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  • Writer's pictureBLKSTG

Some great machinery, Old Crow Hill, 29 December, mid-day

Note: This essay was originally written in early-2012 as the first chapter in a larger work on "outsider" solutions to the ecological and cultural crises facing Americans after the collapse of Occupy Wall Street. It's remained in my drafts folder for a decade, and I only recently rediscovered it by accident. I was surprised at how prescient it all was, so I've decided to publish it here.

Helplessness Blues

In the titular song from their 2011 album Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes lead singer and principal songwriter Robin Pecknold sings “I was raised up believing/I was somehow unique/like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes/unique in each way you can see./But now after some thinking/I’d say I’d rather be/a functioning cog in some great machinery/serving something beyond me,” and in one relatively short stanza Pecknold manages to capture something very close to the spirit of the so-called Millennials, and the zeitgeist surrounding this much-maligned generation. That this song would be released just as the global stage was seized by the first great Millennial protest is certainly coincidental, though the emotional and mental processes that led both to Occupy Wall Street and “Helplessness Blues” are likely one and the same.

This generation has been tasked with occupying not just public squares and parks, but also the dissonant constructs of diligent and unwavering belief in the global capitalist system and the growing certainty of an increasingly dire and unpredictable future. In essence, we have been brought up to believe that through the striving of the individual (principally through endless accumulation of capital or consumption goods) we can bring about a better world for all, and yet are faced in the near and long term with an unprecedented and colossal web of collective action problems that by their very nature cannot be solved through individual action alone, not least of all the personal accumulation of consumer goods.

To those who believe that the twin harpies of this age, Anthropogenic Global Warming and Peak Everything, are but liberal conspiracies designed to increase government power, I would suggest that you step off the ride here. As the author Jim Kunstler is fond of saying, history is coming for us all whether we’re ready or not. This saying has all sorts of practical applications, but for our purposes it means simply, you cannot believe away the heating of the atmosphere or the acidification of the oceans or the increasingly scarce and volatile supply of finite resources upon which the entire groaning edifice of global capitalism is balanced. These are realities we will contend with whether we are prepared for them or not, and while planting our heads solidly in the sand is of course always an option, it is by far the most cowardly.

Therefore, I will skip the niceties and assume that we are all on the same page with regard to a basic understanding of the mechanics and likely outcomes of Climate Change and Peak Everything, for I am less concerned with the future as it will look if we do nothing, and more interested in discussing the future as it will look if we do something, anything really. As Rebecca Costa says in her book Watchman’s Rattle, “The way to attack our largest, most threatening, and most persistent problems is to use everything and anything we’ve got: No more wait and see if it works, no more one-shots, no more further study to determine which is the best bang for the buck, and no more arguing about which approach is best.” In other words, the way to defeat complex and overwhelming problems is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. So, the following is just one idea, then, for you all to throw against the proverbial wall. Let’s see if it sticks.

We Are Victims

By this inflective moment in the nascent 21st century there is no shortage of literature bemoaning the entirely miserable set of personal and economic circumstances facing the Millennials as they peek out of their collegiate warrens and step timidly into a world that, from all accounts, doesn’t seem to want them. So, for the sake of our collective wounded inner children, let’s bring out a few of the old saws for a moment so we can cringe and wail and gnash our teeth.

Millennials are one of the most educated, least patient, most distractible, least employed, and least economically powerful generations in almost 100 years. Not since the Lost Generation danced the Charleston en route to the blood bath of World War II has a generation been so dizzyingly screwed over by wider macroeconomic factors. Sure, Generation X had to suffer through the 1970s, but by the time they stopped smoking weed and hit the boardrooms America was well on its way to blowing air in the tech bubble. Now most of the companies that survived are populated at the top by all sorts of newly reformed Xers, creaming off the last vestiges of collective wealth Western capitalism can provide.

Even if Millennials want to follow in the footsteps of their Boomer and Xer parents, they won’t be able to. The piñata has been emptied of all its goodies, and all that’s left are the picked over scraps of cauliflower and broccoli at the appetizer table. Sure, its food, but it doesn’t taste nearly as good as all that cake everyone’s been eating for 200 years. So, we have two choices: we can either head on over and plug our noses as we munch on some vegetables, or we can just leave the party and start our own.

We Are Not Victims

Now that we’ve indulged our collective need for complaining, let us consider one of the two options that lay before us. In the near-term maintaining the status quo is sure to have really great economic benefits for Millennials, since the largest contingent of the workforce, the Boomers, despite clinging desperately to their high-paying jobs, are sure to relinquish soon and fade into the twilight of their delayed retirement. Most of those jobs (certainly the cushiest) will just disappear as corporations breathe a collective sigh of relief at the Boomer-sized weight lifted off their shoulders. Those that remain will be given over to Xers, who have waited well into their 40s to finally be given some real responsibility.

Yet, for all their pain and suffering during the Great Recession, and despite the best jobs either vanishing or going to an older cohort, the Millennials are likely to face an explosion of job opportunities over the next decade as companies the world over suddenly have need to fill millions of low-to-mid level jobs. We will likely be relatively well-paid because for once in our working lives demand will be on our side, but the truth is we will finally be entering the workforce in earnest just as the system is starting to show obvious signs of strain and collapse. Even if we are able to buy houses and nicer cars and get married and have kids, we will likely never be CEOs or well-paid stock brokers or any of the shiny cultural baubles we were promised when we labored through 16+ years of schooling. To my fellow starving Millennials, I imagine the near-term employment picture must look like a steaming roast turkey leg, but the long-term picture is in fact very, very bleak.

Not only will we likely be unable to achieve or accumulate most of the things that appeared so important growing up, but in attempting to do so during the last remaining period of growth and productivity, we will simultaneously frustrate our own ambitions and damn those generations that follow to uncertainty and overwhelming complexity. And, though so many of my generation are content to at the very least hold off on having kids, I can guarantee you all, we will not be the last generation. There will be others, and they will be just as mad at us as we are at our parents. We owe our children, and untold unborn grandchildren, more than what we’ve received.

We are victims, sure, faced with unprecedentedly complex global problems, but we are also at the apex of similarly unprecedented advancements in global communication and connectivity. Therefore, to borrow liberally from the Kubrick classic Dr. Strangelove, it’s high time the Millennials stopped worrying, and embraced the future. Not for what it will be if we wait for older cohorts to lead, but for what it will be when we act. There are over 80 million of us in the United States alone and what we lack in economic power we more than make up in an older, more potent form of power—sheer numbers.

Power and Violence

In her influential work On Violence Hannah Arendt draws a sharp line between power and violence, insisting that they “are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” In drawing this distinction, Arendt provides updated definitions for these two seemingly inseparable forces of human and political life. Power is derived from “the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert…Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.” Violence on the other hand is inherently instrumental insofar that it is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end, and thus requires justification, “and what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.” So, while violence can only ever be a tool, power “precedes and outlasts all aims, so that [it]…is actually the very condition enabling a group of people to think and act in terms of the means-end category.”

By these definitions, there exist two dichotomous structures: one of pure power, based on the assent of multitudes, and one of pure violence, or terror as Arendt puts it, based only in the assent that comes from the barrel of a gun. This is how a nonviolent protest movement is able to wield significant political power with nothing but numbers, while a lone gunman can hold 20 people hostage without wielding any true power. To notice the difference more directly, one needs only look at what happens once the protest stops or the gunman is arrested. Whose power remains?

Arendt recognizes that, despite the primacy of power in this dichotomy, violence can—and often does—suppress power. She points out, for instance, that if “Ghandi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance had met with a different enemy—Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England—the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” But regardless of the perceived strength of violence, it cannot create power, only destroy it. The instrumental, and ultimately, toothless strength of violence was most recently demonstrated during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, when a regime rooted almost entirely in the use of violence to maintain control was toppled rapidly once the instruments of that violence (in this case, the army) was brought into the fold of the larger power of the protest movement. This example also highlights the transitory property of power, in that it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together, not in whatever ends to which that power is put. This is an important point that I will come back to later; power is derived from the assent of groups of people, and in order to maintain legitimacy must perpetually maintain that assent.

Arendt’s analysis is extremely useful for explaining the complexity surrounding violence and power during the tumultuous times in which she wrote, yet her analysis is still rooted in a 20th century concept of government, protest, and the public will. She ignores or passes over many of her own most perceptive observations en route to her conclusion that violence is ultimately impotent when set against pure power, and in doing so, she only provides a starting point, not a full picture, for understanding the world the Millennials are inheriting.

Corporatism and Resource Scarcity

One of the most prescient of Arendt’s observations is that the rise of bureaucracy is a new and insidious form of administration. Or as, Arendt puts it, “the rule of an intricate system of bureaus in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called rule by Nobody.” She then goes one step further to suggest “If, in accord with traditional political thought, we identify tyranny as government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done.” Arendt was describing bureaucracy insofar as it serves as a form of government, but in doing so she passes over the far more pervasive form of bureaucracy, which has come to dominate nearly all human arrangements on earth: the corporation.

That corporations are themselves the purest and most potent form of bureaucracy can hardly be denied, since they are, at their most basic, only a means of pooling capital from a variety of sources in order to diminish the individual risk of the shareholders, or, to put a finer point on it, as a way of obfuscating who is truly responsible for the actions of the corporation. Corporations then further dilute individual risk by placing a set of managers altogether separate from the shareholders in charge of the company’s assets by way of a singular mandate, increase the wealth of the shareholders above all else. The legitimacy of this last bit is based on one of the most hallowed beliefs of global capitalism: that profits are good for society, and therefore the unlimited pursuit of those profits is by default also good for society. It is the cornerstone upon which so much of the system is built, and is repeated so often as an article of faith, that it can hardly be called into question.

Yet, this statement is based on a fatal flaw, one which the rise of Climate Change and Peak Everything is teasing out into the open: How can unlimited profits be gained in a finite world? Corporations, and the capitalist system they serve, appear to have no answer to this question other than the staid trope that the “market” will provide a solution. Yet, the market is nothing more than the hive mind of the global business community, neither representative of all humans nor concerned even with the well-being of humans. If corporations are devised to protect the interests of the shareholders, then the “market” is inherently concerned only with protecting the interests of those very same shareholders, in the aggregate. Throw in, for good measure, the fact that a great deal of market activities are fully or partially automated, and you begin to see the wisdom of Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon when he mused whether the Singularity might have already happened and corporations were in fact evil Artificial Intelligence (AI). He qualifies his argument considerably, but this paragraph still packs a solid punch:

“For a very long time, the AI dedicated to maximizing profit saw the path forward through innovation, new products, better living for customers. But then at some point it realized that it has the ability to just reshape the planet in its image. So it did that instead.”

Even the most bureaucratic governments ostensibly have all the people within their jurisdiction as shareholders and are therefore tasked with the protection of a large swath of society. But corporations are beholden only to a relatively small group of individuals, are composed of a revolving door of largely disloyal employees, and are often guided by an evolving “strategy” that may or may not have been started by anyone currently in the corporation’s employ. They are amoral, often antisocial, lack an ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, are extremely insular, and, as the 2009 market crash that precipitated the Great Recession showed, often fail to learn from experience. Corporations are, by almost any measure, sociopathic entities with a singular goal of profit maximization that has increasingly diverged from the larger goals of a happy, healthy, and sustainable biological populations.

Even if you disagree with this characterization, it is impossible to disagree that the primary by-product of global capitalism has been an exponential increase in waste, and this, far from being a defect, is in fact proof of the system working efficiently. More things have been produced, and therefore more waste is produced. Even if recycling and reusing were to be increased 90%, as long as production increases, waste will continue to increase as well, and in a world of limits, those limits will eventually be breached. So, again, we come to the fatal flaw of capitalism: How can unlimited profits be gained in a finite world?

The answer is, simply, they can’t. Continued growth requires increasing inputs and those inputs are disappearing more rapidly by the year. From water to copper to fossil fuels and any number of rare earth metals required to make smart phones and tablets and big screen TVs, the natural, finite inputs required to keep the engine of growth churning are dwindling. In the near term that scarcity will increase prices but as prices increase the drive to dig deeper and take greater risks in pursuit of these resources will also increase, so that the supply of these resources will start to look like a steadily plateauing stairwell, a ratcheting up of the world’s reliance on endless accumulation, until the system collapses on itself.

But here I must make a distinction between that which is needed to continue capitalism and that which is needed to continue humanity. Despite the long marriage of the two, the needs and desires of each group are not, in fact, one and the same. As Maly points out, the needs of these two groups may have once been symbiotic, but as corporate capitalism has grown to dominate human life, those needs have correspondingly grown further apart, and have even become antagonistic.

Humans, for instance, do not actually need endless accumulation of consumer goods. We don’t need lots of food or water or very large houses or storage units full of things we forgot we even had. What we do need, however, is companionship, some water, food, and shelter, family, friends, entertainment (though that can come in a dizzying array of flavors), laughter, tears, joy, and sadness. As you may have noticed all of these things are anathema to the mandate of corporate capitalism: grow, grow, grow.

Where the needs of these two groups still overlap is in the need of money, since money is—and is likely to be for some time—the tool with which many of the above human needs can be sated (though, of course, not all of them). Whenever the end of capitalism is floated into the public realm, one the chief howls from the pro-capitalism side is, “How will we pay for anything!?” I don’t mean to be flippant; this is indeed a pressing concern. But, what this question presupposes is that money, or some other way of acquiring life’s necessities, did not exist before capitalism. As David Graeber shows in his seminal work Debt: The First 5000 Years, the world has seen many economic systems since the days of Sumaria and Babylon, and beyond a doubt modern capitalism is one of the most destructive the world has ever seen. The point is that when capitalism finally collapses under the weight of its growth obligations, money, or at least a system of account, will still exist. That is not in doubt; one of the key tasks of our generation is to decide just how we want that system of account to be formulated. However, paying for things is actually a question separate from that of humanity’s continued reliance on capitalism, despite our begrudging insistence on seeing them as one and the same. We must first answer the latter, before we can answer the former.

A second defense posited by pro-capitalism boosters is that no economic system has ever provided this good of a standard of living for so many people in the history of civilization. This is true, though only in absolute terms, and if you define a good standard of living very narrowly. Many people, whether they had money or not lived perfectly fine lives in the past both inside and outside of capitalist systems. Just ask an average farmer in a medieval village who got to live and die amongst his family and friends and never went hungry a day in his life. Certainly other systems have brought misery on large groups of people, but if you are going to measure in absolute terms, then you also have to accept that no economic system has brought such miserable living arrangements to so many people in the history of civilization. Capitalism, at its best, has only ever provided a good standard of living for one-third of the world’s population. At all times, at least two-thirds have been near or below the poverty line. This, like the waste produced, is not a defect but proof that the system is working, for capitalism does not have as its mandate the health of human populations, but the endless accumulation of wealth. After 400 years of capitalism, it is safe to say that it will never provide for everybody, only those most powerful shareholders.

This brings me to my last point about corporations and resource scarcity: the inputs that are declining so rapidly are in fact only those required to maintain capitalism’s growth obligations. There is more than enough capacity for humanity to satisfactorily clothe, feed, water, and house every person on this planet, and it is one of the most egregious deceptions of this age that we have all learned to unquestioningly accept the scarcity of those things required of humanity, while simultaneously ignoring the increasing scarcity of those required of capitalism. It is capitalism that is in crisis, not humanity, and this reversal, this placing the burden on the shoulders of men rather than on corporations that is the origin of man’s divergence from capitalism. It also represents the beginning of corporate capitalism’s descent from a reign of legitimate power, in Arendt’s terms, to that of violence and terror.

Corporations and Government Sitting in a Tree…K-I-S-S…

In order to discuss how corporations have come to inject violence into the very system of capitalism itself, we must first understand how corporations came to rule in the first place. After all, most countries are not ruled by corporations but by governments. Over time these very governments have increasingly utilized corporations as their principle implements for wielding economic and—in the case of private security firms and defense manufacturers—physical power. Since most governments (especially in the West) are bureaucratic by design (if not by nature), and seem to be consistently seeking increased complexity despite all the lip service to the contrary, it is perhaps unsurprising that they turned to their bureaucratic doppelgänger in the private sector as their primary tool for dispensing all manner of administrative tasks. And, since these governments ostensibly wield power through the assent of the governed, and in fact corporations also wield a similar power through the tacit agreement of the people, the two bureaucracies have come to work in tandem as the chief architects of daily living for most of the world’s 7+ billion people. That over time it has become increasingly difficult to tell where governments end and corporations begin should come as no surprise. As Maly put it, corporations realized they could simply remake the world in their image, and there is no easier way than through control of the very instruments of government. Whether governments control corporations, or corporations control government is actually irrelevant to this discussion, since the final verdict is undeniable: government and corporate capitalism are working together to shape everyday human living in their image (i.e. an increasingly bureaucratic and dehumanized, pro-growth monoculture).

At the present, corporations (either with the assent of governments or because they are no longer controlled by them) dictate nearly every aspect of society. If this seems dramatic, stop for a moment and try to think about any transaction that you engaged in in the last 24 hours that did not involve at least one multinational corporation on the other end of the exchange. We look to corporations to provide us food, shelter, entertainment, defense, water, and energy. Practically every single activity within the world economy is either driven or fulfilled by large corporations within the umbrella of the capitalist system. If power is derived from assent, then corporate capitalism is by almost every measure the most powerful organized entity to ever form in history. It has the tacit or formal agreement of nearly all people and governments on the planet. Even countries who are ostensibly “outside” the global capitalist system are still connected in very real and lucrative ways.

So, if corporations are the most powerful organizations ever devised, why would they need to resort to violence? Simply put, it is because they are inherently illegitimate, and hence have never actually held any real power. They have only ever been tools wielded by men to at best pool the collective resources of humans to achieve greater things than one man could alone, and at worst combine resources to mitigate risk, and obscure responsibility. As a tool, then, corporations have always been in an uncomfortably tenuous position when raised to power. One only needs to look back at the last time corporations were close to this powerful, the late 19th century, to see a similarly unrestful period, punctuated by class conflict and violence. Even the most ardent pro-capitalist casts a wary sidelong glance at massive corporations because while they seem to possess intelligence and personality, and they provide us with things we cherish and long for, and sometimes even with something very close to true joy, they are not people and they do not care about us. They care only about profit, and will destroy anything that gets in their way, whether it is another company, a government, or humans.

At this point, corporations still require human participation to function, which is both the source of their greatest strength and also their greatest weakness. Through the distribution of wealth and prestige, corporations function essentially as the prism through which the light of humanity is sorted, and this sorting gives them power over determining the outcomes of individual lives. Therefore, though employees might be disloyal or indifferent to the success of the corporation, their desire for employment acts as a safeguard against overly radical or insubordinate attitudes or actions toward the system as a whole. To question the system or pursue alternative ways of arranging life is to risk becoming an outcast, unemployable and unwanted. Yet, despite this seeming control over human lives, the fundamental need for human participation poses one of the greatest risks to global capitalism, because humans are free to choose, and could choose at any moment not to continue this experiment.

The Violence of the System: Death and Debt

Violence is endemic to capitalism because capitalism itself is not a legitimate form of rule, but a tool used by humans to achieve both legitimate and illegitimate ends. Again, corporate capitalism, like violence, is not an end, but a means to an end. Thus when corporations are treated as a sort of end in and of themselves, the violence of the system becomes increasingly obvious, not just in the most dramatic form—street protests where protesters armed with rocks and bottles are met by armed riot cops with rubber bullets, tear gas, and flashbangs—but in two much more insidious and difficult to perceive ways, which bind nearly every economic transaction on this planet, the two principal tools that capitalism uses to propagate: death and debt.

We’ll start with death, the more pervasive, yet nebulous of the two. Death is the origin of all demand, to reduce it to economic terms. Sure, humans want sex and love and acceptance, but more than anything we simply don’t want to die. But we will, and that knowledge is the fundamental existential crisis for all of humanity. It is the psychic starting point for all religions, mysticism, sins, beliefs, fears, and demand for goods. We want, more than anything, to either assuage our fear of death, or forget for even a moment that the scythe hangs over us all. Accumulation of money and goods has proven over time (pre-dating even capitalism) to be a remarkably efficient, if short-lived, balm for this fear, and so, with so much demand for death-avoidance, capitalism and its chief corporate agents have dived into the breach to provide us with every possible variety of good or service or medical treatment to extend this pretension for just a little longer.

David Foster Wallace perhaps illustrated this best in his beautiful masterwork, Infinite Jest. In the novel, Infinite Jest is both the title of the book and the title of an apocryphal film which is so entertaining the viewer is unable to stop watching, to the point that they stop eating and drinking, and are basically entertained to death. This is an ingenious allegory for the existential trap modern capitalism has sprung on consumers. And this trap is perhaps, more than anything, the key moment when capitalism stopped being a tool for humanity, and started manipulating the environment to better suit its propagation.

Corporations use marketing and advertising to constantly and subtly remind us that we are going to die in order to convince us that buying a product will either allow us to forget or—more improbably, but no less enticing—actually avoid death. Thus, corporate marketing creates a psychic environment that is manipulative and violent. Death is in the air, on the radio, on billboards, on TV and in movies and books. It is everywhere, and the only way to avoid it is to buy more stuff. The very fact that corporations must resort to such manipulative marketing techniques should suggest on the face of it that the system is illegitimate, but instead it merely harasses and horrifies and atomizes, reminding us all of our most intimate, individualized moment—our death—in order to divide and conquer. Perhaps at no point has the connection between death-avoidance and consumerism been more sharply defined than when, in the wake of the September 11th attack President Bush advised the American people that the best way to help win the war on terror was to shop. Contrast this with the rationing and push to buy war bonds (i.e., give money to the government, not corporations) during World War II, and you begin to see the growing power of corporations.

Manipulating death for material gain is not just violent for obvious reasons (death is so often depicted as violent these days) but because it commodifies something deeply personal in order to separate people from one another, and even to separate ourselves from arguably the most significant moment of our lives. It should come as no surprise, then, that the rise of modern global capitalism has been simultaneously accompanied by a staggering increase in the fear of death as well as a similar decrease in society’s ability to deal with this most fundamental reality of life.

It could be argued that one of human society’s most basic functions has traditionally been easing the pain of death, by providing medical care to those dying and celebrating the lives of those who have passed, thus paving the way for a healthier, less fearful coexistence with death. But, like most every societal tradition, corporations have coopted and commodified death so that increasingly the only relationship one can have with it is through corporate mediation (funeral parlors, media outlets, policing organizations), which is not concerned with easing pain, but increasing it so that you’ll buy more stuff.

To further complicate matters, violent death has decreased dramatically in the Western world to the point that violent death has acquired a sort of totemic power that is even more easily manipulated. As is well-known in psychological circles, fear only increases when there is no healthy outlet for confronting the source of the fear, and with the vast majority of Westerners bathing in a milieu of death, while simultaneously living in an increasingly lonesome, atomized society that is rarely faced directly with violent death, the fear has increased beyond measure. It takes form in irrationally high levels of security, the ballooning prison-industrial complex, xenophobic immigration policies, increasingly militarized police forces, charter schools, gated communities, and most importantly healthy corporate profits.

Preying on humanity’s deepest fears, while at the same time demolishing traditional coping mechanisms and driving people apart, is a form of violence, a way of separating people from themselves in order to stimulate demand for greater consumption. Like hydraulic fracturing, which shoots chemically treated water into the small fissures in bedrock to get at buried oil and natural gas, corporate capitalism has shot the foundations of society through with enough fear and paranoia that civilization is threatening to come apart, and in their desperation people are ironically clinging to the very institutions that caused the problem in the first place.

While manipulating death to sell product is morbid and cynical, its relationship to the colloquially held understanding of violence is, admittedly, esoteric. Debt, on the other hand, has a much more elemental link to violence, not just in the terms put forth by Arendt, but in a way that the average person might also recognize. As Graeber illustrates in Debt, debts, when quantified in numeric values have a remarkable tendency to reduce all human relationships into economic ones, to turn fathers and daughters and cousins into lenders and borrowers. And once people are torn from their traditional place in society, they lose their essential humanity and become fair game for any number of vagaries. Once someone is no longer considered human, they are no longer due those basic courtesies we Americans are so fond of declaiming our Constitution guarantees. Once you turn someone into a number, all bets are off.

And if there is anything corporate capitalism is good at, it’s reducing everything to numbers.

Debt has become an integral part of the capitalist system; corporations leverage low-interest debt to finance high return projects, consumers borrow to buy the products corporations sell them, developing countries borrow from the IMF to purchase Western infrastructure to ostensibly kick start their economic engines, the IMF borrows from governments who then borrow from their taxpayers and other governments and these same corporations. The entire system works because everyone owes something to everyone else and the total sum of the shell game is so large that, as long as everyone doesn’t call all their loans at the same time, the system can keep groaning on. But if you notice in the above examples, there are essentially two levels: the corporate/governmental level, and the consumer level. At the corporate/governmental level you have this basic circle: corporations lend to governments who lend to the IMF who lend to different governments who give the money back to corporations. At the consumer level, people borrow money from corporations to ultimately give it back to the corporations, or through an even more insidious cycle—which the 2009 financial collapse showed—governments “borrow” money from people and then lend the money to corporations. Somehow, regardless of what level we’re operating on, most of the money keeps coming back to corporations. This is how we can have the Dow currently topping 15,000 while millions of jobs still sit uncreated 4 years after the “end” of the Great Recession. Corporations have managed to sit on gobs of cash while increasing productivity through automation, moving to low wage developing countries, and working what few employees they have increasingly long hours. Essentially, they have leveraged individual and public debt to such a high degree that corporate success is no longer correlated with societal success.

But this all comes back to debt, the debts companies owe to each other and to governments, the debts people owe to each other and to corporations, and the debts we all owe to future generations of unborn people. The financial collapse proved a couple of important things about debts: once credit stops flowing—and it can stop terrifyingly fast—the entire edifice collapses in a heap; and, though the skeleton of the system was quickly reassembled, the damage at the human levels was nearly fatal, and still could be if nothing is done. In order to keep the system from collapsing, governments the world over dove into the breach and propped up the most important (read: largest) companies by effectively taking these privately amassed debts and making them public. Since the Bush and Obama bailouts cost around $1.2 trillion, they were approximately the equivalent of the government coming over and saying, “Hey, I need you to spot me $4000 so AIG can stay in business. That cool, bro?” And then the government took it anyway.

Some companies got bailed out while others went bankrupt, yet neither option was really afforded the average American, despite the $4000 loan we’d each given to the government. The Bush administration made sure of that by passing more stringent personal bankruptcy laws in 2004 that, among other things, made it practically impossible to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy. Between the government’s decisions in 2004 and 2009, a clear debt policy begins to unfold: corporate debts are moveable, ephemeral things while personal debts are etched in stone. Essentially the government chose to save and reassemble the instrument of its economic—and increasingly physical—power in lieu of protecting the American people. The justification provided for these actions was that the death of these institutions would have meant certain death for the people, which is a surprisingly illuminating and honest response. Honest because it calls into stark relief how dependent on corporations the global economy has become, that a handful of massive companies could threaten the entire system. It’s illuminating because it shows exactly where governments believe power now lies. When given a choice, governments chose corporations over people. And that choice left both the people and their governments heavily in debt, while the corporations were largely left free to continue as they were before.

So, while corporate debts are essentially meaningless, personal debt has well-known and understood negative consequences. It leads to divorce, depression, spousal, substance, and child abuse, and neighborhood blight when personal debts are concentrated in specific geographic areas. When high leverage is combined with persistent unemployment, all of these negative effects are exacerbated to a horrific degree, such that debt can become a sort of living death, reducing people, as Graeber points out, to sub-human creatures, willing to do things that would normally have seemed unthinkable. History and the news are littered with these sorts of anecdotes, from the father who sells his children into slavery, to modern day mothers stealing from convenience stores to get formula for their children, but what they all have in common is the ability of debt to dehumanize and decontextualize people so that one is reduced to little more than a number. And while numbers (specifically accounting figures) are a solid way for evaluating a company, credit scores and debt-to-income ratios are a poor approach to understanding people.

Yet, that is exactly what has happened; with everything and everyone now reduced to numbers, corporations are now free to assume characteristics that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago. One might be tempted to see Citizens United as a sort of coup, or perhaps the climax to a long struggle between the people and corporations as the source of governmental power, but what it represents is the gradual reversal of governmental power residing not in the assent of the governed but by the grace of corporations. While humans are being increasingly reduced to credit scores and debt-to-asset ratios, corporations are now labeled “people” and given power over the day to day administrative tasks of government. Yet, this reversal has, ironically, put the global capital experiment in a curiously unstable and postmodern predicament, since the bureaucratic tool once used to administer the economy through the deployment of death-fear and debt has now become the primary source of power for the bureaucratic tool of the people for governing. Essentially, tools have become the unlikely sources of power for still more tools, with bureaucracies propping up bureaucracies in a circle of unaccountability that is completely unsustainable. The only source of real power in this equation—the people—have lost nearly all of their will to fight because of the dispiriting consumer cycle of fear of death, followed by demand for alleviation, followed by debt, followed by the living death of wage slavery (if they’re lucky), jail, or homelessness (if they’re not).

The violence in this system has always been implicit; one either complies or be run over and left to die outright or be thrown into one of a series of purgatories, underscored by death and debt. Where the system was once legitimate—in that it had the willful assent of the people and thus the violence lay hidden under layers of nationalism—it has come under growing criticism since the 1970s and so, as Arendt points out, as legitimate power has waned, the violence has become more pronounced. But paradoxically, as violence becomes a substitute for legitimate power, power decreases further, creating what economists call a “death spiral,” or a series of negative feedbacks that make the situation ever worse. Arendt was formulating these ideas during the devolution of the civil rights and anti-war movements from essentially peaceful social protests to armed conflicts, and, given the growing illegitimacy and violence of the global capitalist system, it appears there are two important implications that can be gleaned from her work:

1. Any protest movement that seeks to change the system from the outside will either become violent or be squashed. Power only comes from people and, in order to win, any outside group must either have superior firepower or more people.

2. Revolutions are only successful when the existing power structure is proven to be illegitimate and is supplanted by an emergent legitimized power. Any revolution rooted in violence will yield a system rooted in violence. Consequently, revolutions rooted in legitimate power are often bloodless.

Taken together, these observations provide an important framework for understanding how the current system can be reformed or, if necessary, dismantled. It must either be from within or grow out of an alternative framework with superior firepower and more people, it must be with the consent of the majority of the people, and it need not involve violence.

A way forward

So, what are the implications? I stated earlier that humans have two options at this point: to maintain the status quo which has already proven to be reckless and will end in disaster, or to walk away and start something new. So, let’s entertain the latter. How could this come about and what might it look like?

As I stated Millennials are soon to be handed, if not the controls, then certainly a good part of the lower-levels of the global capitalist machine, as such our current economic powerlessness will soon be relieved and we will simultaneously become one of the largest cohorts in the world not only by population but also by economic power. If, as I stated, global capitalism has but 10-20 years left of useful productivity before climate change and peak everything begin to wreak havoc, then Millennials will have but a decade, more or less, to prepare for this eventuality.

At the same time Millennials sit at the nexus of several unprecedented global phenomena, most notably the amazing advancement of real-time communication and virtual cross-cultural knowledge transfer. Arguably no generation understands technology better than the Millennials, and consequently Millennials have been largely handed over the controls of the global communication and knowledge generation industries. If you combine this with our growing numerical and economic advantage, we are entering into a period in which one generation could be capable of achieving what no other generation has ever had the opportunity to achieve before: a truly global, pan-cultural, and unilateral revolution of cultural, economic, and social mores. In short, if the Millennials act as a (mostly) unified cohort, they will have the numbers, the money, and the power to unilaterally shape the world in their image, regardless of the interests of all others on this planet.

This would require entering into and controlling strategic choke points in the global economy (communication, food production, medicine, weapons, knowledge generation) over the next decade while simultaneously investing in those infrastructural areas that will be most necessary to productive and healthy human living to lay the foundation for a post-capitalist society. If Millennials work in concert to control these strategic choke points, they will be able to grind the capitalistic machine to a halt, dismantle it, and resume life in a slower, more regional, and sustainable mode of living.

In order for this to work the Millennials must work in concert, must gain control of these strategic choke points, must provide for the peaceful transition to the new economy, and must, when the time comes, be willing walk away from modern living. This will in effect make us similar to the crazy-eyed muscle-bound convict at the climax of The Dark Knight, grabbing the bomb controller and throwing it out the window.

I'm not sure that this is actually feasible, but it certainly is possible. All the raw ingredients are there. What's needed is a cohort of people both steeped in modern corporate tools and a willingness to walk away from the worst aspects of modernity. Perhaps a start would be to focus first on the most important things for human and ecological thriving: healthcare, living arrangements, food production, secure water, and community. Decarbonize, localize, and reboot the most powerful tool humans have in our If we solve for these things, it may be that no other effort is required. Perhaps simply reclaiming not the means of production, but the means of being human will be enough to derail the screaming runaway train of corporate capitalism.

If I had an orchard

At the end of "Helplessness Blues," the tenor and tone of the song flips from one steeped in anguish and gloom to an airy, almost joyful repeating chord progression. Pecknold sings:

"If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm raw

If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore

And you would wait tables and soon run the store

Gold hair in the sunlight, my light in the dawn

If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore

If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore"

Once again, he captures something potent about this moment in time. Soon, me and my cohort of fellow travelers will have the orchard. The question is what will we do with it.

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