Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The horror, and the beautiful gifts

On the one hand, we have the horror.  The planned destruction of Medicare, the guarantee of health insurance to the most uninsureable, who may have spent their lives paying into the program, by Paul Ryan.  And a budget filled with similar destructions of the social democratic common good, with the fantasyland market fairy solving our problems instead (this is sort of like trickle down economics, except even more implausible).  And, of course, doing nothing positive about the deficit anyway (except perhaps making the deficit larger for the next ten years).

On the other hand, an ever increasing wealth of free movies and books, showing how and why a culture based on greed and selfishness cannot work, and exploring alternatives.  These look good, though I haven't had time to view or read them yet.  I discovered a few more of these reading a great thread on Naked Capitalism, a blog I need to read more often.  For example:

Zeitgeist moving forward, a 2 hour movie, free to download.

(Actually, Zeitgeist Moving Forward is a child of The Venus Project, which has lots of interesting ideas.)

The Ascent of Humanity, a free book about the past and future of humanity.

The Story of Stuff, a short movie about how stuff is made and used, and why more "stuff" won't solve our problems either.

The Living Dead, a movie about how politicians distort our memory.

One commenter at Naked Capitalism who points to these great features wrote a very perceptive comment that inspired me to get them:

While we have hierarchy we’ve got to have an ‘elite’ at the top, by definition. And though democratic processes have redirected the power-flow somewhat–sporadically and only a little–the gravity of a hierarchical distribution of power and wealth must be ever upwards. This seems to me to be a logical condition of hierarchies generally. The degree to which we can redress this upward momentum via, say, progressive taxes and representative democracy, can only be minimal in my opinion, since the underlying dynamic of the process is not altered therefrom; we just knock off a few crumbs and hand them over to the poorer 80% or so. This isn’t bad, it just isn’t enough. Not any more.
A further problem is the increasing complexity of the system as it expands outwards, exploiting more of the planet’s ‘idle’ resources in its insatiable hunger for more wealth. Staying ‘in control’ gets harder and harder as the system becomes more cumbersome and perverse. Meanwhile, technologies like the printing press, the scientific method, and the Internet, free up information to those the upper 1% would rather keep in the dark. The deceptions and lies (public relations) used to justify the obscene social divisions become more divorced from reality and harder to defend. Then comes revolution or collapse, both probably.
Now, for the first time in our history, we have a global system, and it is as insatiable as ever. It seems the best science humans can muster strongly suggests we, directly due to our growth-addiction, are causing a 6th extinction event. This means we have progressively less to exploit, which adds spice to the problem of complexity I touched on above.
I see no healthy way out of this other than the careful and deliberate introduction of egalitarianism, or autarky, or anarchy, along with a globally-aware and coordinated prioritizing of environment above all monies, the latter being the more important element. People and environment first, money a distant second. This would require the total redesign of almost everything we do, from money, to education, to economics, to politics, to nations, energy, ‘profit,’ and so on. A tall order indeed, but the challenges we face are unprecedented. Old ideas cannot yield the solutions.

OK, I've looked over The Venus Project a little.  I still like it.  Yes, I am very much skeptical wrt the ability of computers to "solve" our problems, which is one of their assumptions.  But I like their ideas wrt  making a better zeitgeist.  But I think one of their problems, like many New Age'ers, is that they tend to downplay the ultimate Marxian conflict between people and the power of Capital.  Somehow technology will make this easy.  No, sorry, it won't.  It will be harder than hard.

But I don't take futurist projects to be futile either.  Like science fiction, they are full of good ideas, good ideas that that are worth thinking about right now.  Just not worth believing in as a historical inevitability.

Here are my comments to a blog:

The Venus Project concept looks like it has good ideas in it, and I intend to watch the movie.  But it also sounds to me like it makes the classic New Age mistake.  It promises a future free of conflict (in contrast to where we are now, almost the reverse).  But to get to such a future would obviously require an enormous conflict, the conflict to unseat the power of Capital as described by Marx and others, the need for which is denied or elided by the New Age'ers.  Instead, they promise that something (something usually like technology, or mental change) will make this virtually impossible to conceive Ultimate Conflict unnecessary.

That's a critical point, and I don't believe it.  Technology will not kill selfishness or unseat the power of Capital.

It will take another human social force, and not merely lack-of-selfishness.  That other force is the force of solidarity.  The people I respect more design societies around human ideas of solidarity and fairness.  Those people like Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert have proposed an economic system called Participatory Economics, which proposes that people have input to a decision making process based on how much it affects them.  And another core idea is that social dividends (salary, credits, etc, I still think we need something like that) be distributed on the basis of effort.  That fits the non-capitalist left notion of fairness.  I'm not sure if enough people can accept that.  But it would be far easier for most to accept that than accept free-for-all (especially amidst the rising levels of scarecity of water, etc., everywhere).

Marx had the word for groups like The Venus Project: Utopian Socialist.  Problem is, I agree it's true that he was one of them also, for he had a vision ultimately based on cornucopian view of material possibility.

Of course, most of the current new age'ers won't identify with old-age words such as socialism or communism.  That would no doubt offend many of their donors (can't build a free society that way, sorry).

But what they propose is actually far more unrealistic than old-world socialism or communism.

I take the opposite tack.  I do not denounce Marx.  I call myself a socialist and a leftist.  I am not afraid of the word communism either.  This is because, as Howard Zinn advised, we have to choose sides, and I have chosen the side of the majority of people, and against those who now have most of the power and "wealth" (a more unquestioned form of power), regardless of whether that makes some people think they must be my enemy.

If people don't choose sides, they aren't really serious.  They're just playing a tune for your money.

Finally, there really is a kind of socialism that is still making life far better for most than it might be, in this world today.  That is Social Democracy.  Even as official dogma denounces it, it can't really be erased, only further corrupted.  This is where the battle lines are now, and if you live in the real world, you should be there too, fighting to hold on to what we already won.

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