Thursday, August 14, 2008

The End of the Fool's Golden Era

August 2008

It is nearly at an end, my friends and foes. It was indeed a golden era -- life was not perfect but
it was comfortable and convenient as it had never been before. Cheap oil and designer technol-
ogy gave us luxuries medieval kings only dreamt of. The equivalent in energy expenditure of
tens of slaves was at the disposal of even the lower-middle classes in the consumer centers. But
the age was foolish. Foolish because it only ever existed for a few at the expense of many. Fool-
ish because it never really acknowledged this. Foolish because it poisoned its planet. Foolish be-
cause it never imagined anything besides more of itself.

And now it is almost at an end. Professional eschatologists of all kinds-- spiritual, political, and
economic -- are jumping up and down with even greater alacrity than usual. This time, the
shit is really going to hit the fan. Of course none of these experts can be trusted wholeheart-
edly. But it is now obvious even in the worst newspapers that the beloved golden era is in mas-
sive crisis.

Of course, every crisis has its sandwich of pundits assuring us of utter stability. There is a de-
mand for calm reassurances and the market society supplies them with characteristic effi-
ciency. Whether in the shadow of tidal waves, landslides, cluster bombs or riot police, we are
all sure to hear voices saying: “Stay calm. Everything will be alright.” Hopefully these voices
will not distract us when the critical moments of our lives are at hand.

These critical moments are approaching, if not already underway. Three enormous crises are
currently ravaging the golden era; two at its peripheries and one at its core. On the outskirts of
this world-system, there is a first a crisis of food. Food riots (a phrase with which we will be-
come increasingly familiar) besiege much of the Third World, and forewarn the hitherto un-
known and terrifying prospect of a globalized famine. And compounding this terror with a ter-
ror as terrifying, is the second unprecedented and contingent crisis, lead undeniably by the
United States: Permanent war. And even in the metropolitan centers of our golden era, crisis
reigns. The incendiary financial crises in the First World are thoroughly interrelated with the
Third World crises of food and war. All of these crises are interwoven, with economic interest,
with political intrigue and with karmic resonance. Blowback is too limited a word. It’s like a
hurricane. Chickens are roosting everywhere.

At times like these, on the edge of crisis and already going over, catching glimpses of the empty
space beneath our feet, analysis is like a shot in the arm, and it carries the same high price.
Once you’ve got an analysis the price is on your head. Because analysis points fingers, it names
names and places and times and it spreads.

Forests are being written about the food crisis, and even more are being written about the cri-
ses of finance and war. It is often necessary to dig through kilos of trash to get to the heart of
the matter. But there is no time to waste -- we can’t be bothered at a time like this take up a
long disciplined study! We need an analysis soon. We must understand our present so that we
can learn from it as history, as we go on to build the societies of tomorrow.

How did we get into this mess? It seemed that things were running so much more smoothly
only a few years ago. Where did we go wrong? “How did Bush, Murdoch, Cheney, Kristol,
Rusmfeld, et. al. get where they did?” asks John Berger: “The question is rhetorical for there is
no single answer, and it is idle, for no answer will dent their power yet. But to ask it in this way
in the night reveals the enormity of what has happened.”

The politicians presiding over the end of the fool’s golden era are from the usual cadre of in-
gratiating misers and sellouts. People like Cheney are always lurking in the anterooms of abso-
lute power; these individuals are not the root of the problem. The problem is that people like
Cheney are allowed to get anywhere near a seat of power -- the problem is the system that
summons up this character and this stage, and places us in the audience as spectators.

In the North, the radical economist Gary Dymski writes that “the challenge is to find the crisis
within the crisis.” And from the South, Prabhat Patnaik, another radical economist, writes that
“What we are seeing today is not some kind of natural limit being reached by mankind, but the
limit to which capitalism has dragged mankind.”

We can see that this script, this system, is in serious crisis, and perhaps headed for an end. “But
a senile system is not one that shuffles peacefully through its last days,” writes Samir Amin.
“On the contrary, senility summons an increase in violence.” Indigenous people in the so-
called United States have a saying: “The dying bull kicks the hardest.” In other words, this is
not a time to relax. Danger is in the air. Less is inevitable than ever before.

The Unites States is in a particular spotlight in this end-of-an-era extravaganza of crisis. A ma-
jor leading instigator of all three global crises, its punishment fits its crime -- the people of the
United States are left at the end of their era with an empty economy, a poisoned soil, and a
crazed and armed populous. What people in the United States will do is, for the first time in a
while, quite unpredictable. Meanwhile, the world is watching like it is watching nowhere else.
And, fittingly, it seems as though nowhere more than in the United States, where comparatively
enormous resources abound, do people appear less capable of meeting the challenges that are
before them. Societies of the United States need to grab the dying bull that is themselves by the
horns, learn from their many mistakes, and summon the collective will to build a new world

“[O]ne of the major weaknesses of American thought,” writes Samir Amin, “resulting from its
history and its ideology, is that it has no long term vision.” This is the society that built itself in
a mirror and called it manifest destiny. The land that forgot time. The popular culture in the US
has some roots in a healthy revolutionary instinct, but this has been corrupted by its narcis-
sism, which it has done an awfully good job of globalizing. It is no secret that imperial America
(whose innocent monopolization of the name that belongs to two continents perfectly fits its
role) is the envied leader of the fool’s golden age. And in American politics, through a cash
nexus of representation and competition, the most ruthless strains of the fool’s golden age
mentality have made their way to power. “The sole principle and objective guiding Washington
in its new imperial policy,” Samir Amin writes, “is immediate pillage.” It cannot last much longer.

Regret runs rampant. So little was done with so much. So much potential was wasted. The col-
lective conscience of the consumer societies will plummet, from the haze of apathy and irony
to the crevasses of anger and regret. But regret now is idle. The fool’s golden era is nearly
at an end, and in its glamorous centers there will soon be no alternative but to start from
scratch. Not much came of their world but destruction, of itself and of everything else in
reach. Its artists were decadent or stifled. In the trauma of global transformation, painters tried
abandoning subjects, musicians forswore harmony and poets dispensed with form -- they tried
everything to find meaning in their world. But in the long run, as society increasingly exiled
nature, nothing remained to inspire their abstractions but sterility. Its philosophers were mostly
quiet and placid. They unlocked the secrets of minutiae as never before, but were silent before
crimes against wisdom, and were never out in the streets to make sacrifices. Its spiritual leaders
were mild or reactionary, powerless or corrupt. Its political leaders were boring and beholden
to ancient patterns of patriarchy all the more humiliating for their participative transparency.
Its people were essentially good, like all people, but they were trapped in a thick net of dozens
of different patterns of oppression and submission. They spent frightening amounts of time in trance states of
consumption, production, service and spectatorship. These people need to snap out of hypnosis
if they want to have a say in their lives. It is high time to move on, to recognize the end of a
world and to get on with work of building a new one, and defending it from the cultural fall-
out that will last for generations.

In the ancient legends of the Greeks, there was a giant named Antaeus that for a long time no-
body could defeat. Hercules finally was able to beat Antaeus only because he learned the giant’s
secret: it drew all its power from the earth. When Hercules fought with Antaeus, he lifted the
giant off the ground, and Antaeus lost all of his strength, and his life, to Hercules.

In the cataclysms that are coming, whether they come quietly or through the living room wall,
we must be like Antaeus. We must find our purpose and spirit and vision in the land, and learn
once more to honor and respect the soil to which we will return. In all of our struggles, as
Gandhi wrote, “we must refuse to be lifted off our feet.”

And whether we know it or not, we are living in the midst of a war over time. It is a war over
all aspects of time -- how it is understood, how it is organized, how it will be remembered,
how it is lived. When and if this battle is won decisively, the repercussions will echo for aeons.
The victories that last are never made in single lifetime. The struggle for dignity, for meaning
and for beauty may take place in a moment, but they are part of a struggle for all eternity. Not
only the present, but history and the future are at stake. Let the words of Pier Paolo Pasolini be
our battle cry: “Only revolution can save the past!”

“We live in extraordinary and fascinating times, poised on the brink of something either too
wonderful to imagine or too terrible to contemplate. Probably, given what we know of life, a bit
of both. But the mix remains vital and possibly still within our powers to control.” -Lyall Watson

Does Heterodox Economics Need a Crisis Theory? From Profit-Squeeze to the Global Liquidity Meltdown, by Gary Dymski, October 2007
The Accumulation Process in the Period of Globalization, by Prabhat Patnaik, 2008 (available at
Hold Everything Dear, by John Berger, 2007 (also the source of Pier Paolo Pasolini quotation)
The Liberal Virus, by Samir Amin, 2006
Young India, Mohandas Gandhi, October 1921
Dark Nature, by Lyall Watson, 1995

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