A reckoning is inevitable. It will come one of two ways. Soon, as an act of collective awakening, or too late.
It will involve a fundamental shift in our relationships, with each other and with the planet.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupying my Attention

The OWS project gives every indication it’s here to stay. There could not be a more optimistic note, in this slice of an age with so many compound crises. The fact that it spawned in the U.S. and has spread internationally only raises its potential. It appears it was inspired in part by the “Arab Spring,” which has many difficult hurdles ahead. Surely OWS will hit its own snags. The revolution in thinking it triggers faces a staggering task, if it is ever to be implemented. Another optimistic note is the buy-in that came rather rapidly from the mid- to leftist media and many politicians across the spectrum. The various lists of demands being formulated within and around OWS are incredibly inspiring. Things I only fantasized about are clearly articulated, like a total global cancellation of all debt.

There are two questions that seem to be bubbling near the surface among the many issues and demands. To me they seem unavoidable, obvious and inevitable. They involve nothing less than connecting the last two dots. Let’s call them The Pathology of Greed (or “what’s the matter with those people?”) and Zero Sum (or “how did the wealth get distributed in the first place?”)

Never mind that “green” is already considered hackneyed and trite. There’s no better bite to reflect the Global Environmental Crisis. OWS has some green initiatives among its demands, but for me they need to be at the top of the list. And OWS has yet to clearly state the most fundamental, most damning and most predictive connection. There is a “Zero Sum” balance between: 1. the total accumulated wealth in the world, and 2. the total value extracted from and damage done to the planet and human rights. So anytime anyone is accused of wanting to “redistribute the wealth,” it begs the “distributed?” question above. Surely the market hype has some grain of truth. Efficiency, initiative, re-investment and the creative uses of capital created some of the wealth. And much of the wealth has been used creatively. But I argue that most of it - global wealth - is the product of cheap and stolen resources, inhumane labor conditions, the economic benefit of war, and the “externalization” of waste, from Plutonium to CO2. Somebody please do the math. If it’s possible to imagine all the debt in the world cancelled, there’s a dollar amount there that can be totaled. It’s equally possible to estimate the cost of reclaiming global environmental damage, and of building, from near scratch, a sustainable global economy. We know for example that 15% of the U.S. military budget for one year could build permanent fresh water infrastructure for the third of the world that needs it. (If the ongoing industrial waste of water, and global warming, don’t preclude it.)

The total accumulated wealth of the world, one large hunk of which represents global debt, is an equivalent of the dual sum: total eco-damage done, and the cost of reclamation / reparation.

And now finally maybe someone will ask that most taboo of questions, “What is the nature of the mental pathology that drives the 1% to skim the margin of sustainable life from the rest of the world?” It should be clear that there’s a completely distorted competition for egoistic superiority, an uncontrollable, unquestioned and unlimited lust to have a bigger stack of illusionistic power than those others guys, the Koch’s for example. It’s the current version of the Master Race. It’s somewhat murkier to try to understand greed as a mask for fear. Somewhere in us the need to hold and hoard resources is innate. It’s a survival impulse. It represents an accumulation of both real and symbolic power. A hedge against the future ... and fear.

Power and fear, I argue here and elsewhere, lie side by side at the base of the human unconscious. Fight or flee. The reptile brain - we all have one. The fight or balance between them is at the heart of every human conflict. And those conflicts get out of control when their true source impulses are denied. And boy are we experts at denial. When real power in any form - personal, physical, mechanical, monetary or weaponized - begins to take on that inflated unconscious NEED for symbolic power, all other values are open to distortion and corruption. When real fear in any form - of death, disease, pain, poverty or rejection - is amplified into artificial symbols of fear, then fear itself becomes a bogeyman mask that can sell any product or disguise any kind of propaganda. Think WMD.

So the situation we face, the one that OWS has so brilliantly and courageously confronted, involves nothing less than this ultimate paradox. A few powerful people - unwilling and unable to examine their own motivations, incapable of empathy, categorically unquestioning of their assumptions - define and delimit the destiny of the human experiment and the future of life on the planet. If we believe ultimately in democracy, the ability of an educated and informed public to choose a path to the common good, it is insane to allow this power structure - the pathologically corrupt over the rest of the world - to continue.