July - September, 2011

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me and mom, 1968

July 17. Over the last few months I've been making hints about being busy, not being able to leave Spokane, and not doing any more housesitting. And you might have noticed that I've done almost nothing on the land. I've waited to make a public announcement for two reasons: I don't want this blog to be too much about my personal life, and I didn't want to get two rounds of condolence emails.

In fall of 2008, my mom was diagnosed with ALS, a fatal disease that causes gradual loss of voluntary muscle movement. In her case, it started with twitches in her arms and legs, and then she became less able to do things with her hands, lift her arms, or walk. For the last eight months I've been helping to feed her, keep her comfortable, and lift her in and out of chairs and beds. She was just coming to the end of her ability to stay on her feet while being steadied, and click a mouse with her last two working fingers. Early Friday morning she died in her sleep.

mom and me, 2009 Going through the death of a parent is better than the alternatives: dying before your parents or not knowing them. And a long terminal illness has advantages over a sudden unexpected death: we had time to go through family photos and heirlooms, to write down her life story, to hold a living wake, and to properly say goodbye. Like getting hit by a train, no matter how long you see it coming, it's still a shock.

I credit my mom for most of my own success. She raised me and my sister with plenty of supportive attention, which is a pretty good definition of love. And she served as an example of how to live well: she walked her own path, she was courageously quirky, and she knew how to squeeze every drop of fun out of life while still being responsible. Here's a link to her online tribute. Of course, everything that dies is still around, just in a more subtle way. Ann comments:

Did you ever read Edwin Abbott's Flatland? In our three-dimensional bodies, we can only move in one direction in time. Once our soul is free of our body, though, we can move as freely in time as we do now in a field of grass or flowers. Your mother is free of her cumbersome human body. With no limitations on time, she has likely moved on to the point at which you are free of your body as well. In other words, you're together right now. You feel her loss because you're still stuck here in a human body, but she doesn't feel your loss at all because she has found you and is no doubt agreeing with you how silly we living humans can be.

August 5. On the massacre in Norway, the most depressing thing is, it was a good tactical move. To understand why, read this depressing article, Death Grip: experiments show that ordinary humans, when reminded of their own mortality, become authoritarian, nationalistic, and intolerant. So if more right wingers went on shooting sprees, soon the whole world would be wearing uniforms, waving flags, suspicious of strangers, and mindlessly submitting to the biggest bad-ass.

This raises a deeper question: where does this instinct come from? My guess is, in our ancestral world, if a tribe could shift into fascist mode, it would be much better at violent conflict than a nice tribe where everyone was tolerant and power was fully shared. So this mode of consciouness became part of the human potential, and I think it remains useful for certain emergency projects.

The danger is not that we can go there, but that we can go there for the wrong reason, and get stuck. As with so many human problems, the solution is awareness and mastery of our own mental states. Without that awareness, we can get so deep in a way of being that it feels like who we are, and shifting to a different way of being feels like dying. When an entrenched right winger sees an alien people moving into town without assimilating, or "marriage" being loosened to include same sex couples, it feels like their life is being threatened! This explains the popular saying in Nazi Germany, often attributed to Hermann Goering: "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my gun."

August 10. Great blog post, Panic on the streets of London:

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything - literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night.

Also, this Guardian piece on the buzz of mob mayhem points out that the main emotion in riots is not anger, but fun: "it's like a Wii game come to life - a hyper-real version of GTA."

In his book In Search of the Primitive, Stanley Diamond describes primitive warfare that's like a big capture the flag game, with a small but exciting chance of getting seriously injured or killed. This kind of ritual is part of our nature, and good for us, and there's nothing like it in the modern world. Instead, we go to the extremes: playgrounds are too safe, war is too deadly, and neither is any fun.

A well-designed society will have ways for people to run around playfully, take physical risks, and influence the world. Political protests promise this, and instead give us a degrading ritual in which we walk meekly inside the lines and shout our demands into the wind. Team sports would partly satisfy us, if we actually played sports, but instead we mostly sit and watch them, and it becomes another ritual of powerlessness. The closest thing we have is driving, in which we get to move fast and take risks, but we get no physical release, the slightest bump to another vehicle leads to a bureaucratic nightmare, and the only way we influence the world is by releasing gases that destabilize the climate.

What we call "rioting" is simply bad system design. Human energy that should be given a constructive channel is instead so tightly blocked that it builds up pressure and explodes.

August 11. Q: What's the difference between a protester and a rioter? A: A protester has no effect on the political system. JL comments:

Protesters used to be known as demonstrators. Protesting has negative connotations of weakness, impotence, being after-the-fact after decisions have already been made.

A political demonstration used to be about sending a message that the demonstrators were existing, numerous, and willing to take physical action.

Contrast that with internet activism, where people now invest a lot of time and energy sending information around a network.

As for rioting, people do that after a sports team wins a big game, after an especially rousing rock concert, and of course as a reaction to an injustice.

In my opinion, people who see themselves as rioters or protesters are basically suffering from historical amnesia. They know they need to do something, but they don't know what they should do or why, or to achieve what end result.

Last night I watched Terry Jones' Medieval Lives episode 1: the peasant. There was a big revolt in 1381, where English peasants stormed London, cut off a few heads, and raided the tax offices and burned their paperwork! This reminds me of Fight Club, where working class men organize to blow up all the bank buildings and cancel debts.

Personal debt forgiveness is not even on the radar as a political issue. The tea-partiers are living 600 years in the past, opposing taxes when they're already the most undertaxed and overindebted people in the first world. Their secret wish is to replace the government with the more brutal and efficient rule of private armies. Liberals are at least wrong about something that's hard to understand. They think the poor need jobs, when really the poor need to not need jobs -- to have the land, skills, and tools to provide their own necessities outside the money economy.

I don't think the present crisis can be solved by mass action in the streets. Will millions of people occupy golf courses and bank-owned houses so they can grow food and become independent of the economy that will collapse when they later occupy financial districts and force total debt forgiveness? Try to put that into "What do we want? (blank)! When do we want it? Now!" Popular uprisings need simple goals, and we're in a giant burning building with no simple exit.

August 11-14. For the record, I don't blame the "evil elites". Evil is what you call something you don't like when you give up on trying to understand it. Blame is when you stop tracing responsibility before it gets back to you. And responsibility is the assumption that everyone else is doing the best they can, but you can do better.

According to the myth of the evil elites, a few people were magically born wicked, and through some fluke they seized the reins of power, and if we could just replace them with ordinary people then everything would be fine. But if you replaced the elite with random citizens, they would do exactly the same thing! The elite do harm because they're ordinary, because they cannot rise above their roles in a system built for positive feedback in central control. There is no evil, only bad system design and human inattention.

August 12. Andy comments on the above:

I sit at least as close to elite circles as any of your readers. My experience is that elites aren't really evil, just profoundly self-absorbed, and on average, actually less so than non-elites. The ones I know would genuinely like to see a better world, but they are completely befuddled as to how one might arise, believing and being invested in a thoroughly broken system.

I'm currently reading about the rise of the bourgeois, and thinking about it in ecological terms: in medieval Europe a new niche appeared, in which you could become powerful by manufacturing luxuries and managing commerce and finance. And this niche was filled, not by the most adaptable nobles, but by the most adaptable peasants! The nobles could not see the opportunity because they were too invested in the old system.

Now, of course, the titled aristocracy are obsolete, and commerce and finance rule the world. But this system too is dying. What we call "the economy" is based on selling toys to the masses, and collecting exponential interest on debt. Both were made possible by using up nonrenewable resources, now mostly gone.

So, what new niche is opening up? One answer is: we're going full circle back to peasants. Soon, someone who has converted their whole yard to food production will be better off than someone with millions of dollars in stocks.

A more ambitious answer is: selling virtual toys to the masses. Minecraft has made its creator tens of millions of dollars, while consuming no resources compared to a physical item. And making money by selling games is only the beginning. The real action is in creating virtual worlds that change human consciousness.

August 17. John Robb had a good one a few weeks ago, Central Planning and The Fall of the US Empire. This is completely obvious, yet I can't think of anyone else who has bothered to point it out: where the USSR collapsed because of too much central control through government, the USA is collapsing because of too much central control through private wealth.

I would add: the deeper problem is not central control, but positive feedback in central control. If the whole system collapses and we start over with all power equally distributed, that's no solution, because people will immediately start leveraging every political and economic advantage into greater and greater advantage, and we will remain in an infinite series of incompetent control systems and collapses. I see only three ways out: human extinction, a change in human nature so we no longer enjoy turning power into greater power, or an enduring global system with negative feedback in power-over.

Last week I mentioned the new niche of computer games and virtual worlds. I think they might be able to work any of those three angles: driving us to extinction, changing our consciousness, or designing and testing a system with negative feedback in power. Imagine a strategy game or RPG, where the weaker you are, the easier it is to rise, and the stronger you are, the easier it is to fall. The game is shaped like a bowl and drives you to the middle. This would be the opposite of almost all the games we have now, which drive you off the edges, either so weak that you lose, or so strong that you get bored.

August 31. This Adbusters page, Who the F**k Do You Think You Are, is almost completely wrong, and the popularity and unquestioning acceptance of this message is depressing. Here's the text:

You blame China. You blame India. You blame America. You blame the CEOs, the oil companies, the vague and incoherent 'system,' the international regulatory regimes, the hypocrisy of the left, the righteous of the right, the educators, the economy, your parents, your childhood, your job, your bank account, your mental health, your government, everyone and everything but yourself. Wake up! This is no joke. Ecocide is actually happening and your five planet-lifestyle is the primary cause of it.

Adbusters is correct that sitting back and pointing fingers, without doing anything about it, is a mistake. But the alternative it offers is a worse mistake. At least if you blame some of those other things, you might organize to change them. But changing your personal lifestyle will not do anything to stop ecocide. Even if you could organize a million people to use fewer resources, those resources would just be freed to be used by someone else. To stop consumption by voluntary action at the consumer end, you would have to organize every consumer in the world. It's like you've got a hose with a billion leaks. Do you convince a billion people to painfully plug every hole with their fingers, or do you turn off the faucet?

I wrote about this a few years ago in this post:

When we think about being "green," reducing waste and so on, we almost always think in terms of stuff that we can do as individuals, and we almost never think about regulating manufacturing. Imagine: instead of making 50 million people feel guilty for using disposable cups at Starbucks, we could just pass a law prohibiting the manufacture of disposable cups. The reason we don't is that in 1953 Vermont passed a law that banned disposable bottles, and the forces of Evil formed an organization called Keep America Beautiful, which has been working ever since to block that kind of law, and generally to make us think of waste "as an individual responsibility, and not one connected to the production process."

Corporations are not evil, just machines that are doing exactly what they were designed to do: generate profit with indifference to external cost. They were designed that way because humans are still beginners at designing large complex systems. We apply moral condemnation to harmful systems because our ancestors lived in tribes, where moral condemnation worked by making its targets feel shame. Shame doesn't work on governments and corporations and the people inside them doing their jobs. But it does work when those systems use shame on us! Bottom-up shaming is useless, but top-down shaming is used all the time. As with all top-down power, we must resist it.

I don't think people should feel guilty for consuming resources or for any other political reason. Guilt is for when you cheat on your spouse. Politics is cold tactics. Tactically, I don't see any way to stop or change the present system. But there are ways to build new systems that will grow through its cracks.

September 8. David Graeber interview, What is Debt? The popular story is that barter came first, and then money, and then debt. Graeber argues that it's the other way around: Debt existed long before money, as a kind of moral undercurrent to gift economies. Then money was invented to make debt quantifiable and impersonal, basically so it could be used in big systems to concentrate power. And barter appears as a patch when money systems break down.

September 15. A reader asks what I think about a certain ideology in economics, which claims to believe in "free markets". I think the whole concept is a lie. First, "freedom" is the perfect propaganda word: its meaning is vague, we have strong feelings about it, and it is value-loaded. Nobody will stand up and say "I am against freedom." So if you're clever with words, you can control the minds of people who are not paying attention, by convincing them that "freedom" means what you say it means. And if you apply "freedom" to economics, it gets even more confusing.

Among the many things that "freedom" can mean, two big ones are absence of constraint and absence of coercion. These two things are not only different -- they're opposite. Constraint means you want to do something but you're not permitted; coercion means you don't want to do something but you're forced. Now, if one person is powerful and another person is weak, can you guess which definition of freedom is most important to each of them? "Economic freedom" has been defined by the economically powerful as absence of constraint, so they can control the economically weak. In response, the weak use a weak word: fairness. "Unfair" is the complaint of losers. Instead, the economically weak should claim Freedom, and explicitly define it as lack of coercion.

If freedom is lack of coercion, then a free market is one in which no one is permitted to buy the labor of someone who needs money.

Now, just because you sell your labor doesn't mean you're coerced. But if you are economically coerced, it's always based on economic need, on the implied threat of not having enough money. So if you need money, and no one is permitted to buy your labor, then how do you get money? This leads to a thought experiment: if someone has no money, and the only job is working at a bank, then which economy is more free, one in which they have to work at the bank, or one in which they can rob the bank? So-called "libertarians" would favor the first economy, even though the individual in question is more constrained. So "economic freedom" doesn't even mean lack of constraint! It means the weak are constrained from taking advantage of the strong, but the strong are not constrained from taking advantage of the weak. This is economic authoritarianism.

Would I prefer an economy in which people who need money are permitted to take from institutions that have money, rather than being employed by those institutions? Of course! But it would never actually happen that way. In practice, to have a free economy in which freedom means lack of coercion, we have to set it up so that nobody needs money: everything we need is provided unconditionally, and money is for what we don't need but merely desire. Look around at how little we need and how much we desire, and you'll see that this rule still permits a vast and thriving economy.

The catch is: what system provides everything we need, and how do we prevent this system itself from becoming coercive? I don't know! An adequate human society is generations in the future and will require ideas that nobody has thought of yet.

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