I’ve gotten feedback from enough people that they would like to continue to read my writing. So I decided to sign up on Substack. It seems like all the “cool kids” are migrating over there. I’ve gotten enough subtle hints from the universe that it would be beneficial.
Expect pieces to more quality over quantity. I plan to concentrate on book reviews and anthropology/history/economics. My intent is to make these the raw material for eventual book chapters. Right now I’m working on a series of posts about the book The Human Swarm by Mark W. Moffett. The next books I’m tentatively working on are Ultrasociety by Peter Turchin and Against the Grain by James C. Scott. All of these are on a theme (the development of complex societies). I’ve already written several pieces on human evolution and a summary of David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here. I also plan on recycling some of my earlier work, either directly or (most likely) reworked to be more readable.
Don’t expect much in the way of current events (especially now!). I’m still just too angry and bitter over things. I still think that long-term trends like the failure of capitalism, the rise of right-wing authoritarianism, and creeping neofeudalism are important issues. It’s just that I can’t f*#king say anything about these topics without people’s brains bursting and completely misinterpreting everything I write. So to h3ll with that.
I’ve set up a Patreon where I might post pieces more directed to current observations. Hopefully, only people who actually want to read these will make the effort to find them. I don’t want to make the Substack a paying newsletter, so contribute if you’d like. Of course, I know what kind of hardship people are going through right now, so be sure and take care of your own house first. I still have a regular job that pays the bills and keeps me out of the cold.
Thanks for all your messages of support. I’ve read all of them, and they mean a lot, believe me. I’m sorry for not responding to them sooner. I’ve been trying to take care of a lot of things I’ve neglected for too long.
Let me know what you think about the articles. Stay safe and well during these troubled and turbulent times.
Saludos cordiales a todos,
P.S. I decided to use as a pseudonym of the author of the original book in Stand on Zanzibar. It’s still not my real name 🙂
I’ve had this sitting on my desktop for months, so here we go with the last archaeology roundup (and likely my final post).
The Roots of Ancient Greece?
I can’t believe I somehow missed this, but I only just recently heard about the excavations at Dhaskalio.
What’s so exciting about this is that this site appears to be the wellspring of many aspects of the cultural practices of Ancient Greece, including religion and urbanism. This site is even older than the Minoan civilization, and shows that the roots of ancient Greek culture go back much further than we previously believed.
The site itself is a pyramid-shaped island that was extensively terraced and landscaped with white stone brought to the island from the surrounding region; some of them quite heavy. There were a number of shrines on the island, and various votive offerings were found, but the exact nature of the religious cult is unknown. There is also metalworking on the site, and signs of trade with other islands in the region. They even constructed an advanced sewage system a millennium before the Minoans on Crete:
Around 4,500 years ago, ancient engineers and workers terraced the little island in the Cyclades archipelago in the Aegean Sea, creating a sort of step pyramid. They then imported hundreds of tons of gleaming white rock from the nearby island of Naxos, creating a bright outdoor shrine where early Greeks performed rituals…
Recent excavations at the pyramid have also revealed a sophisticated system of drainage pipes in the lower levels, showing that the builders carefully planned their monument. It also indicates they were dealing with runoff and sewage an estimated 1,000 years before the Minoans, who built Europe’s first drainage system and flush toilets at the Palace of Knossos on Crete. Recent excavations show that Dhaskalio was full of monumental constructions made from the same gleaming white stone from Naxos and that its inhabitants were as advanced as the shrine they constructed.
Constructing the complex took enormous collective effort, similar to the efforts to build other grand monuments like Stonehenge or the earliest Egyptian pyramids, which were contemporary with Dhaskalio:
Archaeologists now believe that, in order to construct the complex, early Bronze Age Greeks embarked on at least 3,500 maritime voyages to transport between 7,000 and 10,000 tonnes of shining white marble from one Aegean island to another…The voyages – totalling around 45,000 miles – allowed the architects to construct what is thought to have been a huge religious sanctuary consisting of up to 60 marble buildings, which were constructed specifically to glisten in the sun…What’s more, the architects “terra-formed” the pyramid-shaped island “mini-mountain”, known in recent centuries as Dhaskalio (possibly just meaning “islet”), to create around 1,000m of artificial terracing, arranged in six “steps” on its steep slopes.
These roughly six-metre wide terraces appear to have been built specifically to accommodate all the buildings. The summit itself was not initially built on – but instead had a small, probably sacred, open area where votive offerings may have been deposited…
Dhaskalio shares a number of commonalities with other sacred sites in the Mediterranean region and beyond. All of these appear to have been created within roughly the same time frame. While most of focus has been on Mesopotamia to this point, similar developments were happening all across Eurasia, from the Mediterranean to India. All of them seem to have been sparked by cultural innovations like metalworking, writing, trade, and so on.
…the remarkable nature of the site does fit into a much more widely dispersed series of monumental construction traditions from western Europe and the Middle East.
Intriguingly, it was built within 100 years or so of the creation of Stonehenge, the first Egyptian pyramids, the great cities of the Indus Valley and the first known Mesopotamian kingdoms.
This broader context shows quite clearly that Dhaskalio was part of a much wider cultural and political phenomenon involving huge ultra-ambitious construction and political projects.
These Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indus Valley and western European traditions were almost certainly not directly related to each other – but were probably the result of a common stimulus, namely the spread and intensification of early metal usage, and the mercantile, cultural and political changes that process triggered. Equally significantly, Dhaskalio shows that, contrary to previous belief, Greece was part and parcel of that much wider phenomenon.
Even the shape of the island seems to hint at some sort of religious connection with sacred structures in other ancient civilizations in the region. The archaeologists hypothesize that the pyramidal shape of the promontory might be why it was chosen as a sacred site as opposed to other nearby islands.
From the south, the island would have been visible from many miles away as a gleaming white pyramid-shaped mini-mountain rising out of the sea.
It is not known for sure whether the pyramidic shape was in any way significant. But the place had certainly been specifically selected as a religious site in preference to other much higher, more impressive and potentially more accessible mountains that did not have that shape.
What’s more, pyramidic shapes were, at precisely that time, coming to be regarded as sacred just 500 miles to the southeast in ancient Egypt (indeed it is also at that time that there are the first signs of Egyptian influence on nearby Crete).
In the ancient Egyptian context, pyramid shapes were associated with a god of creation, Atum. He was believed to inhabit a pyramid-shaped rock (a “pyramidion” or “Benben” stone) that was seen as symbolising the mythical “primordial mound” (representing the first dry land) which (much as in the book of Genesis) rose out of a “chaotic sea” at the time of creation.
What’s more, that pyramidic stone symbolised the sacred place where the first rays of the sun illuminated the primordial mound at the time of creation – and the pyramidic shape of the pyramidion (the idealised primordial mound) was seen as symbolising the slanting rays of the sun as they descended from the sky to earth.
Indeed, the ancient Egyptians used to cover their symbolic “pyramidions” in gold leaf so that they would shine and glisten in the sun (potentially for the same or similar reasons that the Dhaskalio architects went to so much trouble to ensure that their pyramid-shaped island sanctuary would also glisten in the rays of the sun).
The Mesopotamians and others had similar “primordial mound rising out of watery chaos” creation myths – and it is conceivable that Dhaskalio rising out of the sea symbolises some Cycladic version of those wider sacred cosmological concepts.
In the early Greek world, it is conceivable that the concept of the sacred mountain was exported from Dhaskalio to Crete and perhaps ultimately from there to mainland Greece.
Certainly the main concentration of sacred (sometimes distinctly pyramid-shaped) mountains in Crete are in an area directly associated with what appears to have been Early Bronze Age colonisers from the Cycladic islands.
Those Cretan sacred mountains and mountain-top religious sanctuaries appear to precede the eventual emergence on the Greek mainland of Mount Olympus as the principal home of the gods of ancient Greece. In religious and probably political terms, Dhaskalio seems to have had an unexpectedly important role in the early cultural development of the Greek world.
But what’s most intriguing to me is this fact: at Dhaskalio stone disks and pebbles appear to have been deposited at the site as sacred offerings to the gods.
It’s pretty easy to see how this applies to the history of money. Coinage appears to be a creation of ancient Greek society. It’s generally accepted that this use of coins grew out of a religious context. The first coins were issued by the temples. Could this be the root of the practice?
If the stone disks were gradually transformed into bits of metal like electrum, then that would explain the origins of coinage. It’s interesting in this context that the island seems to have been a center of metalworking for the region. is this where the custom of coinage began and was later introduced to cities on the Aegean coast like Lydia where the first ever coins in the Western World were minted? From there the custom may have spread in a sacred context to the rest of the Greek city-states. Just like silver in the Near East, because these bits of metal were temple offerings they acquired value in exchange more generally, becoming a form of portable, anonymous wealth that could be easily exchanged.
The finds from Dhaskalio are currently being investigated in great detail. Of particular interest are 1,500 imported stone disks (each between eight and 50cm in diameter) – and 700 imported white pebbles. The latter objects appear to have been used as religious offerings, presumably for the spirit or deity associated with the island mini-mountain.
The disks came from various Cycladic islands, while the pebbles were imported solely from the neighbouring island of Upper Koufonisi, three miles northwest of Dhaskalio.
Very significantly, this practice of using stone disks and depositing pebbles seems to have ultimately been exported to Crete by Cycladic colonisers for use on Cretan sacred mountain sites.
Archaeology World supplies some additional context:
The islet had a settlement with metal-working shops, buildings, and even indoor plumbing, and all of this a millennium before the Minoans, who are often thought of as the first European civilization. According to the Keep Talking Greece website, the team of archaeologists has uncovered ‘a complex, stratified and technically expert society’.
Daskalio has a distinctive pyramid shape which is due to the extensive engineering activities of the ancient people of the Aegean islands. They deliberately exaggerated the pyramidal shape of the rocky outcrop by creating a number of huge terraces on Daskalio, that measured in total about 1,000 feet (300 m).
There were 6 terraces and upon them were built a number of buildings, mostly in marble. Some of the buildings were two floors and had staircases and were built using marble. The cultural landscape was built within a four-decade period and based on a single design.
The complex has been dated to about 4,600 years ago. It is believed that the pyramid-island was a religious site that attracted pilgrims from far and wide, who buried small statues here as sacrifices to unknown deities. The summit of the pyramid-islet was an open-area possibly used for sacrifices or votive offerings. The identity of the gods that were worshipped here is unknown.
There is no arable land on the rocky outcrop and little on Keros. Therefore, the inhabitants of ancient Daskalio may have been dependent on religious pilgrims and also engaged in trade.
Keep Talking Greece reports that archaeological finds indicate that the settlers’ “trade extended over a wide network reaching beyond the Cyclades.” There is evidence that the inhabitants specialized in metallurgy and they may have traded their metal products for food and other goods. Such a huge complex required a great deal of labor and organization, especially to bring the marble from the quarries on Naxos that was used in its construction.
The island may have also served as a place of exchange. Signs of many different types of food were found, even though growing food in the rocky soil of the island was not possible:
Joint director of the excavation Michael Boyd, of the University of Cambridge, said metalworking expertise was evidently concentrated at Dhaskalio at a time when access to both skills and raw materials was very limited.
“What we are seeing here with the metalworking and in other ways is the beginnings of urbanisation,” he said. Far-flung communities were drawn into networks centred on the site, craft and agricultural production was intensified, and the architecture became grander, gradually overshadowing the original importance of the sanctuary.
Excavated soil reveals food traces including pulses, grapes, olives, figs and almonds, and cereals, including wheat and barley. Evi Margaritis of the Cyprus Institute said: “Much of this food was imported: in the light of this evidence we need to reconsider what we know about existing networks to include food exchange.”
Project co-director Michael Boyd (Colin Renfrew is the other director) speculates that metalworking itself may have been part of the rituals that took place there:
Project co-director Michael Boyd of Cambridge University told The Associated Press that Dhaskalio appears to have been more than just an ordinary settlement. “It seems to us that it is a central place to which people are drawn, to which expertise and resources are being brought and where activities like the metalworking … are being centralized and controlled,” he said.
Keros and Dhaskalio were inhabited between 2750-2300 B.C. The Cyclades were then home to a remarkable civilization of farmers, metalworkers and seafaring traders, best known for the stylized, flat-headed figurines made of white marble that inspired 20th-century artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore.
Oddly, more than half the surviving Cycladic figurines have been found on desolate Keros. Excavators think they were brought from across the archipelago and ritually smashed on the islet, home at the time to about half a dozen tiny settlements, at a sanctuary just opposite Dhaskalio. That would make Keros the Aegean’s earliest regional religious center, a precursor to nearby Delos that was later revered as the birthplace of Apollo, ancient Greek god of music and light.
Boyd said that while there’s no answer to why Keros was initially chosen, the rituals were the first draw that brought everything else.
“All these other activities that we’re talking about now (came) to be as important or eventually more important than the ritual activities,” he said, adding that in early societies where only a few controlled the knowledge of metalworking, to others it would seem an almost supernatural skill.
“It involves fire, extreme heat, danger, and toxic fumes,” he said. “It would have been quite a spectacle for people to watch so it does probably make sense that some of the smelting processes that we see on Keros were part of the … public events that took place there.”
Not only are new and intriguing discoveries being made about the deep roots of Ancient Greek civilization, but on the other side of Eurasia, exciting new discoveries are being made about the deep roots of Ancient Chinese civilization as well. The site of Shimao appears to be one of the earliest sites where Chinese culture was developed.
Interestingly, it appears to be on the steppe frontier between settled farmers and pastoral nomads, adding support to the Steppe Frontier Hypothesis of the development of the earliest advanced civilizations.
Just like the western Eurasia and the Americas, pyramids and metalworking were hallmarks of this civilization, which existed in the same time frame:
To protect themselves from violent rivals, the Shimao elites molded their oblong 20-tiered pyramid on the highest of those hills. The structure, visible from every point of the city, is about half the height of Egypt’s Great Pyramid at Giza, which was built around the same time (2250 B.C.). But its base is four times larger, and the Shimao elites protected themselves further by inhabiting the top tier of the platform, which included a 20-acre palatial complex with its own water reservoir, craft workshops, and, most likely, ritual temples.
Radiating out from Shimao’s central pyramid were miles of inner and outer perimeter walls, an embryonic urban design that has been echoed in Chinese cities through the ages. The walls alone required 125,000 cubic meters of stone, equal in volume to 50 Olympic swimming pools—a huge undertaking in a Neolithic society whose population likely ranged between 10,000 and 20,000. The sheer size of the project leads archaeologists to believe that Shimao commanded the loyalty—and labor—of smaller satellite towns that have recently been discovered in its orbit.
What have been excavated at Shimao in Shaanxi over the past decade are perhaps more significant than the terracotta army of the First Emperor. The magnificent 4000-year-old city, built mostly of stone, challenges many conventional notions about the birth of Chinese civilization. pic.twitter.com/726Ho3nih7
It’s not a pyramid in the traditional sense. Its sides are not straight or equal. And it was moulded out of a hill, given its shape with rammed-earth and given strength by stone retaining walls. But it is an enormous stepped mound covering some 24 hectares at its base, and 70 metres high. In comparison, the Great Pyramid of Giza covers some 5.5ha, but reaches some 139m into the sky.
The Shimao structure’s stone buttresses form 11 steps. And these appear to have been heavily decorated. Part-animal, part-human faces have been found etched into its stones along with distinctive eye-like symbols. These “may have endowed the stepped pyramid with special religious power and further strengthened the general visual impression on its large audience,” the researchers wrote. The topmost ‘step’ of the pyramid was a large plaza, upon which structures were built.
Among the 4300-year-old city remains are a water cistern, pillars, tiles and fine-quality domestic items, such as pottery. “(These were) extensive palaces built of rammed earth, with wooden pillars and roofing tiles, a gigantic water reservoir, and domestic remains related to daily life,” the study reads. Archaeologists have also found a mural at the site, which they think could be among the oldest in China.
The pyramid was visible from every aspect of the city, providing a “constant and overwhelming reminder to the Shimao population of the power of the ruling elites residing atop it”…“Analysis and comparison of new archaeological data … have revealed a highly complex society, the political and economic heartland, and possibly the most powerful (civilisation), of the territory of what is today China,” the Antiquity article reads. “Not only (was Shimao) the largest walled settlement of its time in ancient China, but was also among the largest centres in the world.”
Chinese civilisation has long been assumed to have developed in the Central Plains in the mid to late second millennium BC. Recent archaeological discoveries at the Bronze Age site of Shimao, however, fundamentally challenge traditional understanding of ‘peripheries’ and ‘centres’, and the emergence of Chinese civilisation. This research reveals that by 2000 BC, the loess highland was home to a complex society representing the political and economic heartland of China. Significantly, it was found that Later Bronze Age core symbols associated with Central Plains civilisations were, in fact, created much earlier at Shimao. This study provides important new perspectives on narratives of state formation and the emergence of civilisation worldwide.
Speaking of pyramids, a series of ancient underwater pyramids have been discovered under the Gulf of Mexico. What role did these play in the origins of Mesoamerican civilizations?
The remains of what may be a 6000-year-old city immersed in deep waters off the west coast of Cuba was discovered by a team of Canadian and Cuban researchers.
Offshore engineer Paulina Zelitsky and her husband, Paul Weinzweig and her son Ernesto Tapanes used sophisticated sonar and video videotape devices to find “some kind of megaliths you ‘d find on Stonehenge or Easter Island,” Weinzweig said in an interview.
“Some structures within the complex may be as long as 400 meters wide and as high as 40 meters,” he said. “Some are sitting on top of each other. They show very distinct shapes and symmetrical designs of a non-natural kind. We’ve shown them to scientists in Cuba, the U.S., and elsewhere, and nobody has suggested they are natural.”
Moreover, an anthropologist affiliated with the Cuban Academy of Sciences has said that still photos were taken from the videotape clearly show “symbols and inscriptions,” Mr. Weinzweig said. It is not yet known in what language the inscriptions are written.
The sonar images, he added, bear a remarkable resemblance to the pyramidal design of Mayan and Aztec temples in Mexico…
If that dating estimate proves accurate, it would mean that an ancient civilization had designed and erected these vast stone structures in the Americas only 500 years after human settlements first became organized in cities and states.
They would also have been built long before the wheel was invented in Sumeria (3500 BC), or the sundial in Egypt (3000 BC). The three pyramids on Egypt’s Giza plateau are thought to have been constructed between 2900 and 2200 BC.
More incredible discoveries are coming out of Turkey. Göbekli Tepe made a sensation when it hit the word’s press. Now archaeologists are finding all sorts of settlements that appear to be just as old—perhaps even older—in various locations throughout Anatolia.
Archaeologists at the Kahin Tepe site in Turkey have discovered an ancient temple dating back to the Stone Age, between 7,000 and 12,000 years ago. This could have especially important implications for understanding the prehistory of Anatolia. Moreover, it appears that there may be links between Kahin Tepe and the famed Göbekli Tepe , which has changed our understanding of the evolution of human civilization.
The latest archeologic [sic] excavations in southeastern Turkey discovered an ancient site older than Gobeklitepe, known as the oldest temple in the world, according to a Turkish university rector…
Ergul Kodas, an archaeologist at Artuklu University and advisor to the excavation area, told Anadolu Agency that the history of the Boncuklu Tarla is estimated to be around 12,000-years old.
“Several special structures which we can call temples and special buildings were unearthed in the settlement, in addition to many houses and dwellings,” Kodas said. “This is a new key point to inform us on many topics such as how the [people] in northern Mesopotamia and the upper Tigris began to settle, how the transition from hunter-gatherer life to food production happened and how cultural and religious structures changed,” he added.
According to Kodas, there are buildings in the area similar to those in Gobeklitepe. Boncuklu Tarla is almost 300 kilometers east of Gobeklitepe.
“We have identified examples of buildings which we call public area, temples, religious places in Boncuklu Tarla that are older compared to discoveries in Gobeklitepe,” he added.
This came out a while ago—there is evidence that the Hyksos were not foreign invaders, but might have a domestic population that immigrated into Ancient Egypt over period of time who eventually rose up and overthrew the native ruling class.
As teeth form in childhood, tiny quantities of strontium metal in food are incorporated into the enamel. By comparing the balance of strontium isotopes in enamel with those in the region’s soil, researchers can judge where an individual grew up.
When Stantis and her colleagues examined teeth from 36 skeletons buried at Avaris during the 350 years before the Hyksos seized power, they discovered that 24 of the individuals—both male and female—were foreign-born. They couldn’t tell where the foreigners hailed from, but the researchers say their findings show Egypt had welcomed immigrants for hundreds of years before the Hyksos rose to power. Data from the teeth of a further 35 people buried at Avaris during the Hyksos period show a similar pattern of immigration continued after they rose to power.
As such, Stantis suggests the Hyksos rulers were not necessarily foreign-born invaders, but might instead have emerged from a centuries-old immigrant community living in Avaris, her team reports today in PLOS ONE.
Historian and archaeologist Anna-Latifa Mourad at Macquarie University thinks this conclusion makes sense. Archaeologists have found little evidence for the fighting and destruction that should have occurred at Avaris if the city had been captured by foreign invaders.
Speaking of Ancient Rome, is there a direct link between garum, a fermented fish sauce widely used to flavor foods in the Roman Empire and the fermented fish sauces widely used in Southeast Asian cuisine today?
And archaeologists have discovered even more structures built near the site, meaning that it was the largest prehistoric site anywhere in the British Isles:
A ring of large shafts discovered near Stonehenge form the largest prehistoric monument ever discovered in Britain, archaeologists believe.
Tests carried out on the pits suggest they were excavated by Neolithic people more than 4,500 years ago. Experts believe the 20 or more shafts may have served as a boundary to a sacred area connected to the henge.
“The size of the shafts and circuit is without precedent in the UK,” said Prof Vince Gaffney, a lead researcher.
The 1.2 mile-wide (2km) circle of large shafts measuring more than 10m (30ft) in diameter and 5m (15ft) in depth are significantly larger than any comparable prehistoric monument in Britain.
Police are a recent invention. For most of history there was no official police force—communities organized themselves to maintain law and order.
In a world where the police are an omnipresent and oppressive fact of life, a society without them can seem a dangerous prospect. This is a condition which we in the business refer to as “capitalist realism“, or the inability to imagine a world other than the capitalist one that we live in as viable. The good news is that this is absolute nonsense, because historically in the global north an established police force, let alone one with such expansive responsibilities is an extremely new development.
In medieval Europe, for example, the concept of a standing professional police force was virtually unknown. Instead, communities were organized so that they were all responsible for keeping the peace. Communities, for example could be required in case of a crime to “raise a hue and cry”, or shouting a lot and pursuing someone seen committing a crime so that they could be brought to justice. Elsewhere, adult men were organized into groups of ten called “tithings” where each man in the group was tasked with bringing the others to justice if they committed a crime. In order to help with this, many cities and towns also had watchmen (and sometimes women) who would keep a look out for criminal activity and raise an alarm.
How did ancient cities weather crises? A review of a new book called The Life and Death of Ancient Cities.
The Life and Death of Ancient Cities spans from the Bronze Age, starting in the fourth millennium bc, to the early part of the Middle Ages, in the first millennium ad. It focuses on the hundreds of ancient Mediterranean cities that sprang up during this time, including Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Byzantium and Carthage, as well as Rome. Woolf synthesizes intriguing insights from the humanities, social sciences, climatology, geology and biology. He explains that the neoclassical buildings of modern cities, such as London’s British Museum, give a false impression. The famous centres of antiquity were “far less grandiose” — Athenian assemblies, for example, debated in the open air. He wryly notes that rats and humans thrive in cities, because both can survive on diverse food sources and cope with prolonged periods of hunger.
When did cities first appear? The answer depends on definitions. In today’s Nicaragua, notes Woolf, any settlement with street lights and electricity counts as a city. In Japan, a population greater than 50,000 is required. A prime candidate for the world’s first city is perhaps Jericho in what is now the Palestinian territories. It was founded before 9000 bc and about a millennium later had a wall — the earliest such barrier discovered. But Jericho’s population at the time is uncertain. Estimates range from a few hundred to 2,000 or 3,000. As Woolf observes, it is tricky to determine population size in early societies without written records. One option is to analyse the water supply to work out how many people it could have served, but this reveals maximum carrying capacity rather than use, and struggles to take into account public baths and fountains.
Like most specialists, Woolf prefers to give the title of first city to Uruk, in Mesopotamia. This settlement had an estimated 10,000–20,000 inhabitants in 4000 bc, rising to between 60,000 and 140,000 after a massive protective wall, ascribed to King Gilgamesh, was built around 2900 bc. Here, in the late fourth millennium bc, writing probably originated in the form of cuneiform script on clay tablets, used to record bureaucratic information such as economic transactions. One such tablet displays the world’s oldest known mathematical calculation, of the surface area of a roughly rectangular field. Yet the factors that drove the creative outburst that built the city remain mysterious. As Woolf admits: “For all the attention that has been devoted to the Uruk phenomenon, there is still no consensus about why it happened.”
A New Theory of Western Civilization (Atlantic) A review of Joseph Henrich’s latest on the Catholic Church’s contribution to the West European Marriage Pattern and how it led to the rise of the W.E.I.R.D. societies. of course, it’s not really new at all—this theory goes back decades.
Good summary of the Bronze Age Collapse. No mention of the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind as either cause or effect:
The most remarkable thing about this event was not the rise and fall of civilizations, that had happened before and would happen again. It was how violent this collapse was in comparison to other events in human history. A scholar by the name of Robert Drews presented a list of forty-seven major cities that were destroyed during this period. Not just the subject of battle or hardship but outright vanquished, never to be inhabited again.
Drews claims that every major settlement between Pylos in Greece and Gaza in the Levant was destroyed and abandoned. Forty-seven were credibly identified as having been destroyed during this period, and the number is probably much higher in actuality.
That is a fantastically high number. For context, if the forty-seven largest cities in the United States were destroyed you would start with New York City and go all the way down to Tulsa. Cities in between would include major population centers such as Boston, Memphis, Columbus, and Las Vegas.
That is akin to what happened during this period. By the end, every major civilization in the region would fall including the mythical Mycenaeans, Egypt, and the Hittite Empire, leaving weakened rump states in their wake.
The Cheddar Gorge devices are thought to be about 15,000 years old, younger than the instruments found at Hohle Fels cave. However, their existence – in one of the most north-westerly outposts in Europe to have been inhabited by Homo sapiens in the early stone age – indicates rope-making had already become a vitally important human activity.
“Mysterious objects made of reindeer antler and drilled with grooved holes had been found in Gough’s cave which, we now know, was used by prehistoric people,” said Stringer. “These devices were called batons and were originally thought to have been carried by chiefs as badges of rank. However, they had holes with spirals round them and we now realise they must have been used to make or manipulate ropes.”
Similar devices have been found at many other sites once occupied by ancient humans in Europe, suggesting making and using rope had become widespread in the upper palaeolithic or late old stone age…
The average human body has enough iron in it to forge a metal nail that is 3-inches long, enough sulfur to kill all fleas on a dog, enough carbon to make 900 pencils, enough potassium to fire a toy cannon, enough fat to make 7 bars of soap, and enough phosphorous to make 2,200 match heads. https://sciencenotes.org/elements-in-the-human-body-and-what-they-do/
The number of Americans who gave up their citizenship in the first six months of 2020 was more than double the figure for all of 2019, in which a mere 2,072 citizens cut ties to the US. The recent wave of renunciations has made the first quarter of 2020 the highest on record, with 2020’s second quarter taking the number-two spot. https://www.rt.com/usa/497650-americans-give-up-citizenship-record/
Active shooter drills in schools have become a $2.7 billion industry, and new research shows they have almost no value in keeping kids safe and are responsible for an increase in mental health problems for kids, especially younger ones. https://twitter.com/freedlander/status/1301634865226547200
Jumps are classified by what kind of foot transfer happens. You hop on one foot, you leap from one foot to the other. Jumping is two feet to two feet. Assemble is jumping from two feet but landing on one, and Sissonne is jumping from one foot and landing on two. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumping#Classification
It appears that my characterization of extreme right-wing politics acting as a sort of pied piper for young men was incorrect. That’s why I asked the question, of course. We often fall into the trap of doing too much talking and not enough listening. So I got the message, and I stand corrected. I hope I caused no offense by that mischaracterization—I certainly didn’t mean to.
It’s a bit surprising to hear myself described as a member of “the Blue Tribe.” Really?
I’m not sure where the idea that I view collapse as a linear rather than a cyclical process comes from. Really, my sentiment was simply meant as more of a rejoinder to people who dismiss or downplay the seriousness of the situation we’re in. Short of a nuclear war or meteor strike, human culture, including in this country, will continue in some form. Apparently I sounded like a crazed lunatic in the way I formulated this argument. That’s too bad.
As for the predictions by George Friedman in “The Storm Before the Calm,” well, I hope he’s right. It would be the height of arrogance to say that I know what’s going to happen in the next ten years. I don’t do that. Maybe we’ve reached a Zenith when it comes to political chaos, street violence and failing institutions. Maybe what we’re seeing in the U.S. really is no big deal.
Amusingly, it was prompted to this line of thinking by some comments from Mike Duncan—author of “The Calm Before the Storm”—that got me thinking about this. He pointed out (in an interview with Patrick Wyman) that the sentiment that “things have been bad before, but we all muddled through somehow” tends to ignore the vast amounts of suffering caused by upheavals, and the fact that meany people do NOT make it through unscathed, or at all.
[1:13:12] “I think we were talking a little bit about this one type of person who is convinced that this is just how things are. Things are normal, everything’s going to be fine. Why are you worrying about it? You guys are all crazy alarmists. Everything’s fine. This won’t change that much, you guys are hysterical.”
“And then there’s this other group of people who are like, ‘well, you know, things have been bad before and we’ve always gone though tough times, but we’ve always made it out the other side. So why are you freaking out? Sure there was a Great Depression, but we made it through. Yeah, there was a Civil War, but we made it though that.”‘
“Yeah, but do you know how bad it was to live thought that?…and they look to me sometimes as a historian to back them up where they’re saying, ‘Lets talk to this historian. He knows that things have been bad and we’ve been okay.’ And I’m like, are you kidding me? That stuff was all horrible! I don’t want to live through any of that…The people who live make it through in one piece. It is the literal definition of survivor’s bias…”
I have this aphorism that I like to use: you study the past so you can make decisions in the present that will make for a better future.…Yes I’m shouting about how this could all be very bad because I don’t want it to be very very bad. People are like, ‘Oh you must be loving this.’ I’m not loving this. I don’t want any of this to be happening…
So I do want to study the past. I do want to tell you about how bad things have been before. I do want to tell you that things could be bad again, in fact they WILL be bad again. Things are going to be bad again. But if you pay attention, and if you realize that things could be bad again–we do have agency. I don’t believe that history is come crazy spiritual force that just molds us and does to us what it will…I don’t think that were just molded by forces beyond our ken. We do have agency. We can control events. We can respond to things. And I think that historical literacy and embracing that instead of tying to say aloof from it is a very good strategy.”
So, in the end, this is my legacy: a crazed, depressed loser from Minnesota? Who needs it? Let the historical podcasters be the Cassandras. Nothing I say really matters, or makes a difference. I guess now is as good a time as any to walk away. I’ve got a few things in the can, so I might as well put them up over the next few months. Otherwise, I’m done. Thanks to all who read and commented over the years. Stay safe. Take care.
There area few towering intellects whose work has been utterly intertwined with this blog project. Often I refer to them over and over without even thinking about their impact. They include the living such as Michael Hudson, Steve Keen, Chris Ryan, Ran Prieur, Morris Berman, Mark Blyth, Nate Hagens, Blair Fix and countless others.
They include the departed such as Karl Polanyi, Thorstein Veblen, Marvin Harris, Lewis Mumford, and many others.
Now, David Graeber is among the departed. If you search through the archives, you will see just how profound an influence he was.
Graeber understood the real value of anthropology: as lens through which we could see our society as something fundamentally constructed and malleable, and how it was always a choice on how it operated.
“We’re all already communists when working on a common projects, all already anarchists when we solve problems without recourse to lawyers or police, all revolutionaries when we make something genuinely new.”
“There’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt – above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”
“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world, is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
I’m sick of writing about current events. I don’t often like to do it, but I felt compelled by the events unfolding on my doorstep. I’m going to move on, but before I do, I’ll mention a few things I noticed this week.
I thought this was interesting. Both of these things happened this week, in fact, on the very same day! (September 3):
The Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro said Wednesday it had invited the leaders of the United Nations and European Union to send observers to monitor parliamentary elections in December.
Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Twitter that a letter had been sent to UN chief Antonio Guterres and EU top diplomat Josep Borrell, outlining “the broad electoral guarantees agreed for the upcoming parliamentary elections,” and inviting them to send observers.
Meanwhile, in the the United States, the so-called “leader of the free world”:
President Donald Trump on Wednesday appeared to encourage people in North Carolina to vote twice — once by mail and once in person — during the November general election to purportedly double check that their initial vote was counted, which is already receiving push back from state election officials.
Americans can only vote once per election.
When Trump was asked by local news station WECT in Wilmington, North Carolina, whether he was confident in the state’s absentee voting system, the President launched into a somewhat rambling answer.
“Well, they’ll go out and they’ll go vote, and they’re going to have to go and check their vote by going to the poll and voting that way, because if it tabulates, then they won’t be able to do that,” Trump said on the tarmac in front of Air Force One. “So, let them send it in, and let them go vote, and if the system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they won’t be able to vote. So that’s the way it is. And that’s what they should do.”
The President later told people to send in their ballots, saying, “Send them in strong, whether it’s solicited or unsolicited. The absentees are fine. You have to work to get them, you know.”
“And you send them in, but you go to vote. And if they haven’t counted it, you can vote. So that’s the way I feel,” he said.
Trump essentially encouraged voters to test the state’s voting system…
Now, I’m sure readers will pick up on the supreme irony here. We’re in the U.S. are constantly told that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator, and that the regime in Venezuela is illegitimate. Yet the above stories speak for themselves. The President of Venezuela is encouraging outside observers to come and monitor the elections in his country, which take place in December. Meanwhile, the President of the United States is actively encouraging his supporters to commit vote fraud, in addition to persistently raising doubts about the validity of the upcoming elections, which take place in November, at every opportunity. They even did this on the exact same day.
The differences couldn’t be more stark.
And yet the media did not report this. Why? Interestingly, the only mention I found of Maduro inviting U.N election observers in was the article listed above. It wasn’t in any other stories in either the U.S. or European media as far as I could tell. It’s like a total blackout, which ought to tell you something. In addition, the Twitter account Venezualanaysis was removed by Twitter, apparently for no reason whatsoever (it has since been restored).
And we're back! Twitter finally replied saying our account had been "flagged as spam by mistake" (sure…). Anyway, our alternate account @Venezuelanalys2 is in place for when this happens again. In the meantime, normal service reporting and trolling @jguaido is resumed pic.twitter.com/z9WKvhPDgS
Why is one country considered to be a democracy, and one a dictatorship? Based on the above stories, which, I ask you, is the real dictatorship? Which regime has more legitimacy? And you needn’t be a fan of the Maduro government to note the striking difference, either. I’m not defending it, just pointing out the hypocrisy and media bias. If you listen to the opponents of the Maduro government, which includes the majority of the Western press, you might see the following argument:
“If these elections take place, then President Nicolas Maduro will get the majority he wants in the National Assembly,” Sabine Kurtenbach, from the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, told DW. “He has changed the rules to favor candidates and parties that are loyal to his regime,” she said. “They are more likely to get seats. The opposition, which wants a change of government, doesn’t have a chance of winning.”
But, of course, this is exactly the same situation in the United States! Why isn’t DW pointing that out? The Republican party has behaved exactly—and I do mean exactly—the way Maduro is accused of behaving in Venezuela. They’re invalidated elections, stacked the court system, instituted one party rule, and stripped the opposition of their powers. Yet only one of these government is described as authoritarian or illegitimate.
Yet many are okay with this permanent minority rule, even while denouncing Venezuela. Why? Could it be (and I’m just asking the question here) that capitalist regimes are, by definition, legitimate, regardless of whether they are chosen by the people or not, while socialist regimes are always, by definition, illegitimate, no matter the will of the people?
I thought of a perfect thought experiment to illustrate the differences between the Democratic and Republican Parties today in the U.S. Here’s the experiment:
Imagine if President Trump walked outside to give a press conference one day and a seagull pooped on his shoulder.
Because of this grievous “insult” that made him look bad on TV, the president goes on a rant against seagulls. He demands that all seagulls must be killed and calls on his followers to eradicate seagulls wherever they may be found. He issues Tweets denouncing seagulls. All for the “crime” of making him look bad. Anyone who doesn’t hate seagulls is a “Leftist” or “Marxist” he declares.
Within minutes, all across the country, people are posting pictures of them killing seagulls. Videos are posted to TikTok of people bashing seagulls with baseball bats. People in red states pose with mountains of dead seagulls. Gun injuries would increase as Trump followers in the heartland unload on every seagull they find. The more all the non-Republicans denounce this behavior as absurd, the more enthusiastically seagulls are killed to “own the libs.”“Dead seagulls bring leftist tears,” becomes a meme on Facebook, and pickup trucks become festooned with seagull corpses. Anyone who rightly sees such behavior as insane is branded as a “snowflake” or “politically correct.”
Be honest, can you imagine the above scenario actually taking place? I know I can.
Now, try to imagine Joe Biden doing the exact same thing. Can anyone imagine him doing that, or imagine Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters engaging in the exact same behavior en masse?
I’m sorry, I simply can’t.
The fact that you can seriously imagine such a ridiculous scenario taking place in America today tells you all you need to know about the current incarnation of the Republican Party.
Look, I’m not especially fond of Biden or the Democratic Party. In many ways they’re awful. But the above scenario illustrates a critical difference in the parties today, one that should not be overlooked or taken lightly.
I saw a tweet the other day. It said that the Democrats would have argued that the solution for slavery would be for the slave owners to be more diverse and include more people of color.
It’s a clever dig. But I think it’s a teachable moment for what neoliberalism is, and how it’s different than other approaches to governance.
If chattel slavery had been legal during the neoliberal era (i.e. today), the current incarnation of the Democratic Party would have advocated for market-based solutions. That is, the issue of slavery should be solved within the confines of the Market. What they would vigorously oppose would be making the practice illegal. Yes, slavery is certainly detestable, they would argue, but banning it would cause too much economic dislocation, they would say. It would end up actually harming the people you would be trying to help. We need to work within the Market framework.
The Republicans, presumably, would be totally on board with slavery.
So the Democrats would propose things like regulations that would curb the worst excesses of slavery, as long as the slave owners didn’t object too much. No more beatings and whippings. Decent food and shelter. Some “common sense” regulations for slave markets—things like that.
Their main argument would be that the Market itself will bring an end to slavery through the workings of natural market forces. No intervention is required! The natural working of free markets would make slavery obsolete without any messy government intervention, they would argue. They would point out that “impersonal market forces” would eventually bring about an end to the practice by making slavery uncompetitive with “efficient” wage labor. They would argue that increasing machine automation would eventually make slavery uneconomical, because slaves would eventually be replaced with machines like cotton combine harvesters. Or, they might suggest, how about a voluntary slave buyback program? That might move the process along without putting too much hardship on slave owners, or hurting the economy. Steven Pinker would be writing articles and giving TED talks about it.
That would have been the Democratic Party’s approach to slavery.
In a pettifogging sense, they’re not entirely wrong, of course. Wage labor was indeed becoming more economically competitive than plantation slavery for most industries back then. It’s a lot easier to just hire people and pay them a wage and fire them when no longer needed than having to take care of people from cradle to grave. And machines did effectively put an end to the labor-intensive nature of cotton farming, but not until after World War Two (where it effectively put an end to sharecropping as opposed to chattel slavery). Ending slavery did indeed cause economic dislocation, including hardship for ex-slaves, who were not compensated for their previous labor (the forty acres and a mule that they expected).
But by using this example, we can illustrate the moral bankruptcy of neoliberalism. We didn’t let “impersonal market forces” work their magic to put an end to slavery. We fucking banned slavery! And then we fought a war over it. Why? Because it’s wrong. Full stop. It’s an economic practice that is morally wrong, regardless of its economic “effectiveness” or lack thereof. And, besides, if we hadn’t banned it, it’s not like the market would have just removed 100 percent of it of its own accord. Slavery is still a tragic feature of modern life, especially in domestic labor, agriculture, and sex work situations (there are more slaves today than anytime in history worldwide). But by making it illegal, however, we at least have the legal tools at our disposal to stamp it out wherever it rears its ugly head—tools we wouldn’t have had we not “interfered” and just let the market take its natural course.
So this might illustrate the differences between the neoliberal world view and those of us who find this world view abhorrent. I still occasionally see opinions like “neoliberalism doesn’t exist” and “there are no neoliberals.” Bullshit.
And we can see this mentality at work in the way that supposedly “leftist” parties approach many issues today, especially in the United States. For example, let’s not guarantee healthcare to every citizen. Instead, just let the market do its thing, and maybe pass a few regulations to curb the worst excesses (i.e. the ACA approach). Don’t ban fossil fuels, just wait until renewable energy becomes “competitive” with fossil fuels and the market will naturally phase them out via the invisible hand. Maybe pass a subsidy here and there to help move this process along—wouldn’t want to inconvenience polluters now, would we? And the continued celebration of exploitative third-world sweatshops is one of the ugliest manifestation of this mentality.
Matt Taibbi has written the ultimate description of Donald Trump’s world view:
The question, “What is Trump thinking?” is the wrong one. He’s not thinking, he’s selling. What’s he selling? Whatever pops into his head. The beauty of politics from his point of view, compared to every other damn thing he’s sold in his life — steaks, ties, pillows, college degrees, chandeliers, hotels, condominiums, wine, eyeglasses, deodorant, perfume (SUCCESS by Trump!), mattresses, etc. — is that there’s no product. The pitch is the product, and you can give different pitches to different people and they all buy.
In 2016 Trump reeled in the nativist loons and rage cases with his opening rants about walls and mass deportations, then slowly clawed his numbers up with the rest of the party with his “softening” routine. Each demographic probably came away convinced he was lying to the other, while the truth was probably more that he was lying to all of them. Obviously there are real-world consequences to courting the lowest common denominator instincts in people, but to Trump speeches aren’t moral acts in themselves, they’re just “words that he is saying,” as long-ago spokesperson Katrina Pierson put it.
In this sense the Republican Party’s 2020 platform is genius: there isn’t one, just a commitment to “enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda,” meaning whatever Trump says at any given moment. If one can pull back enough from the fact that this impacts our actual lives, it’s hard not to admire the breathtaking amorality of this, as one might admire a simple malevolent organism like a virus or liver fluke…
Reading this, I’m reminded of Morris Berman’s take in Why America Failed. The United States, Berman argued, is a nation of hustlers permanently on the make. It’s a “fragment culture,” one that preserves only one aspect of its founding culture (in this case, England), while discarding all of the other aspects, becoming one-dimensional—in this case England’s money-grubbing hustling culture. England’s hustling culture crossed the Atlantic, while all of its other many cultural features—from intellectualism to noblesse oblige to fellowship—which would temper the hustling life were left behind. Furthermore, he argues, this was baked into the culture of what would become the United States from the time the very first Europeans set foot on the continent. Even Alexis de Tocqueville noted America’s obsession with making money and getting rich as far back as the early 1800s. He remarked even back then that it was the most toxic aspect of the budding New World culture he saw developing here (coming from an aristocratic family before the Revolution; he was raised with a very different set of values).
So it’s logical that such a monstrous, one-dimensional culture would elect such a monstrous one-dimensional person to lead it. Trump is the ultimate validation of Berman’s thesis, in my opinion.
An example that comes to mind is Napoleon Hill. Hill wrote books about how to become rich and be successful (“Think and Grow Rich” is his most famous). But he did more than that. He claimed that these were almost spiritual practices, and claimed that they were passed down to him directly through Andrew Carnegie, who specifically chose him to dispense this gospel to the masses. Later, he claimed to have been consulted by President Woodrow Wilson to help with help convince Americans to enter World War One.
Of course it was all 100 percent false. He never met Andrew Carnegie. He was never consulted by any politician, much less the President. He simply made it all up. And that’s the same set of ethics Trump brings to the job.
When Trump first hit the campaign trail in 2015-2016, reporters were staggered by the outrageous promises Trump would toss out, like that he’d slap a 45% tariff on all Chinese products, build a “high” wall across the Mexican isthmus, or deport all 11.3 million undocumented immigrants (“They have to go,” he told Chuck Todd).
Those of us with liberal arts educations and professional-class jobs often have trouble processing this sort of thing. If you work in a hospital and someone asks you a patient’s hematocrit level, no one expects you to open with fifteen times the real number. But this is a huge part of Trump’s M.O.
By the end of the 2016 race, some of us in media were struggling with what to tell readers about Trump’s intentions, given that he would frequently offer contradictory proposals (with matching impassioned explanations) within minutes of each other, sometimes even within the same sentence. He would tell one crowd to whoops and hollers that he couldn’t wait to throw all them illegals back over the river, then go on Hannity that same night and say he was open to a “softening” on immigration:
“Everybody agrees we get the bad ones out… But when I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject…they’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump.’”
Read what sales books have to say about morality or belief systems and Trump starts to make even more sense. What did Cialdini notice about John Lennon’s idealistic clarion call, Imagine? That Lennon increased his chances of selling political change with the line, “But I’m not the only one…”It turns out you can increase demand for anything from government policies to items on a Chinese menu simply by asserting, as Trump constantly does, that “everybody’s talking about it.” Ask students to draw long and short lines on a piece of paper, and when asked, the people drawing long ones think the Mississippi River is longer. Trump’s constant invocations about a future of “so much winning” worked, even with people who tried consciously to dismiss it as bullshit.
There used to be distinction between business and politics, even if was more in theory than in actual practice. Politicians, especially ones who led an entire country, were expected to be “statesmen.” They were expected to be exemplars and representative of their country’s citizens and to act a certain way—according to protocol. Salesman, by contrast, were expected to lie and cheat to make the sale. And Americans were okay with this because, deep down, they’re all hustlers at heart.
So if you’re a CEO running a business, not a statesman, of course you tell everyone what they want to hear. Of course you just say whatever will raise the stock price, no matter how ridiculous it is (just ask Elon Musk). Of course you punish your enemies and reward your friends. After all, in private businesses, anything goes. You give the prime positions to family members and other people you know personally. Hard work is for suckers and doesn’t get you anywhere, unless you golf with the boss on weekends.
And so, people who have this same kind of mentality—the people who golf with the boss and get promoted to professional lunch eaters lording over the suckers who sustain the business while making ten times their salary—love this kind of politician. The hustlers. They eat it up. They are the Republicans’ core constituency. They, and the people who really believe that they’re just waiting for “their ship to come in.” The people who really, truly believe in “The American Dream.” The suckers.
They selected for suckers when they pushed trickle down economics. They selected for suckers when they claimed global warming was a multi-decade global hoax by climate scientists designed to get more grant funding. They selected for suckers when they courted the rabid zealots of the religious right—the same demographic targeted by televangelists who use pretty much the exact same techniques on their “flock”
The ads on right-wing media tell you everything you need to know without even knowing the content of the actual broadcasts. Get-rich quick schemes. “Secret” Investment oppotunities. Dick pills made from secret Oriental herbs. Cures for baldness Things “they” don’t want you to know. All targeted to the American “get rich quick” hustling mentality.
The Republican Party has been selecting for hustlers and suckers for decades. They are symbiotic; one feeds on the other. The gullible. The angry. The deluded. The pompous and self-important. There are no longer any ideals for being a Republican or a conservative, it is simply an identity politics based around personalty traits rather than race or actual socioeconomic status (although, race, too, LoL).
The apogee came with the neoliberal idea that government should be run “like a business.” Furthermore, under neoliberalism, government is expected to “make a profit,” just like a business. In practice this meant balanced budgets and austerity if the the government was spending “too much money” on its citizens. And the leader was seen as just another CEO focused on “efficiency” and making a profit, whatever the social cost.
These ideas are, of course, absurd. The whole point of government is that it’s not a business. It sits outside the market and establishes the playing field for business operating in the market. Its purpose is to serve the citizens, not to make a profit. Yet millions bought into these horrible ideas, and continue to believe in them today.
Again, this is an outgrowth of the American hustling mindset: business over everything. Trump is simply a manifestation of these ideals held dear by so many Americans.
Just like people, nations have a character. You can predict the course of person’s life by their character. So it stands to reason that you can predict the course of a nation by its character. And just like we all know people whose characters condemn them to dysfunctional behavior and self-sabotage, so too does the fundamental character of the United States condemn it to its fate, which we are witnessing unfold before our eyes. Trump is not an aberration. Trump is the inevitable manifestation of America’s bankrupt and morally empty hustling soul, something set in motion from the very founding of the country.
Neoliberalism justified and promoted the introduction of purely economic and hierarchical principles in the political life. While it maintained the pretence of equality (one-person one-vote), it eroded it through the ability of the rich to select, fund, and make elect the politicians friendly to their interests. The number of books and articles which document the increasing political power of the rich is enormous: there is hardly any doubt that this was happening in the United States and many other countries around the world over the past 40 years.
The introduction of the rules of behaviour taken from the corporate sector into politics means that politicians no longer see people whom they rule as co-citizens but as employees. Employees can be hired and fired, humiliated and dismissed, ripped off, cheated or ignored.
Until Trump came to power the invasion of the political space by economic rules of behaviour was concealed. There was a pretence that politicians treated people as citizens. The bubble was burst by Trump who, unschooled in the subtleties of democratic dialectics, could not see how anything could be wrong with the application of business rules to politics. Coming from the private sector, and from its most piracy-oriented segment dealing with the real estate, gambling and Miss Universe, he rightly thought—supported by the neoliberal ideology—that the political space is merely an extension of economics.
Many accuse Trump of ignorance. But this is I think a wrong way to look at things. He may not be interested in the US constitution and complex rules that regulate politics in a democratic society because he, whether consciously or intuitively, thinks that they should not matter or even exist. The rules with which he is familiar are the rules of companies: “You are fired!”: a purely hierarchical decision, based on power consecrated by wealth, and unchecked by any other consideration.
Odd Lots continues to have some good podcasts. They had one with Pavlina Tcherneva a few months ago. I thought this quote was particularly interesting:
[28:19] “Guarantees are everywhere. The government puts in place all sorts of guarantees. Think of deposit insurance. That’s a government guarantee, right? Think of interest on short-term securities. That’s a government guarantee—in fact, it an unemployment program for bonds. We buy and sell bonds on demand to hit that price. So we do this for bonds. Think of the gold standard. That’s a guarantee. That’s a guarantee for the price of gold. It’s a price on the currency in the form of gold, but if you look at it the other way around, we buy and sell to hit the right price. It’s a full employment program for gold. We have buffer stocks—we’ve got all sorts of guarantees for commodities. We have loan guarantees. In Covid, the loan guarantees are the lifeline for all of these businesses. If they can get the loan they can be assured that the government will wipe it off if they preserve payroll. So guarantees are everywhere! It’s just we don’t have guarantees for employment, and employment basically functions in this same way—to provide a basic floor, a basic price in the labor market.”
It goes into another point I keep trying to make: government is always there on the spot to help out the capitalists. At the same time, it tells workers that they “deserve” nothing except what they can claw free from the impersonal market. As I noted, the parts of government that serve the rich continue to work well, while the parts that help the average citizen are disparaged, defunded, and stripped bare. The governor of Florida recently admitted that the unemployment system was deliberately designed to not pay out benefits. But I’m sure Florida businesses can always expect generous loans and subsidies to help them out with just a phone call. “Interference” in the market is always defined as that which helps workers, but not which helps out rich capitalists. Remember that the next time someone tries to sneeringly disparage the government’s promises to its own citizens as “entitlements.” Who is really “entitled” in this system?
Note: the following is a lightly edited version of a letter that I sent to KMO of the C-Realm podcast:
If what we’re seeing around us right now—especially here in the United States—isn’t a collapse, then what is? To be perfectly honest, 2020 is turning out to be far worse than I ever imagined things would get in my lifetime. There once was a time when you actually had to try and convince people that a collapse was coming. Now all you have to do is gesture broadly.
It’s true that predictions of a dearth of fossil fuels grinding industrial civilization to a sudden halt and plunging us all into a pre-industrial “world made by hand” didn’t pan out, and isn’t likely to. Instead, a global pandemic has been the catalyst that exposed the cracks in American society that have long been papered over. It’s like when a bridge whose maintenance has been deferred for decades finally gives way when that overloaded semi truck drives over it one morning. That semi truck is called Covid-19.
There is a difference between collapse and catastrophe, with collapse being a long, slow process unfolding over long periods of time, and a catastrophe being a sudden, unexpected event that sends shockwaves through the system. The effect of those shockwaves, of course, is determined by how resilient and durable the underlying system is. In America, I’d say that the system is long past it’s sell-by date.
The laundry list should be familiar by now to everyone who’s been paying attention: French Revolution levels of inequality; shrinking life expectancies; deaths of despair; epidemic obesity and other chronic health conditions; food deserts; automobile dependency; suburban sprawl; rising levels of depression and anxiety; drug abuse; bankrupt municipalities; crumbling infrastructure; deferred maintenance; fragile supply chains; corporate consolidation; business monopolies; stock bubbles; de-unionization; an insular, out-of-touch political class; political corruption; legalized bribery disguised as political donations; voter suppression; boarded up main streets; shuttered factories; empty storefronts; ghost malls; privatization; unaffordable higher education costs; college debt; expensive child care; failing urban schools; education quality based on ZIP code; skyrocketing housing and health care costs; financialization and asset stripping; outsourcing and automation; people lacking health insurance; hospitals closing in rural areas; underfunded pensions; unsustainable private debt levels; worker disengagement; a bloated and overextended military; endless unwinnable foreign wars; veteran suicides; police brutality; street gangs; homelessness; tent cities on the streets; gun violence; school shootings; people living in their cars; hurricanes, floods and wildfires; mass incarceration; a generation of stagnant working-class wages—the list is so long and extensive that a list of functioning institutions in the United States would be shorter and easier to compile at this point.
This week, just a few miles to the south of where I write these words, an entire downtown has been engulfed in violence and rioting, with buildings burned down and stores looted. Mass protests over the summary execution of a black man by police officers brought out armed militias and vigilantes—many from neighboring states—who openly coordinated their activities with the police.
Reactionary political forces are currently circling the wagons to defend a 17-year- old rifle-toting Trump supporter who came in from out of state and is accused of shooting three people, killing two of them. “If the police can’t protect us from violence, then anything goes,” is their assertion, one embraced by increasing numbers of fearful citizens. At the same time, right-wing paramilitaries clash with protesters in the streets of Portland every night like something directly out of Weimar Germany [Note: since I wrote this, one person has been killed during a pro-Trump rally in Portland. Trump himself will be in Kenosha this upcoming Tuesday].
It’s clear from events over the past few months that there has already been significant radicalization of large segments the American population outside of urban areas, the full extent of which has been ignored by the media and politicians, and that this radicalization has penetrated not only the formal branches of the military, but also the internal police forces which are increasingly resembling an occupying army. There are also an increasing number of right-wing militias and paramilitary groups, many of them hotbeds of extremist sentiment and white supremacist ideology. Both they and their ideological opponents see no peaceful means of resolving their differences, and can only recommend their online followers to stockpile ever-larger caches of guns and ammunition in a literal arms race. After each new event, gun store sales break new records. Just this morning I read the following comment from a user on the financial blog Naked Capitalism:
Long time lurker but feel compelled to comment as things are so bad.
America is so screwed. I have been following [Naked Capitalism] since the Great Recession. The trend is ever downward. When people start talking about the need for a new sixties-style protest movement I have to laugh. How deluded. The police are handing out bottled water to armed right-wing vigilantes and militias. Almost functional fascism. To watch the world hyper-power disintegrating in real time is staggering. Wake up, people. Help is NOT coming. Look back on this day in a month, a year, a decade. Guaranteed it will get worse.
People are getting so crazy. Even regular commentators on this site are saying crazy stuff like “kill them all”, referring to Antifa and BLM. WTF!?
Good luck and take care everyone.
I ask you, how can anyone not see this as a collapse? How can any country function under these conditions?
Okay, you might say, but there have been riots in America before, from Watts to Rodney King. It’s just part of the background noise of American life, you could say. But did these riots unfold alongside the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, and the greatest single-quarter drop in GDP ever recorded? No they did not.
America’s response to the global Coronavirus pandemic has caused the rest of the world to stare agape in horror as if watching a slow-motion car-crash. Not only was the response of the so-called “leader of the free world” to Covid-19 not among the world’s most competent, it has been the absolute worst among developed nations, put to shame by countries with a fraction of its GDP. Meanwhile, the world has been treated to the spectacle of Americans angrily marching in the streets and flying into outrage over the simple requirement of wearing a mask, along with a president who denied and then downplayed the very existence of the virus, later promoting untested and unproven cures from behind the podium. Unlike the rest of the world, the virus became a political hot potato in the United States.
The United States was unable to effectively contain the virus, or implement adequate testing and tracking protocols due to four decades of defunding the state in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy and private businesses. Even the slightest directives to help contain the virus were considered an affront to “freedom.” Many countries ran circles around the United States’ pandemic response, including America’s past enemies like Germany and Vietnam, both densely-populated nations of roughly 83 and 96 million people, respectively. Another commenter to Naked Capitalism wrote concerning the U.S.’s Covid-19 response:
The huge problem facing both the UK and US I think is that they’ve floated for decades on the benefits of having excellent administrative structures, while allowing these structures to decay and rot. When you look at how, say, late 19th Century cities solved the problems of disease through massive water and waste investments, or waged total war when needed, or built huge highway systems over a matter of a few years, and then compare it to the chaos of today – as you say, it can only make you weep. Fixing it would take a massive effort, and to be honest, I don’t see anyone willing to take on that task.
Despite the greatest economic cataclysm of the post-Depression era, America’s politicians went on summer holiday and forestalled any efforts to help individual American workers and small businesses, even while doling out trillions of dollars to well-connected large corporations and the investor class. At the same time, an extra six hundred extra dollars a month was deemed far too generous to the unemployed, encouraging laziness and sloth. As a NYMag headline put it, “GOP Hopes to Revive Economy by Making Life Harder for Unemployed.” One prominent Texas Republican even insisted that the economy must reopen immediately because “there were more important things than living,” and that he was more than willing to sacrifice his life for the cause.
America’s outrageously expensive colleges and universities remain shuttered after an abortive attempt at reopening, teetering on the edge of financial ruin, just like its similarly extravagantly wasteful for-profit private healthcare system, which leaves millions without coverage even in the midst of a pandemic. One million new unemployment claims were filed just last week, and an eviction crisis is looming on the horizon, with politicians sitting on their hands afraid to “spend too much.” When asked about the revenue shortfalls of cities and states due to the pandemic, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, callously suggested that they simply declare bankruptcy. Even Marie Antoinette at least offered cake.
Also as I write this, an area larger than some small European countries is burning in California. The fires are raging out of control because the prison labor that is normally used to fight the fires is too sick with Covid-19. Ponder that for a minute. Simultaneously, on the other end of the country, Hurricane Laura is slamming into Louisiana, unleashing devastation across the region. Before it was downgraded to a tropical storm, the Gulf of Mexico was anticipated to get slammed with two simultaneous hurricanes back-to-back, something that has literally never happened before. As one meteorologist remarked, “In modern meteorological history … there’s never been anything like this before where you could have possibly two hurricanes hitting within miles of each other over a 48 hour period.”
Okay, but we’ve had natural disasters before, right? Sure, but it’s abundantly clear that they’re coming faster and harder than ever now, exactly in line with the most dire predictions of anthropogenic climate change—a problem that, let’s face it, we are not going to deal with in any significant way. That ship has sailed. The worst-case scenarios of climate change are going to happen at this point. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is living in a fantasy world, in my opinion.
Then we have what has been described as a small business “apocalypse” going on right now across the country. Amazon is finally close to accomplishing its long-term goal of consolidating all online commerce under its umbrella, with only a few other behemoths providing any sort of token competition. The consolidation of all commercial activity in the hands of just a few giant global conglomerates—a trend long noted by observers—has for the most part been accomplished thanks to Covid-19. Inequality is now surpassing Gilded-age levels. I just heard that protesters are constructing a guillotine outside of one of Jeff Bezos’s many mansions. America’s billionaires saw their fortunes soar by $434 billion during the pandemic. As Mark Blyth likes to remark, “The Hamptons are not a defensible position.” No wonder they’re so afraid of protesters.
How can one look around and not see that the country is falling apart in front of our very eyes?
And then there’s Trump. It’s difficult to discuss the administration objectively due to the extreme polarization of American society (itself a cause and symptom of collapse), but I think it’s fair to say that the political norms that have kept America relatively stable throughout all of the above challenges are being dismantled by the day. Rather than calling for unity, the current President deliberately stokes fear and division and fans the flames of extremism in a cynical attempt to retain power. When has a sitting president taken every opportunity to openly cast doubt on the validity of an upcoming presidential election? When has a sitting president contemplated suspending the election outright, even as his cronies dismantle the United States Postal Service—an institution that has literally existed since the Republic was founded? At this point, no one thinks the transfer of power will go smoothly—the only question is how bad it will get.
Think about that: the world’s oldest democracy can’t even hold functional elections for political office anymore. And that’s before we get to the many, many blatant examples of voter disenfranchisement. For example, this spring I myself was unable to vote because the polling stations in my city went from 180 to just four overnight, and attempts to delay the election were deliberately thwarted by the state Republican party using the court system-the same court system they are now using to overturn mask requirements. Thanks to gerrymandering, the Republican Party has an ironclad grip on power in my state, and are using it to strip authority from the recently elected Democratic governor, all of it with the tacit approval of much of the electorate. As Nathan Robinson noted in the Guardian, “A failed state is one that can no longer claim legitimacy or perform a government’s core function of protecting the people’s basic security. Lately, the Wisconsin supreme court seems to be doing its level best to make its state qualify for “failed” status. Multiple decisions have both undermined the government’s legitimacy and endangered the people.”
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the Trump phenomenon is the extent to which his cult-like followers appear to be living in a totally alternative reality, curated by algorithm—one in which the U.S. response to Covid is the best in the world (or else Covid is no big deal), the economy is booming, the police are never wrong, the news is fake, voting fraud is endemic, climate change is a Chinese hoax, homicidal black hordes are pouring out of inner cities, Democratic-run cities and states are all economic basket cases, the U.S healthcare system is the best in the world, Democrats want to confiscate all the firearms in the country, and the biggest threats to Americans are socialism and cancel culture. And these opinions are as impervious to facts as Captain America’s shield is to bullets. How can representative democracy function when there’s no longer even a shared common basis in reality?
Then we have the QAnon supporters, a bizarre and growing conspiracy movement that is truly living in a separate reality—one where only Trump can save us from the Satan-worshiping pedophiles of the esoteric “Deep State.” Energy shortages aside, James Howard Kunstler hit the nail on the head when he noted that “sometimes countries just go crazy.” It seems like an apt description of what’s going on right now. To steal yet another phrase from Kunstler, even if Biden wins the election and by some miracle there is a peaceful transfer of power, the “Yeast People” will still be there and will inevitably rise again.
So, to recap, we are unable to hold free and fair elections and heavily-armed right-wing paramilitaries openly patrol the streets of American cities and occupy statehouses with tacit approval from the authorities. Large parts of the country are under de-facto one-party rule. The police shoot people with impunity. Cities and states across the country are on the verge of bankruptcy, with the Federal government held hostage by a radical conservative movement. Millions are unemployed. This is already below failed-state status. Why aren’t more people pointing this out? Why aren’t people shouting it from the rooftops? The first post I wrote that went viral way back in 2012 was called What If a Collapse Happened and Nobody Noticed?, referring mainly to austerity measures in Europe at the time. Now, here in 2020, I can’t help but ask that exact same question again with even more urgency (hence, I reused the exact same title). How are you people not seeing this? How is any of this this okay? Am I taking crazy pills, or what?
It’s as if the 1918 flu pandemic, the Red Scare, the Great Depression, the Long Hot Summer of 1967, Kent State, the Ludlow massacre, the disputed 2000 election, and Hurricane Katrina all took place within the same twelve month period. At least the massive clouds of locusts are still confined to Africa (for now!).
Had I described all this years ago, you might think that we would all be living in something out of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” And yet it all seems so normal! As I noted, a city a mere 25 miles from where I live was engulfed in riots, yet I only found out about it by going onto the BBC News Website. I still go to work. I still walk to the store for some wine (albeit while wearing a mask). I still buy tacos from taco trucks. It is a beautiful, warm, sunny day today with perfect weather. I still have electricity, running water and internet service in my house. Yet just a short stroll from where I live there is a walking path along a river where a large number of homeless people have set up camp, and every off-ramp now features someone holding up a cardboard sign asking for spare change. Oh, did I forget to mention the coin shortage?
This is what collapse really looks like!
By just about any metric aside from maybe screen size and processor speed, the world since 2008 has gotten progressively worse for the average person all over the world. Even the vaunted Internet—the subject of so many utopian visions from the late 1990’s—has been transformed into either a vehicle for mass surveillance, a vector for the propagation of disinformation and agitprop by hostile state actors, or an echo-chamber contributing to the radicalization of malcontents and a way for them to coordinate their activities. And the march of illiberal nationalist authoritarian governments is not confined to the United States—it’s a worldwide phenomenon including places like Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Belarus (especially relevant right now) and arguably India, China and Russia. And that’s on top of countries that were never viable democracies in the first place, or are in outright meltdown like Syria and Iraq.
So when I still hear people asking “when will the collapse occur?” I can’t help but wonder what reality they are living in, or what the heck they are expecting. It’s like someone asking “when will the ball game start?” during the sixth inning.
I think it comes from an eschatological background inherited from Christianity, where we are patiently waiting for a single defining “event” which will be some sort of turning point. There has always been a quasi-religious aspect of the collapse and survivalist mentalities which has obscured an accurate appraisal of our situation.
As an aside—in my opinion the notion that I will be okay by disengaging completely from the wider society and somehow living “off the grid” in a country of 328 million people is a dangerous fantasy and yet another manifestation of the toxic American concept of “rugged individualism” which has gotten us to this point in the first place. It won’t work. Any society, no matter how large or small, is an ongoing collective enterprise. We are not Robinson Crusoes all living on our own private island, no matter how many MRE’s and cases of bottled water we stock up on. The very notion is proof positive that people have pretty much abandoned even trying to constructively reform the system at this point. It’s on auto-pilot. We are powerless and we know it. It’s easier just to give up and withdraw. Defeat is better than disappointment. Even the Silicon Valley tech oligarchs are buying doomsteads in New Zealand because, as Slavoj Žižek quipped, “it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”
Collapse is here, and it’s happening right now. I don’ t think that’s disputable at this point. We’re in for a long, long period of chaos and decline that will probably last the rest of our lives. After that, it’s impossible to tell what will happen. Perhaps the title of one of Buckminster Fuller’s books sums it up: Utopia or Oblivion.
One topic that didn’t come up was the radicalization of many of these disaffected young men to extreme right-wing politics. One would think that if any demographic group would benefit from reforming the current pseudo-meritocratic “winner take all” economic order, it would be them. One the face of it, these young men should be a natural constituency for ideas like reducing extreme income inequality, taxing away enormous multi-generational fortunes, labor unionization, requiring employers to provide decent wages and benefits, subsidized higher education and training for everyone, and establishing things like MMT’s Jobs Guarantee.
But they’re not doing that. Instead, this demographic appears to be lurching more and more to the extreme Right. They are channeling their lack of advancement into intense hatred for “feminists” and “political correctness,” rather than looking at the underlying economic conditions that are affecting their lives. Indeed, when one thinks of a stereotypical “incel” or NEET one thinks not of the mythical “Bernie Bro”, but rather a troll on 4Chan shitposting memes in order to “own the libs”, or “trigger the snowflakes.” What’s going on here?
It seems that most socially awkward young men—the white ones at least—have been gaslit into supporting a philosophy that is expressly designed to concentrate wealth ever more at the top and leave them with even fewer opportunities and a bleaker future than what they have now. They seem driven by some inexorable force to support the economic libertarianism that has destroyed their future. Why is this? Why are they fighting so virulently to defend an economic system that has basically destroyed their lives? Why are they fighting against higher taxes on the wealthy and for stripping away the moribund remains of the welfare state? It’s just so bizarre. It’s as if the Jews were the Nazis’ most fervent supporters.
To give a partial answer to my own question, I think one reason is simply that, unlike the Left, the Right has actively courted this demographic. There is a quote by Steve Bannon to the effect that gamers were his ideal candidates for radicalization. It does appear that there is an active online recruitment effort targeted to computer gamers, many of whom are the young men who have difficulty finding girlfriends or establishing careers. As Vox put it in a 2019 article, “A rot has quietly spread among video gamers — a reactionary political culture from which outright white supremacist groups have begun recruiting America’s men and boys.” This, of course, does not mean that anyone who enjoys computer games is a budding fascist, if that needs to be said.
The popularity of Jordan Peterson provides another example. It’s obvious that Jordan Peterson’s message is deliberately tailored primarily to struggling young men and boys (although admittedly is not confined to this demographic). Peterson’s philosophy centers on reclaiming “traditional masculine values” and peddles an idiosyncratic metaphysics as the antidote to the “chaos” unleashed by a creeping “Cultural Marxism” emanating mainly from college campuses where gays, transsexuals, feminists and other assorted “radical leftists” reign supreme. Economically, Peterson promotes a form of libertarianism to his fans (or “Classical English Liberalism” as it has been rebranded) while defending the status quo and deliberately conflating social democratic movements and Soviet-style Communism.
At the same time, hysterical attempts to depict Peterson as a misogynist, or even a fascist, reflect a deep hostility among some of the more extreme parts of the Left to even speaking to this demographic. There is small, but vocal part of the Left today which depicts anything remotely related to white males as evil and depicts them as the fountainhead of everything that is wrong with society. This is obviously counterproductive. It’s clear that such rhetoric is driving many men into the willing arms of the reactionary Right, but some parts of the Left don’t seem to care—in fact they even seem to welcome it! Now, I think the number of Leftists who think this way is very small and has been deliberately exaggerated as a rhetorical weapon. But it surely does exist.
Another reason might be that these young men have been conditioned to see the welfare state as the root cause of their lack of success with the opposite sex. One frequently hears grumbling from certain quarters online about how women can supposedly have as many children as they want without men because “the state is their daddy.” This assumes that stripping back the current social democratic welfare state (such as it still exists) will somehow rewind the clock back to a patriarchal system where women are once again dependent upon males for economic survival. Yet the majority of college graduates are now women, and they are seen as more desirable employees by today’s corporate culture, for better or worse. These reactionaries are cutting off their nose to spite their face. Women aren’t going to go back to being economically subservient without some sort of repressive government straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale, which I certainly don’t want. Blessed be the fruit…
Another factor is that the mainstream Left in America is increasingly pitching itself to the “winners” of this system—the so-called Professional Managerial Class. As Hilary Clinton mused, she won among the “economically dynamic” regions of the county—the places that were, in her words, “optimistic, diverse, dynamic and moving forward.” Thomas Piketty calls this the “Brahmin Left,” an apt description. If you don’t happen to live in one of those “optimistic, diverse and dynamic” areas–and have no chance of ever living in them due to unaffordable housing and education costs which have effectively constructed an invisible moat around them–why, then, would you feel any sort of affinity for the Left’s current platform and policy goals? You may not get a raise, but at least you’re not walking on eggshells when you tell a coarse joke among your Right-wing buddies.
The vision of uniting the working classes of all demographics and geographic locations into a coherent pro-worker movement that affects real change is forever sabotaged by this cultural condescension. It’s frustrating to those of us who want this vision to succeed. It’s the vision that was promoted by Bernie Sanders, and articulated by shows like Rising. There is no one who is even attempting to speak to the life experiences of those whom Chris Arnade poignantly referred to as “the people in the back row,” also known as the Unnecessariat. And so, without even the hope of a better future, increasing radicalization is unfortunately the probable trajectory for such people. We see it happening already. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but that’s the way it is. Hillary Clinton may not have called all Trump supporters “deplorables” but the enthusiasm with which they embraced that label to refer to themselves is one of the most telling things from that election, I think.
It’s disheartening to see so many young men embrace the toxic politics of the extreme reactionary Right who see those of us fighting for better economic conditions for all of us as their mortal enemies—in some cases, enemies to be slaughtered. And, indeed, many factions of the Left seem to relish seeing them as enemies as well, when they should be natural allies. The Rights tends to seek out allies while the Left looks for heretics. I don’t, of course, but I don’t know how we stop this. I guess discussions like this are a start.
What brought this vividly to mind is the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year old vigilante who shot and killed several people during the riots in Kenosha this past week. From the reports, he seems to have been obsessed with guns, police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement, and was an enthusiastic Trump supporter, even attending his rallies. He seems typical of a lot of these young men. He lived in one of the anonymous down-at-heel areas of the northern Illinois flatland, and was raised by a single mother who appears to have given him the gun and driven him to the protests (!!) So, a lack of a father figure, and yes, he probably didn’t have a girlfriend, either.
From my observations, it seems like some form of guard labor is the only option for downwardly mobile whites looking for a decent life nowadays. What does that say about our current economic conditions? It’s especially popular among rural whites who tend to be rabid gun enthusiasts. This isn’t given enough attention. I work with a number of non-college educated blue collar folks, and all of their male sons are in the military, while all of their wives and daughters are nurses, or work somewhere in the healthcare industry. They are mostly Trump supporters, although not enthusiastically. When I was young, you might see a security guard only at a bank, if there. Now they are everywhere. Obviously, the more unequal a society is, the more guard labor you need to protect the property of the winners from the burgeoning mass of losers. In this scenario, being a cop means you’re not a loser.
These ideas [Fascism, authoritarianism] are also aligned with some aspects of the psychology of power, and how people react when they perceive themselves to lack power–people often compensate by latching to ideologies which help them retain a sense of power or explain their feelings of lost power/control.
I’m going go ahead and guess that having the power trip of a gun and a badge beats wearing an orange smock and cleaning up aisle seven, which is probably the only other option for a boy like Kyle, just like it’s more exciting and lucrative to inner-city black youth to sell drugs than flipping burgers and manning the deep fryer. But what does it say that these are the best options on the table for so many young men in our country today? What it says to me is that much of America is quietly becoming an open air prison with two classes of people–guards and laborers. That’s a damning indictment of America under late stage capitalism, of course, but it won’t show up in the traditional economic metrics. After all, Dachau had zero percent unemployment and reasonably high productivity. Work makes us free…
The profiles of his victims are interesting as well. Their profiles are a bit different: they’re a tad older—in their 20’s and 30’s, but still quite young—and both of them apparently did have girlfriends. One had a daughter, and another a stepdaughter, but interestingly neither appears to have been married. However, none of the reports I’ve read about them so far mentioned them in connection with any sort of job or profession—the only “career” mentioned for either one of them was “skateboarder.” Also troubling, but in a different way. So radicalization might be caused by the same underlying economic conditions, but manifesting itself in profoundly different ways.
So that’s the reality in America today for young men. The skateboarding enthusiast becomes a Black Lives Matter protester, while the gun enthusiast becomes a cop firing tear gas at the Black Lives Matter protester, all while the billionaires grow richer by the day. In the past, small-town guys like Anthony and Kyle might have worked alongside one another for the same company, sent their kids to the same middle school, attended the same church and played on the same softball team. Now, instead, they’re rootless and confused young men sitting on opposite sides of America’s increasingly divided society, tragic victims of a country increasingly unraveling at the seams and inevitably spiraling towards civil war. How do we stop this? I wish I knew the answer.
P.S., I notice that another former “doomer” has acknowledged this as well. Ran Prier writes: “…I expect the collapse, which is now fully underway, to be highly local: how bad it is, or how good it is, depends on what city or town you’re living in, and how mentally healthy the people are there. The worst places will be ruled by violent warlords, and the best places will be the seeds for a better future.”
The problem with conservatism today is that it simultaneously advocates for a return to a traditional pre-capitalist social order while also advocating for a bleeding-edge high tech capitalist market economy, complete with “creative destruction” of entire industries and a highly mobile, compliant and well-educated workforce.
One of the worst and most destructive aspects of neoliberalism is that it offloads risk entirely onto the lone individual. This drastically contributes to generational inequality because we don’t all start out with anywhere near the same capacity to absorb risk due to our differing family circumstances.
For all the talk about how dysfunctional government is and how it can’t do anything right–from Covid testing to unemployment insurance–the institutions that primarily serve the interests of the wealthy have been working just fine, and have continued to work just fine throughout the entire multi-decade era of so-called “small government” (surveillance, shipping ports, the legal system, police, the banking system, the Federal Reserve, etc.)
The whole clipping coupons, limited-time-only sales, and scouring around for “deals” that comprises modern retail shopping was the original “gamification” of something. Now we acquire points every time we buy stuff. If only other more pro-social aspects of our lives were as easily gamified.
I don’t often like to toot my own here on this blog. But while observing what’s going on around me, I can’t help but note that so many trends I saw playing out in the early part of the decade of the 2010’s are coming to fruition. A lot of the things I was talking about several years ago have suddenly been discovered by a wide array of pundits, with many of them writing entire books on these subjects.
I don’t often go back and read what I wrote in the past. but looking at a lot of the news and commentary today in 2020, I get a weird sense of déjà vu.
For years, I’ve said that the Republican Party is no longer a political party. Rather it is an authoritarian movement. Here’s me all the way back in 2013(!):
The short version is this: Wealthy elites, alarmed at the flattening of incomes that had happened between World War 2 and the 1970’s decided to wage an all-out campaign to undo those policies (unions, a social safety net, good public services, progressive taxation, environmental regulations, etc). To do so, they allied with all of the most venal, extremist, paranoid, reactionary and authoritarian elements in American society that had always been lurking under the surface but had been marginalized and kept under control by the “adults”: John Birchers, Evangelical fundamentalists, Christian Reconstructionists, Southern racists, white supremacists, Dixiecrats, Posse Comitatus, “Big Mule” politicians, corrupt politicos, “sovereign citizens,” “Patriot” militia brigades, libertarian Robber Barons (Koch Brothers, et. al.), Wall Street swindlers and takeover artists, Randroids, social Darwinists, and so forth, and used these elements to take over one of America’s two major political parties in the name of eliminating their taxes, curtailing regulations, and busting unions. Now, having united all of the worst elements in American society under one banner for the first time (for they seem to have little else in common), organizing it, shaping it, and giving it a powerful vehicle (the reactionary authoritarian movement that calls itself the Republican Party), the business class can no longer control it, and like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, can only watch helplessly as the forces it has unleashed for it’s own short-term benefit, fueled by white rage and decreasing living standards, tear the country apart (the “Corn-pone Nazis”)…
…To this end, they took effective control of one of the United States’ two major political parties and created a coherent worldview centered around what has been called “the paranoid style in American Politics.” for the New Right, the declining fortunes of white America were caused by an activist government determined to levy high taxes on “productive” (mainly white) citizens to give to a lazy and shiftless (mainly black) citizens in order to buy votes. They argued that America was divided into “makers” and “takers” (or ants and grasshoppers) where half of all Americans (the “47 percent”) pay no income taxes and thus are economically unproductive and entirely dependent upon government largesse…
…Now business leaders have effectively lost control over the party they took over, as the elements they unleashed with the objective of lowering their taxes and regulations has become a fanatical, radicalized, reactionary, nativist, conspiratorial, authoritarian political movement, opposed to even the very concept of government or the public trust in the name of “liberty. To them, government is always too large, taxes are always too high, and any sense of common purpose is derided as “socialism.” They see the nineteenth century as a golden age worthy of returning to, and see themselves engaged in a life and death struggle for the “soul” of the nation. They regard anyone else with a different opinion as “traitors” and opponents not to be negotiated with, but as threats to be eliminated. The right has even resorted to physical intimidation and has even formed a modern version of the Freicorps of inter-war Germany.
It’s no surprise populism needs to be the “right-wing” variety in a country like the U.S. As I’ve said before, the Republican party is no longer a party, it is an authoritarian movement, and authoritarian movements need a leader…
How’s that description panning out? Pretty good, I’d say. I’d say the essay above is still pretty much on point, although immigration was much more of an issue in 2016 than it is today.
In that same essay I wrote that “sometimes countries just go crazy.” Um, is that not the perfect description of what’s going on in America right now? Is there any better way to describe QAnon?And then there are the Anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, Bill Gates microchip conspiracies, people burning down 5G towers, and Kanye perennially running for president. Let’s face it, this is a country in the grip of deep, deep psychosis.
Sometimes countries just go crazy. It’s happened many times before in the past, from the Gin Craze in Britain, to the Terror in France, to the Cultural Revolution in China, to the Rwandan genocide, to the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Syrian Civil War. We Americans just told ourselves, “it can’t happen here,” as we went about our daily business. But, in truth, it was more likely to happen here—in this overlarge, unwieldy mess of a republic that shouldn’t even by rights be a single country—than anywhere else. We’ve just been coasting on luck since the 1860’s. Now that luck has run out. We’re watching a country collapse in real time in front of our eyes.
I’ve also repeatedly said that while the Republicans have become the John Birch Society, the Democrats have become the moderate Republican Party of the 1970s, but that’s actually just a bit off. The Republicans of the 1970s were quite to the Left of today’s Democratic Party establishment. Instead, the most recent convention confirmed that today’s neoliberal Democratic Party is basically the same as the Republican party of the 1990’s:
On Tuesday, Cindy McCain, the widow of Senator John McCain, narrated a video portraying the close and decades-long friendship her husband and Biden shared…General Colin Powell, who was secretary of state in George W. Bush’s administration, went further and explicitly endorsed the former vice president.
On Monday night, former Ohio Governor John Kasich also made the case to independents and those in his party that Biden is a leader who will listen to all perspectives, without regard to partisanship…Former New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari, the keynote speaker at the Republicans’ 1996 convention, also spoke out in support of Biden Monday night. And so did California billionaire Meg Whitman, who made an unsuccessful bid for governor a decade ago.
The DNC on Monday night also featured a video of Republican voters who are disillusioned by Mr. Trump and ready to vote for Biden…
The former manager of the Clinton administration’s effort to reinvent government is calling on Congress to break up the U.S. Postal Service into two separate organizations — one public and one private.
Elaine C. Kamarck, who managed the National Performance Review for the Clinton administration, argues that as the business of delivering first-class mail fades away, the Postal Service needs flexibility to compete with private-sector rivals.
Also in 2015, I pointed out that Wal-mart was a planned economy:
Think about it- from the factory floors where Chinese peasants crank out enough goods for the entire planet, these goods manage to end up on store shelves all over the world just in time and in adequate amounts to satisfy consumer demand with almost surgical precision. They keep track of exactly how many items are on the shelves in every store on earth, and make sure the shelves are never empty, even without items piling up unused in a warehouse. Advanced algorithms keep tabs and make sure that counts never get too low and that there are adequate lead times. Manufacturers are coordinated to make sure that there are not too many or too few goods. Customers’ preferences are tracked in stores and online and data mining means that companies they can anticipate the wants and needs of customers in any given location. They are so good at it that one big-box store knew a woman was pregnant before her own father did.
And these stores contain everything you could possibly want, from durable goods like washing machines and blenders, to medicines, to electronics, to health and beauty products, to clothes. Now they’re even putting groceries under the same roof. Everything you could possibly want or need can be purchased under one giant warehouse roof.
And think of Amazon.com. Imagine a writer in the nineteen fifties penning a story about people ordering any good they could possibly imagine from anywhere in the world off a computer network attached to everyone’s homes, and having those goods delivered in a few days, or even the very next day. They can see images of the goods, and return them if they do not want them.
It seems like the “free” capitalist market is resembling the Soviet equivalent that it supposedly “defeated” more and more these days. [David] Graeber’s examples above consist of Stakhanovite work ethics, wasteful busywork and pointless jobs, and massive amounts of red tape and bureaucracy. But as I’ve also noted previously, the capitalist market is extremely centrally planned and controlled. Recall this study from a few years back that a handful of companies control the world’s money flows: Proof of Global Domination By a Few Corporations (Treehugger) As I like to point out, Wal-Mart is a planned economy. It does what free market fundamentalists claim is “impossible” every single day – coordinate production, distribution and global supply chains of every good under the sun from lawnmowers to barbecues to bananas and heads of lettuce all around the world with little disruption or acute shortages.
In 2019, a pair of authors published an entire book arguing the same thing: every single day the existence of firms like Wal-mart and Amazon, which dominate the modern American economy, prove that the supposed “problem” of the so-called “calculation problem” is really no problem at all! It’s called “The People’s Republic of Wal-mart”, published by Verso books.
For the left and the right, major multinational companies are held up as the ultimate expressions of free-market capitalism. Their remarkable success appears to vindicate the old idea that modern society is too complex to be subjected to a plan. And yet, as Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski argue, much of the economy of the West is centrally planned at present. Not only is planning on vast scales possible, we already have it and it works. The real question is whether planning can be democratic. Can it be transformed to work for us?
Now, it’s possible that I may have gotten the idea from somewhere else, as I note in the post. Either it was from the eventual authors of that book, or they and I read the same thing and came to the same conclusions. In that post I also wondered, “Could the big-box stores be an unwitting stepping stone to a socially-based post-scarcity economy?”
I revisited the topic of state disintegration in 2015:
A more plausible cause of collapse is the ability of the rich and powerful to escape taxation while the common person cannot. The burden falls ever more on the average citizen during a time of declining incomes, meaning decreased revenues for the state. The state loses its ability to get things done. Rather than the ever-expanding government of their imagination, contracting government proceeds a collapse, which is hard to square with exponentially expanding tax revenue theory.
The thing that makes civilization work is the ability of a central government to get things done – defend the borders, keep law and order, adjudicate disputes, maintain infrastructure, and so forth. As more of the state’s wealth is siphoned off into private hands, the state’s ability to do all of these things is hampered. That’s what we see in history. It is the private powers who lay around in ostentatious luxury while contributing less and less to the wider society, helped along by the fact that moneyed and ruling classes merge to become one and the same.
As money flows into private hands, they become the de facto government. When that happens, justice is enforced by whim, and the freedom of the average person doesn’t increase, it declines…
I’ve written a lot about Neofeudalism—where the resources built by the public commonwealth are seized by a tiny oligarchy who then restrict access to them via tollbooths which they use to siphon the wealth of the wider society into their own pockets while offering nothing in return. The philosophical justification for this is, of course, neoliberalism, aka, free market fundamentalism under the tutelage of economic “science.”
In our previous survey, we saw Michael Hudson describe this as one of the primary recurring patterns throughout history. Certain controls on the accumulation of the wealthy are dismantled. As wealth inequality increases, eventually more and more of the population becomes indebted to a small minority. Those debtors then lose their “stake” in society, often losing their ability to participate as citizens in the process, and the society falls apart. Societies become adversarial instead of cohesive – predator and prey instead of cooperation. This is fatal. Ibn Khaldun pointed out that that well-run, cohesive societies with a sense of common purpose – he used the Arabic word asabiyah, tended to out-compete and supplant adversarial, unequal ones over time. Often these societies were based around smaller, flatter social structures than the top-heavy ones they supplanted. Successor societies then put moderate curbs on wealth accumulation to preserve that cohesion, but those curbs are eventually dismantled. We’ve seen this just in a few hundred years of history of the U.S.
Wealth falls into private hands where it is distributed not by public necessity, but by the whims of the wealthy and powerful. Rather than the superior allocation predicted by Market fundamentalists, it leads to widespread misallocation as the wealthy compete for status. And so we get more and more luxury apartments while infrastructure crumbles, artwork going for hundreds of millions of dollars while public funding for the arts dries up, stadium luxury boxes while schools can’t afford to replace lightbulbs, solid gold trashcans and toilet seats, single record albums selling for two million dollars, and things like that. Meanwhile, streetlights flicker out, bridges collapse, and urban areas become lawless…
High-end Versus Low-end Governing (2015). Since then, we now we have a coin shortage and the Post Office is actively being destroyed as we speak. It now looks as though the State might be so weak in the U.S. at this point that we won’t be able to hold an accurate election for president! Think about how far we have fallen since 1980. This is truly unprecedented. Even outer space exploration has turned over to wealthy oligarchs to fund out of their own pocketbooks. And yet we’re all supposed to cheer every time SpaceX sends up another private rocketship. Sigh.
The response to Covid-19 has pretty much laid bare the fact the United States has already clearly transitioned into a low-end society. Our current peers are Brazil and Belarus, not Germany, Switzerland or South Korea. Even Vietnam has a more functional government than the United States at this point.
In 2015, I also wrote:
Much of this presages a return to Neofeudalism – instead of broadly distributed ownership, the rich will own all land and housing, and the rest of us will be “serfs” perpetually in debt to them from the day we’re born and paying all of our income for the necessities of life, which the rich will own outright.
I wrote an extensive summary of neofeudalism back in 2014:
…the Hobby Lobby case is important in a way that is not getting much attention. It is a fundamental redefining of the social contract! It also ties in with the redefinition of the rich as “job creators.” Such terminology would be anathema decades ago. There was not a separate class of “job creators,” rather, anyone could be a job creator if they saw some sort of need in the economy and filled it. Jobs were created by necessity if there was a task that needed doing; they weren’t gifts from above to be showered upon the filthy, unwashed masses. Workers did not see themselves as helpless agents dependent upon these “lords” for their subsistence, but the source of their own wealth. No more. The yeomen have now been reduced to serfs dependent upon the generosity of those above them who own the economy.
It’s frightening the number of ways we seem to be devolving socially, even as our technology becomes more potent. College has become a from of indentured servitude. Debtors’ prisons are making a backdoor comeback. Police are being militarized. The drug war is used as an excuse for asset seizures by the state which are then auctioned off to raise money. Police are getting more violent and thuggish. Excess workers are channeled to prisons where slavery is totally legal under the Thirteenth Amendment. Creationist museums and megachurches populate the forgotten and economically backward interior of the country. Many Detroit residents now no longer have access to water, and have appealed to the U.N. People walk around with guns and pass “open carry” and “castle doctrine” laws (there’s a nice medieval-sounding name). Laws are being passed to restrict voting from certain groups. Even culture is becoming coarser and more vapid. People are behaving in a deranged fashion. What is happening to this country? How can anyone continue to believe in “progress” given what we’re seeing?
How are those observations panning out? Pretty well, I’d say.
And now, a number of authors have written books on the subject. Most prominent is “The Coming of Neo-feudalism” by Joel Kotkin, which was published in 2020:
Our society is being rapidly reduced to a feudal state, a process now being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of small businesses are near extinction, millions more losing their jobs and many others stuck into the status of a property-less serfs. The big winners have been the “expert” class of the clerisy and, most of all, the tech oligarchs, who benefit as people rely more on algorithms than human relationships.
Following a remarkable epoch of greater dispersion of wealth and opportunity, we are inexorably returning towards a more feudal era marked by greater concentration of wealth and property, reduced upward mobility, demographic stagnation, and increased dogmatism. If the last seventy years saw a massive expansion of the middle class, not only in America but in much of the developed world, today that class is declining and a new, more hierarchical society is emerging.
The new class structure resembles that of Medieval times. At the apex of the new order are two classes―a reborn clerical elite, the clerisy, which dominates the upper part of the professional ranks, universities, media and culture, and a new aristocracy led by tech oligarchs with unprecedented wealth and growing control of information. These two classes correspond to the old French First and Second Estates.
Below these two classes lies what was once called the Third Estate. This includes the yeomanry, which is made up largely of small businesspeople, minor property owners, skilled workers and private-sector oriented professionals. Ascendant for much of modern history, this class is in decline while those below them, the new Serfs, grow in numbers―a vast, expanding property-less population.
The Coming of Neo-feudalism (Joel Kotkin.com). Pretty much exactly what I was saying back in 2013-2015. Of course, Kotkin has the requisite hopium coda at the end about how we can reverse this process. We won’t, of course.
The book “Winners Take All” by Anand Giridharadas is a book-length critique of philanthrocapitalism. In it, he points out that diverting state tax revenue into the pockets of wealthy oligarchs who then distribute those funds according to their whim is tantamount to returning to pre-Enlightenment feudalism:
[8:27] “We actually have a system in this country for making the world a better place, and its called democracy. The winners of our age don’t like to use that system for their world betterment schemes. You know why? because they only have one vote in that system. That is not enough votes for them.”
“We actually have programs to make sure people are eating. We actually have programs to make sure people go to schools, and that they’re good schools. We actually have programs to represent people’s preferences and translate them into policies that will help people. We have robust mechanisms. They’re not perfect, and they’re in a bad way now…”
[9:20] “One of the things that came out of the Enlightenment was…think back to feudal Europe. You had a bunch of peasants. And then you had a bunch of lords and ladies and landed estates, and these peasants farmed their fields. You had peasants whose lives were vulnerable to the whims of the lords and ladies. If they wanted to take this much wheat that year, that’s how much they would take. If they wanted to let you rent their thing, they would or wouldn’t, and it was a cruel world.”
“And part of what we built from the seventeenth and eighteenth century onward was universal systems through governments and institutions and laws where your life didn’t depend on how much caffeine your lord and lady had that morning, or whether they were happy or not. It depended on a set of universal laws and norms. And so we built things eventually over time like public schools and Medicare and Social Security and the interstate highway system.”
“And so what is happening now in my view is a neofeudalism where the Zuckerbergs and Bezoses of the world are basically becoming the new lords and ladies. Even when they do nice things, they’re deciding what kind of schools we should have. What kind of financial aid programs universities should have. What kind of anti-disease programs we should have.”
“And whats so striking about this is that a lot of these people are our worst economic sinners reinventing themselves as our saviors…”
I also identified secession movements as a growing issue back in 2013: Coming Apart (2013) These trends have only intensified.
I was writing about what I called “The Final Solution for the Working Class Question,” as far back as 2012–a rather grim descriptor of what I thought would be the unofficial policy response to rising automation and the shrinking need for employees in the global economy.
I think the Republicans see what I have seen on this blog – increasing automation and a die-off due to declining resources and deteriorating economic conditions. They want to make sure the “right” people die off, and getting rid of those pesky social programs that were useful to the bottom line in the age of American mass industrialization is the place to start! They were useful once, but now they’re just costing valuable money! After all, there are plenty of Chinese workers to build their stuff, and plenty of Mexicans to clean their houses and cook their food. The rest of us are dead weight. And expensive education as the gateway to the shrinking job base of the future is all a part of the plan. They will make sure that it – along with education and health care, do not get “fixed.” From their standpoint, that’s exactly what their preferred candidates are doing.
When you look at it this way, and only this way, do the action of republican candidates make complete sense. Maybe it’s time we start realizing their game plan. As I’ve said before – it’s the final solution for the working classes. Too bad the American working classes seem determined to help their jailers herd them onto boxcars.
And I previously noted that we had a presidential candidate this year whose entire campaign platform was based around addressing the elimination of middle-class jobs through automation. Andrew Yang was saying in 2020 what I was saying in 2013:
So please permit me a small victory lap. If you were reading this blog back in those days, you would have been ahead of the curve on many issues that are front-and-center right now, and would have been clued in to the ongoing trends in our society. Which was, after all, my intent. And if you want to know what the future will look like, I’d say here’s as good a place to look as anywhere else.
The Technocracy Movement was a bid to replace politicians with scientifically-trained engineers, and to replace production for profit by businessmen with production for people’s needs by engineers.
Many of the ideas of technocracy were inspired by a now almost forgotten American economist by the name of Thorstein Veblen. Veblen’s ideas have been boiled down to just one single idea: that of conspicuous consumption, while all of is other ideas have been forgotten. Or a cynic might say, suppressed, because he was one of the last of the economists who were interested in observing how the economy around them actually worked, rather than simply work out sophisticated mathematical descriptions of markets that existed nowhere in reality.
Veblen made a sharp distinction between business and industry. Simply put, business is the process of making money, industry is the process of making things. If the things are made expressly to be sold, then they are called commodities.
Veblen argued that the goals of business and industry were inherently at odds with each other.
Let’s take masks and ventilators as an obvious example. The technical process of making masks and ventilators is the industry. From an industrial standpoint, you would want to make as many masks and ventilators as you are technically capable of producing. That depends on a number of factors: how efficient your factory is, how many raw materials and supplies you can procure, whether you have adequate energy and employees, whether you have sufficient technical know-how, and so on.
Veblen described this as the engineering challenge, which was solved by various types of engineers.
The express goal of the engineers, then, was to make the process of making masks and ventilators as efficient and effective as possible. To do this they would look at the process and do everything in their power to allow the factories produce as many masks and ventilators as possible from a technical standpoint. To do this, they might design a more efficient manufacturing machine, streamline the production process, redesign the masks and ventilators with fewer parts and pieces, automate as many repetitive steps as possible, and so on.
In a time like that of COVID-19, the need for masks and ventilators is very great. You would want factories running at all-out capacity to make as many of these things as they possibly can, to the point where there are so many that we can never run out. In times like these, you might even want a ventilator for every person in the entire country, and several masks per person.
In normal times, however, business—as opposed to industry—decidedly does not want to make as many masks and ventilators as it possibly can. Why not? The answer is simple.
Business is the art of making profits, not commodities. In order to make a profit, you have to charge an adequate price for the thing you are selling. And if something becomes too common, it’s price goes down. That is, if you make too much of something, its price declines, because it is no longer scarce. And the more you make, the lower the price goes. Lower prices mean less profits.
Thus, in order to keep the price level high enough, you need to make sure that there is not too much of what you’re trying to sell.
From that standpoint then, you would decidely NOT want the factories pumping out as many masks and ventilators as possible, because then the market would be flooded with those things and the price would go down. If the price goes down, you make less profits.
And so, from a business standpoint, then, you want to produce only so much of what you are selling as to keep the price level at an adequate and stable level so that you can make appropriate profits.
Veblen classified this group as the businessmen, as opposed to the engineers. The businessmen and the engineers, then, are at cross-purposes. The driving force of the engineers is to make the process of producing masks and ventilators as efficient and streamlined as possible, while the driving goal of the businessmen is to only make enough to keep the profits high. That means the businessman’s profits are actually jeopardized if the engineers are too good at their job.
Thus, the businessmen want to hold back maximum production capacity—to make sure that the factories do not go all-out at producing whatever commodity it is they are selling, whether masks, or ventilators, or anything else. To do this, they engage in what Veblen described as sabotage: making the production process less efficient, and/or deliberately producing below capacity. This ensures that the price of the commodity is kept sufficiently high so as to make adequate profits.
Thus, Veblen concluded, in many areas we are operating the means of production far below its potential capacity on a regular basis. That is, because of the price system, businesses were in the process of regularly sabotaging the industrial process.
The price system ensured that would never produce all were capable of producing. This meant that a good portion of the cleverness and inventiveness of the engineers was going to waste, so that businessmen could make profits. It was the businessmen—the people making the money—who were driving the production process, he argues, not the engineers—the people actually responsible making things.
The logic is so simple that even a child could grasp it.
In the example above, I’ve used the example of masks and ventilators because it is so timely and apropos: we need as many as we can possibly get our hands on to responsibly get back to semi-normal (note the word responsibly).
But in actuality, the same rule goes for basically everything in our society that our factories and workshops are capable of producing: we don’t manufacture the amount it is possible to produce; we manufacture the amount it is profitable to produce. Those are not the same. The price system virtually ensures that we will never produce all that we are are capable of producing from a pure technical and engineering standpoint.
In some instances, we may be able of producing enough of something for everyone on our planet, such that no one would have to go without. Under the price system, however, we cannot do so, because if we did that, it would be practically free, and no profits would be made.
The price system, once a logical means of rationing scarce resources, becomes the very thing that causes the resource to be scarce at all!
Put a different way, profits are the cause of scarcity.
Here is a good article from the L.A. Review of Books making the same point:
BY NOW, the shortage of medical supplies in the United States is a notorious fact. The nation has between 160,000 and 200,000 ventilators; it may need a million. Masks, gowns, face shields, gloves, bottles of hand sanitizer, and tests for the virus are all in short supply.
The shortage has come as a great surprise, because the government has been contracting with private firms to make these supplies for years, and private firms, as everybody knows, will provide more of any product at a lower price than any central planner ever could. Responding to market signals like greyhounds leaping out of the gates, they race after efficiencies, pushing down costs and boosting productivity.
Yet every day brings fresh evidence of market-based inefficiency. To pick only one example, The New York Times reported on March 29 that a medical supplies company in Costa Mesa, California, which had won a competitive multimillion-dollar contract to make ventilators in 2008, had yet to deliver a single unit. How could a private firm fail so spectacularly to meet the public demand?
A hundred years ago, the economist and satirist Thorstein Veblen was pondering a similar question. In his 1921 book The Engineers and the Price System, he noted that the recent war had demonstrated the tremendous industrial capacity of the advanced nations, yet after the war, unemployment rose and production fell, pushing the industrial world into recession. Machines and men stood idle everywhere, to the great detriment of the public. “[P]eoples are in great need of all sorts of goods and services which these idle plants and idle workmen are fit to produce,” he wrote. “But for reasons of business expediency it is impossible to let these idle plants and idle workmen go to work.”
“Business expediency” meant nothing more than profitability, which Veblen thought was not at all the same thing as productive capacity. In fact, the executive’s job was to reduce the latter in order to ensure the former. “[I]t has become the ordinary duty of the corporate management,” Veblen wrote, “to adjust production to the requirements of the market by restricting the output to what the traffic will bear; that is to say, what will yield the largest net earnings.” Contrary to popular belief, corporate management doesn’t spring forth like a greyhound; it dawdles like a Great Dane.
Veblen had a name for this kind of foot-dragging: sabotage. He pointed out that the word itself derives from the French for “wooden shoe” (sabot), and so it denotes “going slow, with a dragging, clumsy movement, such as that manner of footgear may be expected to bring on.” Because profitability required scaling back production to maximally profitable levels, it followed that economic sabotage “is the beginning of wisdom in all sound workday business enterprise.”
Even if the industrial supply chain is more complicated in our day than it was in Veblen’s, it is still possible to catch the economic saboteurs at work. Returning to the Times story, the original bid-winning company was bought up by another, larger company called Covidien, which begged the federal government for more money, shuffled key employees around the firm (effectively gumming up the gears), and then demanded to be released from the contract. As a result, they received millions of public dollars but provided not a single unit. Veblen would insist that this was not a failure of the free market “price system.” On the contrary, the price system had worked according to its basic laws. As industry observers and government officials explained to the Times, “building a cheaper product […] would undermine Covidiens’ profits from its existing ventilator business.”
Who will save our economy (not to mention countless lives) from these vandals? In order to frighten financiers, “absentee owners” of capital, and other guardians of the status quo, Veblen suggested that they should all be replaced by a “Soviet of technicians.” It was the engineers, he argued, who actually knew how to run the factories…
Another from of sabotage caused by the price/profit system is planned obsolescence.
This is when manufacturers deliberately slow down the performance of the goods they create; deliberately design them to fall apart or stop working after a certain period of time; or hold back the release of new technology in order to ensure future sales.
Although most economists argue that the free market prevents this from happening, there is evidence that some manufacturers engage do in this activity. A few years ago, Apple admitted to deliberately slowing down their products. That is, Apple sabotaged their own devices!
There have been other notorious cases; perhaps the most notorious is the Phoebus cartel, which was a consortium of light-bulb makers who all agreed to setting a maximum lifespan for lightbulbs to encourage continual replacement, and thus continued profits.
Apple is not in the business of making computers, it is in the business of making profits, and it just happens to do this by making electronic goods. This is true of every corporation in the world (except for non-profits). What they make is a means to an end, not the end in itself.
The upshot is that we do not produce all we are capable of producing in almost every instance. This leaves all sorts of shortages that need not be there. In the case of masks and ventilators, this can be fatal. In the case of housing it’s also a serious problem.
Thus, the cornucopia of goods that our society is theoretically capable of producing will ever be denied to us. A post-scarcity society will never be a possibility as long as the price system exists and maximizing business profits is the ultimate goal for producers.