Archive for July, 2012

Interview on Voice America


The Joy of National Default


Alexander Wells
At 78 pages of scholarly, somewhat jargon-laden prose, Trade-Off: Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion by David Korowicz is not quick reading, nor is it light reading, but it is important reading. It puts a lot of definition to the concept of cascaded failure, in which financial collapse inexorably leads to political and economic collapse with no possibilities for arresting this process or even altering its course. This may seem like a terribly pessimistic message, and, indeed, it is hard to imagine that it would provoke a cheerful reaction in any sane person. But for those who feel that it is important to understand what is unfolding, Korowicz offers a large dose of realism. Still, a fair warning is called for: “Abandon all optimism all ye who enter here!”
Most of us face a number of mental roadblocks when we think about such matters. First, our experience is one of gradualism: an action produces an equal and opposite reaction; after a disturbance, equilibrium is eventually restored; human institutions have permanence and evolve slowly. Second, our experience is compartmentalized. If the subject is sovereign defaults, then experts in finance are there for us to consult; if it is the failure of global trade, then we turn to experts in business. Sociologists will tell us about the negative effects all of this has on society, while psychologists will talk about individual patients but cannot address the societal causes of their problems. But systemic collapse is an interdisciplinary problem that defies all attempts at compartmentalization. It promises to sweep away such highly specialized domains of knowledge by driving down social complexity. Third, there is the question of motivation: what, beyond intellectual curiosity, would compel people to invest time and effort in a detailed study of a depressing subject which has no practical application? The topic tends to attract people who have plenty of free time and a morbid imagination. Still, I feel that there is great value in being able to foresee how events will unfold: a foreseen nasty development is still much better than a nasty surprise.
Our intuitive sense of gradualism is a product of our experience. Sudden transitions are often lethal, and this means that those who experience them are often not available for subsequent consultation. For example, we feel that cars are reasonably safe, and although great multitudes of people who died in auto accidents would disagree, they are in no position to make their opinions heard. Most of our remaining experts and pundits have led sheltered, boring lives with little experience of anything out of the ordinary. The few who survived one or two terrifying episodes of great discontinuity feel lucky to have survived and prefer not to recall them too often or in too much detail. The common understanding is that freak phenomena do occur, but an eventual return to some sort of equilibrium always occurs as well, eventually.
The opposite viewpoint can be, and is expounded by Korowicz and others, but has the drawback of being rather highly intellectual and abstract, offering little that is experiential or intuitive. This makes the exposition less than optimally effective for many people. Most people look out the window and see cars driving around and people going in and out of banks and shops and offices. But to really understand what underpins the stability of this scheme we have to be able to see, with our mind\’s eye, a dynamic system that can maintain homeostatic equilibrium and recover from shocks when all of its parameters remain within a certain range. Let\’s try a simple metaphor. Suppose you are sitting in the kitchen. On a saucer in the middle of the kitchen table is a pretty blue marble. You are in an earthquake zone. As tremors hit, the marble rolls around the saucer, but it never rolls out of the saucer. This is a dynamic system within its stability range. But then a bigger shock hits, a chunk falls out of the ceiling and smashes the saucer, the marble skitters off the table, rolls through the gap under the door, down the stairs, down the street, and falls into a storm drain. In other words, the system takes small shocks in stride, but big shocks destroy it completely. Where the dividing line between small and big shocks runs—nobody really knows, but that doesn\’t matter provided we know that the shocks are only going to get bigger. And we do know that.
Now let\’s tackle a bigger dynamic system: global finance. At this point in time, all of the highly developed economies are 1. very highly indebted and 2. are either shrinking or not growing. This is not a stable situation: “Because credit is charged at interest, credit expansion is required to service previously issued credit. In order for the issued credit-money to retain its value relative to goods and services in the economy, GDP must increase commensurate with credit-money expansion.” (p. 33) The end result of this process is national default. At this time, the fact that Greece is in some stage of national default is no longer controversial. Nor does it appear likely that the problems of Spain, Italy or Ireland can be sorted out.
Nor is it likely that growth will resume. First, there is the problem with natural resources, oil foremost among them. It is too expensive to allow growth, and it can\’t get any cheaper because the remaining marginal resources are, well, marginal—deep water, tar sands, shale oil and other dregs—and are expensive to produce. Second, there is a problem with levels of debt: too high a level of debt chokes off economic growth. Third, we are at a point now where it is not possible to stimulate growth: the latest figures are that it takes a 2.3-fold increase in debt to produce one unit of GDP growth. We have achieved diminishing returns with regard to growth: we need to dig a bigger hole in which to put all this debt, and are willing to go deeper into debt to do it, but no matter how fast we dig, the debt just keeps piling up next to the hole. The politicians still talk about growth, but it\’s a race to nowhere.
It may seem strange, but a national default can be seen as a positive development: bad debt is wiped out, new, sound money is printed and put into circulation, and the economy recovers. This has been observed in Argentina, Russia and Iceland. Could similarly positive things happen for larger pieces of the global economy? Perhaps it\’s a messaging issue; let\’s call it a “jubilee” instead. “We can imagine the spread of financial contagion expands, and is then arrested by some action of governments and central banks. Suddenly, all banks are solvent,… and trade and other credit is again available.” (p. 70) One key observation is that this would have to happen rather quickly, almost instantly, and require a level of international coordination that would be completely unprecedented. Korowicz is not confident that this is possible: “…we are locked into a vast and unimaginably complex fabric of conditions that we barely understand… we live in a culture that often assumes that being able to conceptualize major change, means such change is possible…” (p. 75)
Still, national defaults have happened before, and global finance recovered, so why wouldn\’t it now? Well, there is the little question of size. The significance of a national default varies in accordance with the size of the nation\’s economy relative to the size of the global economy. Argentina\’s default was a non-event at the global scale. Russia\’s default almost took the entire financial system with it when Long-Term Capital Management suddenly failed as a result. The Federal Reserve had to step in and bail it out. The subprime mortgage crisis in the US and the failure of Lehman Brothers brought global finance even closer to the brink, and required much bigger bailouts. And now, with Greece, Spain and Italy on the rocks, bailouts are coming fast and furious, but each one seems to restore confidence for a shorter and shorter period of time. All of these shocks add together, and at some point one of them will cause the global financial system “to cross a tipping point, causing cascading failure that would devastate the global financial system” (Korowicz, p. 11) The effect of each shock is to make the system as a whole less resilient. After each localized national default (Russia, Argentina, Iceland) recovery was critically dependent on access to a relatively healthy world economy and financial system. As we move from one financial crisis to the next, we continue to assume that each one will produce a proportional reaction. But any one of them can move the global system out of its linear range, and cause a flash crash from which there is no recovery because the process turns out to be irreversible: the complex global financial system cannot be recreated once the global economy that gave rise to it no longer exists.
There is an obvious reason why there have been so many bank failures and bailouts occurring in the countries affected by the crisis: these institutions are acting as canaries in a coal mine. Banks are designed to finance economic growth; they are not designed to finance economic contraction. In a deflationary slide caused by their loan portfolios going bad, they quickly go bankrupt. Their retained earnings and shareholder capital only amount to 2-9% of their loan portfolio, and so it doesn\’t take much of a loss to put them under. In a contracting economy all banks fail, but this process has been contained so far by governments and central banks that have been willing to bail them out. This process cannot go on forever: “In the end the only backstop a central bank has is the ability to print infinite money, and if it has to go that far, it has failed because it will have destroyed confidence in the money.” (p. 61)
One major complication is that the financial system does not exist in isolation from the rest of the economy: “The fabric underpinning the exchange of real goods and services is enabled by money, credit, and financial intermediation.” Korowicz carefully goes through the process by which financial failure causes an instant breakdown in commerce. Cargos have to be financed. This is done by banks on opposite sides of the planet that are willing to grant and to honor letters of credit, which are paid once the cargo is landed. If letters of credit cannot be obtained, cargo does not move. In a crisis, banks mistrust each other, and denying letters of credit is one of the easiest ways for them to decrease their exposure to counterparty risk (the chance that the buyer\’s bank, which drew up the letter of credit, won\’t be able to make the payment). In turn, missing shipments mean empty supermarket shelves within days, idled production at factories due to missing components, standstills at construction sites and maintenance operations, hospitals running out of drugs and supplies and so on. Within a week, local fuel inventories are depleted and transportation is disrupted. Modern manufacturing and distribution networks rely on a global supply chain and very thin, just-in-time inventories. High-tech manufacturing is most easily disrupted, because key components have just one or two suppliers, and little or no possibility for substitution. Experience of various disruptions (Japanese tsunami in 2011, Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in 2010) shows that the impact of a disruption does not scale linearly with its length but accelerates—and recovery takes disproportionately longer. Within a month or so the electric grid collapses due to lack of supplies and maintenance; it is probably at this point that recovery becomes impossible.
But even before that point the contagion will start to feed on itself. The region of negative feedback where homeostasis is maintained is surrounded by regions of positive feedback where the system is driven further and further from equilibrium. For example, “The financial system… would not just be collapsing because of unsustainable levels of debt-to-income, but because that income would be collapsing as production halted and its future prospects turned dire.” (p. 69) Nor would the economy of goods and services be spared similar degenerative processes: “One would expect a massive reorientation away from discretionary consumption towards primary needs—food, essential energy, medicine and communication.” (p. 62) As a result, many businesses would fail, further depressing demand, while maintenance would be deferred to the point where much of the infrastructure becomes non-functional. Much of that infrastructure is designed for a growing economy as well, and will become a millstone around our necks: in a shrinking economy, the fixed costs of existing critical infrastructure give rise to negative economies of scale, making extensive infrastructure unaffordable at any level. The global aspect of the global economy would be perhaps the fastest to disappear: citing the evolutionary economist Paul Seabright, Korowicz writes: “Trust between unrelated strangers outside their own tribal grouping cannot be taken for granted.” (p. 23) Trust between strangers builds up slowly but is lost rapidly. In a shrinking economy, “taking care of one\’s own” becomes more important than maintaining a trust relationship with strangers across the world.
There is a cautionary tale to be extracted from all this, and it is the obvious one: that usury results in collapse. Usury—lending at interest—is only viable in an expanding economy; once economic growth stops, the burden of usurious debt causes it to implode. “The whole of the financial and economic system is dependent upon credit dynamics and leverage.” (p. 8) “Debt is now not just a feature of countries and banks—it is a system stress in the globalized economy as a whole.” (p. 9) It is no accident that Dante\’s Inferno consigned usurers to the lowest pit of the seventh circle of Hell. But beyond waiting for the usurers to die and get assigned to the appropriate pit for all eternity, what is there for us to do? Not lend or borrow at interest? Well, that\’s the one problem we certainly won\’t have to worry about!
Other than that, first and foremost, no matter who you are or where you are or how many wooden shekels you\’ve squirreled away under your floorboards, don\’t expect a soft landing. After reading this treatise, I am now more than ever convinced that sovereign debt default is not some sort of spring shower that passes and then the sun comes out again. If Korowicz is right—and he appears to have done his homework—then at some point what is now still a gradual process will lead to a sudden, irreversible, catastrophic disruption of daily life. (And looking at the reports coming out of Greece and Spain, imagining such a scenario no longer requires much of an imagination.) Korowicz does not have a lot to offer when it comes to practical adaptations to survive such a systemic breakdown, beyond stating the obvious, which I will repeat: “Initially the most exposed would be those with little cash at hand, low home inventories, mobility restrictions and weak family and community ties.” In other words, be prepared, and do your best to give yourself a chance.

Politics of the Unconscious


Mike Mitchell
Across the US flags are flying at half-mast in honor of the twelve people killed and 58 injured by James Holmes during the midnight premiere of the new Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado. Meanwhile, Norway is commemorating the 69 people shot dead by Andras Brevik at the Labor Party youth camp on Utoya Island a year ago. Norway\’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said that Brevik “brought Norwegians together in defense of democracy and tolerance.” Unlike the much higher civilian death counts coming out of places such as Afghanistan, such events never fail to shock us. We are fine with intercommunal violence, and happy to call it a “war.” In fact, the ability to kill people with impunity in remote corners of the planet makes us feel stronger and safer. But intracommunalviolence shocks us, because it compromises our sense of safety.

Here is a question for Minister Stoltenberg: Do appeals to (and enforcement of) tolerance make repeats of such incidents more frequent or less frequent, and, if so, why? (By the way, if your elected leader doesn\’t thoughtfully respond to your thoughtful questions, then you are not living in a democracy.) In his book Violence (Macmillan, 2010) Slavoj Žižek writes: “European civilization finds it easier to tolerate different ways of life precisely on account of what its critics usually denounce as its weakness and failure, namely the alienation of social life. One of the things alienation means is that distance is woven into the very social texture of everyday life. Even if I live side by side with others, in my normal state I ignore them. […] Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that sometimes a dose of alienation is indispensable for peaceful coexistence. Sometimes alienation is not a problem but a solution.” (p. 59, my italics)
But the rest of the time alienation is a problem. Politics serves several functions. There are the technocratic functions of governance, of formulating and enacting policies and of maintaining order. And then there is the psychological function of making people feel that they belong. Among groups with a strong ethnic, religious or regional identification the sense of belonging can sometimes be internally generated and remain independent of the government, or governments. At other times the people and the government become dangerously decoupled: “I love my country but I hate its government” is something you might hear from a Russian, or an American, or a Syrian, or an Israeli…

The need to belong is always there, and, when frustrated, leads to dire consequences. To belong is to feel included among those with whom one can strongly identify: conversely, the ability to belong presupposes the ability to exclude those who do not belong. A society that is sufficiently alienated to be tolerant of institutions that are incompatible and irreconcilable (gay/interracial marriage plus Sharia law plus white supremacism equals zero) is no longer able to succeed at the essential task of excluding those who do not belong. If you are Norwegian, the country is Norway, and you are now forced to accept that people who are not the tiniest bit Norwegian belong just as much as you do, then, depending on your psychological make-up, you may or may not end up with a major psychological problem, and do your flawed yet heroic best to pass it on to the country as a whole. This is a problem faced all over Europe: an aging, shrinking native population living within an increasingly globalized, generic culture dominated by English and an influx of immigrants, migrants and refugees all add up to a deteriorating sense of belonging.

In the United States the problem is significantly worse. Here, there is no unique national language, no single ethnic, historical or cultural identity, and the nation as a whole is a synthetic entity—the result of an explicit political pact. We are expected to derive our sense of belonging from our inclusion in a set of impersonal public institutions and participation in a scripted political process. But in spite of what our handlers in politics and the media tell us, our gut sense is that these public institutions do not belong to us, and that the political process is one of manipulation rather than inclusion. Many of us know full well that we live in a kleptocracy that prioritizes international financial interests and the interests of a small, privileged rentier class above all else. More and more of us are being excluded—based on our inability to pay for a middle-class lifestyle.

Where do we belong, then? With the Republicans/Democrats? Looking at the current presidential contest, in one corner we have a wealthy Mormon aristocrat posing as a self-made man, while in the other corner we have an exotic product of the American academe posing as a man of the people and, because he randomly happens to be brown-skinned, as a champion of the children of former slaves. Both are, in fact, faithful servants of financial interests, many of them transnational or foreign. Both will maintain the power of the center at the cost of the periphery, and extend the milking, the bleeding and the fleecing of the people for as long as possible. Meanwhile, the US Congress performs a sadomasochistic folie à deux on behalf of their corporate sponsors. Only 17% of the people approve of their performance. Such a high number is perhaps explained by the fact that roughly 20% of Americans are mentally ill. (Even so, it would appear that a few percent of the mentally ill are insufficiently delusional to approve of congressional performance.) The people as a whole, sane or otherwise, may be forgiven for thinking that they don\’t belong, and for acting accordingly.

Inability to maintain a psychologically healthy sense of belonging gives rise to a certain consistent syndrome, first described by Wilfred Bion in Experiences in Groups and Other Papers (New York: Basic Books 1961). When the dominant culture fails to produce a sense of belonging, the human mind regresses to a pre-verbal state, where it is ruled by innate, subconscious impulses that are common to higher social animals. Depending on one\’s personality and situation, one or another of three major impulses described by Bion may come to dominate the behavior of the individual, and, in due course, the society as a whole.

When it comes to aggressive young males, the sense of disconnection produces in them a heightened sense of insecurity and anxiety which directly affects the sympathetic nervous system. This may cause an animal to behave more aggressively, or, in the case of the human animal, to gather rocks and to find and sharpen sticks, or, technology and finances allowing, to purchase semiautomatic assault weapons and lots of ammunition. This process may then progress through several stages. The end result is the spontaneous development of a warrior mentality—a cultural universal marked by a desire to prove oneself in battle, contempt for death, and a tendency toward what Emile Durkheim called “altruistic suicide.”

The pattern is the same among Homeric heroes, Mongol conquerers, Japanese samurai, European knights of the age of chivalry or Moscow\’s bandits and racketeers during the violent 1990s. Meaning is created out of meaninglessness through heroic acts of violence performed in keeping with a code of honor. Inclusion in the elite group is achieved via violent rites of passage and creates group loyalty and a sense of belonging. The gun cult in the United States is a strong precursor to this development, and the sporadic shooting sprees are its individual manifestations. This may at some point progress to the point of becoming a mass phenomenon. If it does, it will annihilate the current ruling class and the process of aristocratic formation will begin anew.

Another subconscious impulse takes over the minds of those who feel themselves to be weak and vulnerable. Here the subconscious urge is an infantile desire to find and cling to a strong, lord-like father figure. In the United States, this impulse finds its expression in widespread adherence to organized religion with its invisible yet omnipotent leader. The illusion of serving the leader, together with the conviction that all that happens is in accordance with the leader\’s inscrutable will, helps to reduce the anxiety that is born of helplessness and alienation. Rhetorical or physical attacks on those who refuse to follow one\’s chosen divine leader offer a way to exclude those who do not belong, and to create a sense of solidarity, loyalty and belonging.
Lastly, there is a third subconscious impulse which has its roots in primate psychology, one that predominantly affects women: the impulse to ingratiate oneself into an imaginary group of superior individuals as a beta-female (or, in particularly sad cases, as a beta-male) in order to gain a sense of belonging. It manifests itself in the expectation of the emergence of something wonderful yet unborn, that will be the result of a successful mating between an alpha-male and an alpha-female. It finds its expression in the celebrity cult, via television programs and tabloids sold at supermarket check-out counters. Lower-class women follow with great interest the antics of the rich and famous: who is getting married, who is getting a divorce, and most importantly, who is pregnant, because, you see, one of these siliconed, Botoxed bimbos will one day give birth to our new Savior. Their sense of belonging, such as it is, comes from vicariously participating in the lives of people they consider their betters.
It is notable how smoothly the three impulses have repeatedly combined throughout history. In act one, our hero takes up arms against all who wish to oppose him and triumphs in battle; others eagerly fall in under his banner. In act two, our hero undergoes an instant and spontaneous metamorphosis from a rampaging bandit to an anointed sovereign and the people cheer and shout “Hail Cæsar!” Optionally, the bandit is deified and temples are erected in his honor at great public expense. In act three, the anointed bandit takes a bride, and women throw flowers at their feet as they walk in procession, and await with eager anticipation the arrival of their sacred progeny. In act four, the bandit dies and his degenerate, bickering progeny swiftly destroys the people\’s sense of belonging. The progeny is then butchered by the next hero/bandit, and the cycle repeats.
The United States may not yet be quite at the bottom of this cycle, but notice how the three ingredients are already in place and looming large over the political landscape. The gun cult is massive and unstoppable, and we have regular shooting sprees that shock us but also inspire copycats eager to outdo the last heinous deed in death toll and shock value. Religion is a huge part of public life, and after each shooting spree Americans head to a church and pray for deliverance to an omnipotent yet invisible father figure. After the effect of the shooting spree wears off, they go right back to celebrity worship, watching the antics of the Kardashians and keeping track of which celeb is preggers with what other celeb\’s baby. It seems like this whole thing going according to a plan—the whole three-car train is on rails and rolling downhill on its own.

Here is a quote from the last Batman movie: “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” I don\’t; but how do you suppose anyone can stop this? It started before we were born, and it will end long after were are dead. Maybe we are supposed to just watch.

Unlearn, Rewild


One of the least useful words in the English language is the word “wilderness.” I grew up wandering the woods, and, to me, where the road and the trail end and the animal (and human) paths begin is a point of fundamental transition: beyond this point lies something else—an older, perfectly ordinary, normal way of being, in which we are just another animal among many others. (An even more atrocious term is “unimproved land”—which is what developers call land that they haven\’t had a chance to bulldoze yet; “undestroyed land” seems more like it.) Perhaps a more reasonable perspective is to not call “wilderness” anything—it\’s just another piece of the planet—and instead find a word that applies to its opposite: human blight, perhaps? Human infestation? You get my point.

So, how is life in the human blight zone working out for you? Isn\’t the “civilized” living arrangement starting to seem a bit problematic? The corn crop (which is where Americans get most of their calories) is in the process of getting torched by a record heat wave, caused by global warming, in turn caused by burning fossil fuels which are a key element of life in the human blight zone. Corn prices are up over 40%. These are the only terms in which we can perceive the phenomenon of crop failure; we can\’t see, touch, smell or taste the corn, it has been reduced to just a statistic. And when there isn\’t enough of it, you too will be reduced to just a statistic. How do you like the sound of that?

A lot of people don\’t like that at all, and react, strangely enough, by using the word “unsustainable.” You see, everything would be fine if we made it sustainable, by recycling or putting up solar panels or driving electric cars or what have you. We need to transition to a sustainable future, and for that we need a transition plan. We\’ve been following the wrong plan, you see—the plan to exterminate all life on earth—but with a new plan, one that leaves out the bit about the extermination, all that would change, right? Why doesn\’t it occur to anyone that the human industrial monoculture is, if anything, a little too sustainable? It may well sustain itself right up to the point where it kills everyone. A bit less sustainability might be a wise choice at this point. Then small groups of feral humans (and lots of other animals) could thrive indefinitely amid the ruins; maybe even grow a little corn here and there.

There are entire shelves of books full of talk about “preparation,” “survival,” “sustainability” and so forth. Just about all of them avoid the real issue. And so I was very happy to come across one that doesn\’t: Unlearn, Rewild by Miles Olson, which is just going to press as I write this. Miles is not a theorist but a practitioner: he and his group of friends have been living off the land as squatters for many years. He doesn\’t mince words: we “civilized” humans are living in a “human monoculture” prison; we have fallen into a technology trap.

How can you get out of this trap? Miles does not mince words: escape is illegal. If you want to escape, you have to break the law. “As soon as you begin to act outside the system, you are breaking its rules… Red handcuffs or blue handcuffs. Anything too far outside this culture’s mandate is not accepted; non-participation is not a legitimate option… Really, if we are all forced to work as part of a death machine, with no other viable alternative, where is the possibility for a sustainable future? The answer is obvious: in breaking the rules. Or, to put it more accurately, breaking the ridiculously insane rules.” [p. 48] Need an example of “ridiculously insane rules”? “It is illegal to salvage roadkill in many places, so learn your local laws and act appropriately. Whether that means following them is up to you.” [p. 107]

Does this mean that Miles is one of those easily dismissed idealistic back-to-the-land types? Judge for yourself:

If everyone disenchanted with this culture decided to wander off into the lonesome wilderness, it would have absolutely no effect on its workings. The back-to-the-land communities of the ’60s and ’70s may provide an illustration of this: a movement that was solid and strong in urban centers scattered into the countryside and gently faded away in dysfunctional utopian communities.

I think the most strategic place to be is on the fringes of this culture, in rural areas and at the edges of cities and towns. There one can interact with both civilization and wildness, dancing back and forth between both, feeding off the mass human energy and non-human energy. For those who feel called, there is important work to be done in the cities and in the wild blue yonder.

What we need is to build autonomous spaces, to create havens where the tools and skills we are going to need can be developed, and this can happen anywhere. Actually, it needs to be happening everywhere.

With that out of the way, Miles moves on to tools and skills, and there are pages and pages of them. What\’s covered is comprehensive, almost universally useful and is rarely presented as clearly and memorably. Unlearning plays a big part: the first world standards on which the surrounding culture insists need to go by the wayside. A diet of animal protein and saturated animal fat is good for you; a diet of soya, wheat and corn cause physical and mental difficulties. Veganism is disregarded as a viable alternative because it relies on industrial agriculture. “There is no guilt-free food option for us (except for maybe bankers, politicians and the like, if you’re into that) and there shouldn’t be.” [p. 99] Meat does not need to be refrigerated (which is good news, since there won\’t be refrigeration). It can cure at room temperature (making it taste better) and can be smoked to preserve it longer. Maggots taste like what they\’ve been eating; lots of cultures eat maggots (and so will this one once people get hungry enough). Many types of vegetables can be preserved by allowing them to ferment in their own juices with a bit of salt.

There are chapters on medicinal plants, on trapping (eating meat does not require firearms) on tanning hides and on dressing animal carcases. There is a chapter on non-industrial birth control. There is even a chapter on blending in and going undetected (basic prescription: act white; in this culture non-white people get locked up and exterminated). Amazing bits of information are scattered throughout: need a non-industrial substitute for Viagra?—try deer testicles; they taste like hot dogs. If there is one chapter missing, it\’s the one on gathering food in the intertidal zone, which is dead easy and provides good nutrition. Mussels and dulse taste great and are easy to catch. This is probably because on Vancouver Island where Miles lives the coast is privately owned, densely populated and mostly off-limits. Still, I found it quite possible to go and gather at low tide (provided you dress like a tourist and wave and smile and generally act white). There also isn\’t enough mention of wild mushrooms.

In all, I think this is a very good book to keep around. I don\’t have a lot of room for books (or anything else, for that matter) and I am constantly paring down my library by giving books away, but I think that this one will be a keeper. By the way, the fiddlehead on the cover (not mentioned in the text, so I will mention it here) is edible too, sautéed, stir fried or pickled. Enjoy.

Peak Oil Oppositional Disorder: Neurosis or Psychosis?


[En français

The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has grown to include 297 disorders, but it seems that there is always room for one more.

Richard Heinberg recently published an article that addresses various recent claims that Peak Oil is no longer a concern. His term for the phenomenon is “peak denial.” It sounds good, and dovetails nicely with Richard\’s overall theme of “peak everything.” It\’s a thoughtful piece that does a thorough job of exposing the surreal nature of the optimists\’ projections, and I have no issues with his argument. I do, however, have an issue with his terminology. First, since denial does not happen to be a nonrenewable resource with a characterizable depletion profile, its peak, should we detect one, is not particularly meaningful, because it could just as easily peak again tomorrow and then again next century. Second, I suspect that “denial” is no longer the right word to describe the social phenomenon we are currently observing. I think that Ugo Bardi pointed us in the right direction: in his article reacting to George Monbiot\’s assertion that \”We were wrong about peak oil, there is enough to fry us all,\” Ugo characterized Monbiot\’s approach to Peak Oil using another word: “delusion.”
If you feel that the distinction between denial and delusion is just a minor, innocuous terminological difference—a gratuitous splitting of hairs on my part—then pardon me while I whip out my Sigmund Freud: in The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis [1924] he wrote the following: “Neurosis does not disavow the reality, it ignores it; psychosis disavows it and tries to replace it.” [p. 185] What psychosis replaces reality with is delusion.
Let\’s take this one step at a time. Denial is where you know something full well (e.g., that there is a finite amount of economically recoverable oil and that we have already burned through about half of it) but refuse to consider it as important. Denial is symptomatic of neurosis. Neurotics are not considered particularly dangerous; they can be quite annoying, and they can sometimes pose a threat to themselves, but they are, in general, not considered to pose a threat to society. They can also be quite charming: Woody Allen parlayed his neuroses into a successful acting/directing career. (In German the title of his film Annie Hall is Stadtneurotiker—“urban neurotic.”)
Delusion, on the other hand, is symptomatic of psychosis. Now, when was the last you ran across a charming, urbane, popular, successful psychotic? Back to Freud: old Sigmund distinguishes two types of thinking: there is secondary process thinking—the good kind—the domain of the well-adjusted, socialized self, grounded in consensual reality, reasonableness, rationality and logic. And then there is primary, or archaic process thinking—the bad kind—the product of obsession, compulsion, hallucination and… here we go… delusion. The path that leads from neurosis to psychosis is a regression toward a more primitive, archaic, infantile self. Take your typical neurotic (refuses to face Peak Oil, spouts gibberish about it when pressed), put that neurotic through a terrible, ego-destroying crisis, and that individual may regress and lapse into psychosis.
What happens to individuals also happens to entire societies. Take a neurotic Peak Oil-denying industrial civilization, put it through a terrible global financial crisis, tell it that economic growth is over forever, and what you get a psychotic, delusional industrial civilization. In Civilization and its Discontents [1930] Freud wrote of the capacity of delusions to propel an entire culture toward disintegration in a maelstrom of violence, and in Constructions in Analysis [1937] he pointed out that once delusional thinking permeates an entire culture, including its religion and its politics, that culture becomes inaccessible to logical argument. Delusion is a sort of tyranny—internal in the case of a sick individual, external in the case of a sick culture—that traps reality within specific images, precluding any possibility of self-understanding or objectivity.
This is a rather important point to take on board for those who continue to patiently argue the case for Peak Oil: to a psychotic, anyone who disagrees with her is automatically the enemy, and, since psychotics create their own reality, it is just a tiny step for her to then declare that the Peak Oil movement actually caused Peak Oil and is therefore to blame. It is quite typical for a psychotic to project delusions onto others in an effort to make them act as parts of her own enraged, uncontrollable self, because identifying the threat as her own self leads to an uncontrollable panic. This type of projection is a psychotic\’s main means of exercising power over others. Now, let\’s keep in mind that confronting a delusional mob is not the same as confronting a delusional patient in a psych ward, where there is a red panic button on the wall that you can push at any time, and nurses will rush in to restrain and sedate the patient. We have to be careful: when a psychotic society acts out, there is no-one to restrain it.
Let us look at the progression. The chant “Drill, baby drill!” at Sarah Palin\’s political rallies was a denialist, neurotic response to Peak Oil—an obsessive-compulsive reaction to the news that oil is running out. Neurotics often develop rituals which, though ineffectual in any practical sense, comfort them and temporarily reduce their level of anxiety. A typical example is compulsive hand-washing in an OCD-sufferer. And indeed we went on to see a ridiculous amount of drilling activity, most of it not particularly productive. But then something quite different came along: subsequent pronouncements that the US is about to become energy-independent are of an entirely different nature. These are born of delusions of omnipotence which are very common in psychotic patients. Also, psychotic obsessions often have physical mutilation as their objective, using the physical body as a surface on which to express anxiety and dread. It is something less than a metaphor to say that for a society, its body is the land on which it lives. Is fracking (hydraulic fracturing), which is ineffectual in any practical sense, but causes ghastly environmental and financial damage, not just such a psychotic self-mutilation?
Here is another instance of the same progression: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 initially produced a largely neurotic response. One instance of it is what\’s often been described as “security theater” carried out by the Transportation Safety Administration at airports in the US. The screening system is sufficiently porous for anyone who cares to do so to smuggle through a weapon and even a bomb, but everyone is forced to submit to a humiliating charade with sexual overtones (groping). The entire process is an institutionalized obsessive-compulsive coping mechanism: an attempt to control the society\’s anxiety level through nonsensical rituals. But a few years later a very different behavior evolved: endless “surgical” drone aircraft strikes in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan thought to be controlled by the Taleban. The idea is to exterminate the enemy through physical assassination. From a rational perspective the strategy is nonsense: the Taleban, who are considered the enemy, are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns; the Pashtun code of honor, Pashtunwali, requires family members to avenge all murders (although payment of restitution is also acceptable); there are some 40 million Pashtuns. Every time a drone kills a Pashtun, another Pashtun has to join the Taleban and go try and kill an American. If the goal is to minimize American deaths, then the winning strategy is obvious: Americans should stop killing Pashtuns. But if your country has shifted gears from neurosis to psychosis, then rational arguments no longer apply because in your own mind you are now omnipotent and must surgically excise the Other, or face uncontrollable panic.
One more symptom: the psychotic condition is often accompanied by a sense of unlimited entitlement, and, surely enough, one thing I consistently hear from Americans is: “All we have to do is keep printing dollars because nobody can stop us.”
Freud was certainly not the first to spot the connection between the psychotic self and the psychotic society. Plato, in Book 9 of The Republic, drew the connection between the tyrannical state and the tyrannical self, the two existing in a reciprocal relationship, one reinforcing the other in a symbiotic psychosis. Psychotic delusion on the personal level becomes ideology at the group level; both possess the power to annihilate the Other—be it the foreigner or the domestic subversive. “We communicate with the psychotic part of our self by locating that communication in our politics. We only hide or repress or split off the inaccessible side of who we are and project outward, as collective phantasies, toxic emotions that take shape in political programs, acts and ideologies.” [James M. Glass, Psychosis and Power, 1995, p. 169]
Greek tragedy depicted psychosis as commentary on public life. And this, I think, is as it should be: drama, literature and religion all offer powerful ways to channel our unconscious urges and psychotic impulses, keeping our communal self from disintegrating even during the worst crisis imaginable. It is better to face psychosis as part of a group, because an individual disintegrating self is painful even to watch: “if such persons are not howling, weeping, cutting themselves with whatever they can get their hands on, smearing feces on the wall, mumbling incoherently, or shouting profanities, they lie in bed staring at the ceiling… Disintegrating selves possess no sense of community, reciprocity or reality as a continuing historical experience and little, if any, self-respect or dignity.” [ibid., p. 155]
According to Dr. Glass, a culture of psychosis is incompatible with democracy: “A personal world of limitation, respect, shared understandings, regard for the body, sensitivity to others, implies a political world of tolerance, respect for rights, and acknowledgement of the right of the other to live without domination. [Psychosis], however, provokes domination and destruction; it is tragic, like the madness of an Oedipus at Colonus or the torment of Medea, reflecting the tragedy not only of her family but of an entire society and culture.” [ibid., p. 130] Indeed, the parallels between psychosis and tyranny almost draw themselves. Take this famous utterance by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler\’s Minister of Propaganda: “Our task here is surgical… drastic incisions, or some day Europe will perish of the Jewish disease.” How different is that from a certain schizophrenic patient described by Dr. Glass who kept insisting that his legs are poisoning his body and must be amputated, and that, once they are gone, he is sure that he will be able to live and remain healthy for a trillion years? (Would that be his personal trillion-year Reich, I wonder?)
A society\’s ability to remain amenable to reason, to negotiate, to respect differences and so on rests on a fragile foundation that is made up of illusions such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or “government by, of and for the people,” or “liberty and justice for all,” or “a system of checks and balances” and so forth. “Illusion is what binds democratic communities together; delusion destroys democratic process and function.” [ibid., p. 184] Most of these, while not strictly counterfactual, are not meant as statements of fact and are indefensible as propositions but are accepted on faith. (“Checks and balances” is total fake; the US Supreme Court upholds allfederal laws.) The biggest illusion of all is called “The American Dream”: “Is it still real?” a recent copy of Time Magazine asks right on its cover. Is believing in a dream not the essence of illusion? When illusions break down, they are replaced with delusions. “The result, in both the self and the community, is tragedy.” [ibid., p. 176] Loss of the American Dream may well lead the individual citizen to loss of identity, ego disintegration, psychotic rage and compulsive self-mutilation and the nation to an explosion of racism, jingoism, fanaticism, xenophobia, scapegoating, witch-hunts… in short, to tyranny.
And this brings us to the question of political leadership. Political leaders maintain or create our foundational illusions, mainly by indulging our phantasies. These phantasies are of two kinds: conscious and unconscious, and it is the unconscious ones that are the more politically potent. Societies tend to select leaders that represent them, and psychologically sick societies—the ones whose unconscious phantasies happen to be on fire—tend to select the sickest individuals to represent their particular disorder.
Free-market capitalism, with its Hobbesian justification of the laws of the marketplace, with its competitive, exclusionary, brutal, possessive individualism, elevates pathological narcissism, granting it the status undisputed, unavoidable economic reality. In doing so, it selects for sociopaths as leaders: individuals who lack empathy or conscience. There seems to be a certain wiring problem with their brains: you can shock them repeatedly, and they still won\’t cringe when you tell them that you are about to shock them again. They seem to lack both emotions and emotional memory, but are often excited by the suffering of others. “The higher you go up the ladder, the greater the number of sociopaths you\’ll find there,” says Martha Stout of Harvard Medical School, author of The Psychopath Next Door. Indeed, Robert Hare, author of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, has estimated that the prevalence of sociopaths among America\’s CEOs is much higher than in the general population, higher even than among the prison population. The ones who are not sociopaths do their best to emulate the ones who are, but rarely do as well, because their attempts to maximize shareholder value are often hampered by inconvenient and awkward feelings of sympathy, pity, remorse and dread. (The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used interchangeably and mean the same thing, but if you look at the checklist you will realize that those who score high on it are quite different from your garden-variety asshole.)
Americans should feel lucky to be ruled by sociopaths; being ruled by a psychotic is much worse. Psychotic societies select for leaders such as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot; the effect is a society that is effectively decapitated. A political body can continue to function, for a time, with its head amputated. Its army and bureaucracy intact, it gallops around as a headless horseman, driven to destroy by primitive, atavistic impulses. The tremendous power of subconscious phantasies harnessed in the service of state power by a psychotic leader infects all of surrounding reality even while the state apparatus remains perfectly rational: law and order in the service of stark raving madness.
Psychotic individuals are quite aggressively medicated, and antipsychotics are already the most prescribed class of medications in the U.S. Many people say that antipsychotics are overprescribed—especially to children and to the elderly—in an effort to control them, and this is probably true: the sale of psychiatric medications is one of the most lucrative businesses in the world, and antipsychotics are the current cash cow for pharmaceutical companies now that the patents on many antidepressants are expiring. Just as it has with the antidepressants and depression, it will likely turn out that the antipsychotics are similarly ineffective in treating psychosis and are really just sedatives with many nasty side-effects. Be that as it may; they are prescribed, and the reason they are prescribed, I would venture to guess, is because millions of people in the US, young and old, exhibit symptoms of psychosis and require sedation.
I would further venture to guess that the prevalence of psychotic symptoms in the American population is itself a symptom—of the psychosis of American society as a whole. If treating psychotic individuals is a difficult problem but is the focus of a huge and profitable industry, the treatment of the spreading psychosis of American society is not even recognized as a problem.
If you thought that Peak Oil is about energy—think again. It may well turn out to be about delusion, resulting, personally, in ego-death and nationally—in psychotic tyranny.

The Movement for Involuntary Complexity


Afu Chan
Year after year, the Addbusters Magazine propagandizes “Buy Nothing Day”:
On Nov 25/26th we escape the mayhem and unease of the biggest shopping day in North America and put the breaks on rabid consumerism for 24 hours. Flash mobs, consumer fasts, mall sit-ins, community events, credit card-ups, whirly-marts and jams, jams, jams!
The idea, I suppose, is the usual sort of thing: make a stand, send a message, have something to talk and write about… and then go right back to consuming. On the day after “Buy Nothing Day,” for instance, you could buy a glossy copy of Addbusters Magazine at the check-out counter at Whole Foods. Last I checked, you could do so in the more liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, but not in the more conservative Brookline, Massachusetts right across the river. The cultural battle lines are clearly drawn.
You\’d certainly want to prepare for “Buy Nothing Day” to survive it intact, by buying everything you need to make it through the day ahead of time. And then, of course, nobody could possibly expect you to actually buy nothing if that weren\’t convenient. Say you came down with diarrhea, and your medicine cabinet just happened to be flat out of Loperamide or Bismuth Subsalicylate. How inconvenient! Does Addbusters expect you to stay on the potty for 24 hours? Of course not! They are not monsters, they sell magazines with all sorts of cute stuff in them!
And I write books and publish a blog. And I find it helpful that so many people are aware that there is such a thing as Consumerism, with a big ‘C’, like the old Communism of yesteryear, because there is a sort of Politburo of the Consumerist Party, if you will, made of product developers and brand managers and advertisers and marketers. Instead of putting on red arm-bands, marching in lock-step, and saluting, you are branded with a logo, and exhibit your brand loyalty in a more subtle, understated way: in the way you spend your money. The reason I find it helpful that you are aware of this is that, in writing for this blog, I find it much easier, psychologically, to point out what\’s wrong rather than pretend that everything is all right, which is what I would have had to do if you had no clue.
The point is, we are running out of planet. We\’ve changed the chemistry of the atmosphere to a point where the oceans are turning too acidic for coral and shellfish to grow. There are giant patches of floating plastic in mid-ocean which, as it degrades, is poisoning the entire oceanic food chain. We\’ve already consumed all the high-grade, concentrated mineral ores and fossil fuel reserves, are now reduced to crushing tonnes of rock to get at the little bit that\’s left and exploiting marginal energy resources like tar sands, shale oil and gas and dirty brown coal. And if we keep going this way, then we will all surely die a horrible, suffocating, hot, toxic death.
If you are still with me, let\’s take a running jump at this Consumerist conspiracy, impale ourselves on the pikes of its protectors, slather them in our blood and gore, and hope that so doing demoralizes them to a point where they can no longer get up in the morning, look at themselves in the mirror, and go do their stupid planet-destroying job. Or, better yet, let\’s just chat amicably.
To start with, let\’s draw a line between Consumerism and just plain old consumption. Every living thing consumes something and then, after some series of biochemical processing steps, sheds it or excretes it. Sulfur-reducing bacteria consume sulfur, and produce foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide. But what sets these bacteria apart is that they do not depend on Chinese migrant workers to hand-roll little balls of sulfur for them to consume, packaged on polystyrene trays and shrink-wrapped in polyethylene film, and these bacteria do not have to drive to a large store to get their sulfur for a good price. They just grow where there happens to be some sulfur for them to reduce: in your own gut, for instance.
This pattern holds true for all life forms with the exception of us shoppers and, of course, our pets. Everything else eats what they kill, gather, or grow directly in or on top of, and they never pay for any of it. There is only one thing that we don\’t pay for, and that is oxygen, although there are now oxygen bars, where you can pay for that too, and I see a lot of people walking around with oxygen tanks. Your ability to stay alive depends on your ability to spend money (or for somebody else to spend money on your behalf). It doesn\’t have to be this way: people have lived, and some still live, getting what they need directly from nature, without paying for any of it, but they\’ve become a rarity.
The normal pattern now is for all of our needs to be commercially mediated by a global, monolithic, totalitarian Consumerist state. Since this way of doing things is tremendously wasteful and inefficient, we are forced to spend all of our time slaving away to support the Consumerist state, leaving precious little time for consuming. And as resources run short, more and more of us are simply left out: our labor is not needed, and, with our spending ability evaporating, our options dwindle to a very few generally unpleasant ones.
There are far more efficient ways to live. By far the most efficient method is simply taking what you need in the most direct way possible: pluck something, and pop it in your mouth. There is no harvesting, shipping, storage, sorting, processing, packaging, marketing, licensing, distribution, point of sale, transportation or recycling of shipping materials involved. You chew it, and then you swallow it. Everything else happens automatically, while you are doing something else.
This hand-to-mouth technique is good, but it doesn\’t fulfill all of our complex physical and cultural needs: we need cooked food that includes some animal protein, clothing and shelter. These can also be obtained directly from nature, but that is where life gets complicated. It is one thing to buy a product; it is quite another to create one from scratch. It certainly isn\’t impossible—uneducated, illiterate tribes have provided for all of their own needs for thousands of years—but we have lost this ability.
Now, after many years of education and training, we feel lucky if we can just do our jobs, which involve providing for some else\’s needs, not our own or those of our families. And when we are not working, the best we can do is decide what we want to buy, or, the most difficult thing of all, decide what we want to buy and then refuse to buy it because we realize that we don\’t need it. But we do have needs, and these can only be met by picking a product, and paying for it.
There are a few alternatives, such as trash-picking and dumpster-diving, and these are viable for some people, but not everywhere and not all the time. Trash-picking and other forms of reuse have become increasingly difficult, because the manufacturers are onto us: now products are made to have a very finite useful life and to be unmaintainable. Even cars have become disposable: now they have bodies that are welded around the engine, and the engines themselves can no longer be overhauled.
Some people are looking beyond such humble adaptations. For example, there is the movement for Voluntary Simplicity, which now has an institutethat has produced a number of research papers on the subject, has conducted public surveys, and counts among its members a number of luminaries from the Permaculture movement. Their web site does contain some practical documents that sketch out ways of reducing one\’s burn rate to around $30 a week. (I think that\’s called Voluntary Poverty.) They have asked me to write something for them; I suppose that this is it. The picture on the main page of their web site shows an idyllic, rural landscape with a smoothly paved road and mechanically mowed grass. There seem to be some bungalows beneath a stand of majestic trees. Golf, anyone?
To me, this picture expresses the essence of alternative consumer choice. You too can escape to a rural paradise where you can learn to grow all of your own food, and perhaps go on to teach classes on how to do it. All you need is half a million dollars to get started. The beauty of this plan is that you can do this and still remain middle-class, maintaining all of your cultural standards and predilections, such as mechanically mowed grass lawns and roads paved with tarmac, and do it all away from all the poor dark-skinned people.
Or, if you don\’t have half a million dollars, you can go native/feral, and avail yourself of consumer offerings catering to the native/feral movement, complete with Chinese-made loincloths and spear points and seasonal campgrounds where you can hone your wilderness survival skills.
My own favorite movement is called The Movement for Involuntary Complexity. The way it works is, nobody wants to join it, because it just doesn\’t sound at all pleasant. But then people find out that they are part of it anyway. Their resources are limited, they face a huge number of complicated problems, and they try to solve them the best they can. It is complicated to sort out your needs from your wants given all the commercial signals bombarding our senses. It is even more complicated to find a way to provide for these needs without becoming a slave to wage labor. Yet more complicated is convincing your family that this is all necessary, and appearing “normal” to the abnormal Consumerists all around you.
It will only get more complicated. As the economy continues to dwindle and more and more Consumerist fledgelings find themselves tossed out of the Consumerist nest, they will need convincing and coaching as well. Their transition to complexity will be about as involuntary as it gets. I think it\’s better to embrace Involuntary Complexity early on; after all, what choice do you have? You might as well just get on with it.