Thursday, April 12, 2012

Embrace Austerity

This video on the BBC is sure to be quite popular (I finally figured out how to embed):

Imagine that: a form of money that actually serves it intended purpose - a medium of exchange, rather than a debt-based IOU generated by banks that never decays and grows exponentially.

And don't miss this excellent series from The Guardian: Greece on the Breadline. Probably like many of us, I turn to overseas media for actual journalism rather than the propaganda organ that the U.S. media has become. See this video summary of the stories (alas, no embed):

Considering these stories a thought popped into my head: what if the austerity movement being rammed down the world's collective throats to pay off the debts of the investor class has an alternate effect than the elites least expect? What if instead of "punishing" us, it actually teaches us how little we need to actually live a good life? And what if it teaches us to rely on each other again, rather than the large, impersonal institutions now under control of the one percent? What effect will this have on the future?

Will it teach us that we can survive without the debt-based consumption model that has been the cornerstone of modern economies for much of the twentieth century? And what happens if that sinks in? If that is the case, it might have an effect on the long-term future that I think the powers-that-be will find most displeasing: we will realize that we don't need them. We don't need what the one percent is offering: debt, distraction, stress, superficiality, isolation and overstimulation. In fact, they need us more than we need them. We are the source of their wealth. We make it for them every day when we do our jobs, when we take out a mortgage, when we get an education. We grow their food, clean their houses, teach their children, count their money. And for years all of our increased productivity has gone straight into their bank accounts. And for what? What if don't need their Euros or their dollars? What if money becomes once again a medium of exchange, instead of a weapon? Once we realize that we don't need them, the source of their power goes away. Are they teaching us, unintentionally, how to survive on our own, without them, like slaves escaped from bondage?

For years we've been told by those who know better that not only is the debt-based consumption economy unsustainable, but that it brings little happiness or satisfaction. But we didn't listen. Once we step onto the hedonic treadmill, we must run faster and faster, wondering why we never seem to arrive at a destination. For years spiritual traditions, positive psychology and plain old common sense have told us that seeking happiness through consumption and measuring success through money were dead ends. But as long as that path were available, we were seduced, and bought in to the vision sold to us through every possible channel 24-7. Those who knew better said it couldn't last, but were derided as Cassandras, or at least grim spoilsports. Now that their prophecies have come true, it seems many who dismissed these ideas are now having to confront them head-on, like it or not.

Once whole societies get off the hedonic treadmill, will they so easily be coaxed back onto it? Once they see how little the debt based consumption actually adds to life satisfaction, will they be seduced by its charms once again? For most of human history upward mobility has been an aberration. Yet people found happiness and satisfaction anyway. In many ways, a life of constant striving is not a life lived at all; if all you consider is a destination you will take no heed of the journey. It seems they are forcing us, intentionally or not, to come up with alternatives to the one-size-fits-all idea of "success" that we have been sold.

We spend a lot of time talking over how much we want a new world, one in which the wealth is shared more equitably. In Greece, are we seeing it's birth? It's not neatly planned or designed, it's not top-down; it's by fits and starts, but that's how new paradigms always emerge. It's how capitalism was born, might it be how it dies? Instead of a new economy bursting forth fully formed, this is how we should expect whatever's next to emerge: uneven, tentative, experimental, incomplete, maybe even a little bit uncomfortable. Would someone watching a Newcomen engine in an obscure, foggy corner of England or selling a stock on the Amsterdam exchange even realize that they were watching the birth of a whole new type of economy? Could such a person envision a world in which technology and novelty were ubiquitous, monarchs gone and everyone worked for wages? It's doubtful one could see such things at a time when most still worked the land, rode horses, and crowned heads ruled Europe. Such is our difficulty today. We know we need a new model of post-growth economics. Every new template has to begin somewhere. We should look all over the world to see it start to emerge.

And that is what people do in a collapse - they survive, they adapt, they improvise, they make do. It's always worked that way. And no, its not easy, and no it's not for the faint of heart. All the theories for new models of the economy pale when the theories meet reality. There is no better motivator for improvisation and creativity like having no other choice. In satisfying their inordinate greed, are the authorities teaching us to improvise a template for a future zero-growth society, one in which we can create value for ourselves rather than rely on the droppings from the tables of our would-be masters? Many people who've lost their jobs have said it's the best thing that ever happened to them, for nothing else would rouse them from their apathy. Can such a thing happen at the level of whole countries?

Now, I know there might be some misunderstanding, so let me be clear: I in no way condone nor endorse the pain and suffering being visited upon the Greek people by unelected technocrats working for the banking establishment. I do not approve of entire societies being dismantled piece-by-piece to pay off the already obscenely wealthy. I am fully aware of the pain and suffering being caused, and I am abhorred by it. I would prefer a better way, but there is little I nor anyone else in this country can do. Watching videos like the one above, I am at least comforted that something positive may come of this awful suffering. And I am impressed by the toughness, resilience, solidarity and dignity being shown by ordinary Greeks. They truly are a model for the rest of the world.

And there is another message for us in this country too. What if instead of fearing austerity, we embraced it? What if instead of punishment, it became our liberation? I have always embraced austerity; growing up poor will do that to you. Maybe I'm just ahead of my time. And I do realize how little I truly do need, and how to make do. Americans all over are heeding this message. Those of us not in the chattering classes know that we have been living with austerity for some now. We know that social mobility has stalled, that good jobs are shrinking, that debt is a noose, that our politics is a sideshow. Let's not wait for disaster, let's take a lesson from the Greeks and realize that it is not we who need the one percent. it is they who need our compliance, our acquiescence, and our tacit support. Withdraw that as much as you can even if it is only in your mind. Make do with less. Seek alternatives. Volunteer. Help your fellow man. Show solidarity with people, from Greece and around the world. That is the beginning of a new, better, more sane world. One potato at a time.

The most bitter lessons have the deepest effects and last the longest. Will the lessons of austerity be forgotten? Or does the darkness contain the sliver of light? I surge you to watch the Jon Henley video. At one point (about 5:45) there is a sign which says (in English and Greek) "I am building a new civilization"  (XTIZΩ ENAN KAINOYPIO ΠOΛITISMO).


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