August 19, 2011

We’re All Lumpenproles Now (Part 3)


A capitalist class is in theory (even Marxist theory) creative, constructive, innovative, for a period. Then it reaches its decadent/malevolent stage and becomes purely predatory and parasitic. Colonialism and imperialism always displayed this decadent and malevolent predation and parasitism from the outset. This is part of why almost from day one critics in the home countries feared an eventual boomerang effect on the polities and economies at home. This predicted corrosion of minds and brutalization of practices, the ruling class becoming a mere stupid thug, by turns incompetent, half-assed, and vicious, has indeed come true, although the oil surplus postponed its full advent.
A flip side of this, as described by Fanon in Wretched of the Earth, is how the native ruling classes of countries recently liberated from colonization remain fully beholden to the Western capitalist class. Having known nothing but the most stupid and inefficient exploitation, the “national bourgeoisie” is itself nothing but a gang of uncreative, unproductive thugs engaging in conspicuous consumption.

The national bourgeoisie in the underdeveloped countries should not be combated because it threatens to curb the overall, harmonious development of the nation. It must be resolutely opposed because it serves literally no purpose. Mediocre in its winnings, in its achievements and its thinking, this bourgeoisie attempts to mask its mediocrity by ostentatious projects for individual prestige, chromium-plated American cars, vacations on the French Riviera and weekends in neon-lit nightclubs.

The comparison with the post-capitalist, purely globalist worthless thug-and-slave decadence of Dubai is clear. And this is where we’re headed everywhere.
What would happen when Western exploitation had reached the limits of what it could extract around the world, through direct imperialism, post-colonial exploitation in the form of globalization, and the neocon attempt to revive a more direct imperial extraction regime? And what would happen when the exploiters reach the full colonial level of exploitation within their own Western countries? We’d have the full decadence and malevolence of the colonial extraction regime on every economic, political, and cultural level. The same worthless stupidity and brutality, the same barbarism which is even more profound than what even Fanon still considered a bad interlude on the way toward a progressive future.
Today we know the full scale of post-civilizational barbarism, as capitalism reaches its twin final limits of Peak Oil and the physical/socioeconomic limits of the Earth itself. Where can it go from here? Nowhere – it can only temporarily zombify and cannibalize itself, and then collapse. In the meantime its unproductive and vicious character will go from bad to worse, and it will do all it can to corrupt all of humanity with its own absolute cultural disease. Part of our task, we lumpenproles relative to their measure, is to refuse this “honor”, resist this Sodomite corruption, and assert our core humanity.
Meanwhile, part of this corruption is the system’s attempt, including and especially by the “better elites” for whom our good liberals so desperately yearn, to prop up the zombies of consumer debt and the “ownership society”. Even after all that’s happened, they have good prospects in their attempt to restore the self-destructive faith in the mortgage system, to even further indenture the pseudo-middle class and hasten its liquidation.
To be clear, the mortgage regime was context-specific to the heyday of the oil surplus and then to the exponential debt scam of neoliberalism. Neither applies any longer, so it follows that the mortgage regime is unsustainable. (And after you destroy everyone’s jobs, who’s supposed to be able to afford these mortgages?) If people are going to continue to inhabit the land at all on any basis other than as debt serfs, we’ll need a whole new dispensation. We have to abolish bank control over the land. But this restored serfdom is, of course, the system’s real goal.
What would be the economic basis for the continuation of the mortgage regime? What was ever its productive basis? As I said, it was never built on any economic productivity whatsoever, but merely on the oil surplus, debt, and sand.
To put it in terms from Russian history, it’s like we’ve gone through the entire process of Stolypin’s reform plan (to build a peasant middle class by giving a portion of them a stake in the land). We’re now being spit out the other side – the system which went to so much trouble to build a middle class bulwark against revolution is now assiduously demolishing that bulwark and liquidating that middle class.
(The suburban middle class was a variation on Stolypin. Instead of a peasant middle class, we had an employee middle class. Any nascent farmer middle class was forestalled and ruled out long ago. The middle class of workers and flunkeys would be liquidated all the more easily in the end, as it has no landbase. Suburbia by design never had a chance of establishing a landbase. On the contrary, even as it astroturfs the shallow ideology of “home ownership” and “having land”, it eradicates all sense of the land, all ability to use it constructively, all responsibility and loyalty to it. This is part of how we’re all lumpenproles now. Even the suburban peasantry which still nominally “owns” its own plots is really vagrant and rootless at heart already. This is the atomization capitalism always sought to bring about even in the heart of the “ownership society”. The atoms will feel even more unanchored as that other ownership bastion, pensions public and private, are revoked.)
So if the question is, how can we make America productive, to want to zombify the ownership society is non-responsive. Since the inefficient, unproductive, criminal nature of the economic dispensation is obvious, it follows that to be non-responsive to the question is implicitly to support the status quo finance tyranny. So to want to restore faith in mortgages is to answer the question of American productivity and prosperity as such in this way: “I don’t want America to be productive or prosperous, ever.”
How about this: Mortgage holders should jubilate the debt, stop paying, stay in the house, keep paying property taxes (for now), become intensely involved in the community, especially working for economic and political relocalization, based upon Food Sovereignty.
Food Sovereignty in turn implies the abolition of land propertarianism. Land ownership is obviously illegitimate on the rational and moral levels. We can add that agronomy has proven that smallholder organic agriculture outproduces corporate monoculture, and that this difference will become extreme as Peak Oil and energy descent set in. So if we plan to continue to eat, we’ll need to transform our food production system to smallholder agroecology.
But this won’t be possible where the land is hoarded by corporate and wealthy parasites. If we want to prosper we need to restitute the land to those who will work it on autonomous and cooperative stewardship bases. (This is no descent from some fancied “higher” middle class existence. On the contrary, agroecology is highly skilled work.)
So land propertarianism is not only morally and rationally invalid, but doesn’t work on a practical level either, for this definition of “work”: The people have food to eat, and from there achieve democratic prosperity.
The hardest part of the moral transformation I’ve often touched upon but not yet systematically discussed will be to propagate among the still-clinging middle class the truth that their “ownership” is a mirage, that if they keep clinging to that illusion they’ll end up losing it all, while if they give up the propertarian delusion they’ll get back far more in return, stewardship and productive use of all the land, toward a vastly more prosperous future than that we know today. It’s like a handful of sand. Hold it gently, and it stays in the hand. Try to squeeze, and it all runs through your fingers.
I’ll add the four principles and imperatives of co-production: First, we are all worthy human beings, our work our most precious asset. Any economic system not based upon this truth is illegitimate. Second, we must revalue our work, recognize it as our worth and as our core humanity. To block us from our work is to block us from ourselves. This is nothing but a crime and must be dealt with as such.
(Part of this revaluation will be organizing the core economy outside and against the market. I’ve written extensively about co-production and time banking. Another phenomenon is the unionization of so-called “informal economy” workers.

Ironically, she recalls three decades later, I first glimpsed the vastness of the informal sector while working for the formal sector.
Over the next thirty years, SEWA became a cluster of three types of membership-based organizations of the poor: first, a union—by 2004, the largest primary union in India—of a variety of informal trades—rag pickers, home-based chindi and garment stitchers, bidi rollers, vegetable vendors—bargaining with buyers, contractors and municipal authorities over piece-rates and pavement space; second, a coalition of dozens of producer co-operatives, producing shirt fabrics, recycling waste paper and cleaning offices; and third, several institutions of mutual assistance and protection, including a SEWA bank and health cooperatives, organized around midwives who were themselves part of the informal sector.

A key part of its history has been a struggle over representation. When someone asks me what the most difficult part of SEWA’s journey has been, Bhatt writes,

“I can answer without hesitation: removing conceptual blocks. Some of our biggest battles have been over contesting preset ideas and attitudes of officials, bureaucrats, experts and academics. Definitions are part of that battle. The Registrar of Trade Unions would not consider us ‘workers’; hence we could not register as a ‘trade union’. The hard-working chindi workers, embroiderers, cart pullers, rag pickers, midwives and forest-produce gatherers can contribute to the nation’s gross domestic product, but heaven forbid that they be acknowledged as workers! Without an employer, you cannot be classified as a worker, and since you are not a worker, you cannot form a trade union. Our struggle to be recognized as a national trade union continues.”

SEWA rejected the rhetoric of the informal sector that dominated official discourse: dividing the economy into formal and informal sectors is artificial, Bhatt argues, it may make analysis easier, or facilitate administration, but it ultimately perpetuates poverty: to lump such a vast workforce into categories viewed as “marginal”, “informal”, “unorganized”, “peripheral”, “atypical”, or “the black economy” seemed absurd to me. Marginal and peripheral to what, I asked . . . In my eyes, they were simply “self-employed”. Indeed the women street vendors who were among the first to build SEWA called themselves traders.

There’s great potential here as well, if such labor organization is done on a democratic rather than capitalist basis.)
Third, we owe mutuality, honor, loyalty, reciprocity among ourselves. Our unemployability from the system point of view is itself an element of our honor. Fourth, trust, decency, community, democracy constitute our best and most constructive social assets.
Meanwhile our proper attitude toward the enemy can always be encompassed within the concept and practice, Work to Rule. We should have endless gift-giving virtue among our families, friends, and communities, and nothing at all for the system except under duress.
These are among the values which can help us rebuild our humanity even as the kleptocracy seeks to disintegrate us. There’s the spirit in which we can move forward. 
In the meantime, I’ll complete the answer to the question with which I opened. What happens when kleptocracy, itself a symptom of desperation (a parasite who’s in a good position doesn’t kill its host), reaches the limits of what’s a closed system after all? It collapses, that’s all. Our task is to prepare to carry ourselves through this collapse, preserve and defend all we can of ourselves and our preparations for a democratic future, resist all attempts to drag us down into this collapse, do what we can to hasten it, and seize any opportunities to assert democratic power as the collapse takes place.

July 23, 2011

Time Banking/Co-Production Video

Filed under: Relocalization — Tags: , — Russell Bangs @ 12:59 pm


Here’s a short introduction to time banking by its inventor, Edgar Cahn. Time banking and co-production, like P2P/open source, is a transitional concept and practice between capitalism and full economic democracy. I’ll be writing lots more about this.
This intro is pretty good. His only real stumble is the way he keeps referring to “scarcity” as if it actually exists, as opposed to being something artificially generated by capitalism. But then, Cahn is a reformist who regards co-production as the end goal rather than the transitional step it really is.