Volatility

June 24, 2010

Nothing Works Anymore

 

Obama’s offshore drilling exploration moratorium was typical of him – too late, too limited, anodyne, more talk than action, taken only under extreme political duress though he obviously didn’t believe in it, so he couldn’t achieve any goodwill from it anyway. Yet even in that meager way it’s still something worthwhile.
 
Or it was for a few days before a federal judge, at the request of a minor special interest, the ferries serving drill workers, overturned the moratorium, declaring it “arbitrary and capricious”. People are having trouble following the judge’s reasoning, since it’s self-evident that deepwater drilling cannot be done safely and with all the risk accounted for by voluntary market participants. In principle, not just an exploratory moratorium but banning it completely is exactly what the executive branch should do as steward of these waters and resources. The only thing which looks arbitrary and capricious is the judicial activism here. (Unless you look at the judge’s oil investments. Then perhaps the decision might not seem so arbitrary.)
 
Corporatist judicial activism has been on a roll since the Citizens United decision. The SCOTUS seems especially keen to smash all attempts to impose any sort of rational limits on election buying, no matter how modest. Now, there’s no doubt about the “supreme” court’s conscious malevolence; four of the cadre are hard-bitten corporate activists, while the other four including Stevens (leaving out Sotomayor on account of insufficient data as of yet) are at best passively corporatist*, with demented prima donna Kennedy flipping back and forth based on whatever lets him be the center of attention. 
 
[* I’ve previously proposed that the right classification of judges is not something phony like “strict” vs. “loose” construction, let alone idiocy like conservative vs. liberal.
 
Rather, since the struggle of freedom and humanity vs. tyranny as crystallized in the struggle vs. corporatism is the defining issue of our time, and since the courts are today a lawless no man’s land where the civil war is already being fought out with one judge ruling that 2 + 2 = 4, while in adjoining courtrooms on either side his “colleagues” are saying it equals 3 or 5, so it follows that the only meaningful classification of jurists is as: either corporate activists on the bench (like the Citizens United majority), or as passive corporatists (those who accept corporate personhood and the basic corporatist structure, but who oppose judicial activism on its behalf), with perhaps a diminishing few public interest advocates and even anti-corporatists here and there.]
 
The SCOTUS as a whole is by now firmly against the people and for the tyrants. We should always remember that just as we can never expect there to ever again be good legislation from the Congress, so we can’t expect any kind of systematic good from the courts, only evil.
 
But even though the court is malevolent, by now money is so entrenched in the electioneering process that these decisions will probably make little practical difference. Here as everywhere else extortion is institutionalized.
 
But even given this level of conscious malevolence and entrenched corruption, there are still those like Glenn Greenwald whose public interest good will seems strong enough, but who often remain mired in the process mentality, such as in Greenwald’s case his myopic fetishized version of the 1st Amendment. As I said in my post on Constitution and Process, this fetish of process over substance and result ends up betraying the substance and helps guarantee a result which makes a repugnant mockery of the original ideal. The 1st Amendment, like0 the Constitution itself, is not a suicide pact, but the process myopics seem intent on making it one.
 
So it’s not just malevolence, but process issues as well which congeal as a blockage in many minds to constitute an objective barrier to political transformation.
 
Every attempt at reform is always opposed by one or more selfish, sociopathic special interests. The result is always at least one versus zero (the atomized mass which today passes for “democracy” and the public interest equals zero). In the case of the upset drilling moratorium it wasn’t even Big Oil who brought the suit (though I suppose they financed it), but some rinky-dink boats which ferry oil workers to the rigs. So there will always be someone, no matter how small, ready to assert the aggregate corporate prerogative against any value no matter how critical, like the very life of the sea itself, or humanly majestic, like democracy and the public welfare. These are all helpless in the clutches of this system.
 
I’ve written plenty of times about malevolence, and that will remain my focus. But for today I wanted to point out how the problem runs even beyond malevolence. I especially reject the notion that if the problem is “just” the criminal intent of gangsters, we can simply undertake the “reform” of replacing them, but otherwise leave the structure intact, and everything will be fine from there. No. The problem is the structure. Once we have  this combination of outdated structures and longstanding organized crime having suffused the structure with its mindset for so long and so deeply that the structure has become a veritable kleptocracy, and all institutions and processes within it are systematically corrupt, hijacked and suborned, or just plain rotted, the whole thing is beyond reform and beyond redemption.
 
So for the sake of argument, for the rest of this post let’s assume no criminal intent but simply the “innocent” process mentality and the “just doing my job” mentality. We can see how, no matter where we turn, no matter what we try, there’s always a seemingly insurmountable impediment to reform. We are bottlenecked. Even leaving aside actual assaults like the health racket mandate or “austerity”, nothing can be fixed.
 
I was thinking about this as I pondered the moratorium overthrow when I read a fascinating chapter early in Tocqueville’s The Ancien Regime and the Revolution. In Book 1, chapter 4, Tocqueville describes how the institutions and laws converged in all European countries, especially France, Germany, and England. By the 18th century, although everyone still was acting in accordance with the same Middle Age forms which once used to be progressive*, these now constituted stagnation. They were blocking movement, innovation, freedom.
 
[*I’ll take this opportunity to introduce one of my basic ideas. I think all historical threads (forces, ideas, entities) follow at best a life cycle of four stages. These stages are those of discovery, or when it is first evolving and pioneering; the progressive stage, where it reaches the best combination of healthfulness and utility; the decadent stage, where although its “quantity” may still be increasing, its quality stagnates, its usefulness hits diminishing returns, and it becomes a drag on motion and health; and the malevolent stage where all its effects are actively counterproductive and harmful to the people as a whole. (Throughout I’m of course speaking of the welfare and vibrance of the people, not of racketeers; their “welfare” tends to improve as the life cycle becomes decadent and then malevolent. Indeed their toxic flourishing is inversely proportional to a thing’s existential benevolence.)
 
Some obvious examples of spent life cycles are those of oil-fueled industrialism, mass capitalism, oil-fueled technology. Even the corporation may have had its brief progressive period, when it was still restrained within the bounds of the Constitution, before it quickly skipped decadence completely and became malevolent. Mass democracy first became corrupted and decadent and now, in its hijacked “inverted totalitarian” form, pseudo-democracy, is actually malevolent because it continues to prop up faith in vain reformism.]
 
So let’s read some Tocqueville. In several places I find myself substituting “Founding Fathers” for “Men of the Middle Ages” and today’s kleptocracy for sclerotic 18th century European structures.
 

It is no part of my theme to relate how this former European constitution gradually lost its power and fell into decay. I simply state that in the 18th century it was in partial ruins everywhere. The disintegration was generally less pronounced in the east of the continent and more so in the west but every country manifested this process of aging and disintegration.

This gradual collapse of the institutions peculiar to the Middle Ages can be followed in their archives. We know that each manor owned registers of land ownership called “terriers” in which, through the centuries, they recorded the boundaries of the fiefs, the holdings paying rent, the dues payable, the obligatory feudal services and the local customs. I have seen the terriers of the 14th century which are masterpieces of drafting, clarity, precision and intelligence. They become obscure, ill-formed, incomplete and muddled as they move into more recent times, despite the general progress of knowledge. It would appear that political society drifted down into barbarism at the very time when civil society was finally achieving enlightenment.

 
(I interject, this sounds similar to the current disposition of mortgage notes, specifically that the MERS regime was set up to systematically hide and lose those notes while the mortgages themselves became discorporated quiddities meant to fictively constitute “securities”, MBS and CDOs.
 
It’s part of Hernando de Soto’s depiction of the collapse of the rule of law itself through the destruction of the paper files.)
 

Even in Germany, where the old European Constitution had maintained its original features more effectively than in France, some of the institutions it had created were already everywhere being destroyed. But we can best judge the ravages of time less by observing its losses than by viewing the state of its remaining features.

Those urban institutions, which in the 13th and 14th centuries had transposed the chief German towns into small, prosperous and enlightened republics, still existed in the 18th but offered nothing more than an empty show. Their legal conditions appeared to be as vigorous as ever – the magistrates they appointed had the same names and appeared to perform the same functions – but the activity, energy, shared patriotic feeling, virile and productive virtues which they inspired had vanished. These ancient institutions had inwardly collapsed without losing their original shape.

All the powers of the Middle Ages that still remained were attacked by the same disease and displayed the same disintegration and the same slow decline. Still more, everything which was associated with the old constitution and had retained an almost clear imprint of it, without exactly belonging to it, directly lost its vitality. From that contact the aristocracy became infected with senile decay. Political liberty itself, whose achievements had permeated the whole Middle Ages, appeared to be stricken by barrenness wherever it still bore the particular characteristics it had gained from the medieval period. Wherever provincial assemblies had preserved their ancient constitution in an unchanged state they halted the progress of civilization rather than fostered it. It might be said that they were alien and almost impervious to the new spirit of the time. The antiquity of these institutions had not made them respected. Quite the contrary, they lost any credit even as they grew old and, strange to relate, they inspired all the more hatred as they seemed less capable of causing harm through their increasing decay. “The present state of things”, said a German writer, a contemporary and friend of this old regime, “appears to have become generally painful for everyone and occasionally contemptible. It is strange to see how people now judge unfavorably everything that is old. New impressions come to light at the heart of our families and upset their orderliness. Even our housewives no longer wish to put up with their old furniture.” Yet in Germany, at the same time as in France, society was thriving and enjoyed a growing prosperity. But everything which was alive, active, and creative was recent in origin, not only new but in conflict with the past.

Royalty shared nothing in common with the royalty of the Middle Ages, possessed other powers, occupied another position, had another spirit and inspired other feelings; the administration of the state extended everywhere, settling upon the remnants of local powers; the hierarchy of public officials increasingly replaced the government of the nobility. All these new powers acted according to procedures and followed ideas which men of the Middle Ages had either not known of had condemned. These had their links in fact to a state of society beyond their experience.

 
Let’s look briefly at a few examples. Again, I’m trying to leave out the main factor, intentional gangsterism and greed, and just mention the underlying structure and process factors, as well as some “innocent” motivations.
 
We started out with Obama’s energy policy, if one wants to call it that. Really Obama has no energy policy other than continuing the doomed status quo of corporatism, the technology cult, and massive consumption. It’s these very prejudices, ingrained far beyond the imperatives of greed, which help set up such objective psychological barriers to a rational energy policy. There’s also the refusal to accept resource constraints like Peak Oil, this refusal bolstered by all the dogmas and delusions of economic ideology (as well as the delusion that economics is a science). There’s also the tremendous sunk cost of cars and suburbia and the mass-energy infrastructure, entrenched Big Oil and Big Coal (not referring to their greed but their silhouette on the cultural horizon) and the new ethanol racket, trying to become Big Ethanol through the nurturing of its father, Big Ag and its mother, corporate environmentalism.
 
All of these represent big chunks of existence whose gravity serves as a form of propaganda in itself. People look at the sheer size and media presence of structures and become resigned, even if they wish they could sweep the landscape clean. They end up passively embracing what they consider laws of being.
 
As for the legal laws, everywhere you look these are set up to put up massive passive resistance to change even where the enemies of change don’t actively attack. Thus the 2005 and 2007 energy bills massively entrenched existing rackets and set what are meant to be “accepted” levels of renewable energy development. Since these were bipartisan bills enacted with great media fanfare, they’re meant to encode the status quo energy regime in our very spiritual and political DNA. Obama’s would-be energy bill is meant to continue this totalitarian process, adding cap and trade to the racketeering mix. (Needless to say, it would do nothing to mitigate greenhouse gases nor is it meant to.)
 
The same enshrinement exercise played out with the Bailout, with the health racket bailout, and is now continuing with the sham finance bill. The way the bills have been negotiated is also meant to further entrench the new legislative paradigm (there was a time where majorities sometimes really did want to legislate as per their constitutional mandate; no more) where everyone commences in the full understanding  either that nothing in the Status Quo will be changed, or else its assault on the people will be escalated. Maybe nobody even knows which of these it’ll end up being; either way the process is to put on a political show, with various cadres either delegated or self-appointed to play doomed heroes or misdirectional villains, while in the end they try to smear out responsibility for the real villainy among themselves while the flacks call it all “progress”. I stress that although everyone’s intent may be villainous, they’re also enshrining a process whose mechanism is meant to be immutable. Even if you came into Congress sincerely seeking reform, you’re quickly made to understand that that’s not Congress’s business, and you can either fall into line or get out. So far they’ve all fallen into line.
 
A similar but cross-branch process boondoggle is the net neutrality mess, where nobody in the government can seem to figure out for themselves where the power should be – with the executive (the FCC)? or the Congress? or the lawless courts (as the DC appellate court recently claimed in its own piece of judicial activism)? The result, of course, is that the telecom rackets win. All this squabbling imprints people with the process notion that process is both inscrutable and critically important, thereby fogging their eyes against the fact that either the FCC or Congress can enforce net neutrality at will; who does it doesn’t matter much; the point is for someone to do it.
 
Those are a few examples of how the existing system, not only on account of the malign intent of the actors, but also on account of its own inertial processes and mindsets, is a pit of stagnation and obstruction where no constructive change can be accomplished. It’s the same existential congealment as that which confronted the rising people of France and Europe in the 18th century.
 
There’s one big difference between the world Tocqueville described and today. Writing of the days of the ascent of fossil fuels, the ascent of the Industrial Revolution, of mass democracy, of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, he described an ascending new vibrance running into a bottleneck. But today, in the time of Peak Oil, the collapse of exponential debt, the permanent stagnation of capitalism and its calcification into corporatist oligopoly, in our post-democratic, neo-feudal time, we’re more like fugitives who are bottlenecked as we try to escape.
 
Can we find our own vibrance? Something like the cooperative movement of the 19th century Farmers’ Alliance, and the political self-respect it engendered according to author Lawrence Goodwyn? Relocalization as a movement needs a focusing action which involves cooperative work toward real economic self-reliance and political rediscovery. Such a movement, flowing as water around and under the dead rock of the kleptocracy (in the best Sun-Tzu tradition), is clearly the only possible solution. But we need to find the ideas and actions to render it vibrant. 
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5 Comments

  1. The trouble I see is that most people are trapped in the current system. The working class can’t afford to relocalize. The middle class could afford it but they have too much debt. The upper class will take care of itself. And the poor are forgotten as usual.

    So do you focus mostly on the people who can fully participate? The middle class who have paid down debt and have the ability to form new communities. — Or do you go for numbers? The people who are looking for a new, better way but don’t know quite what it is, and don’t have much ability to participate beyond planting a windowsill garden.

    A lot of people felt vibrant about Obama. What can we create that won’t just be coopted by a regime that bottles revolution and sells it to teenagers for $1.29?

    Comment by reslez — June 24, 2010 @ 5:25 am

  2. I’m still trying to figure out the dilemma.

    I can say categorically that I do not seek “middle class solutions”, because they’re impossible (the middle class is being liquidated one way or another) and because the quest for what came to be defined as middle class is what got us all into this mess in the first place.

    And as you pointed out, the basic phoniness of most existing would-be “movements” is that they’re really just playing to the same old middle class lifestyle ornamentation. And by definition their target constituency is those who can afford middle class accouterments.

    To me it’s obvious and rightful that a real movement has to be at least socioeconomically accessible to the working class and the poor, since my whole premise is that except for debt (public and private pensions) that’s what we all already are, and soon the system’s going to default on all its own debt, and we’ll be left both impoverished and indebted, if that’s what we choose.

    So I believe all that. But at the same time my “propaganda” is mostly middle class-oriented. That’s because it’s true that the great ongoing current crime of the kleptocracy is the looting of the soon-to-be-ex-middle class, but also because we face the cultural middle class identification, which is the basis of most non-rich identification with the gangsters instead of fighting them.

    Most of all, the middle class cultural identification is the last talisman these masses (who have no political or religious anchors in the way they actually live, whatever they claim to “believe”) have. The feeling itself and the fears for it are legitimate, even if the political conclusions they usually draw are exactly wrong.

    So that’s the paradox – the movement has to speak to the non-rich as a whole, but since the key position is the disintegrating middle class, it has to speak primarily in their language. (Of course there can be multiple message tracks for different audiences, but I’m talking about the main offensive.)

    Yet at the same time the relocalization prescription, as far as what to actually do economically, is counter to the whole middle class ethos. It’s a combination of conventional community activism (but which would no longer be focused on bringing “growth” to town; quite the opposite, seeking self-reliance), voluntary simplicity (except that we contend it’s no longer voluntary, one way or another we’ll be consuming far less), various kinds of communalism and back-to-the-land action, even so-called survivalism.

    Now all of this can be melded with any number of political, spiritual, religious elements. That’s why I’m toying with the ideas about parallelism with the colonial revolutionary experience and old-style consitutionalism. In principle it seems like those could still resonate if people in distress could be induced to think about them. People still claim to revere them.

    As for the actual economic plight of those various groups, I can say what I’d like them to do, in principle, to free themselves.

    All bottom up debtors should simply jubilate. Meanwhile if large enough groups of resolute homesteaders simply went and started farming or market gardening all the land that’s going to waste, and set up mutual self-defense leagues to defend these land redemptions, I doubt the system could cope with it for long. Then new community structures could grow out of the political councils which would already be coordinating this activity.

    So that’s two examples of what could be done. Now, as things are right now that sounds utterly utopian, but I’m only suggesting what might be the goal in principle. And then the task would be to figure out how to get there. But I think reasonable people would agree that this would solve many of the people’s economic problems. (And the looming food crisis.)

    It would be a livable solution for everyone – poor, working class, and the plummeting middle class.

    Well, all that’s just some brainstorming. My ideas on all this are still a work in progress.

    Comment by Russ — June 24, 2010 @ 6:45 am

  3. I think I was overly pessimistic about being preempted by some sort of corporate-sponsored lifestyle movement. They’ll certainly try that, but what the corporate system does is irrelevant. Paraphrasing Orlov, we don’t need them, we don’t care what they do, we don’t want anything to do with them. Those guys are doomed anyway. It’s the dirty secret of green consumerism: you can’t save the planet by buying stuff. And you can’t save the humans through political reform because the system is corrupt and broken. You can only try to save yourself and the community you choose to live in.

    The economic depression makes it far easier to speak to people about how to approach the future. Debt-fueled consumerism and mindless waste are so last decade. We need to strategically identify what it’s possible to preserve. (I don’t know about you but I think modern telecom is pretty nice. I just don’t know if it’s necessary. Wikipedia, as a human achievement, needs to be kept around in some form regardless of what happens to our oil-based infrastructure.) Copyleft, Creative Commons licensing and open source hardware will all be involved. Systems that are too complex do not survive. Information that is purposely kept hidden or difficult to copy will be lost. Consumer products that cannot be repaired will be scrapped.

    All those resolute homesteaders and farmers running copper line over the fence to connect to the neighbor’s webserver… it sort of has a neo-Amish vibe. Science fiction authors are usually great at auditioning the future but I can’t think of any recent novels that go that route. Just libertarian fantasies about cannibalism and motorcycle gangs.

    Comment by reslez — June 24, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

    • All of that’s very true.

      I’ve written about this possibility before:

      The economic depression makes it far easier to speak to people about how to approach the future. Debt-fueled consumerism and mindless waste are so last decade.

      https://attempter.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/liberal-teabaggers-and-process-vs-new-action/

      It was a foregone conclusion that under allegedly prosperous circumstances no one would ever be able to convince “consumers” to do more than tweak things a little bit. But a pro-citizen, anti-consumer message as such had zero chance.

      But now, when consumerism is being forcibly liquidated, maybe

      1. some people will recognize how it was always a pig in a poke;

      2. at any rate, people need to feel some meaning in what they’re experiencing, so if we could find a way to convince them to make a virtue of necessity, and embrace an anti-system philosophy since the system is casting them out anyway.

      I guess the messaging difficulty is how to harmonize the “consumerism was always malevolent” with the “those bastards stole your consumer dream!” There seems to be an inconsistency, although it’s really just different tracks tailored to the needs of different audiences. Both are true, but which truth is most relevant is often context-dependent.

      I agree that the question of what to try to preserve is a critical one.

      As for the Internet, I’m unsure what to think. As I discussed here

      https://attempter.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/dispatch-from-the-net-neutralitynbp-front/

      the net neutrality issue seems to be an exception to my general idea that nothing can be done within the system and it’s a waste of effort to try.

      Here, Internet democracy is very system-dependent and vulnerable to destruction at the hands of the telecom rackets, and I don’t see how anyone but the government, by enshrining net neutrality by regulation and/or legislation, can prevent that.

      So I find myself in the incongruous “reformer” position, advocating “regulation” of rackets. It’s very disturbing, but so far I can’t think of an alternative.

      (Of course I advocate breaking up the telecom vertical monopolies as the obvious solution to the hybird “information”/”carrier” conglomerate, but no one’s going to do that anytime soon, so for now if we want the internet at all, which we do, we’re stuck with these rackets.)

      I’ve asked before, not knowing if there’s an answer, can there be such a thing as decentralized “pirate” wireless internet which could illegally compete with officially bespoken racket transmission? Or are the system transmitters too strong? Are these really silly questions? Not being a tech guy, I don’t know.

      Well, I intend to write more about all that in the future.

      Comment by Russ — June 25, 2010 @ 3:38 am

  4. […] sense; by now to still call for it is intentional misdirection), but to reprise my distinction of judicial activist corporatism vs. more passive corporatism.   One of the most frequent muddlings of Citizens United is to call it a “5-4″ […]

    Pingback by Bowman vs. Monsanto; Activist and Passive Corporatism, vs. Anti-Corporatism | Volatility — March 3, 2013 @ 6:09 am


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