Monday, May 31, 2010

We're Halfway Through 2010...

...and so far I gotta say that, overall, the 21st Century is totally sucking pus from a dead dog's ass.

However, we up here at the nascent HQ of The New Matriarchy seem to be doing okay. Go figure.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Follow Up On Crankiness

~In the wake of my Cranky Old Man Rant of a few days ago, I feel better, which is the hoped for outcome of any heart felt rant. And, as ever, I have a bit more to say, thought it is non-rantish.

The work that we're doing here obviously involves planning for The Future. The catch is “Which Future?” Cause none of us really knows exactly how things are going to unfold. Sure, there are various trends and indicators to allow some guidance and foresight. But if I have learned anything at all from studying history, it's that there's always some Black Swan, well, swanning around out there ready to cock up all ones plans.

I also take the old military maxim 'no plan ever survives contact with the enemy' to heart and operate from the German paradigm of Auftragstaktik or "mission tactics"; training and instructing your people toward the Greater Goal as opposed to laying out a 'by the numbers it must be done this way' scenario, which usually just squanders individual initiative and intelligence without accomplishing the mission.

So, then what the hell am I prattling on about here?

In a single word; Flexibility. The Temple's plans must consider many possible Futures, ranging from Total Collapse to some form of The Singularity [both of which are reasonable though unlikely possibilities] and do so without scattering our focus and resources. That is what really keeps me up at night.

Honestly, I'd have to say Greer's Long Descent holds the greatest possibility for The Temple's success. That would provide a measured dislocation of the Social Order that we could exploit without having to fall back on a full blown 'lifeboat situation'.

What I think is going to actually take place changes in my mind on a day to day basis. About the only consistent thought I have on the subject is that we're in for a 'rough transition'. Beyond that...? In a phrase, “Fucked if I know.”

And there ya have it....

Nebs Sez

"HuffPo has become the 'morning paper' I read with my coffee...not that I actually believe even half of what I read. It's just a ritual that kick starts mah brāne, one that I started with the NYT many many moons ago and had come to miss."

14 Years Today... was the last Monday in May, therefore Memorial Day. I was back at Hotel Hell again for the third time in six years. But I was working a 'regular job', albeit for a con man's front operation. Last regular job I ever held actually.

Anyway, as I had some of my own folding money, I decided to treat myself to a movie. There was an interesting looking bit of fluff playing in Century City, which was 'just down the hill', this thing titled The Craft. I went to catch an early afternoon show, probably between one and two o'clock.

When I came out of the theater, my life had changed, though at the time I didn't have a clue. I had really loved it and really hated it. I loved the witches of course. But I hated that they fell out and turned on each other over a fucking football jock.

I went back up the hill and sat in my little bedroom tucked away at the end of the house. I thought about the story I had just seen and how I would change it. After an hour or two – still not really sure how long – I scribbled some notes on to a single sheet of lined 8.5x 11 paper. [I still have that sheet of paper btw]

As I do like Epic Stories, I took the concept of a small group of witch girls in high school and lifted it up into a star empire of lesbian cyber witches. That story cycle became Tales of the Vēkkan Cults.

Around 7pm Mumsie called down the stairs to tell me dinner was on the table. I was pleased with what I had done and planned to get some research material that coming week. The following Saturday I went to The Bodhi Tree in West Hollywood. I dropped $150 on books ranging from Z Budapest's Holy Book of Women's Mysteries to Scott Cunningham's Wicca for The Solitary Practitioner, along with a dictionary of Goddess names.

I read through them late that evening and something interesting happened. Though I'd bought these books as 'research material', they truly began to 'speak to me', and suddenly, I got this feeling that I still describe to this day as 'coming home'. I knew that this was the Path I had been seeking for literally decades.

Over the next month or so I worked a short film idea title Spirits of The Air about the coven of witches who would found the great empire I had envisioned that first day. Casting that in turn lead me to Sarah Lise, who months later would 'hold open the door' that brought E into my life...and who also introduced me to my dear friend Jepsonia.

And, now, I sit here at this desk up in the High Desert with The Explanation more than three quarters complete and two Sisters on board and more on their way. As I said, I had no clue how much that little movie had changed the course of my life and that is why I believe so strongly in the power of telling stories.

And so it is....

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Nebs Is A Cranky Old Man [x-posted from LJ]

~About a week ago, one of you [and they know who they are] conflated me with Jim Kunstler and stated baldly that I'm longing for Collapse, that it 'excites' me. Bluntly put, that is a crock of shit and likely a projection on the part of the speaker. By casting what I'm saying in the light of 'fetish', one can establish a paradigm of denial in the face of the very scarily undeniable, that in fact 'there IS a hard rain a-coming'.

I suspect that if I was able to let you into my thoughts directly – for instance my concern that almost everything in this house [and in yours, too btw] in the way of food and such is the product of some corporation and what's going to happen as the various supply networks that support these corporations hiccup and/or breakdown? Well, if I could let you in, I reckon a number of you would breakdown yourselves, some even to the point of suicide.

I cannot tell who would do what. Years in AA taught me that 'you never can tell' who will survive and who will not. The 'obvious' choices often surprised us either direction.

The thing that does seem pretty obvious to me however is that, except for two who shall presently go unnamed, none of you here on my LJ Flist seem to have any What If Plan of any kind. Sure, maybe a few others are keeping quiet about having one, but over the years I have not gotten any hints at all of the like.

As best I can tell, each one of you is 'just going about your lives Business As Usual'. I'm not castigating any of you for that. The idea that things might come unglued to even a modest extent is very frightening when we are all so enmeshed in this Corporate Web. For the individual, there really nothing TO do except 'go about ones life Business As Usual'. Even becoming Grizzle Adams is a fantasy. Only an effectively organized community has any chance in the face of some of the things that could likely happen.

That is what I'm working on...which brings us back to the 'this gets Nebs excited' canard. The idea of Collapse some times keeps me from being able to sleep and often makes me sick with fear. I pray on a fairly regular basis that the thing will not be as bad as it could realistically get and that we have enough time to prepare ourselves to ride out whatever does come to pass and maybe, just maybe, have some positive effect upon what happens on the other side of the various events.

Sure, The Powers That Be might wake up and start to fix everything. And if you believe that, Let's Talk Real Estate. The way this whole BP oil spill on the Gulf is unfolding is a microcosm of the greater pattern taking place.

So, feel free to laugh at my plans. If we're very very very lucky, things 'won't be so bad' and I can happily go on being a cranky old man, which does rather suit me. Of course, if that's the entire foundation of your planing, well, I suppose you'll get what you deserve in the final outcome. /end rant

The top marginal tax rate

In a recent article, I presented some of the basics about Social Security and some of the history around it. The article attempted to make four major points plus a bonus idea. In brief:

1. You don't contribute to your own retirement. Your money goes to your parents. Your kid's money goes to you.

2. You already "fixed" Social Security in 1983, and paid for it in higher payroll taxes.

3. Reagan used that earlier "fix" to hide much of his massive deficit.

4. The Trust Fund has a lot of money. The real goal of the current "fix" is protect the budget, not Social Security.

BONUS. Reagan created the Gordon Gekko era by removing the disincentive that kept CEOs from looting their own companies.
In this post, I want to expand the final point above, the Bonus point. Paul Krugman conveniently posted this image twice this weekend, and added some comments. His initial point:
Basically, US postwar economic history falls into two parts: an era of high taxes on the rich and extensive regulation, during which living standards experienced extraordinary growth; and an era of low taxes on the rich and deregulation, during which living standards for most Americans rose fitfully at best. [emphasis mine]
Here's my annotated version of his graph:

The red line is Krugman's graph of the top marginal tax rate. (Note that this is not the tax rate on all dollars; it's the rate on the last dollars only, when the last dollar is in the stratosphere. No one ever paid 90% on all dollars earned.)

The blue line is Krugman's log-scaled median family income. As Krugman notes and I pointed out in my own article, that's a bit misleading, since by the 1980s two incomes were often used to get this result. The great rise in median income from 1948 to 1970 was a rise in one-income families.

The green lines and text are mine. My comments:

1. Reagan took the top rate (again, the rate only the very rich, like CEOs paid on their last dollars earned) into the cellar. Corporate productivity climbed, but salaries for you and me stayed flat — actually fell, since in the 80s, two incomes were needed to produce this uninspiring result.

2. Krugman won't make the causal point, but I will. Starting in roughly 1980, corporations made a ton of money that they weren't paying out in wages. Where to put those extra dollars? Well, there were only other two choices — plow them back into the company (what used to happen), or pay them out in exec compensation. With the top marginal rate now cut almost in half, exec compensation was the obvious choice. The incentives almost insisted on it.

Look again at the post-war boom. The top marginal rate was the great disincentive that kept CEOs from pocketing the profit. This allowed profits to go to higher salaries for everyone and real growth for the companies. Why swipe the second $20 million in salary if that $20m goes back to the gov't? (Again, only the second $20 million, or whatever, was taxed at the top marginal rate.)

3. After Reagan massacred the top rate, everything that followed is tweakage. Clinton made things marginally better — note the slight increase in top tax rate AND the slight increase in family income. Bush II brought the top rate back down and killed off Clinton's small gain in income.

Krugman sums up:
The basic point [ . . . ] is that the US economy did very well with tax rates and levels of regulation (and strong unions) that, according to modern mythology, should have been crippling. That’s why conservatives have invented an alternative history in which it never happened.
Larry Beinhart makes the same point, by the way, in this HuffPost article (h/t Thom Hartmann).


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Male Entitlement:

Church & State Preserve Male Prerogatives, Female Punishments

Assuming responsibility for personal and institutional sins has not been a strong suit of the Church, fallen evangelicals, or corporate plunderers. It's easier to blame a media campaign against the Church, or in Rep. Mark Souder's case, a "poisonous" Washington environment seeking to twist "personal failing ... for political gain."

The political right has labored mightily for over three decades to link the term "entitlement" to social programs such as nutrition, health and child support -- useful distractions from enormous entitlements bestowed on corporate power brokers who have corroded common culture and brought us to the economic brink.

Newt Gingrich denounced food programs for children as "entitlements," and attributed budget deficits solely to social spending. Yet, at the time of 1996 welfare reform corporate subsidies and tax breaks of $167 billion in 1995 alone, totaled more than twice as much as the $67 billion all social welfare programs combined. Nor is expansive defense spending questioned: Defense "creates jobs and protects worship," reasoned majority whip Sen. Trent Lott on Pat Robertson's show in 1995.

Right-wing culture/class warfare consistently pits the privileged against the "undeserving underclass" -- an epithet applied by a James Dobson affiliate. The doctor denounced the ideal of universal health care while ascribing health costs to the "social pathology of our underclass," principally "irresponsible sex acts that lead to abortion." Contemporary Tea Parties express the same class/race discontent. While rightfully rejecting the widening disparity of wealth created by ultraconservative policies, theirs is the wrong diagnosis and prescription - defense of corporate greed and abolishment of government oversight.

The right has marginalized and imputed inferiority and illicit sexual behavior to the least politically powerful. Serial adulterer Gingrich led congressional efforts to selectively apply economic sanctions, while attributing every perceived social ill to the "sexual sin" of women and minorities -- not to economic, but to moral, poverty. Nor are children exempt from blame: The latest confessed adulterer, Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Indiana), champion of traditional marriage and abstinence-only education who touts a 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee, dismissed David Koresh's crimes of rape of young girls at Waco as "sex with consenting minors."

Welfare reform was seized upon as opportunity to punish and stigmatize single mothers, and to eliminate the mandate for family planning access. Colorado legislators vehemently protested sanctions on men for failure to pay child support, naming it "the most intrusive violation of privacy," even as they imposed the most invasive penalties on women.

Legislators who condemn women for alleged sexual transgressions have been quick to justify their own. Author of the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment, Rep. Henry Hyde pleaded "youthful indiscretion" regarding his long-term adulterous affair in his '40s. Ultraconservative benefactor and ally, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon is one among religious figures who describe their own adulterous affairs as "providential" -- ordained by God -- even as he condemns women for that "worst of all sins."

A tradition of silence and secrecy within the Church reinforces an environment of male entitlement that places women and children at risk. Institutional coverup prioritizes protection of Church over children. Females are held inferior by virtue of being female, often blamed for their own abuse. One young Catholic victim recounted being told as a youth in her sex education class by the priest who abused her, that sexual abuse was always the fault of the female -- common self-justification of perpetrators.

A student survivor of sexual abuse by Rev. Billy James Hargis during his 1962-74 tenure at a Christian school near Colorado Springs, described her experience as a "murder of the soul." Referring to "layers and layers of spiritual abuse," she described being "raped in the name of the Lord ... Little Christian girls get raped every day. I know what it's like to be falsely accused and called an adulterer."

Notions of male entitlement run deep within cultural institutions. Early Catholic orthodoxy upheld the Aristotelian notion of "natural" male superiority. St. Thomas Aquinas reasoned, "In terms of nature's own operation, a woman is inferior and a mistake." The historic Catholic theory of "ensoulment," traceable to the Middle Ages, further reinforced women's subordinate status, holding that a male fetus attained human form, and therefore a soul, about forty days after conception, a process half as long as for a female fetus. From the thirteenth century until 1869 (when the all-male U.S. medical society lobbied to eliminate competition from midwives by criminalizing abortion unless performed by a doctor) the Catholic Church accepted abortion until "quickening," or prior to "ensoulment."

Among cutting edge thinkers of the 19th century (idealized era of the political right), western scientist Herbert Spencer asserted that women were not related to their children, but rather functioned merely as incubators for sperm. The notion of sperm as the complete seed from which offspring develop reinforced concepts of male ownership of women and children. Abortion and contraception, historically viewed as violation of men's property, have been embraced when viewed as benefiting men. In a 1995 Senate debate about elimination of abortion coverage for federal workers -- affecting more than 1 million women -- Republicans heeded a Senator's appeal to add rape and incest as exceptions because his wife had been raped.

So-called "Personhood" amendments like that on the 2010 Colorado ballot for the second time in as many years, seek to guarantee fertilized eggs rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, even as ultraconservatives have opposed the same rights for women as "reading feminism into the Constitution."

Notre Dame University law professor Charles Rice advocates outlawing abortion in cases of rape and incest, arguing that "Incest is a voluntary act on a woman's part," reinforcing the notion of pregnancy as punishment of females who are blamed for their own abuse. With inscrutable logic, Rev. Jimmy Swaggart argued, "Sex education classes in our public schools are promoting incest."

Right-wing apocrypha alleges that pregnancy cannot result from rape. Only a consenting woman can become pregnant, declares right-to-life literature -- "Fear prevents ovulation" rationalizes denial and assigning women blame for sexual abuse.

Contraception is condemned by ultrarightists and Catholic hierarchy alike, who accuse, "Birth control causes promiscuity." The Vatican that swiftly sanctioned Viagra has denounced contraception and women seeking "unlimited dominion over their own bodies." Facilely reducing women to the status of reproductive objects is as denigrating as sexual objectification. So adamantly opposed to contraception was Pope John Paul II that he forbade the use of condoms by a married man with AIDS to prevent transmission of the virus to his wife.

Health care reform has been seized upon as yet another opportunity to marginalize women, now required to purchase two health care policies, a separate one for abortion coverage. No one anticipates the need for abortion -- certainly not a woman carrying an anencephalic fetus (lacking a brain) or experiencing a tubal pregnancy. Even fertilized eggs that become hydatiform moles or cancerous tumors and lack any potential for human life are deemed worthy of greater protection than women's lives.

Female lives are facilely traded away as expendable, relegated to second class status and denied full humanity and the right to self-determination, an unquestioned right of males.

Entitlement assumes the prerogative to manipulate and control others for personal gain. The doctrine of male/corporate entitlement represents two aspects of the same abusive culture. If the Church remained true to its own teaching, acknowledgment of the true nature of our sin is the only path to redemption and forgiveness.


~This afternoon I put Part Four of The Explanation to bed for a while. I was starting to get twitchy with the thing. I'll get back to it later.

I'm now going to focus on Part Six. I have at least a dozen either unfinished or merely outlined pieces 'in the hopper'. I'll take a little down time and then once again Face The Page...'down time' being a relative term at the moment, but let's not get into that just now. *makes face*

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Asked of The Archdruid:

"Regarding 'feudalism' etc, are you ever going to address the issues of violence, weapons ownership, and the need for personal and communal security that will come with the breakdown of the larger social order?" ...on his post After Money

He bunted: "Nebris, probably not; that's far and away the most overemphasized dimension of the entire subject of the Long Descent, and nothing I say is likely to have the least influence on the dogmatic and overemotional views on both sides of that hyperpolarized issue."

My response:
"I can understand your reluctance to get tarred with the brush of wild eyed Survivalism. Yet a significant portion of what you address here is, in fact, Survivalism, albeit of a sober and reasoned variety. And you are a Voice in this discussion, one that many listen to and respect.

So I would opine that having taken on that type of responsibility, it would behoove you to also address what is certainly going to be a crucial part of a post-industrial world. At the risk of indulging in the hyperbole you rightfully deplore, your influence – or lack thereof – could very well be a matter of life and death for some who are presently looking to you for advice and guidance"

Thursday, May 6, 2010

One More Argument For Matriarchy

Doctors defend genital "nick" for girls

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests the ritual to prevent extreme "female genital cutting"

The American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested a new way to fight female genital mutilation in the United States: Allow doctors to give girls a "nick" down there. In a policy statement titled "Ritual Genital Cutting of Female Minors," the Academy suggests that allowing such a ritual could serve as a way to "build trust" with immigrant families and prevent parents from sending their girls overseas for far more extensive, and potentially life-threatening, procedures. It's a "possible compromise to avoid greater harm," the statement says.

As you might imagine, the Academy's endorsement of a ritualistic "nick" has not gone over well. PZ Myers of Pharyngula mockingly wrote: "We'll just mutilate baby girls a little bit, to make the misogynist patriarchal assholes happy." Taking a similar tack, Shakesville's Melissa McEwan turned up the snark real loud: "Girls get only a little heinous physical and psychological trauma, and their guardians get to practice their violent misogyny, just in a slightly less violent way. Yay for compromise!" I had a similar reaction. I mean, I even disagree with male circumcision (at least when there's a total absence of personal choice in the matter). But the position statement seemed so ambiguous to me that I had to give the Academy a call to ask just what it meant by a "nick." Are we talking about the sort of shallow cut that might result from the slip of a razor or full-on female circumcision, where the clitoral hood is removed? Neither, it turns out.

Dr. Lainie Friedman Ross, one of the statement's authors, compared it to an ear piercing. It wouldn't involve the removal of skin, instead it would be more like "a pin prick, a drop of blood." As she described it, the "nick" would be ritualistic and symbolic. Ross strongly disagreed with an Equality Now press release saying that the Academy's statement "essentially promotes female genital mutilation." Much of the five-page statement takes care to emphasize the Academy's opposition to "all types of female genital cutting that pose risks of physical or psychological harm," as well as the need for education to eradicate the demand for such procedures. "In an ideal world, there would be no female genital cutting," said Ross, but we clearly do not live in an ideal world. "If you just tell people 'no,' they go elsewhere," she explained, adding that a "nick" should be seen as an "option that's not ideal but is better than its alternatives."

As the statement continues to spark debate about what compromises make sense in this situation, it's key to maintain a little cultural perspective: The ritualistic "nick" the Academy is suggesting is truly not comparable to the widely accepted practice of male circumcision, which is far more extreme.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Standart [Jun. 20th, 2007 at 6:35 PM]

~The whole despicable episode in Arizona reminded me of this post I made nearly three years ago about the language used in my original Cyber Witch stories:

[info]adayinthelife and I were have a bit of language geek interface and I wrote the following:

Nothing about Standart yet, though I will post this example as a start.

If you look in Witches Cycle stories, you'll see the first word in Harlequin is the name of the world where most of the story takes place, Needodeswaynyo. This word is a microcosm of the whole language, the Anglo phonetic spelling of Nido de Sueño [Nest of Dreams]. I'm still working out details and will 'wing it' quite often, but I do have some things nailed down.

Standart is an Anglo-Iberian patois with a generally Anglo grammatic structure. It has a tendency toward the Germanic habit of smashing several words together into one. The alphabet is roughly thirty characters [keeping that vague for literary flexibility]. And it eats words as voraciously as its American English ancestor.

There are two important linguistic modifiers.

First, and most important story wise, effects their alphabet. This is a 'techomage' society, Cyber Witches in my terminology, and over the course of time they have absorbed Majickal words from hundreds of languages. Scholars keep track of the exact pronunciations of these words through a complex system of diacritics, which has the practical effect of 'expanding' their alphabet to the low hundreds because of the multiple diacritic variations upon each character.

But this is a specialized vocabulary, that while nearly equal in numbers of words vis-a-vis the general language, is almost never spoken outside of Ritual and/or Majickal Working.

The second is the use of Japanese and Kanji script. This is not so much a modifier as a subset.

The social structure is largely a collective of Cults, the Witch version of Clans, though based upon Aspects of The Goddess, not upon blood. These Cults are flexible and have both an intramural flow and a fair amount of overlap.

The most politically and culturally powerful of these Cults are the Amazon Warrior Cults. They have borrowed freely from the structure and traditions of Bushido, especially the highly formalized style of the Tokugawa period. But they have also taken much from its earlier forms.

In this regard, they use Japanese and Kanji in their martial practices. Again, like the Majick vocabulary, this is limited to specific formal activities, but it does have a wider cultural effect.

Young Sisters in these Cults will travel on various Dueling Circuits, going from world to world to sharpen their martial skills in contests, both formal and 'spontaneous', though 99% non-fatal. [There are grudges that become lethal from time to time] When a Sister says, “I shall ride the waves,” that usually means that she is going on a Dueling Circuit. This is an accepted rite of passage.

The source of this is the Ronin, the classic masterless samurai, a word which translates as “wave man”. In this culture, it is also a general idiom. “To ride the waves” can mean feeling happy and free, or conversely, a rejection of responsibility.

I also use the word Soka, which is an archaic slang of 'asodeska' [“I understand”]. It has crept in and replaced 'okay' completely in general usage.

As this all gets 'fixed upon the page' as I write these, more shall be revealed. But this is the broad overview. Thanks for providing an excuse to ramble on about this.

~My point is that I do expect that over the next century or so that we here in the Americas will come to speak "an Anglo-Iberian patois" and all this Bagger bullshit ain't gonna stop it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Advanced Capitalism

Advanced capitalism is an expression used to refer to the features of those societies in which the capitalist model has been integrated and developed deeply and extensively and for a prolonged period of time. The expression distinguishes such societies from the historical previous forms of capitalism, mercantilism and industrial capitalism, and partially overlaps with the concepts of developed country, post-industrial age, finance capitalism, post-Fordism, spectacular society, modern capitalism and complex capitalism.

Jürgen Habermas has been a major contributor to the analysis of advanced-capitalistic societies. According to Habermas, a key feature of advanced-capitalism is "privatism", meaning "political abstinence combined with an orientation to career, leisure and consumption" as well as "family orientation" (Habermas, 1988: 37, 75). Another key trait of complex capitalism is commodity fetishism. Antonio Gramsci, formulating his influential concept of cultural hegemony, said that in advanced capitalist societies, innovations such as compulsory schooling, mass media, and popular culture indoctrinate people with the opinions convenient to the powerful.

from Advanced Capitalism

Debt: The First Five Thousand Years

Throughout its 5000 year history, debt has always involved institutions – whether Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law – that place controls on debt's potentially catastrophic social consequences. It is only in the current era, writes anthropologist David Graeber, that we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system largely in order to protect the interests of creditors.

From Eurozine
By David Graeber

What follows is a fragment of a much larger project of research on debt and debt money in human history. The first and overwhelming conclusion of this project is that in studying economic history, we tend to systematically ignore the role of violence, the absolutely central role of war and slavery in creating and shaping the basic institutions of what we now call "the economy". What's more, origins matter. The violence may be invisible, but it remains inscribed in the very logic of our economic common sense, in the apparently self-evident nature of institutions that simply would never and could never exist outside of the monopoly of violence – but also, the systematic threat of violence – maintained by the contemporary state.

Let me start with the institution of slavery, whose role, I think, is key. In most times and places, slavery is seen as a consequence of war. Sometimes most slaves actually are war captives, sometimes they are not, but almost invariably, war is seen as the foundation and justification of the institution. If you surrender in war, what you surrender is your life; your conqueror has the right to kill you, and often will. If he chooses not to, you literally owe your life to him; a debt conceived as absolute, infinite, irredeemable. He can in principle extract anything he wants, and all debts – obligations – you may owe to others (your friends, family, former political allegiances), or that others owe you, are seen as being absolutely negated. Your debt to your owner is all that now exists.

This sort of logic has at least two very interesting consequences, though they might be said to pull in rather contrary directions. First of all, as we all know, it is another typical – perhaps defining – feature of slavery that slaves can be bought or sold. In this case, absolute debt becomes (in another context, that of the market) no longer absolute. In fact, it can be precisely quantified. There is good reason to believe that it was just this operation that made it possible to create something like our contemporary form of money to begin with, since what anthropologists used to refer to as "primitive money", the kind that one finds in stateless societies (Solomon Island feather money, Iroquois wampum), was mostly used to arrange marriages, resolve blood feuds, and fiddle with other sorts of relations between people, rather than to buy and sell commodities. For instance, if slavery is debt, then debt can lead to slavery. A Babylonian peasant might have paid a handy sum in silver to his wife's parents to officialise the marriage, but he in no sense owned her. He certainly couldn't buy or sell the mother of his children. But all that would change if he took out a loan. Were he to default, his creditors could first remove his sheep and furniture, then his house, fields and orchards, and finally take his wife, children, and even himself as debt peons until the matter was settled (which, as his resources vanished, of course became increasingly difficult to do). Debt was the hinge that made it possible to imagine money in anything like the modern sense, and therefore, also, to produce what we like to call the market: an arena where anything can be bought and sold, because all objects are (like slaves) disembedded from their former social relations and exist only in relation to money.

But at the same time the logic of debt as conquest can, as I mentioned, pull another way. Kings, throughout history, tend to be profoundly ambivalent towards allowing the logic of debt to get completely out of hand. This is not because they are hostile to markets. On the contrary, they normally encourage them, for the simple reason that governments find it inconvenient to levy everything they need (silks, chariot wheels, flamingo tongues, lapis lazuli) directly from their subject population; it's much easier to encourage markets and then buy them. Early markets often followed armies or royal entourages, or formed near palaces or at the fringes of military posts. This actually helps explain the rather puzzling behaviour on the part of royal courts: after all, since kings usually controlled the gold and silver mines, what exactly was the point of stamping bits of the stuff with your face on it, dumping it on the civilian population, and then demanding they give it back to you again as taxes? It only makes sense if levying taxes was really a way to force everyone to acquire coins, so as to facilitate the rise of markets, since markets were convenient to have around. However, for our present purposes, the critical question is: how were these taxes justified? Why did subjects owe them, what debt were they discharging when they were paid? Here we return again to right of conquest. (Actually, in the ancient world, free citizens – whether in Mesopotamia, Greece, or Rome – often did not have to pay direct taxes for this very reason, but obviously I'm simplifying here.) If kings claimed to hold the power of life and death over their subjects by right of conquest, then their subjects' debts were, also, ultimately infinite; and also, at least in that context, their relations to one another, what they owed to one another, was unimportant. All that really existed was their relation to the king. This in turn explains why kings and emperors invariably tried to regulate the powers that masters had over slaves, and creditors over debtors. At the very least they would always insist, if they had the power, that those prisoners who had already had their lives spared could no longer be killed by their masters. In fact, only rulers could have arbitrary power over life and death. One's ultimate debt was to the state; it was the only one that was truly unlimited, that could make absolute, cosmic, claims.

The reason I stress this is because this logic is still with us. When we speak of a "society" (French society, Jamaican society) we are really speaking of people organised by a single nation state. That is the tacit model, anyway. "Societies" are really states, the logic of states is that of conquest, the logic of conquest is ultimately identical to that of slavery. True, in the hands of state apologists, this becomes transformed into a notion of a more benevolent "social debt". Here there is a little story told, a kind of myth. We are all born with an infinite debt to the society that raised, nurtured, fed and clothed us, to those long dead who invented our language and traditions, to all those who made it possible for us to exist. In ancient times we thought we owed this to the gods (it was repaid in sacrifice, or, sacrifice was really just the payment of interest – ultimately, it was repaid by death). Later the debt was adopted by the state, itself a divine institution, with taxes substituted for sacrifice, and military service for one's debt of life. Money is simply the concrete form of this social debt, the way that it is managed. Keynesians like this sort of logic. So do various strains of socialist, social democrats, even crypto-fascists like Auguste Comte (the first, as far as I am aware, to actually coin the phrase "social debt"). But the logic also runs through much of our common sense: consider for instance, the phrase, "to pay one's debt to society", or, "I felt I owed something to my country", or, "I wanted to give something back." Always, in such cases, mutual rights and obligations, mutual commitments – the kind of relations that genuinely free people could make with one another – tend to be subsumed into a conception of "society" where we are all equal only as absolute debtors before the (now invisible) figure of the king, who stands in for your mother, and by extension, humanity.

What I am suggesting, then, is that while the claims of the impersonal market and the claims of "society" are often juxtaposed – and certainly have had a tendency to jockey back and forth in all sorts of practical ways – they are both ultimately founded on a very similar logic of violence. Neither is this a mere matter of historical origins that can be brushed away as inconsequential: neither states nor markets can exist without the constant threat of force.

One might ask, then, what is the alternative?

Towards a history of virtual money

Here I can return to my original point: that money did not originally appear in this cold, metal, impersonal form. It originally appears in the form of a measure, an abstraction, but also as a relation (of debt and obligation) between human beings. It is important to note that historically it is commodity money that has always been most directly linked to violence. As one historian put it, "bullion is the accessory of war, and not of peaceful trade."[1]

The reason is simple. Commodity money, particularly in the form of gold and silver, is distinguished from credit money most of all by one spectacular feature: it can be stolen. Since an ingot of gold or silver is an object without a pedigree, throughout much of history bullion has served the same role as the contemporary drug dealer's suitcase full of dollar bills, as an object without a history that will be accepted in exchange for other valuables just about anywhere, with no questions asked. As a result, one can see the last 5 000 years of human history as the history of a kind of alternation. Credit systems seem to arise, and to become dominant, in periods of relative social peace, across networks of trust, whether created by states or, in most periods, transnational institutions, whilst precious metals replace them in periods characterised by widespread plunder. Predatory lending systems certainly exist at every period, but they seem to have had the most damaging effects in periods when money was most easily convertible into cash.

So as a starting point to any attempt to discern the great rhythms that define the current historical moment, let me propose the following breakdown of Eurasian history according to the alternation between periods of virtual and metal money:

I. Age of the First Agrarian Empires (3500-800 BCE). Dominant money form: Virtual credit money

Our best information on the origins of money goes back to ancient Mesopotamia, but there seems no particular reason to believe matters were radically different in Pharaonic Egypt, Bronze Age China, or the Indus Valley. The Mesopotamian economy was dominated by large public institutions (Temples and Palaces) whose bureaucratic administrators effectively created money of account by establishing a fixed equivalent between silver and the staple crop, barley. Debts were calculated in silver, but silver was rarely used in transactions. Instead, payments were made in barley or in anything else that happened to be handy and acceptable. Major debts were recorded on cuneiform tablets kept as sureties by both parties to the transaction.

Certainly, markets did exist. Prices of certain commodities that were not produced within Temple or Palace holdings, and thus not subject to administered price schedules, would tend to fluctuate according to the vagaries of supply and demand. But most actual acts of everyday buying and selling, particularly those that were not carried out between absolute strangers, appear to have been made on credit. "Ale women", or local innkeepers, served beer, for example, and often rented rooms; customers ran up a tab; normally, the full sum was dispatched at harvest time. Market vendors presumably acted as they do in small-scale markets in Africa, or Central Asia, today, building up lists of trustworthy clients to whom they could extend credit. The habit of money at interest also originates in Sumer – it remained unknown, for example, in Egypt. Interest rates, fixed at 20 percent, remained stable for 2,000 years. (This was not a sign of government control of the market: at this stage, institutions like this were what made markets possible.) This, however, led to some serious social problems. In years with bad harvests especially, peasants would start becoming hopelessly indebted to the rich, and would have to surrender their farms and, ultimately, family members, in debt bondage. Gradually, this condition seems to have come to a social crisis – not so much leading to popular uprisings, but to common people abandoning the cities and settled territory entirely and becoming semi-nomadic "bandits" and raiders. It soon became traditional for each new ruler to wipe the slate clean, cancel all debts, and declare a general amnesty or "freedom", so that all bonded labourers could return to their families. (It is significant here that the first word for "freedom" known in any human language, the Sumerian amarga, literally means "return to mother".) Biblical prophets instituted a similar custom, the Jubilee, whereby after seven years all debts were similarly cancelled. This is the direct ancestor of the New Testament notion of "redemption". As economist Michael Hudson has pointed out, it seems one of the misfortunes of world history that the institution of lending money at interest disseminated out of Mesopotamia without, for the most part, being accompanied by its original checks and balances.

II. Axial Age (800 BCE – 600 CE). Dominant money form: Coinage and metal bullion

This was the age that saw the emergence of coinage, as well as the birth, in China, India and the Middle East, of all major world religions.[2] From the Warring States period in China, to fragmentation in India, and to the carnage and mass enslavement that accompanied the expansion (and later, dissolution) of the Roman Empire, it was a period of spectacular creativity throughout most of the world, but of almost equally spectacular violence. Coinage, which allowed for the actual use of gold and silver as a medium of exchange, also made possible the creation of markets in the now more familiar, impersonal sense of the term. Precious metals were also far more appropriate for an age of generalised warfare, for the obvious reason that they could be stolen. Coinage, certainly, was not invented to facilitate trade (the Phoenicians, consummate traders of the ancient world, were among the last to adopt it). It appears to have been first invented to pay soldiers, probably first of all by rulers of Lydia in Asia Minor to pay their Greek mercenaries. Carthage, another great trading nation, only started minting coins very late, and then explicitly to pay its foreign soldiers.

Throughout antiquity one can continue to speak of what Geoffrey Ingham has dubbed the "military-coinage complex". He may have been better to call it a "military-coinage-slavery complex", since the diffusion of new military technologies (Greek hoplites, Roman legions) was always closely tied to the capture and marketing of slaves. The other major source of slaves was debt: now that states no longer periodically wiped the slates clean, those not lucky enough to be citizens of the major military city-states – who were generally protected from predatory lenders – were fair game. The credit systems of the Near East did not crumble under commercial competition; they were destroyed by Alexander's armies – armies that required half a ton of silver bullion per day in wages. The mines where the bullion was produced were generally worked by slaves. Military campaigns in turn ensured an endless flow of new slaves. Imperial tax systems, as noted, were largely designed to force their subjects to create markets, so that soldiers (and also, of course, government officials) would be able to use that bullion to buy anything they wanted. The kind of impersonal markets that once tended to spring up between societies, or at the fringes of military operations, now began to permeate society as a whole.

However tawdry their origins, the creation of new media of exchange – coinage appeared almost simultaneously in Greece, India, and China – appears to have had profound intellectual effects. Some have even gone so far as to argue that Greek philosophy was itself made possible by conceptual innovations introduced by coinage. The most remarkable pattern, though, is the emergence, in almost the exact times and places where one also sees the early spread of coinage, of what were to become modern world religions: prophetic Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, and eventually, Islam. While the precise links are yet to be fully explored, in certain ways, these religions appear to have arisen in direct reaction to the logic of the market. To put the matter somewhat crudely: if one relegates a certain social space simply to the selfish acquisition of material things, it is almost inevitable that soon someone else will come to set aside another domain in which to preach that, from the perspective of ultimate values, material things are unimportant, and selfishness – or even the self – illusory.

III. The Middle Ages (600 CE – 1500 CE). The return to virtual credit money

If the Axial Age saw the emergence of complementary ideals of commodity markets and universal world religions, the Middle Ages[3] were the period in which those two institutions began to merge. Religions began to take over the market systems. Everything from international trade to the organisation of local fairs increasingly came to be carried out through social networks defined and regulated by religious authorities. This enabled, in turn, the return throughout Eurasia of various forms of virtual credit money.

In Europe, where all this took place under the aegis of Christendom, coinage was only sporadically, and unevenly, available. Prices after 800 AD were calculated largely in terms of an old Carolingian currency that no longer existed (it was actually referred to at the time as "imaginary money"), but ordinary day-to-day buying and selling was carried out mainly through other means. One common expedient, for example, was the use of tally-sticks, notched pieces of wood that were broken in two as records of debt, with half being kept by the creditor, half by the debtor. Such tally-sticks were still in common use in much of England well into the 16th century. Larger transactions were handled through bills of exchange, with the great commercial fairs serving as their clearing houses. The Church, meanwhile, provided a legal framework, enforcing strict controls on the lending of money at interest and prohibitions on debt bondage.

The real nerve centre of the Medieval world economy, though, was the Indian Ocean, which along with the Central Asia caravan routes connected the great civilisations of India, China, and the Middle East. Here, trade was conducted through the framework of Islam, which not only provided a legal structure highly conducive to mercantile activities (while absolutely forbidding the lending of money at interest), but allowed for peaceful relations between merchants over a remarkably large part of the globe, allowing the creation of a variety of sophisticated credit instruments. Actually, Western Europe was, as in so many things, a relative late-comer in this regard: most of the financial innovations that reached Italy and France in the 11th and 12th centuries had been in common use in Egypt or Iraq since the 8th or 9th centuries. The word "cheque", for example, derives from the Arab sakk, and appeared in English only around 1220 AD.

The case of China is even more complicated: the Middle Ages there began with the rapid spread of Buddhism, which, while it was in no position to enact laws or regulate commerce, did quickly move against local usurers by its invention of the pawn shop – the first pawn shops being based in Buddhist temples as a way of offering poor farmers an alternative to the local usurer. Before long, though, the state reasserted itself, as the state always tends to do in China. But as it did so, it not only regulated interest rates and attempted to abolish debt peonage, it moved away from bullion entirely by inventing paper money. All this was accompanied by the development, again, of a variety of complex financial instruments.

All this is not to say that this period did not see its share of carnage and plunder (particularly during the great nomadic invasions) or that coinage was not, in many times and places, an important medium of exchange. Still, what really characterises the period appears to be a movement in the other direction. Most of the Medieval period saw money largely delinked from coercive institutions. Money changers, one might say, were invited back into the temples, where they could be monitored. The result was a flowering of institutions premised on a much higher degree of social trust."

IV. Age of European Empires (1500-1971). The return of precious metals

With the advent of the great European empires – Iberian, then North Atlantic – the world saw both a reversion to mass enslavement, plunder, and wars of destruction, and the consequent rapid return of gold and silver bullion as the main form of currency. Historical investigation will probably end up demonstrating that the origins of these transformations were more complicated than we ordinarily assume. Some of this was beginning to happen even before the conquest of the New World. One of the main factors of the movement back to bullion, for example, was the emergence of popular movements during the early Ming dynasty, in the 15th and 16th centuries, that ultimately forced the government to abandon not only paper money but any attempt to impose its own currency. This led to the reversion of the vast Chinese market to an uncoined silver standard. Since taxes were also gradually commuted into silver, it soon became the more or less official Chinese policy to try to bring as much silver into the country as possible, so as to keep taxes low and prevent new outbreaks of social unrest. The sudden enormous demand for silver had effects across the globe. Most of the precious metals looted by the conquistadors and later extracted by the Spanish from the mines of Mexico and Potosi (at almost unimaginable cost in human lives) ended up in China. These global scale connections that eventually developed across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans have of course been documented in great detail. The crucial point is that the delinking of money from religious institutions, and its relinking with coercive ones (especially the state), was here accompanied by an ideological reversion to "metallism".[4]

Credit, in this context, was on the whole an affair of states that were themselves run largely by deficit financing, a form of credit which was, in turn, invented to finance increasingly expensive wars. Internationally the British Empire was steadfast in maintaining the gold standard through the 19th and early 20th centuries, and great political battles were fought in the United States over whether the gold or silver standard should prevail.

This was also, obviously, the period of the rise of capitalism, the industrial revolution, representative democracy, and so on. What I am trying to do here is not to deny their importance, but to provide a framework for seeing such familiar events in a less familiar context. It makes it easier, for instance, to detect the ties between war, capitalism, and slavery. The institution of wage labour, for instance, has historically emerged from within that of slavery (the earliest wage contracts we know of, from Greece to the Malay city states, were actually slave rentals), and it has also tended, historically, to be intimately tied to various forms of debt peonage – as indeed it remains today. The fact that we have cast such institutions in a language of freedom does not mean that what we now think of as economic freedom does not ultimately rest on a logic that has for most of human history been considered the very essence of slavery.

Current Era (1971 onwards). The empire of debt

The current era might be said to have been initiated on 15 August 1971, when US President Richard Nixon officially suspended the convertibility of the dollar into gold and effectively created the current floating currency regimes. We have returned, at any rate, to an age of virtual money, in which consumer purchases in wealthy countries rarely involve even paper money, and national economies are driven largely by consumer debt. It's in this context that we can talk about the "financialisation" of capital, whereby speculation in currencies and financial instruments becomes a domain unto itself, detached from any immediate relation with production or even commerce. This is of course the sector that has entered into crisis today.

What can we say for certain about this new era? So far, very, very little. Thirty or forty years is nothing in terms of the scale we have been dealing with. Clearly, this period has only just begun. Still, the foregoing analysis, however crude, does allow us to begin to make some informed suggestions.

Historically, as we have seen, ages of virtual, credit money have also involved creating some sort of overarching institutions – Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law – that place some sort of controls on the potentially catastrophic social consequences of debt. Almost invariably, they involve institutions (usually not strictly coincident to the state, usually larger) to protect debtors. So far the movement this time has been the other way around: starting with the '80s we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system, operating through the IMF, World Bank, corporations and other financial institutions, largely in order to protect the interests of creditors. However, this apparatus was very quickly thrown into crisis, first by the very rapid development of global social movements (the alter-globalisation movement), which effectively destroyed the moral authority of institutions like the IMF and left many of them very close to bankrupt, and now by the current banking crisis and global economic collapse. While the new age of virtual money has only just begun and the long-term consequences are as yet entirely unclear, we can already say one or two things. The first is that a movement towards virtual money is not in itself, necessarily, an insidious effect of capitalism. In fact, it might well mean exactly the opposite. For much of human history, systems of virtual money were designed and regulated to ensure that nothing like capitalism could ever emerge to begin with – at least not as it appears in its present form, with most of the world's population placed in a condition that would in many other periods of history be considered tantamount to slavery. The second point is to underline the absolutely crucial role of violence in defining the very terms by which we imagine both "society" and "markets" – in fact, many of our most elementary ideas of freedom. A world less entirely pervaded by violence would rapidly begin to develop other institutions. Finally, thinking about debt outside the twin intellectual straitjackets of state and market opens up exciting possibilities. For instance, we can ask: in a society in which that foundation of violence had finally been yanked away, what exactly would free men and women owe each other? What sort of promises and commitments should they make to each other?

Let us hope that everyone will someday be in a position to start asking such questions. At times like this, you never know.

* [1] Geoffrey W. Gardiner,
"The Primacy of Trade Debts in the Development of Money", in Randall Wray (ed.), Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of A. Mitchell Innes, Cheltenham: Elgar, 2004, p.134.

* [2] The phrase the "Axial Age" was originally coined by Karl Jaspers to describe the relatively brief period between 800 BCE – 200 BCE in which, he believed, just about all the main philosophical traditions we are familiar with today arose simultaneously in China, India, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Here, I am using it in Lewis Mumford's more expansive use of the term as the period that saw the birth of all existing world religions, stretching roughly from the time of Zoroaster to that of Mohammed.

* [3] I am here relegating most of what is generally referred to as the "Dark Ages" in Europe into the earlier period, characterised by predatory militarism and the consequent importance of bullion: the Viking raids, and the famous extraction of danegeld from England in the 800s, might be seen as one the last manifestations of an age where predatory militarism went hand and hand with hoards of gold and silver bullion.

* [4] The myth of barter and commodity theories of money was of course developed in this period.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Gee, Ya Think...

~I was just [quickly] reading through this piece Self-help 'makes you feel worse' which said, “Canadian researchers found those with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves,” and “They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.”

Both my Inner Alcoholic and my Inner NLP Practitioner chorused, “No Shit!” The Drunk knows full well that only 'Right Action leads to Right Thought'. The NLPer just says, “lying to yourself is depressing.”

I have long hated 'positive thinking', even before I got into AA or NLP. It not only seemed disingenuous to me, but I also noticed that most 'positive thinkers' would utterly freak out when presented with any kind of 'negativity', which of course alerted my Inner Predator, who then would 'prove' how weak these 'positive thinkers' usually were. *evil laughter*

Confronting ones Shadow is essential for any type of true Spiritual growth, though to do so is almost always an unnerving experience. But, at least to me, it is a most rewarding exercise...if one survives it, of course. *more evil laughter*