Monday, April 1, 2013

Selecting a Guiding Narrative

"May you live in interesting times," can serve as a curse. We certainly do live in interesting times. Are we cursed?

When I graduated from high school, Berlin was still a bisected city. The Soviet Union stood as the monolithic enemy of the West, and when it fell, seemingly overnight, the triumph and ultimate vindication of capitalism seemed uncontested. At the time, I didn't have any doubts as to whether I knew what the word 'capitalism' meant, or whether other people who used that word understood it to mean what I meant by it, i.e. the lack of central planning or of a controlling authority for the economy. In a word, I thought capitalism just meant 'freedom.'

Capitalism was the freedom to choose the career that made the most sense, given one's skills, attitudes, preferences and ambition. This was the self-satisfied narrative of my national identity. No teacher or other adult authority ever suggested that I think about it any more deeply than that.  I don't think I ever wondered what the 'capital' in capitalism meant until I was in my 30s.

Now, with the Soviet Union gone and with China's Communist Party embracing a pure brand of capitalism unhindered by any gentile concern for human rights, capitalism looks like the only way forward; the only question being, which particular strain of capitalism will thrive best in an age when money moves as fast as information, at least when it's not weighed down by any involvement with the production of physical goods or tangible services.

According to the champions of global governance,  Capitalism is the only game in town. The question of whether capitalism will survive growing unrest and snowballing financial crises is not even open to discussion, and yet, even without a rival, capitalism is clearly not working. Even people of my generation and older, who remember the USSR and the threat of nuclear Armageddon, can see that it isn't  working. We don't agree why it isn't working, and I suspect that many people believe it can be made to work again, if only… Insert self-validating prescription here.

The more people who, like me, have fallen out of the formal economy of the soon-to-be post-capitalist West, the more people there are who are willing to ask what options besides capitalism exist and what it might take to transition to those other alternatives.

I've tried talking to Marxists, but it seems that they are caught up in an old argument, and when I invite them to collaboratively explore the space of possibilities with me, they reflexively cast me as the champion of their traditional enemy. The role they assign me has a detailed historical resume of which I know little.  They seem quick to anger, and while I generally don't know what it is that they are trying to communicate, they seem to think that they understand my concerns, even though I don't recognize my own position when I hear it paraphrased back to me in Marxist jargon. Those conversations blow up in a plume of acrimony in short order.  I can't say I know much about Marxism, but I can say that I'm not much interested in talking about it with Marxists.

I've heard it argued that competition is wasteful, that it leads to useless duplication of effort and that the time has come for a transition from competition to cooperation. To my ears, this has the ring of truth about it, and I’m willing to consider the possibilities. Jacque Fresco of the Venus project and his protégés in the Zeitgeist Movement advocate this line of thought. Unfortunately, their vision strikes me as being no closer to delivering a workable social arrangement than Huxley's Brave New World or the kingdom of righteousness in the vision of the Christian Reconstructionists. The path from here to their proposed future seems to run through the middle of a miracle. They offer a vision of gleaming cities built from scratch with no visible traces of the infrastructure of the old order. They envision beneficent central computers to choreograph production and allocate resources,  but they provide no details about how we will shift from competing agendas to a shared vision of the common good. I don’t see how their vision of elegant cooperation is supposed to grow out of the historical developmental process which has delivered human civilization to this present moment where the only conceivable way of living isn't working any more.

More and more of us are willing to look at alternatives. More than just willing, some of us are desperate for alternatives. Such is our desperation that anyone with a clear vision and a trustworthy countenance can find an audience and gather a hopeful flock around them. The old gatekeepers still maintain their posts and restrict access to the machinery that amplifies voice and vision if your message does not respect the old powers, but the mismatch between the official narrative and the reality we encounter with our senses continues to grow, and people look to alternative channels for alternative narratives, and the new media stands ready
to propagate new visions.

When people abandon their faith in the mainstream story tellers and first venture away from their familiar and respected sources of information, the alternative narratives they are likely to encounter first are, I fear, mostly predatory. Those who would capitalize on fear and anger spin tales of malevolent plots to enslave humanity and reduce us to degraded and demoralized drones, cattle or serfs. These narratives find willing listeners because they tell people, "These hardships are not your fault. You have worked hard and played by the rules. By rights, you should be successful. This was done to you by evil people."

This narrative is particularly effective because we all want to believe that we have worked hard, that we have made good choices and that we really do deserve better than this. It also spares us the horror of imagining that nobody is in control. We so crave the illusion of agency that we would rather believe that evil, shape-shifting reptiles micromanage every detail of the global technocracy than contemplate the terrifying possibility that nobody is in control, that billions of basically decent people, working with limited information and relying on common sense have collaboratively constructed a self-perpetuating system that reduces humans to interchangeable, disposable parts and consumes the complex vitality of the living planet.

This grand conspiracy narrative gets an enormous boost from the fact that it doevetails with the mainstream narrative which still claims that people who work hard and obey authority can find a place in the formal economy, that the system can and will meet all of their needs and provide them with a dignified existence when their usefulness to the system has been exhausted. The evil elite narrative lets us cling to the illusion that the capitalist system is workable, just and redeemable. It can be reformed and made to work like it used to if only we can wrest control from the reptiles and evil wizards who have commandeered and corrupted it.

While I criticize those who fear-monger, scapegoat, and pander to festering cultural animosities, I don't blame anyone for not knowing what story to put in place of the increasingly dysfunctional mainstream narrative or any of its toxic contenders. The prescription that seems workable and the one I continue to articulate isn't much of a narrative at all. It is simply this: pay attention. Do your best to remain flexible and adaptable. Hold your beliefs lightly and be ready to examine unfamiliar ideas and let go of ones that seem to have outlived their usefulness, even if you can clearly remember a time when they made good sense. If anything seems like a "no-brainer," that's a sure sign that you are not using your brain. Hear that phrase as a warning klaxon. Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Beware of memes that demand total and exclusive allegiance. Eat well and enjoy the company of other people who love good food. Withdraw your participation from stale, partisan debates. Make a point of learning, but let your passion and aptitudes guide you and provide you with the motivation to continue at a pace that invigorates rather than drains you. Spend more time outside. (This one especially is aimed at the man in the mirror.) Notice and gently rebuke those who encourage you to get drunk on the neuro-chemical cocktail of righteous indignation.



Lauren said...

The getting outside part has been particularly helpful for me. That, and severely reducing the amount of fabricated input I am receiving at any given moment. It is hard to go anywhere today without some kind of media blaring at you from some quarter. But there is also that tendency to turn something on when doing chores that has been hard to eliminate as well. That is not to say that I don't consume media, just that I have been attempting to be very selective about what and when. The sun, the wind and the trees speak a lot clearer to me when I do that.

Albert Bates said...

Go Reverend Billy!

Cor said...

Excellent blog, thanks. I would be interested to hear a further explanation of how you come to this insight, "This grand conspiracy narrative gets an enormous boost from the fact that it doevetails with the mainstream narrative which still claims that people who work hard and obey authority can find a place in the formal economy,"

Paul said...

With regard to your "prescription that seems workable and the one I continue to articulate isn't much of a narrative at all. It is simply this: pay attention." Slavoj Žižek says something similar ( "Take all these threats seriously, but don’t be seduced by them and enjoy too much the false sense of guilt and justice ('We offended Mother Earth, so we are getting what we deserve!'). Instead, keep your head cool ... 'But you watch, keep awake.' I agree, we must watch, keep awake, and be ready for surprises. "All we can be certain of is that the existing system cannot reproduce itself indefinitely: whatever will come after will not be 'our future.' A new Middle East war or an economic chaos or an unheard-of environmental catastrophe can swiftly change the basic coordinates of our predicament. We should fully assume this openness, guiding ourselves on nothing more than ambiguous signs from the future."