You know something strange is happening, when you have to check each day to find out how many wars, declared and undeclared Barack actually has going on. Apparently if you call it a peace action or a humanitarian intervention, dropping cluster bombs on civilians is okay. The funny thing is, he seems to have figured out, that if you don’t call it a war, then the markets don’t freak out as much. They do still freak out, but they don’t go into a tailspin of fear about losing access to oil and gas or something.

This is a good example of how I see the current world situation: I used to think that we were engaged in some inexorable slide into the abyss, and that a renewal would come from those who cannibalized the old order to build a new one. The prevailing narrative was apocalyptic and grandiose and seemingly oblivious to the rot in the floorboards.

Now in some ways, it’s worse. There is no longer any forward looking narrative, apocalyptic or otherwise. NASA is about to be shut down, budget cuts will gut every progressive project before it can get off the ground, there is no serious talk about how to grow the economy, harness new resources, or even repair the collapsing infrastructure. There is increasingly no sense of a future, no sense of ‘going’ anywhere, no sense of meaningful change of any kind. Lots of translation, tons of translation, but no transformation. We have entered a period where the only thing that happens is navigating an ongoing crisis, and our only preoccupation is not losing any more than we have already.  Governments get elected and re-elected on the basis that they won’t make things much worse. People increasingly make decisions about how to stay in the same place most effectively.

This is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a civilization in the accelerating stages of entropic breakdown. If we are indeed on the backside of the peak oil curve, as I think we are, this mentality can only dominate mainstream thought more and more. We don’t have leaders, because there doesn’t appear to be anywhere for them to lead us to. All we can do is position ourselves in the crisis narrative the best possible way, as termites eat the less-vital parts of the house. It’s an ongoing and essentially permanent condition of triage.

In some ways this is worse than a fast collapse, because a catastrophic dissolution of some systems would at least get the trauma over with and allow people to focus on building something new in the cleared space. But if the overwhelming concern is simply avoiding the trauma, period,  a lot of people with positive ideas will be banging on the door fruitlessly, because they aren’t playing along with the idea of a permanent crisis where the only growth is from looting other parts of the system on your way into the black hole, where you will inevitably be looted yourself. You could lose a whole generation of creative people that way, or pour their energies into half-ass repair jobs that were only meant to last until the next election, or the next shift in the crisis narrative.

The main characteristic of a permanent crisis narrative is that nobody knows exactly what anyone else is doing, and frequently don’t even know what they themselves are doing. There is no ability to think beyond the needs of the moment. This is why Barack appears to have no coherent policy about anything, ever. He would probably like to, but is constantly getting pulled in opposite directions, to net effect zero. Lots happening, no progress.

This is why we kill terrorists and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but try to install the exact same people as the government of Libya, even though Ghadaffi provides the highest standard of living in Africa, and Afghanistan is a corrupt hellhole littered with IUD’s where you can’t even get electricity most of the time. Hate to break it to anyone, but you don’t get a crowd of a million people in the streets firing AK-47’s into the air, unless you have popular support. Especially if you’re the one GIVING them the AK-47’s.

This bullshit with debt/default in the states is a great example: how many times do the tea party lunatics get to use the encroaching debt ceiling to shake down the white house for genocidal spending cuts? They’re not going to fix the spending problem and they’re not going to default. It’s just going to be a way for the rich to loot the poor for as long as that story holds together, then they’ll go back to raising the ceiling quietly, just like they always did, because the alternative would be catastrophic. Barack is likely to go down as a tragically gifted politician who just couldn’t find the courage to challenge the logic he was embedded in.

My house is a great example too. The land lady is apparently so in fear of her finances, she can’t do anything but the most critical repairs to the place. The basement floods, the deck is falling apart, the staircase is peeling away, there are five layers of shingles on the roof, and she hires the cheapest, dodgiest people to patch it all together when need be. We could take her to the authorities for having an unsafe house, but that would only bankrupt her with repairs she can’t afford and force us to find somewhere else to live that we might not be able to afford either.

I went into school to get away from the front lines of social decay and the toll it was taking on me. I consented to huge debts, hard study, and frequent stress and boredom, with no promise of anything on the other end. I benefit from greater understanding, but from a resource point of view, I’m just navigating the crisis too. Sooner or later I will need to pay those debts, make some money, and invest in future security. The problem is, there may not be money to be made, or security to be had, at least not in the normal terms.

There has to be a change in our view. We need to stop clinging to a way of life, and a view of the world and ourselves, that is bankrupt in every sense of the word. Economically, morally, intellectually. We have to stop thinking like victims or bystanders. We have to stop patching things together as they fall apart and start really building again. We have to admit we are really better than this, that we can really do better than this, that we have a right to expect leadership from leaders, that there is more to living than not dying.

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8 thoughts on “Crisis Narrative

  1. I feel like I have to comment now, so I’ll go ahead and do it before I postpone it for weeks.

    Months ago, I withdrew from much of my online interaction pertaining to anything remotely philosophical, because it felt a lot like I was dragging myself down into a kind of spiraling negative narrative – creating more problems for myself by attempting to fix problems I already had. It seemed like, no matter what I did, I was just creating a stronger sense of dissociation and confusion. A kind of personal crisis narrative, I suppose.

    Here, now, I feel like I was vindicated in doing so. I feel like the trajectory of the global events you’re describing is something akin to what I was privately pursuing, except my own reasons were far more nebulous and hard to get at than an attempt to hold on to an arbitrary sense of security.

    I suppose all that is only tangentially related to this post, or your hunger strike in general, but I’m getting to that now…

    There is this beggar that sits by the bank in town. I live in a fairly small town, so I see him often enough when I’m strolling around. Occasionally, I give him a bill or two of money. He smiles and thanks me and says “God bless you”, then insists on shaking my hand. The people who know about it insist I should feel proud and righteous for “doing my part” or something like that…

    Yet I can’t help but face the fact that this old man, even though he’s got barely any money and no home to speak of – even though I live like royalty compared to him – is one of the lucky ones. He has food and drink, people concerned for his well-being, a family he’s allegedly sending money home to care for… It seems extremely grotesque to me that an impoverished old man, with close to no civic rights and a bunch of crackheads as neighbors, is one of the luckier ones. He survives. He has to sit around bored half to death hoping that someone will drop money in his cup, but he’s still alive and kicking – and probably earning a lot more than most people in a similar situation. He’s not being tortured. He’s not being worked to death in a labor camp. Heck – he’s not even starving. He’s probably suffering from vitamin withdrawals and various other health issues that would make most people as privileged as me shudder… and he’s still lucky.

    Even if I brighten his day somewhat, I still feel ashamed the next time I buy some kind of leisure product. It makes me think of him, and people in situations worse than his – how can I be poisoning myself with sugar and consumerism while they don’t even know whether they’ll still be alive tomorrow? A token contribution of enough money to buy some healthy food for a few days is nothing, next to the systematic exploitation of the very wealth imbalance that allows me to shop from grocery stores while he is begging in the street.

    My problem is that it feels like even if I bent my every thought towards bettering the situations of others – to the point of neglecting myself if need be – I would still be causing more harm than good in a global sense, merely by existing as part of a wealthy elite. Never mind the fact that I obviously don’t, and as such could probably rightfully be accused of neglecting my humanity in some sense or another.

    I get the very distinct sense that you disagree with the assumption that nothing can be done about the global situation. I respect that, and I’m curious to see where you’re taking it. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this project as it continues. I may even steer some friends by, if I can get past the embarrassment of them seeing my rants here.

    Best regards.

    1. It’s true we waste a lot, and it’s true we buy more crap than we need, but I don’t think the average person bears the burden of guilt for poverty, or not much of it. part of it i the internal logic of capitalism, that demands greater and greater rates of exploitation, year on year, to achieve growth in profits when you’re dealing with diminishing returns from a fixed resource base. part of it i our crap i designed to wear out and break way too fast. if everything were designed to last ten or twenty years or more, we’d feel a lot better about buying it, and our share of the consumption would be a lot less. part of it that crap doesn’t have price that reflects all it’s costs. what would a t-shirt cost if it reflect the sweatshop labor and death squads and shitty standard of living in china? you’d feel a lot less guilty if the real cost were on the label. you might not buy it at all. part of it is outright misplaced pathos. of course the bankers and hedge fund managers want you to buy fair trade coffee and feel conflicted about your every purchase. that kind of anxiety makes you easy to market to. a lot of people spend a lot of money to salve that guilty feeling, to make someone else rich. meanwhile that peasant isn’t much better off. The truth is you need massive infrastructure and humanitarian aid projects and those require political will and it’s only popular pressure which will make a politician care about what happens thousands of miles away. that popular pressure only comes with a change of consciousness, that change of consciousness only comes with work.

      1. Planned obsolescence and public awareness thereof certainly fits with that scheme. I think I see what you mean.

        I guess what’s hardest to realize is that changing oneself out of such a pattern of self-deprecating anger and revulsion (even if it’s something you only barely acknowledge) is what would put you in a position to care about the stuff happening to other people, in a sense broader than your family, friends and neighbors.

        That’s an interesting prospect.

        When I give it some more thought, I can see how banally many of us – myself included – have conditioned ourselves to think. Not caring about the fact that a product is outsourced to China because “We don’t have a large enough workforce to make all this stuff here”, not caring about the political situation in China because “It’s a sovereign nation with its own laws”.

        Add to this the widespread hypocrisy and confusion that brings with it ridiculous claims like that we shouldn’t care about how bad it is in the rest of the world so long as we’re exploiting their resources (isn’t that precisely why we should care – because we’re letting it happen?), and that we shouldn’t care about the wealth imbalances in our own nations because our standard of living is so much better than that of the people in the rest of the world (yet it’s the pooling of wealth in the very top percentiles, which doesn’t really mean you, me or anyone else with less than millions of dollars in annual income, that most inflates the problem).

        I think it’s right that I should feel bad for my own role in this system. However, if I gave myself equal blame to the people who control most of the world’s financial assets, I’d be overestimating my own powers of influence quite a bit.

        Still… why accept it without due consideration?

  2. Agree with all of the post. The biggest question seems to me when the Tea Partiers and other less organised disaffected will start to become aware that they are being manipulated for political ends by the wealthy. Maybe never; admitting that the rich really are a separate class strata would be an admission that the “American dream” of unlimited personal economic mobility is just a pipe dream.

  3. Since you recognize that we are on the downslope of Hubbert’s Peak, I’m a little confused about your insistence that we “really start building again.” When, exactly, were we “building?” Over the last thirty years? Over the last three hundred? Certainly you recognize that the energy which supplied are previous growth is now dwindling in production.

    Patching things together as they fall apart, actually, is the only option available.

  4. We had a long history of building things before we had oil and gas. Our technology is a lot better now, too. just because we don’t have access to cheap liquid fuels doesn’t mean we have to go back to the stone age. at the very least we can fix the bridges, roads, and water systems. once we price most cars out of the market, you’ll have a lot of energy for other things

  5. I’m right with you on fixing bridges, roads, and water systems, but those all seems like examples of patching things up–at least from my perspective. My point is that, for those of us in the First World, plenty has already been built, and the task before us is to salvage and repurpose what has already been built in order to prepare for a low-energy future. Ever wonder how much scrap metal can be salvaged from a disassembled skyscraper? The coming generations will find the answer.

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