comments made by blogger Stormchild on my recent post, “Airlines And Moral Systems Failure.” That post dealt with the financial squeeze now being experienced by the major airlines due to Peak Oil and economic collapse, and my belief that airlines are now resorting to cost-cutting measures that are beyond the bounds of reasonableness, measures that put the flying public at risk.

Stormchild observed that, “...we live in an economic system that rests, ultimately, on human sacrifice, and almost none of us realize either this fact or its implications.” She also observed that, “In order to function, our system actually requires a permanent underclass, AND needs a certain number of people to be deprived of their livelihoods at regular intervals. [Consider the obscene fact that a company's stock price goes up when it indulges in mass firings.] This same system places little or no value on preserving human lives; business schools in this country will actually teach you how to determine when liability exceeds profitability – a.k.a., how many people you can afford to kill before it gets too expensive.”

These observations are quite accurate. The fact that our present official globalist economy functions in this way speaks volumes about the motivations of the masters of this economy. Our large-scale, energy- and capital-intensive industrial economy is a predatory machine run by predatory masters, and those of us who are not rich enough or well-placed enough to be its masters are its prey. That means that the majority of people on earth are prey. Over the duration of this economy, the conditions imposed on us who are prey have oscillated between moderately decent and horrible, against a backdrop of industrial and economic expansion due to the acquisition of ever larger quantities of natural resources and labor which served as feedstocks for this economy.

Now this economy and its masters are under stress as its resource base declines, and as its base of capital also shrinks. This should be of great concern to us who are the world's prey, because of the well-known tendencies and behaviors exhibited by predators under stress. The recorded history of such tendencies and behaviors give us a clue as to what we can expect from our present globalist, corporatist system and its masters as that system experiences increasing stress.

I have written about the need to foster resilient neighborhoods as preparation for a post-Peak world of economic collapse. My writing has been partly a blind, groping, feeling exploration for solutions to the immediate, present threats that I see in neighborhoods, communities and cities in the U.S. In thinking about these things, I have also read many of the writings of other thinkers, people whom I believe to be far more knowledgeable than me regarding Peak Oil, climate change, and their likely societal effects.

But I have noticed a tendency among many of these writers to think only of the scientific or technical implications of the effects of resource constraints and climate change on our social arrangements. So there are endless discussions about how post-Peak oil production declines will affect finance, global shipping and land-based transportation, or about the importance of mass transit and localized food production, or about personal preparedness along the lines of organic gardening and relocating to ideal “lifeboat” locales. Those who discuss “resilient communities” have tended to approach the subject by laying out high-level theories of optimum social organization, organization whose effectiveness is often bolstered by technological advances (see Global Guerrillas: THE RESILIENT COMMUNITY, for instance). The sense of many such writings is that resilient communities are a futurist vision that's always just around the corner.

These theories have value, and I would not discourage them. Yet they do have a blind spot. Pardon me for saying so, but many of these discussions and theorizings sound so very “upper middle-class white.” Therefore, they ignore the present relation between our predatory global economy and the large numbers of people who are its prey. This is a dangerous omission. Consider the dictionary definition of resilience: “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” In order to have this ability, one must have a stable resource base from which to draw in order to deal with the stresses of misfortune and change. Those who are deprived of that resource base are not resilient, but brittle and prone to break down. Consider a well-fed, athletic, well-rested teenager who is suddenly thrown into an ice-cold pool. The experience is undoubtedly a shock to him, yet once he swims to the side and gets out, he easily recovers from it. The same is not true of someone who is seriously ill, malnourished and sleep-deprived.

Being treated as prey robs people of the reserves of strength they need in order to be resilient, for all their resources are either consumed in coping with their predators or are taken from them by their predators. Here are some recent examples of our masters treating us as prey:

  • The U.S. Congress has been trying to pass broad “food safety” laws in response to public concerns over tainted food and food recalls. The problem is that these laws don't correct the bad practices of the large agribusinesses that produce tainted food, but rather, the laws impose such a huge regulatory burden that they drive small, sustainable farmers out of business. Thus they force us to rely on the big agribusinesses instead. Just last week, the House of Representatives passed such a bill – H.R. 2749.

  • U.S. mortgage lenders are, by and large, not cooperating with the recently enacted $75 billion Federal program to prevent foreclosures. This is because lenders who foreclose are able to collect lucrative “junk” fees on delinquent loans. Such fees include late fees, title search fees, legal filings, and appraisal fees. (Sources: Homeowners ask government in lawsuit: Where's the foreclosure relief?, and Profit motive may trump plan to modify mortgages.) Heaven help you if you get in trouble on your mortgage, because the banks sure won't – they get more money from making you homeless.

  • Amid California's recent budget crisis, the Governor was proposing a budget that would protect the outlay of State funds to the private prison industry – even though there were many headlines about the need to slash social services. At present, there are three corporations operating private prison chains in the not-so-Golden State. (Sources: Schwarzenegger Talks Private Prisons and Budget Cuts | Youth Radio, and, from Reason Magazine which should perhaps be named Un-reason Magazine for praising such an evil arrangement.) Meanwhile, “Governator” Schwarzenegger seems uninterested in genuinely rehabilitative ways of dealing with California's prison population, as these might be bad for somebody's business.

  • The City of Los Angeles has been criminalizing homelessness under the direction of its police chief, William Bratton and his “Safer City” initiative. Under this initiative, it is illegal to sit, sleep or store personal belongings on sidewalks and other public spaces. Also, if you look shabby and are caught jaywalking or loitering, the police come after you, whereas the police don't seem to notice the same offenses when done by people who don't “look” homeless. Los Angeles is just one example of the broad criminalization of homelessness in America. (Sources: Los Angeles accused of criminalizing homelessness, LA is "Meanest City" for Homeless: Study, and A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.)

I believe that these examples illustrate how our present economic masters will increasingly treat us as their opportunities for further enrichment through economic growth disappear. Even while it was expanding, the official economy always had catabolic tendencies – i.e., there were always some members of that economy who were consumed by it rather than being allowed to function as members of that economy. But as our economy continues to contract, its catabolic tendency will be amplified, and may well become its main characteristic. As more and more people slide from middle-class status to poverty, these people will increasingly discover what it means to be preyed upon, as they are consumed in order to satisfy those who are still rich.

If these things are so, then figuring out how to build resilient communities must take into account what sort of people are the prospective members of that community. Are they poor? Are they people of color? Are they both? If so, then they must not only contend with the general exigencies of post-Peak Oil, climate change and general economic collapse, but they must also be able to devise effective protection from their predators. (By the way, most of us are going to get a lot poorer.)

This is something that I don't hear many resource and sustainability activists talking about. I don't think, for instance, that the Transition Towns movement has thought about this. But this is what concerns me. How does someone keep from having his house repossessed? How do people of color protect themselves from police racial profiling and selective arrest? Where can homeless people go to find a place of stability where they can regroup? If you get thrown in jail – even for a stupid reason – how do you find a job afterward? Some of the abandoned houses I showed in my last post are in my neighborhood. How do we fix problems like this? How can poor people rebuild social safety nets that are now being dismantled by the rich? How can we stop getting jacked?

These are questions I've tried to answer in my posts on neighborhood resilience. I'm a little frustrated right now, because I haven't come up with satisfactory answers. Maybe I'm just not clever enough. But why are there so few other “collapse-aware” thinkers who are trying to tackle these things? We need answers, and right now.


Stormchild said...

Magnificent, and inspiring.

You've motivated me to start my long-overdue Potemkin's Office series on this topic. I don't know that I'll have many answers, at least at the outset. But hopefully as awareness increases and people begin to combine brainpower, constructive options will emerge.

BTW, I'm fishbelly white and live [rent] in the suburbs, and nothing you have said offends me in the least. It's all true. I grew up poorer than dirt, and any feeble economic progress I have made has come about through obtaining a first rate education and applying it.

I remember with great clarity reading the much-touted bestseller "Passages" when I was in graduate school, living hand-to-mouth because I was a 'scholarship kid'; and becoming increasingly frustrated and angry with the author for focusing only on wealthy, pampered globetrotters.

Fairytales belong in the fiction section. And for most of us, the positive [pro-social] coping options of the rich are fairytales.

For the rest of us, life looks more like this: a few years back I was horrified to discover [I'm sure you know this already, but many readers almost certainly don't] that many food banks, at least in my metropolitan area, were open for ridiculously limited hours - such as M - F, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Of course, the working poor, who need these places most, are generally required to be at work by 9 a.m. or earlier. Even if they're out by, say, 3 p.m., they often have to rely on public transportation, which is inefficient, to say the least. So these folks arrive at 3:50 PM, hungry and exhausted, to find the doors already locked.

Of course, when you're holding down a subsistence job or three, you have next to no free time, and you rarely ever get paid leave - for anything. So coming in a half day late or leaving a half day early, in order to hit the food bank during its upscale retail opening hours, is going to cost you half a day's salary. And if you make a regular practice of it, doing so will probably cost you your job.

Realizing that one's living conditions essentially condemn one to be preyed upon lifelong is a horrifying truth. For those who are better off materially - the subset with working consciences - realizing that one's living conditions absolutely require the active deprivation of others, not merely to their detriment but often to the point where their lives are demonstrably shortened, can be almost as horrifying.

It's much more soothing to fall back on helpful scapegoating stereotypes and convince yourself that the people you're passively helping to starve and deprive of decent medical care didn't really deserve to be treated like human beings anyway.

Interestingly, I've also observed that politically 'conservative' 'Christian' teachings have relied heavily on just such social stereotyping, for the past 25 years at least - probably longer - including the coup de grace, which involves teaching people that if they, themselves, should end up jobless, sick, homeless, impoverished - they are, themselves, somehow solely to blame.

'conservative' and 'Christian' are in quotes because I also know that genuine conservatism, and the actual teachings of Christ and the early Church, bear no resemblance at all to this way of thinking.

Ahma Daeus said...

Even if one does not ask or pretends not to see the rope and the flashing red flag draped around the philosophical question standing solemnly at attention in the middle of the room, it remains apparent that the mere presence of a private “for profit” driven prison business in our country undermines the U.S Constitution and subsequently the credibility of the American criminal justice system. In fact, until all private prisons in America have been abolished and outlawed, “the promise” of fairness and justice at every level of this country’s judicial system will remain unattainable. We must restore the principles and the vacant promise of our judicial system. Our government cannot continue to "job-out" its obligation and neglect its duty to the individuals confined in the correctional and rehabilitation facilities throughout this nation, nor can it ignore the will of the people that it was designed to serve and protect. There is urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of indifference, apathy, cynicism, fear, and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.
My hope is that you will support the National Public Service Council to Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) with a show of solidarity by signing "The Single Voice Petition"

Please visit our website for further information:

–Ahma Daeus
"Practicing Humanity Without A License"…

TH in SoC said...

Stormchild, thanks for your comments. I agree with you about the perversion of the terms "conservative" and "Christian" by the American Religious Right. I shall say a few more things about this on my other blog, From SoC to Points North. I will also add your blog Potemkin's Office to my blogrolls.

Stormchild said...

I am looking forward to reading more of your thoughts both here and on SoC to Points North.

I've already linked from Gale Warnings to all three of your blogs - I will do the same from Potemkin's Office.

Please keep exploring this issue and sharing your thoughts, as the Spirit moves you. I've been approaching the concept from a psychosocial sciences POV, but it's as a political, economic, technological and theological reality that we all have to deal with it, and your writing, across all those domains, is superb.