Thursday, January 29, 2009
--Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis
There is not room enough. Not for everyone. The passage is insufficient for the mass of humanity bearing down upon it. Audacity and nerve will determine who passes ahead and who languishes behind; an instant hierarchy of the quick and the rude. Deference risks humiliation. Small gestures of civility punctuate the tedium of cautious distrust, hopelessly, heroically outnumbered like the last dwindling acts of defiance thinning away in the ascent of a new tyranny. This is a chaotic system of jangled nerves and bruised pride, man and machinery, forming and dissolving for a time here at this narrow pass. My commute begins in earnest. I enter the scrum. Time to merge.
Everyone is converging on the bottleneck, all manner of automobile, reflecting distorted fun house mirror images of each other on their shiny hard-beetle shells. Their headlamps sweep the dim before them like insect feelers. Out ahead the freeway is split into two neon rivers of white and red, streams of molten light. My head hurts.
The cars declare status and defiance. Contradictory ethos and aesthetics vie for supremacy; there goes one trumpeting his moral superiority and a higher social awareness; this one declares his ironic detachment; an insurance salesman/outdoorsman slides jauntily alongside; a celebration of pure aggression howls along on oversized tires; over there an affected bohemian cuts off a conspicuous rebel. Each is off to toil in a cubicle. Here and there are the gaudy candy-chrome rolling stock of an entire generational demographic's bad taste, celebrating the dull greed they cannot know for their immersion in it. I love them all; I would be lost without them. Some bear slogans; the embarrassing, gauche inelegance of the literal-minded and too familiar. One squeezes in front of me rudely. What Would Jesus Do? He asks. Well, he wouldn't have cut me off, I'm sure. Above it all are those with the smug certainty of instantly discernible superior dollar value; greater wealth demonstrated, higher status accrued, evolutionary primacy earned. Game, set, match.
Cars buck nose-down as they brake suddenly, rear up again in acceleration, baring their prowess. Some speed up to screen out others who pull alongside, an impromptu game of chicken for the receding gap; everyone is jealously defending his rolling realm of personal space. Leaving room for another to pass finds one soon overwhelmed with interlopers crowding into the open space. There is an unspoken system of rules that we're all compelled to test endlessly. Still, somehow, the horn's blare is only resorted to as the last break with civility and order. An impotent insult and pathetic lament. This gives me hope. The brake lights, flaring irregularly and collecting in masses, tap out our frustration like some sort of Morse code.
Within the comfortable cells of the cars are people, immobilized in their mobility. Within the people are dwindling stores of calm, alkaline slowly being consumed by the crackling acid of frustration and resignation; an energy producing chemical reaction gradually rendering them inert. Radio waves are beamed into these darkened compartments; the shrill and braying tones of affected cynicism, emitted by the most desperate and craven examples yet of humanity's endless permutations--drive-time disc jockeys.
But I am not there yet. Should I rise on time for once? Must I lay here, waiting for the last-chance urgency of no more time to finally compel me to movement? What, after all, is appealing about the ten minutes of first-waking dread spent staring at the mystery spot on the ceiling? How I love my cell! How I love the walls that keep me in and keep you out! Ten minutes sooner, ten minutes of gumption and resolve, a mere ten minutes, and I can pass ahead of the critical mass that turns a routine merge into a predawn bloodsport of mangled vanity. It must be that I love the ten minutes of self-pity, of immobility, the futile attempt to will away reality. As for that spot, I swear it's moved, just barely, since yesterday; what if it's shifting, imperceptibly, like one of those boulders that creep across the plain, leaving a slug-trail behind? Does it matter? Close the eyes and open them repeatedly, vainly trying to prompt a new reality. Let's try that. Russian roulette for a suspect consciousness.
Or just go back to sleep. And dream again.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
During his first year in office, President Obama can be expected to unquestioningly acquiesce to the consensus demanding he oversee an increase in public debt twice as large, as a percentage of GDP, as any year in the Roosevelt administration. He will do this because, as any successful politician, he is congenitally incapable of recognizing, much less offering resistance to, the elite's will to power (known to the benighted as bipartisan consensus). A fish cannot know it is wet, and a politician cannot be made aware of the recurring tendency of elite design to diverge too far from the common good, mostly because he cannot distinguish between the two.
The intent of this radical increase in public indebtedness is to somehow stave off the inevitable reckoning of the last two decades of imprudent public and (far more, of far less appreciated consequence) private borrowing, preserving the illusion that we can sustain a standard of living based on greed and the serial contrivances of speculative and, now, credit bubbles.
Even as the new president takes us to task for our irresponsibility and "cynicism," he assures the gilded class among us that he's quite prepared to defer onto your grandchildrens' grandchildren the cost of propping up a system founded on irresponsibility, illusion and instant gratification. As much as it takes, apparently. Never accuse the new president of lacking nerve.
While citing the "lessons of the Great Depression", the new administration will be taking out this mortgage on a nation no longer, as it was in the thirties, rich in the resource that was still only just becoming the key to global power and industrial might, oil; a nation poised to exploit vast stores of still unrealized industrial and human capital; a nation that would enter into a great war that would act as the ultimate stimulus program, bringing together all of these factors in one unified effort and leaving our global competition broke and broken. That nation was like a contained spring straining to expand. The spring has since sprung.
Now it is the elderly percentage of the population, the poor (whom we continue to import from abroad, lest we fall prey to "nativism" or "protectionism") along with their attendant entitlements and social programs; now it is the cost of energy and food, that are poised for growth. Ours is a nation already drained by two unnecessary and unsustainable wars, that are weakening us relative to an increasingly resentful and disdainful world. Now it is a nation that doesn't know how to deploy a massive stimulus, of corporations that employ as many or more abroad as they do at home and view any sense of allegiance to the nation that charters and protects them as a sacrilege; of governments and municipalities incapable of large projects due to a self-conflicted complex of regulations and patronage programs.
Since the imagined conservative rebirth of the "Reagan revolution," we have been steadily selling off our industrial base in what Paul Craig Roberts aptly identifies as a system of labor arbitrage. This process is unguided by anything but aggregated greed, and for that reason its champions are probably correct about its inevitability. If it had a deliberate end it would be that the parceling out of our capacity to build things must be complete long before any near-equilibrium in global wages and production costs manifests a floor beneath this stomach-churning descent and thus ends its profitability. Our industrial base will end up somewhere, just not here. Perhaps at that point we will lure it back with our desperate willingness to work for starvation wages (brilliant!), provided of course our foreign friends have developed the keen distaste for "nationalism" and "protectionism" with which we are so selflessly blessed.
In conjunction with this halving of manufacturing's share of GDP, we have doubled finance's share of same. Like the imagined endless bounty to be found in treating a perfectly fine industrial capacity as if it's the object of a salvage operation (akin to jumping out of a perfectly good airplane) to be parted out and liquidated, we've also bamboozled ourselves into believing in the infinite divisibility of money and confidence, in an inexhaustible fifth dimension of wealth to be mined moving money about--check that, the money need not move, nor even exist other than as digital 0s and 1s in our computer programs. Observing this remarkable displacement of the physical realm, one soon wonders why we don't simply declare ourselves wealthier. Of course we've pretty much done just that.
But that declaration was really a loan application. The goods received for that loan abound: the exurbs were overextended and their now derelict far reaches stand shuttered, monuments to a different sort of failure of imagination--too much, not too little; the electronics still entrance us and dictate our daily lives; the massive plasma televisions still emit their comforting, hypnotizing glow, even from the humblest abodes; cinematic wonders produced by massive allocations of money, logistics and manpower--productions akin to small mercenary wars of plunder--still entrance us in theatres. Even the President makes a fetish of the dull convenience of his Blackberry, confident to the end in the transcendent efficacy of instant communications and the cool factor. Time to pay for all this stuff or default; there is no third way. Contrary to what we're being told, deficits matter, more than ever.
The president was admirably sober in his inaugural address (prompting one acolyte to concede, "well, he's not perfect"), calling for shared responsibility for the calamity upon us. Normally I'm all for us taking ourselves to task as a people, but it must be noted that now the powerful hector the common for doing precisely as instructed: borrowing and consuming. There has long been a consensus favoring consumption over saving, probably because those who gain access to the privileges of power by adopting the consensus, whatever it is, in the same way one once adopted the dominant religion, knew that this was the only politically feasible course of action. To be on the wrong side of this may have been far-sighted, but it was not politically advantageous or financially lucrative. Curiously, this state of affairs remains. But then that's the problem with elite consensus, which I don't pretend to have a substitute for, it's a bit like a company's management--their failure is the company's failure. When they go, everything goes. Management does not resign en masse, and the elite doesn't acknowledge its errors (or its existence).
Our elite has failed us. Don't expect that to be featured in the official proclamations. Whose "dogma" (to use the phrase that President Obama, in one of his brilliant ironic turns, used to stigmatize his political opposition simultaneous with a call to unity) was it that declared profligacy a virtue and thrift a vice, after all? How sophisticated did the elite expect (or want) a forklift driver in Tennessee to be about finance or monetary policy? Has he, derided as fat and lazy and unfit for the global economy by people whose highest aspiration is to one day read from a teleprompter while presenting television audiences with an inoffensive visage, worked less for more? No; he's worked more and gone further into debt for less.
Still, the last sanctioned form of bigotry, that against him (provided he's white, and a he, of course) will be the redoubt sought by our desperate ruling caste. Someone will be blamed for the coming degradation in our prospects and standard of living. In another time it might have been minorities and immigrants. We always make the mistake of fighting the current war as the last, thus the endless evocations of the Great Depression now. Likewise, some will compel us to tilt at the windmill of a racial, fascist reaction. Some of them will be deluded; others will merely be resourceful.
And resourceful they have been. At some point it became something of a scandal to be too white; maybe it was when a photo of three firefighters at Ground Zero made a perfect image to be cast in bronze but for their inconvenient accuracy as a racial sampling of the fallen. The diverse racial makeup of the new first family is proclaimed the new standard, and we are cued to shudder at the thought of reverting to our dismal past.
This declaration of a new model of superiority would be more bearable if it wasn't just (in its least destructive aspect) one more impingement on merit; but the reality that it marks out for exclusion the majority of families in this country (for being insufficiently integrated, though I'm certain we're not about to begin calling groups to task for being uniformly non-white) seems not merely bigoted (which it very much is) but mad. I'm just retrograde enough to cling to that quaint notion of equality that has been so much bandied about during this week's festivities, just so lacking in sophistication to get the impression the references now to color of skin and content of character mean precisely the opposite of the words expressed.
But that noble ideal, having been too long useful to the corrupt, too often resorted to by the craven, has, in a remarkably similar fashion, been as devalued through overindulgent minting as our monetary currency. It's now as cheaply produced and disposable as those "collectible" Obama coins and plates we see advertised on television (and made in China).
But there is more than absurdity here. There is also the deliberate stoking of fear and anger; the purposeful manipulation of white neurosis and black grievance, all so a man, and his attendant factional allies, can gain power claiming an almost superstitious capacity to allay these things (to "heal"). An act (in the theatrical sense) of dubious legitimacy and responsibility. This is the sinister underside to the mass reverie (and there's always a sinister underside to mass reverie) about President Obama's "historic" ascension. This is the leer beneath his already iconic smile. But, if your conditioning against crimethink hasn't already caused you to reject me out of hand for somehow wandering into the political minefield of race, this brings us to the second contradiction in the president's inaugural address for which I will, next time we meet, offer one last lonely jeer lost amidst the adulatory crowd--his avowal to unencumber science in public policy.