Monday, October 25, 2010

Blaming, scapegoating and assigning causes

First, read Dmitri Orlov's latest post, How (not) to Organise a Community. It's a ripper! Actually it's not great literature: it's a little too long and with a "put together" feel, but also what he's saying is a hard thing to listen to and to understand because it runs against what we want to understand. We want to follow the grooves we know — we want to form committees, have meetings, produce agendas, tick boxes and then have some feel-good social functions under the guise of "networking", where we can slap each other on the back and congratulate ourselves for "doing something". 'Cause that's how civilised modern types like us solve problems, isn't it? But what Dmitri says is what I've been feeling deep down, but without being able to articulate as well as he does: that the reality of life is that it doesn't matter what you think or feel or believe. All that matters is what you do and what the situation really is. And right action can be for all the "wrong" reasons, via the "wrong" people in the "wrong" places.

I'm plugging away at a number of projects at the moment, one of which is my novel, "Alex" (I've been a bit slow cranking out the chapters but they will appear in due course!). I've been thinking that what is going to happen sometime in the next three to four decades is we are going to lose the federal government we have now. Instead we'll have a military government, which I'm calling the Military Commission in the novel. It will come in as an emergency measure but then stay on for all kinds of reasons. The state governments may well carry on for much longer as they are, because we don't invest too much abstract value in them: their job is to keep the machinery of our lives running as well as possible and that's a management task. The federal government on the other hand has "spiritual" values attached to it: our picture of something we call "Australia", and we project onto it an ideal of our national selves. As this image of ourselves fails along with the tax revenues which support the federal government, so will the democratic institution itself. The quality of our politicians will fall and they will become paralysed by our inability to realistically to map out an agreed role for them. We can see this already happening in relation to the war in Afghanistan. What we want the war to be like and what we want our role in it to be is completely at odds with the reality on the ground. Politicians at the highest levels spout the mindless platitudes we want to hear while the military are playing it for their own ends. The result is not likely to be good for the government's legitimacy.

The other thing I'm thinking about a lot and which Dmitri covers as well is, how do we build a viable economic structure for the future? Do we do it with nice reasonable people sitting around boardroom tables playing the game by the rules? I don't think so and neither does Dmitri. The future will not be "managed". It will be an eruption, a tearing of the social and economic fabric, a giving up rather than a trying harder. Our current system, where small businesses carry something like 50% of the economy, where basically it's survival of the fittest within a set of legal and economic rules, will just get harder and harder to continue. The big players, the 50% of the economy run by corporations, will be able to tilt the board in their favour because they can control politics much more effectively than us little fish — but only for a time and while generating a great deal of bitterness and anger. But the problem will be the rules which we are all playing within are going to lose their agency. If you stick to the rules you will be lucky to survive. For a start, credit, the lifeblood of business, is starting to dry up and will eventually be completely gone in its present form to be replaced by — nothing! And the desperation of the government for tax revenue, which up till now has been fine while the goods and services tax (the GST) has boomed along with the consumer economy, will mean small businesses will be squeezed very hard because the big boys will tilt the board their way. Couple this with a continuing drop in global trade and the outlook for the mass of Australian industrial style agricultural workers and self-employed people is not good.

This means that the successful entrepreneurs of the future will most certainly be criminal at one level or another. They will be outside the tax system for a start. It may well be that marijuana will be legalised simply so the government can get some tax back on it, but other drugs will not be and the general level of misery will ensure steady sales, helping the financial underworld.

Who will oppose the rise of this new class? Firstly the government at both state and federal levels due to the dropping tax revenue and the perception that an illegitimate power base is arising, threatening the carefully constructed system which has been evolving in Australia since Federation. Those classes dependent on state revenues for pay: public servants, the armed forces and teachers will see their living standards declining and tend to blame the decay on "moral delinquency". They will be joined by the mass of baby-boomer retirees who will be falling into much deeper poverty than they ever expected due to the losses on financial markets and the decline in tax revenues and hence pension payments. The teachers and other public payroll recipients will resent having higher taxes to fund the baby-boomers too, so the solidarity of the current system will be very shaky. Add to that the great mass of workers turned out of the building trade due to the impending popping of the Australian property bubble and we have a very volatile mix.

An attempt will be made to pin the blame on particular groups. We may find ourselves in a major war simply because the population will be so maddened with rage, so confused at the mysterious loss of prosperity and so helpless in their personal situations, that having an identifiable enemy to fight will seem a blessed simplification. The Muslims have a definite target painted on them at the moment: perhaps some new twist in Middle-East politics will provide the trigger.

But all these considerations must play out in our real lives: we have to avoid being thrown under the bus because we have a target painted on us, but we must also find a way to survive in a much more uncertain and dangerous, poorer world. I've been thinking about all this in relation to where I live, in the poorest part of South Gippsland in southern Victoria, Australia. I can see how this area, which at the moment has a certain level of prosperity and happiness that it's never had before, could just slowly fail, with the clever and energetic people leaving for more promising prospects anywhere else and the social fabric fraying and falling apart in consequence. I've seen it in other areas of Australia and I can see how it could easily happen here. So I'm trying to hatch a plan to counter this. My idea currently revolves around the idea of a couple of business incubators, but of course it is more than that. What I'm really trying to do is build an alternative way of life: a true counter-culture.

Who would want to be a member of such a beast, in an area like this where if you have any talent you can still count on being whisked off to some brighter future in the city? My gut feeling is that it will be the bad boys and girls. We have a few of them around here! Anyway I'm vaguely negotiating to lease a large abandoned factory in a neighboring town which I'm feeling more and more could be the centre of some crazy social experiment. I'll keep you posted.