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Subsistence Politics

October 28, 2009

[Prologue edited for clarity.] Years ago, before my ideas went out of fashion, I went around calling myself a Liberal. I also frequently submitted posts for the Carnival of the Liberals, and still do occasionally. Sometimes I manage to sneak one in there. The Carnival was the driving force behind my beginning a series of long form posts (one and two) in which I began to sketch out my political thoughts in an attempt to figure out what it all meant. Enough time has passed since the second of those posts, that I feel rather radically removed from the younger me that wrote them. This post serves as a continuation of that project, yet picks up not where that different me left off, but instead from where I find myself now.

I AM NOT A LIBERAL. Certainly not in the postmodern United States where words have no meaning beyond their commercial utility, where “Liberal” means “Progressive” means centrist corporate imperialism with a friendly face, and the “center” is nowhere near the middle of the full range of political possibilities.

I’m a Recovering Progressive

Classical Liberalism, if that term can still be used meaningfully, may be onto something in emphasizing individual liberty, but loses the thread in its devotion to free market, laissez-faire economics. A condition which may very well work on a much smaller scale, yet does not obtain in a society such as ours, large enough to necessitate the establishment of a ruling class, which in turn manipulates market conditions to enrich a powerful elite, and then globalizes that influence through military force.

My Liberal/Progressive friends acknowledge this on some level. They are concerned that the system is broken and they want to fix it. But it’s worse than broken: it works perfectly; in accordance with the demands of the powerful. The People have been rendered utterly powerless. It cannot be stated in any plainer or more direct terms. We. Have. No. Power. In directing the governing forces of our political-social-economic system.

Add to this competition over the dwindling, soon to be scarce resources necessary for human subsistence, and the problem comes into clear resolution. Our current situation is untenable. This fucker is too big. Not “too big to fail,” but “so big it must fail.”

One cannot rely on Big Coercion* to insure (sic) healthcare for all. (Or low oil prices, or safety, or whathaveyou.) It is worth examining whether it is right to even request such provisions, when by doing so one legitimizes an institution that directly expends hundreds of billions of dollars a year on military supremacy and conquest. The American Way of Life had a a good run there, but really, to quote myself, “Is it even right to ask for a bigger slice of the pie, when the pie is imperial plunder, taken through violence and exploitation?”

* It is appropriate to call it Big Coercion, when “big” has come to mean “evil” in the parlance of the postmodern commercial utility of vocabulary. Think “Big Oil,” “Big Insurance,” “Big Government,” and so on.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine

When the first powerful elites clawed their way out of the primordial bile to stake ownership claims and ruling status, they didn’t have the annals of recorded history and tradition to establish an inherited entitlement. They created a mythology, a sort of reverse history. They claimed to know what was to come in this life and the next. They offered certainty in dealing with a terrifying future of inevitable disaster. People, loathing uncertainty, eat that shit up.

Nowadays, power seekers can’t create mythologies out of whole cloth like they used to, with the scientific method running around yielding reliable insight into how the world works. Regrettably, this takes much of the imagination and magic out of the end times. However, opinion being what it is, which is an altogether different beast from how the world works, and the timing being about right for a new millenarianism, today our Progressive leaders offer us comfort in the form of solutions to climate change. These solutions are in any no way serious.

Of course, this is not to pin our probably eminent doom at the hands of radical meteorology on the Progressives. Conservatives offer no solutions either. It is, however, an example of another of my theses, “Republicans make promises that they are allowed to keep. Democrats make promises that they aren’t.” In this case, one side says, “it isn’t happening,” and vows to do nothing substantive, while the other side says, “it is indeed happening,” and swears they are doing something, yet, in actuality, do nothing substantive.

Here’s an old favorite from IOZ:

Carbon fuel is a singularly efficient concentration of caloric energy. It has an affinity for combustion. It is refinable and fungible. Its unique qualities define the made geography of our entire society. We aren’t going to put hydrogen fuel cells into our cars and long-haul fleets and continue put-putting around, but Green! The “alternative to oil” is not a new substance at the filling station. The alternative to oil is the radical physical revision of the entire structure of our civilization. [IOZ]

No leader is proposing the radical physical revision of the entire structure of our civilization.

Where Am I? And Why am I in This Handbasket?

Here’s a quote from a news item a while back that had the headline US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive:

“The obsession with growth is sadly a very American thing. Across the US, there’s an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing they are successful. If they’re shrinking, they’re failing.” [Telegraph]

Remember, “Not ‘too big to fail,’ but ‘so big it must fail'”? How did we get here? It wasn’t that nobody in our history realized that the American obsession of growth was folly, that borrowing against future profits for the sake of progress could never pretend to be a self sustaining process, (see the housing bubble for an illustration.) It was that those who recognized this folly were utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Big Coercion has managed to ingrain this obsession with growth, and its benefits for the elite, so deeply in the American psyche that even the people who will eventually be crushed under empire’s falling corpse, (if not sooner!), can’t bring themselves to resist it.

There are many mechanisms in our society that serve to force people into toil. The constant looming threat of unemployment, debt traps, privatized health insurance and so on. Politically, the ruling class, being few, can more easily coordinate their efforts to ensure these conditions obtain; while The People, being many, and being disadvantaged unequally by these conditions, struggle to form any sort of politically effective coalition.

Systems of control permeate our culture at every level. J. R. Boyd concisely sums up what Michael Foucault took 9000 pages to say in his chapter on panopticism:

Whether it is the corporate office or the concentration camp, the most effective programs of control always include multiple tiers of authority and reward. Nobody is free, but at least there are rewards for “good” behavior. [J. R. Boyd]

Liberals, at least the ones entrenched in the Progressive Movement here in the US, don’t seem to recognize this curbing of personal freedom, or acknowledge the severity of the power differential inherent in our politics. Resistance isn’t only useless, it’s meaningless.

It is more useful to hew to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s advice when it comes to evaluating national politicians of all ideologies: “Don’t believe them, don’t fear them, don’t ask anything of them.”

YOU: Yeah, yeah, ok, Montag, so you’re an un-American communist scumfuck. But you’ve just been telling us what you aren’t and why, rather than what you are. Where’s the political theory you’re supposedly working out?

ME: I prefer ‘anti-imperialist economic disestablishmentarian’ to “communist scumfuck,” but whatever. Keep reading and I’ll lay some ideas on ya.

But first, why bother?

…the state in its current form will not vanish, or perhaps even be significantly altered, in our lifetimes, and it may survive the next several hundred years. Nonetheless, a profoundly different vision of what is possible is necessary to grasp more fully the damaging, far too frequently deadly, reality which now enmeshes us. [Arthur Silber]

Subsistence Politics

A system of subsistence would be more egalitarian than one based in profit. Growth and progress should be fueled by necessity tempered with morality, rather than for the sole purpose of profitability.

Life, liberty and happiness.

People have needs when it comes to life, (see also the link labeled “one” in the prologue at the very top of this post): These are limited to clean air, clean drinking water, food, and shelter. Survival needs are pretty simple to fill, at a subsistence level, with a minimal expenditure of power. Individual liberty is only to be curtailed to the point that survival needs are satisfied for the group. So, no poisoning the river or the air, and if you want to throw-in with our little band, share your extra food and spend a little of your spare time now and then helping your neighbors improve their shelter. The beauty is, there will be plenty of spare time! A ten hour work week should suffice to provide for basic survival needs.

The remainder of needs discussed in that earlier post could be called ‘happiness needs.’ In the sating of happiness needs, individual liberty is governed only by an ethics founded in logical truth. Perhaps the maximization of happiness/pleasure for now and for the future of our little society would be a reasonable objective of such an ethic.

Absent the trappings of our current society, mentioned earlier, happiness might be more easily attained through creative work, child rearing, philanthropy, love/sexuality, etc. rather than in the pursuit of the odious “invented needs” (discussed in the link labeled “two” in the prologue.) And a collective “looking-out” for our neighbors’ subsistence and happiness might more easily deter peoples’ more perverse desires to dominate and control.

And necessarily, our little society is small. (There may be a hint about the “too bigness” of globalized capitalist nation-state societies above, but I can’t remember.)

This is only what can be imagined. We cannot get there from where we are now, not via the mechanisms of power that govern us. But the writing is on the wall. It’s all over but the waiting. This magnificent beast is dead on its feet and will eventually collapse under it’s own weight.

In the meantime, an anonymous commenter at Who Is IOZ? once offered some sage advice: “Better to salvage what’s left of partying.”

The triumvirate:
Arthur Silber: Contemplating a Different World
IOZ: Renouncing Libertarianism Is Cuter than Kittens Riding on Puppies In Wagons Pulled by Miniature Ponies
(Both of whom got where they are by way “libertarianism” as opposed to “liberalism,” but as far as I can tell we’ve all ended up in abount the same place.)
And J.R. Boyd: ladypoverty

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2009 1:10 AM

    Wow, nice work. Very much in sympathy with what has occupied me at LP lately, except you’re much better at sustaining a train of thought!

  2. October 29, 2009 1:25 PM

    One minor quibble: happiness through child-rearing? Methinks you started salvaging a bit early.

  3. October 29, 2009 1:37 PM

    Thanks, JRB.

    Randal, or a bit too much?

    in a public school-less society, where you’re primary interactions with your kids are no longer putting them on the bus in the morning and coercing them to do their homework all evening, parenting will be fun! if you don’t want to raise the kid yourself perhaps you’ll be able to opt out and let the community raise them.

  4. October 30, 2009 1:31 AM

    Growth and progress should be fueled by necessity tempered with morality

    One problem. Who decides? Me? You? Dumb Larry from the next block over? And how do you convince the ones who don’t want to go along?

  5. October 30, 2009 8:25 AM

    i don’t know, Leo.

    i’m more concerned with taking the profit motive out of the equation. it probably could have read something like:

    Growth and progress should be informed by an ethic (such as the one proposed a couple of paragraphs later), rather than for the sole purpose of profitability.

    Badiou says an ethic based in truth must be universal and is therefore impossible to deny in good faith.

    as for what is necessary? if we can’t come to a consensus, i don’t have a problem with letting Dumb Larry decide. ;)

  6. October 30, 2009 10:08 AM

    So when and where do we start our anti-imperialist economic disestablishmentarian commune?

    I haven’t written anything this thoughtful in years. Bravo. These days I don’t spend more than five minutes on a blog post, lol. The last time I wrote anything serious I was heading in your direction but sort of took a detour towards not-caring-ville. I really should start thinking more…

    • October 30, 2009 1:20 PM

      Agi, i’m kind of relying on having a sense of ‘knowing it when i see it.’ if you want to meet up after the collapse we can head for the mountains in Western Maine. could probably find some high ground there that will be easy to defend.

      in the meantime i’ll be around. partying like Prince.

      all these years and it never occurred to me ’til just recently how neat it is living through a millennium.

  7. October 31, 2009 3:04 PM

    Just to touch on the use of the word “liberal,” people typically use it to describe an enlightened orientation toward the individual, just as “conservative” is meant to orient oneself toward power. Used consistently, in keeping with the enlightenment tradition from which they came, I think the terms are serviceable: they lead us to anarchism in the modern era.

    Without adapting them to a modern context, the liberal “right” to property in the pre-industrial era, conceived as a means for individual self-sufficiency and a hedge against the state, suddenly becomes a claim to the social wealth of entire communities. In the same respect, the single-minded crowing by conservatives about governmental power ignores every other variety that has developed since!

    Many people use the terms in good faith without recognizing these implications.

  8. November 5, 2009 11:09 AM

    JRB, this is the reasoning behind the attempted shift away from ‘defining my terms’ to ‘voicing my thoughts’ and rejecting the easy labels. as IOZ said at his post,

    And if the question finally becomes: well, then, what will we call ourselves? Then I suggest a question in reply: why must you call yourselves anything at all?

  9. November 20, 2009 8:30 PM

    Thoughtful piece. Politics in this country really is pretty much about which rich guy at the head of the table gets to ladle his gravy first.


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