Sunday, November 13, 2011

Serf's Up!

So today, a depressing and bleak portrait of the future. Okay, you've been warned. Some people believe that as things worsen; as the environment continues to decay, as global warming ravages the planet, as the economy deteriorates, as social cohesion breaks down, the 1% will realize that the system needs to be corrected and reforms will happen. Others say no, the 1% will live in gated communities surrounded by armed guards, with their own power systems, completely separated from mainstream society as things fall apart. They will own all the agricultural land and feed themselves, while the 99% are unemployed, starving, and dying from pollution.

Who is correct? Well, it's too early to say, but let's look at some trends, shall we? The first two articles appeared last week in The New York Times. The first is how elite Chinese have special filters installed so they don't have to breathe the same air as commoners:
BEIJING — Membership in the upper ranks of the Chinese Communist Party has always had a few undeniable advantages. There are the state-supplied luxury sedans, special schools for the young ones and even organic produce grown on well-guarded, government-run farms. When they fall ill, senior leaders can check into 301 Military Hospital, long considered the capital’s premier medical institution.

But even in their most addled moments of envy, ordinary Beijingers could take some comfort in the knowledge that the soupy air they breathe on especially polluted days also finds its way into the lungs of the privileged and pampered.

Such assumptions, it seems, are not entirely accurate.

As it turns out, the homes and offices of many top leaders are filtered by high-end devices, at least according to a Chinese company, the Broad Group, which has been promoting its air-purifying machines in advertisements that highlight their ubiquity in places where many officials work and live.

According to the Broad Group’s Web site, it did not take much to convince the nation’s Communist Party leaders that they would do well to acquire the firm’s air purifiers, some of which cost $2,000. To make their case, company executives installed one in a meeting room used by members of the Politburo Standing Committee. The deal was apparently sealed a short while later, when technicians made a show of cleaning out the soot-laden filters. “After they saw the inklike dirty water, Broad air purifier became the national leaders’ appointed air purifier!” the Web site said.
The other story is how in the United States, in wealthy elite communities, the 1% are installing backup power systems in their far-flung suburban mansions, enabling them to live comfortably even through the natural disasters that Climate Change is causing:
[...] The back story to the recent biblical weather was the Great Generator Divide. With hundreds of thousands of households without power last week — nearly 800,000 in Connecticut alone — who had a generator (and how big it was) was the second most urgent topic in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Generator envy ran wide and deep as the staccato growl and smoky breath of portable generators defined the haves and the have-nots in many neighborhoods.

In Greenwich, Conn., some chilly residents shivered while their neighbors’ mega-units (the whole-house kind that kick on automatically and emit a sound hardly louder than a cat’s purr) powered not just furnaces, washers and dryers, garage doors and electric gates, “but the mood lighting on their trees,” Leslie McElwreath, a broker at Sotheby’s International Realty there, said wonderingly, impressed by her neighbor’s generator prowess (and his spotlighted trees).

Indeed, in a town like Greenwich, where the accouterments of the high-end houses are super-sized, generator power is now a selling point, as home theaters, heated driveways and wine grottos were in years past, said Robert Bland, the brokerage manager of the Sotheby’s office in Greenwich.

Last year, one of Mr. DiBiase’s mega-houses sold for more than $11 million, one of the highest spec sales in Greenwich history, said Ms. McElwreath, who had the listing. Mr. DiBiase ticked off its features, starting with a 100-kilowatt Cummins, the Rolls-Royce of generators. It was a necessary feature, he explained, if you consider the power needs of the 16,000-square-foot house: nine zones of hydro-air, 10 zones of radiant heat, a whole-house Lutron lighting system, a Sub-Zero, several refrigerator drawers and wine coolers, a wine cellar, a home theater and a gym.
Treehugger's Lloyd Alter comments:

"This stuff is pretty standard among the very rich in Central and South America: generator sets, very big tanks of diesel fuel, high walls and lots of security guards. All of which, no doubt, will be the next status symbol for the 1%"

And we've previously covered the story of the super-rich buying up agricultural land to feed themselves while the rest of us starve:
In the rare occasion that New Yorkers talk about farming, it’s usually something along the lines of what sort of organic kale to plant in the vanity garden at the second house in the Adirondacks. But on a recent afternoon, The Observer had a conversation of a different sort about agricultural pursuits with a hedge fund manager he’d met at one of the many dark-paneled private clubs in midtown a few weeks prior. “A friend of mine is actually the largest owner of agricultural land in Uruguay,” said the hedge fund manager. “He’s a year older than I am. We’re somewhere [around] the 15th-largest farmers in America right now.”

“We,” as in, his hedge fund.

It may seem a little odd that in 2011 anyone’s thinking of putting money into assets that would have seemed attractive in 1911, but there’s something in the air-namely, fear. The hedge fund manager and others like him envision a doomsday scenario catalyzed by a weak dollar, higher-than-you-think inflation and an uncertain political climate here and abroad.

The pattern began to emerge sometime in 2008. “The Hedge Fund Manager Who Bought a Farm,” read the headline on one February 2008 Times of London piece detailing a British hedge fund manager’s attempt to play off the rising prices of grains in order to usurp local farmland. A Financial Times piece two months later began: “Hedge funds and investment banks are swapping their Gucci for gumboots.” It detailed BlackRock’s then-relatively new $420 million Agriculture Fund, which had already swept up 2,800 acres of land.
In other words, they know full well that the system is doomed, so they buy up the land using their artificially created wealth to feed themselves and their families while the rest of the world starves. Meanwhile, they assure us through their bought-and-paid-for politicians that everything will soon be "back to normal". And don't forget that to that the fact that the people living in those 16,000 square foot Greenwich homes with diesel generators and buying up the world's farmland are also the speculators making profits by driving up the costs of essential goods and foodstuffs through gambling. The wealthy apparently wish to become new feudal overlords, with the rest of us working their land as serfs in a neo-feudal system:
A couple weeks back my wife Lindsay and I ran into filmmaker Severine von Tscharner Fleming. After three years in production, she just put out a documentary called The Greenhorns, which she jokingly refers to as propaganda for her non-profit organization of the same name, dedicated to helping a new generation of back-to-the-landers find land to go back to and then work it successfully once they get there.

Her latest concern?

That wealthy people are busy buying up farmland to provide them with food after the peak-ocalpypse and that they’re trying to recruit young people to work these new feudal estates as low-paid hired hands.


Then, she told us that she had met hedge fund managers in New York who were so worried about peak oil that they were trying to turn their paper wealth into rural real estate that could stand them well if the economy collapses in the near future and takes the industrial food system down with it.

They seem to imagine that, like feudal lords of old, they’ll be able to feed their families and produce food to support a community of retainers.

And those neo-feudal estates would require young farmers with empty pockets and strong backs, the same promising young people that von Tscharner Fleming is trying to empower with their own land and independence from today’s terrible job market as well as the uncertainties of tomorrow.

To prevent the resurgence of sharecropping, serfdom and other regressive traditions of binding people without wealth to the landed estates of the rich, von Tscharner Fleming is planning a new film. She told us that her research would include a talk with Monticello Director of Gardens Peter Hatch to learn about how workers on Jefferson’s estate fared.

Most of Jefferson’s field hands, of course, were slaves.
So with these articles, you have a vision that's something straight out the most fevered imagination of a cyberpunk science fiction author: the rich living in gated communities surrounded by private police forces with independent power generating capacity,breathing filtered air, and eating from the land they own which is farmed by hordes of barely surviving serfs taken from the teeming ranks of the unemployed. The thing is this is happening now! Of course, there will be no rebellion against these new overlords, because that would be "envy", as they "earned" everything by their "superior skills", by climbing up the ladder with no help whatsoever. Or at least that's what folks in the Heartland will be told by the media as their jobs are shipped overseas and their houses foreclosed on. I shudder to think what will happen as genetic science moves forward, and the rich will be able to genetically engineer their children to be "superior" to the rest of us. Class war doesn't even begin to cover it.

Here at The Hipcrime Vocab, we like to connect the dots, as they say. As trends analyst Gerald Celente says, "current events form future trends". Many commentators have argued that we're essentially heading for a time of neo-feudaism, similar to the Dark Ages after the collapse of Rome. Paranoid? What do you think?

P.S. - We seem to be headed toward the type of society depicted in the Star Trek episode The Cloud Minders. In that society, a small elite caste lives in the clouds in a city called Stratos and pursues a life of art and leisure, while a vast class of troglodytes makes their leisure possible by toiling under brutal conditions in the mines below. The Stratos Dwellers justify their status by claiming the troglodytes are "stupid" and "inferior", but the Enterprise discovers that the troglodytes are actually being poisoned by gas from the mines, retarding their mental capacity and making them emotionally unstable (similar to the effects of pollution today).

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