Hands on the scale

“So look, the problem is capitalism. We’ve got good tech, we’ve got a nice planet, we’re fucking it up by way of stupid laws. That’s what capitalism is, a set of stupid laws.” — Jeff in Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140.

The “free” market is not free. It is governed by laws and norms that favor the already-wealthy. They create barriers to entry for small businesses to compete with big businesses, for new ideas and technologies to replace outdated ones, for workers to move from a more exploitative employer to a less exploitative. They protect wealth inherited and ultimately plundered from others, for most of what people consider their rightful property was, at some point, expropriated from other people and other living things. Property rights are largely post-hoc rationalizations for deception, exploitation, and conquest under the flag of one government or another. The more we can identify these restrictions, illuminate their contingent origin and partisan purpose, the more clearly we can imagine alternatives through which to create the conditions for true freedom.

Reality check

We are paying more attention to politics than ever. Content seems irrelevant if not political. If a book does not explain how we got to this political moment or how it may turn out (dystopian), it may not sell. If an article wasn’t published today, it seems outdated. And one can no longer be apolitical; whoever you are, you helped bring this about.

But in contrast to widespread complacency and ignorance, this swelling of interest and civic vigilance should be welcome, right? It must be better, right? Maybe not.

More than ever, politics is entertainment brought to you by news media, a form of interactive theatre, and in the most gripping genre: horror. We cannot look away for a moment. Anytime we are lulled into our own concerns, a new crisis or intrigue is revealed, and we remain preoccupied with the behavior of elected officials.

We have not become more political; we have become hyper-political. By dramatizing politics, we make it less real, a spectacle. We fetishize the power of elected officials at our own expense; they who should be public servants accountable to citizens become brands more profitable the more sensational their doings.

Despite paying more attention to politics, we are not more engaged in thinking critically about it. We are missing the forest for the trees. What is the forest? Literally, the forest — and the global ecosystem of which the forest is a vital part and in which we humans really exist. The more entranced we are by the hyper-reality of spectacle, the less present we are to the here and now of life, and death, around us.

Nor is socialism enough

Socialism is public control over the economy, but the economy may still compete in an international marketplace. Venezuela under Chavez, for example, nationalized the oil industry in order to redistribute wealth, only to see the price of oil on the world market fall and its economy collapse. Even if a major sector of its economy was relatively socialist, it still depended on exploitation, maybe not of workers, but certainly of nature, in order to reap profits.

What if the purpose of an economy were not to turn nature into money but to protect nature? What if people were rewarded not for commodifying natural resources but for leaving them in the ground? After all, exploiting nature imposes costs on us all, so should not the exploiter be forced to assume those costs? And protecting nature benefits us all, so should the protector not be compensated?

Home

Through the Copernican Revolution we came to realize that the Sun and planets do not revolve around the Earth and, in turn, that human beings are not the center of the universe. This insight was not merely astronomical, but existential; it casts a long shadow on the Judeo-Christian premise that humans occupy a privileged place in creation, chosen to sit atop a hierarchy of lesser creatures, excepted from the mean meaninglessness of soulless life and soulless death on this crag of dirt and cruelty.

Climate change darkens this picture further. We fail to occupy a privileged place not only in the universe, but on Earth as well.  We have acted in the self-appointed role of exploiter of nature, and the planet is reacting by becoming less hospitable to our needs. But it is darkest before dawn. A new day will break when we embrace a different role: not above nature, not distinct from it — rather, a part of, the same as, one with all life on Earth. Let the here and now of life surrounding and imbuing us be our meaning, our soul.

Precipice

Nietzsche feared that once disabused of belief in God people would succumb to nihilism. Fortunately, the marketing of consumer products stuffs the void of meaninglessness with shiny new objects to desire, attain, use up, and dispose of over and over again.

Some Americans, best exemplified by the religious right, have not been disabused and cling to tradition, not only in terms of theological beliefs but more importantly in terms of inherited hierarchies through which to understand the way of the world. But many others, especially those with higher levels of education and wealth, purport to be bold disruptors of tradition, ushering in the future by embracing consumption of one seeming innovation after another, both in their personal lives and their politics. The latter laud diversity and creativity because these qualities generate more new ideas to market — but to what end?

What if we were to confront the void without the aid of tradition or consumption, without clinging to the past or flinging ourselves into the future?