Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Problem With Materialism

It's ironic, in a way, that the bulk of the “tea party” protesters seem to be Christians -- even Christians of the Evangelical stripe. In other words, these are people for whom – supposedly -- ultimate values lie in the spiritual realm, vs. the material one. In theory, if they were truly radical followers of the Gospel, they would “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's” and care not a whit about the Fed, the bailouts, the economic stimulus plan, the stock market, the real estate market, the trade deficit, inflation, taxation... and so on. Because these are all artifacts of the money system, i.e. the system that substitutes “currency” -- which is only paper with certain things printed on it – for that which has real value. The money system is, in fact, a trap – it's a sucker's game, designed to tempt everyone into accepting it as the sole standard of value, but also into converting all of their assets – material and labor – into currency-denominated abstractions, i.e. into even more paper. So I trade that which has actual value into “notes”. But those notes are not mine; they belong to the “money power” and their value and disposition are determined by that same power. Even if I own – i.e. have title to – something of tangible value, like a house, it is only worth what the “real estate market” says it is, and that market is, in turn, manipulated down to the nth degree by the financial powers that be. How can it be a matter of pure supply and demand – an allegedly free-market characteristic – when its value can rise or fall sharply on the whims of the “market”? Does supply and demand really fluctuate that wildly from one month/week/day to the next? Of course not. What fluctuates is the intensity of speculation in the market – something actual homeowners have absolutely no voice in. And for things less tangible than real estate – securities, for example – those values are determined exclusively by forces that the average person is totally unaware of. And yet these are the indicators of “wealth” that we all rely on; this is what constitutes our “portfolio” -- a bunch of paper whose value is entirely determined by people we've never met, don't know, and never will.

And yet I daresay that the majority of “tea partiers” are also homeowners and have money in the bank, and that a substantial number own stocks, or at least have a share in a mutual fund of some sort. So they have, perhaps unknowingly or naively, bought off on the basic structure underpinning the money power – that same power that they are now marching and protesting against in a fit of futile rage. But if they took the Gospel seriously, they would “render unto Caesar” by ridding themselves of the trappings of materialism – or, should I say, the traps thereof. Trade your labor for tangible goods if you like... try to engage in barter rather than currency exchange as much as possible... join co-ops... become a tiny bit more self-sufficient (even a city apartment dweller can manage this to some degree). Don't sink your money into things you don't understand and have no control over (like the stock market). And when it comes to “home ownership”, how about _real_ home ownership, i.e. no mortgage? How many can manage to pull that off? That way, even if the market value of your home declines, at least there's no way you can ever be “under water” -- unless, of course, you borrow against equity, but I'm assuming that you wouldn't do that unless your life literally depended on it.

In other words, if the tea partiers wanted to “live out the Gospel”, they would spend more time figuring out how to separate themselves from the money power and less time attending rallies. Because, frankly, folks, things have gone way too far for your protests to do any good. It would be like demonstrating for nuclear disarmament once the bomb has been dropped and is halfway to the ground. The economic fate of this country has been sealed – with the help of its “leaders”. The only question now is, exactly what is this intended fate? Bankruptcy? Well... that ship has already sailed; not only is the the federal budget in a state of chronic deficit, but it only accounts for interest on the national debt. The principal, i.e. the national debt itself, is not on track to be repaid, ever. Add these two facts together and you have a good operational definition of bankruptcy. Ah, but! -- you might say – how about productivity? How about the GNP? Well, yes... but even the massive portion of the GNP that now goes directly into government accounts is insufficient to remedy the situation... and if you recall the Laffer curve, you'll realize that no amount of increased taxation – right up to 100% -- is going to help; in fact, it would only make things worse. So the paradox, in the face of the argument (re: the national debt) that “we owe it to ourselves” (and the Chinese), is that even to the extent that's true, it still can never be paid back; the taxes required to substantially reduce the national debt would more than counterbalance the positive effects of putting those funds back into the economy. So – bottom line – the situation is as hopeless as it can be, save the obvious trick of drastically inflating the currency... or repudiating the debt, the first of which measures would render the U.S. economy (temporarily, at least) nonexistent, and the second of which would make us a pariah in the world economy for many generations to come. (And, truth be told, there are arguments out there – on the libertarian-anarchist side, to be sure – that one or both of these possibilities might actually be beneficial in the long run. But the selling that idea to the American public would be about as easy as selling the idea of amputation without anesthetic.)

The real question in all of this, of course, is what does the money power, AKA the Regime, want – and how does it seek to best achieve this? Clearly, severe economic distress in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world, is of no concern, since it does, after all, have a cause, and that cause entails some people accumulating all the wealth that everyone else has lost. This is not to deny that there have been substantial world-wide losses over the past couple of years, but one must remember that those have been almost exclusively paper losses; the amount of actual wealth (material and human capital) has not diminished at all – only its “value” according to the “market”, and as measured by its value in various denominations of “currency” -- all bogus to one degree or another (except maybe for the perennial Swiss franc – which, you'll notice, is the real “currency of choice” for the international smart set, who avoid the dollar like the plague). (And how do the Swiss do it, by the way? Simple. They stay out of wars.) (And, oh yes, their citizens are willing to work for a living.) (And do they ever know how to control illegal immigration!)

But if severe economic distress in the U.S., or anywhere else, is of little or no concern to the Regime, I can't imagine that total economic collapse (here or anywhere else that counts – Iceland being a good example of “not counting”) is something they desire. After all, productivity has to be maintained at a certain level, combined with a certain level of “law and order”, for wealth to keep percolating upward from the ordinary workers (blue collar, white collar, whatever) to the controlling class. It does no good to have slaves if your slaves are all sick or crippled... or so demoralized that they simply refuse to work. (The perpetuation of the non-working underclass is a different matter, and I don't want to get into that now... but even in that case there has to be an optimum level of total dependence on government – neither too much nor too little. And we see that so-called “social legislation” is designed to keep refining things in order to maintain that optimum level.)

I think that it would be safe to say that a chronically-sick, chronically-distressed economy – in the U.S. and elsewhere – serves the purposes of the Regime best. So while we are unlikely to see any total “meltdowns”, we will also never see a full recovery; the way things are now is just about right, I suspect. It's the right balance of dependency and productivity -- of initiative and passivity -- of fear and resignation -- of delusion and everyday semi-sanity. It is, in other words, a wartime economy designed for perpetual war without and perpetual strife and class war within. And this is not to say that there won't still be “cycles” of various kinds – in the stock market, trade, currency, and what not. These “cycles” are a vital part of the engine that keeps wealth percolating up into the right hands. With each turn of the wheel, the “surplus earnings” of the working class (the ones who actually work, I mean) and the middle class are siphoned off and sent on their way. We're talking about taxes and inflation here – the usual suspects – but also about the cost of government regulation and law enforcement, as well as the cost of having an ever-increasing portion of the populace engaged in non-productive “work”, e.g. government “jobs”. What I'm saying is that the percentage of real producers continues to fall... and this is enabled at least partly by technology and the economies of scale (e.g. agribusiness), as well as the fact that, over time, people become willing to accept less, both in terms of quantity and quality. (And, in a sense, the government “produces” as well – and its “products” (goods and services) drive out the better, market-based stuff. This is another thing that people tend to get used to over time and come to take for granted, forgetting that there was ever anything better.)

You could think of the system as a gigantic machine, designed to absorb human effort, keep the vast majority on a subsistence diet, and enrich the power elite beyond the wildest dreams of any ordinary person. We're basically all cows lined up in milking stalls; our basic needs are met, we're fed, housed, and we're about to be cared for when sick by no less a personage than the president himself! (The First Lady will mop our fevered brows while her offspring sing lively pop tunes to aid our recuperation.) And we don't even know how much of the value of our labor is being siphoned off, because we've never known a time when it wasn't. All we know is that a few people at the top are getting very rich (albeit with dollar-denominated riches -- at least until they can convert it into something better), but we don't draw a line between our state of life and theirs. But the truth is, the cause-and-effect relationship is like unto a rod of iron; it could hardly be more tangible or easier to demonstrate. But, again, wedded as we are to the currency hoax and the “money economy”, we either can not or will not see the connection. And of course it was designed to be at least opaque, if not actually invisible in many cases – so one can hardly blame people for being ignorant.

But, again, I say that the “tea partiers” and those of like mind are much too wedded to the Regime – to the establishment just as it is – to have any real impact. They are too easily bought off, bribed, and mainly frightened to death. When it comes down to it, all of their professed ideals wouldn't stand a chance against a threat to their homes, cars, appliances, motor boats, barbecue grills, pathetic bank accounts, and so on – all those things so dear to the bourgeois heart. The riots of the 1960s and 1970s ended when the lumpen proletariat – who had nothing to lose -- were either bought off by “equal opportunity” and “affirmative action” or rendered impotent by sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. (Throw in partial genocide through abortion if you like.) The “riots” (which hardly deserve the name, even if the media pretend to be shaking in their boots) of today – i.e. the “tea parties” -- will be suppressed by fear, i.e. the fear of losing what they have. “Even what little they have will be taken away.” (This was a statement against poor stewardship – but it can also be applied to foolish political activity.)

Now, on the other side of this very large coin are the people who, you would think, would have the most to fear – i.e. the most to be upset about, and to protest – namely the materialists (those of the atheist stripe, that is – not just the Protestants who subscribe to the “prosperity gospel”). For if they lose their “stuff”, there is nothing to back them up – no consolation. And I suppose that some libertarians could fit this description, since libertarians do tend, as a group, to be non-religious and pro-property rights. So when they get out there with protest signs, at least they're being honest, and not “schitzy” about the whole issue. But a materialist who is also a socialist, or a communist, and therefore in favor of the government confiscating all private property? I never could figure that type out. Maybe they think that if all they have left is their “ideals”, that will be enough. The funny thing is that, every time this has been tried, it has turned out that it isn't enough – they really do miss their “stuff”, and try every hypocritical ruse and con game in the world to get at least some of it back. So we can place them firmly in the category of hard-core hypocrites. Those rare people in the world who really are satisfied with poverty – who seek it out, in fact – tend to be fervently-believing Christians (or, to be fair, true believers in other faiths – but it has to be a faith, not just politics). And this too makes perfect sense. And, of course, the materialists at the top – the successful ones – aren't hypocrites either; they are unabashed in their limitless greed, and see no reason to fear, since they hold all of the strings in their hands. Of course, they are still all mortal (as far as we know), so they cannot be fully at ease. But do they fear judgment? I imagine not, since if they did, they would not have ventured even a small fraction as far as they've managed to go. So they have their particular species of contentment, and those vowed to poverty have theirs. It's only those in between – those of two (or more) minds – who are chronically infected with unease and anxiety. But it's that very unease and anxiety that renders their protests and their efforts ineffective. They have neither material power nor purified (as much as is possible on this plane) spiritual power. Instead, they are full of half-baked ideas, most of which are newly-born out of desperation, but at the same time they are ruled by fear, lest they lose their “stuff”. So, as a result, they are easily dealt with by the ruling power, or by their surrogates in the media. And this is the point at which their defenses break down. They fill the National Mall with protest signs, but as evening approaches they retire to their beds at the Red Roof Inn out in Annandale, leaving the homeless sleeping on park benches amidst discarded protest signs. Who has the real power here?

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