Friday, March 30, 2012

'The current financial system poses an existential threat to Western democracy'

We have at the moment this monstrous hybrid, state capitalism – a term which used to be a favourite of the Socialist Workers Party in describing the Soviet Union, and which only a few weeks ago was on the cover of the Economist to describe the current economic condition of most of the world. This is a parody of economic order, in which the general public bears all the risks and the financial sector takes all the rewards – an extraordinarily pure form of what used to be called ‘socialism for the rich’. But ‘socialism for the rich’ was supposed to be a joke. The truth is that it is now genuinely the way the global economy is working. 
The financial system in its current condition poses an existential threat to Western democracy far exceeding any terrorist threat. No democracy has ever been destabilised by terrorism, but if the cashpoints stopped giving out money, it would be an event on a scale that would put the currently constituted democratic states at risk of collapse. And yet governments act as if there is very little they can do about it. They have the legal power to conscript us and send us to war, but they can’t address any fundamentals of the economic order. So it looks very much as if Marx’s omission of the word ‘capitalism’, because he foresaw no alternative within the existing social order, was an instance of his crystal ball functioning with particularly high resolution.
-- from Marx at 193 by John Lanchester. Lanchester is good, too, on some of what Marx and Marxists got wrong.


Two piece on 'Nature Deficit Disorder' today

In Natural Childhood for The National Trust (UK), Stephen Moss frames NDD as a disorder leading to physical health problems in children including obesity, mental health problems, and growing inability to assess risks to themselves and others.

Timothy Egan at the New York Times argues that growing epidemic of obesity in the US is linked to lack of time outdoors.

Aleks Krotoski challenged the idea that nature deficit disorder exists and that not going outside is linked to an increase in obesity among children. But whether there is a causal link or not, it seems clear that getting kids outside more -- in addition to other changes such as better diet -- could help them in many ways.

Egan makes some deep links:
Nature may eventually come to those who shun it, and not in a pretty way. We stay indoors. We burn fossil fuels. The CO2 buildup adds to global warming. Suburbs of Denver are aflame this week, and much of the United States is getting ready for the tantrums of hurricane and tornado season, boosted by atmospheric instability. 
Last week, an Australian mountaineer named Lincoln Hall died at the age of 56, and in the drama of that life cut short is a parable of sorts. Hall is best known for surviving a night at more than 28,000 feet on Mount Everest, in 2006. He’d become disoriented near the summit, and couldn’t move — to the peril of his sherpas. They left him for dead. And Hall’s death was announced to his family. But the next day, a group of climbers found Hall sitting up, jacket unzipped, mumbling, badly frostbitten — but alive. He later wrote a book, “Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest.” 
Still, having survived perhaps the most inhospitable, dangerous and life-killing perch on the planet, Hall died in middle age of a human-caused malady from urban life — mesothelioma, attributed to childhood exposure to asbestos.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The challenge

When the modern world was being born, the supposedly inescapable limitations of human nature was a conservative theme. Inherited traditional beliefs and forms of authority were held to be all that most people could understand or live by. To convince a wide public to reject these a priori limits and trust themselves morally and politically was the first, heroic task of Enlightenment intellectuals. Faith in progress was once a precondition of progress. It still is, to the extent that contemporary right-wing libertarianism insists that democratically controlled enterprises must always be less efficient than hierarchical ones like corporations. 
But entwined with democratic self-confidence, there grew up a less reflective faith in unlimited material progress, based partly on a belief that human wants and needs would grow to match increases in productive capacity. This may have seemed plausible before the environmental limits to growth became obvious in the mid-twentieth century; but more important, it was also convenient for those who wished to deflect attention from the gradual and many-sided loss of autonomy that industrial mass production and bureaucratically organized medical/educational/psychotherapeutic expertise imposed on nearly everyone. As the state, the economy, and the institutions regulating everyday life all grew in scale, the only sphere of autonomy left to ordinary people was consumption. And so an entire ideology and technology of consumption arose, on the premise that happiness consisted primarily in consumption, which could apparently be increased without limit. And if that’s true, then our powerlessness doesn’t matter.
-- George Scialabba

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Royals

Anyone who wants to know what the Occupy Wall Street protests are all about need only look at the way Bank of America does business. It comes down to this: These guys are some of the very biggest assholes on Earth. They lie, cheat and steal as reflexively as addicts, they laugh at people who are suffering and don't have money, they pay themselves huge salaries with money stolen from old people and taxpayers – and on top of it all, they completely suck at banking. And yet the state won't let them go out of business, no matter how much they deserve it, and it won't slap them in jail, no matter what crimes they commit. That makes them not bankers or capitalists, but a class of person that was never supposed to exist in America: royalty.
-- Matt Taibbi on Bank of America

Friday, March 09, 2012

Thoughts for the day

If you're not angry you're not paying attention.
If you're not terrified you're not paying attention.
If you're not joyful you're not paying attention.

Friday, March 02, 2012


Devices for producing electricity began to appear in the eighteenth century. Johan Winkler, a professor in Leipzig, could charge himself from a 'friction machine' and set glasses of brandy on fire by throwing sparks from his tongue.
-- a vignette from The Music Room by William Fiennes