April 30, 2010

Signal Lanterns

Filed under: American Revolution, Freedom — Tags: , , , , , , — Russ @ 12:55 am


A few weeks ago, April 18-19, was the anniversary of Lexington and Concord and Paul Revere’s legendary midnight ride. I didn’t think of it at the time, preoccupied as I was with stuff like the SEC and Goldman. But I intend to pay closer attention to these august dates from our lost revolution in the future.
It’s literally true that Paul Revere’s ride is a legendary matter. Throughout American history there have been many Reveres. There was the original story of the “wounded innocence” of 1775, the province of all who were forced by fate into the crucible of war and revolution. (Though when the participants were getting their story straight they rejected Revere’s own deposition because he wouldn’t swear to the alleged fact that the British fired first at Lexington, and he alluded too much to the patriots’ prior preparations for exactly such a British march, which planning tended to contradict the wounded innocence contention.)
The story of the heroism of the midnight ride and the signal lanterns was the folklore of Boston right from those first heady days. The legend grew though the first half of the 19th century. Then came the Civil War, and with it Longfellow’s immortal tale of the lone hero with his ringing call to a nation to fight for its freedom. It was carefully tailored to resonate with a public being fired up for war, and at the same time to flatter the already prominent American legend of the hardy, self-reliant man of action. The story had spectacular success from its publication in January 1861, and this has been the base of the legend ever since, while further hagiography as well as debunking built upon (or chipped away at) this base. Thus we’ve seen the martial “Colonel Revere” of proud imperial days, and Esther Forbes’ “simple artizan” [sic] of 1942, the common man who rose to the occasion, and even the capitalist-soldier of the Cold War, as well as the relatively playful satirical treatment of Revere and other patriotic-affiliated figures following the pointless horror of the Great War, or the far more angry debunkers of the Vietnam and Watergate era (some of them going so far as to claim the midnight ride never took place, or that Revere was drunk as he rode, or that he was a  snitch). And so on into modern times where between structural depictions of the social forces of history and “political correctness” Revere and his midnight ride have often disappeared completely.
While we can dismiss shallow liberal “correctness” with the level of respect it deserves, we are forced to recognize the power of history itself and its economic and social currents. Today especially we’re buffeted amid a vast turbulence of forces. So far as I can see the readers of this blog agree that the global financialized debt system is doomed and must collapse of its own weight, and also that there’s little even a large mass of the peasantry, let alone a few lonely denizens of the blogosphere, can do to affect the way these forces play out and the tempo of their doing so.
Where does this leave the people and events of our legends? Whether we take the legend of a lone midnight rider (or a handful of riders if you include Dawes and Prescott, who are the only other well-known names) and wounded innocence which spontaneously rose and fought back at Lexington and Concord, or whether we go with the more accurate story of a several dozen messengers acting out a well-laid plan which culminated in the vigorous resolution of the fight, either way it’s still just a relative handful of people.
Did history have greater space for contingency and small-scale agency back then? Was that too a casualty of the industrial age, the oil age, the age of masses, and by today nothing can any longer be contingent, and no one, not even among the powerful, can be an agent?
And then there’s the question of whether today’s events ever still concentrate such pivotal significance into such a small space, in terms of time, geography, and the number of actors engaged. If instead we expand the idea to just look for the metaphorical Lexington event, which could serve to fire the will to fight of millions, or if we go further and seek to envision the discrete moment which could signal the final breaking of the exponential finance and Bailout wave, it’s still hard to imagine. 
What can today be the equivalent of a General Gage marching upon Lexington? The latest and most exciting event has been the SEC’s filing against Goldman, which has indeed excited everyone to the point that we see speculation everywhere on whether this is the breaking point for Goldman, or even the turning of the tide against Wall Street itself. Almost as pregnant with portent is the looming European debt default unwind, which may roll up the EU itself, with incalculable consequences. We still have zombie Dubai, still extending and pretending. And providing eschatological backdrop as well as threatening economic devastation itself, we have the eruption of Iceland. Can any of these really provide the non-linear break? We’ll rightly keep doubting until the moment it happens, and probably for some time afterward, just as the newspapermen who witnessed the first Kitty Hawk flight said “that’s nice” and went home thinking, “that was a neat trick, whatever they were really doing”, and it was days before what had happened really sunk in. 
When I think of the early days of the crisis the date 9/29 still leaps out at me. I remember writing it on the cover of the notebook I started in August. On 9/29/08 I wrote, “Sarajevo”. It was the day the first TARP vote rejected it. Of course we know what happened next, and by now I don’t say that date was particularly important. But at the time it struck me as a critical moment in the crisis. I thought they might actually have to start letting the whole thing unravel right then and there. But of course that didn’t happen, then.
Can there really be such a day? Can there be Marches of the Regulars and midnight rides? And even if there still could be, could there again be a response? Can the Minuteman spirit ever reawaken?
Well, that’s just some musings when I thought about the old days. Paul Revere struck me because his legend has been so resilient and evocative for so long for so many. Like I said, I don’t know if they even teach him in school anymore. But should we ever be able to seize upon events, it would be of great use to have the legends to help render them familiar. Not just Revere (who’s really just an example here, but a good one) but the entire heritage is waiting and wanting to do real work once again. It wonders, How was our Revolution lost?
So I just wrote this as some notes and suggestions for further thought. Maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense, or maybe it’ll give people something to think about. We seem to have unfathomable time (meaning simply that we have zero idea if the zombie starts toppling tomorrow or five years from now or anytime in between) and not a huge number of options for what to do with it at the moment.
Oh well, another strange gizmo for the toolbox.

April 20, 2010

What if the Volcano Erupts Forever?


Watching animation of the ash dispersal from the Eyjaffjollajokull volcano is mesmerizing. The chaotic turbulence seems an apt image for the chaos spreading over the world today. The last three times this volcano erupted it triggered a greater eruption by its neighbor Katla. These are synchronized parts of a system. The greater eruption may come within the week.
I wonder if anyone’s trying to generate a similar graphic to depict the turbulence of the bailout; the now zombified, insolvent, yet ever more intense global finance casino, the Tower of Debt Babel becoming more top heavy by the day even as it totters more dynamically.
More and more criminal energy keeps being pumped into the system, accompanied by more and more fear, despair, and rage on the part of the victimized peoples of the planet. Non-linear jumps are inevitable.
This volcano, arising in Iceland of all places, the one place where people are showing any sign at all of being willing to fight back and say No, seems eerily symbolic.
If I were a mystic I’d think it’s no coincidence at all…..
By now we’re so used to the pulse of globalization and its mechanisms like cheap, on-demand air travel that it seems an odd interlude for so many planes to be grounded. (My fellow Naked Capitalism readers are familiar with how Yves Smith has been trapped in England for days now.) It’s especially unfathomable and infuriating that there’s no easy way to cast political blame for a volcano, though some are trying, and of course everyone’s looking for how to turn it into a scam. The system being what it is, the airlines are already whining for a bailout. The response to yet another shot across the bow from the uncanny orb itself is to try to build the Debt Tower higher, add another layer to the pyramid scheme, double down and compound the crime.
The system has literally zero ideas beyond theft by now. The hubris of kleptocracy has become extraordinary. Since the Greek meltdown has transfixed all us  perplexed commentators, we’ve grasped at the imagery and morality tales of Greek mythology. Today the story of Icarus seems apropos. Full of irrational exuberance, Icarus defied his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax of his wings and sent him plummeting into the sea.
Today the planes want to fly into the ash. Every flier wants to fly ever higher into what he thinks is the sun of infinite greed and power satiety. As Lloyd Blankfein and others have said, they consider themselves gods. But they are not. They’re louts and thugs who managed to strap on the artificial wings of cheap oil and a phony economy based on a fictive fiat dollar and exponential debt. That sun toward which they fly, into which they want to drag us all, is actually their hell on earth. But it shall be the furnace of their own immolation.
Just as a flight of fancy (though no more fanciful than the flight plan of infinite globalization itself), we can see the volcano as a parable. The flight gods now rescind our wings, which took us too close to the sun.
We face the impending economic and energy descent into the Second Great Depression, this one permanent by our measure of time. If this is to be what most would experience as a new Dark Age, what might be the effect of a physical blast out of Katla? A new, quickly-descending physical, literal Dark Age, including the mass failure of crops and subsequent famine? Yet this would not be a wild card, like the asteroid which mortally wounded the dinosaurs. It would just be an acceleration of everything that’s fated anyway by Peak Oil. The failure of globalization, of industrial agriculture, of consumerism, and the acceleration of every pathology, and of the system’s eventual collapse.
What if the planes were grounded forever? We see how the system’s already pushing back against reality. They’re already saying European transportation ministries overreacted and should lift the restrictions. Everyone was too hysterical about the threat of the ash. That you can fly through it just fine. Let the “free market” do its thing. There go those pointy-headed safety freaks again. All the same arguments which have worked out so well with the finance sector, and at every single other point they were deployed against reason, common sense, and reality.
But just as a thought experiment, what if the planes were grounded forever right now? The reality is that they will eventually be grounded forever, and any grounding today only lessens the finite number of flights left in our future. Man cannot fly forever on renewable energy and biofuels. You can’t have cheap globalized flight without cheap fossil fuels. As the oil depletes and becomes impossible to extract except at prohibitive costs, we’ll face a choice about flight. We can allow “essential” flight to continue. In practice this will mean elites, the rich, and the military get to fly, while the rest of us are permanently grounded. This particular technological stratification will be a stark milestone on the road to our impending enslavement, as we look up in wonder at the alien things in the sky in the same way a South Seas islander once did.
We’re already enshrining our own version of cargo cults, as we keep absurd faith in things like consumerism, what the elites call “capitalism”, the “ownership society”, the monetized version of the “American dream”, even as these have been proven to be Big Lies. So we may even tolerate the dear, slave-extracted oil being used to power luxury jets that hop among fortified elite compounds while we grovel in the mud. So far that’s been our response to things.
Or, we can make the choice, find the resolve, to say the oil, like every other resource, belongs to we the people, and we’re going to take it back to use for the public good. In the unlikely event of such morality and wisdom prevailing, we will indeed ground the planes as a stupid luxury which under corporatism produces almost nothing but generates enormous waste and pathology.
The reality is that the fossil fuel economy will be grounded. Financialization will be grounded. All the volcanoes are rumbling. The only one we’re not sure about is the political volcano. There too, only in Iceland have we felt some slight shaking of the earth.
Meanwhile the whole airline fiasco is being derided as yet another EU failure. Just as they thought they could have their monetary union cake but eat their sovereign fiscal policies too, so it turns out their parochial transportation ministries don’t know how to coordinate responses to things like volcanoes. Following the eruption it took five days for the ministries of the whole gaggle of countries to even get together. After the disparate, nationally based responses to the financial crisis, to the Georgian war, and the feckless pseudo-coping with Greece, this is yet more evidence of the absurdity of “Europe” as an entity and as a concept.
Once again I’m reminded of how the “EU” like every other aspect of globalization and financialization, is in itself a bubble phenomenon. It looks good and functions well only on the upswing, only when things are going well. But the moment things go wrong, having to mark it to market becomes a disaster.
(And with something like a volcano, there’s no craven FASB to cave in and let you cook the books. You fly the plane or you don’t.)
And what about that Greek bailout? After all the tedium and angst of the protracted negotiations toward a bailout, everyone has concluded almost immediately that this bailout won’t work. Greece may still default in 2010, 2011 at the latest. And the wobble in Portugal’s debt tower is becoming more pronouced.
(At Zero Hedge they joked that the Greeks should still sell islands like Santorini. There’s another volcano, which leveled the Minoan civilization at Thera and gave rise to the legend of Atlantis. So where to for today’s Atlantis? It’s the same flagitious pseudo-civilization, the same crime and depravity as in the original legend. Once again we see how symbolic this volcano is.)
One last rumble which some are claiming (or hoping) to detect is that the SEC’s suit against Goldman will open the floodgates of a general offensive against this particular hedge fund, and against the whole compass of the TBTFs. Since Friday several other actions against Goldman have commenced. We’ll see what happens.
My position has long been that on the longer, more ponderous curve, this is the downslope of fossil fuel globalization and the financialized pseudo-economy, and the pseudo-civilization which by now is a diseased vestige. But politically there’s no linear reform curve here. The only linear political curve heads down as well – to neo-feudalism, neo-medievalism, serfdom.
Only a non-linear political break, seizing an opportunity opened up by some stumble along the vaster economic curve, can flip the political trend over to a different strange attractor. The two attractors are fascism or revolution (I take solace in the fact that either way corporate liberals are doomed). By “revolution” I mean the people transforming themselves back into a true constitution the way we once were, when we still lived according to the values of freedom, justice, morality, and community. The great volcano of the age already casts its pall over modern “civilization”, which was really just an oil- and debt-fueled blip. All that must choke and die.
But it’s our choice whether we die with it, or whether we use the surge and winds of our own spiritual volcano to loft us above the ashes of the burning neoliberal world, where we can again soar the currents and breathe the clear, bracing air of our redeemed humanity.
They flew into their false sun of greed, war, destruction, despair. But they and their gaslight sun will now crash to the inexorable earth. Will we fall with them? Or shall we seek the old, and what can again be the new, light? Humanity never had a sunset, only a light blotted by the smog of crime. Our sun can still be rising, if we rise to meet that dawn. It’s a choice of volcanoes.