Monday, May 12, 2008

The Logic of Annihilation

I've been reading Susan George's Lugano Report. Someone left it in the staff bathroom and I made it mine. Books come to us. Sometimes at just the right time to push us over the edge.

The premise is that a bunch of out-of-sight-rich people are anonymously convened by World Bank, IMF, and WTO types to soberly analyze how to save liberal capitalism from the contradictions of globalization and to deliver whatever conclusions they may, untainted by sentimentality or other political considerations. They publish their findings as a report, named for the exclusive Swiss town in which they convened.

They note in passing that while globalization produces widening inequality, the gains of one pole do not come at the expense of the other. Wealth is being created. That some "losers" don't share in the bounty is another, unrelated, matter.

Philip Mangano said something very much like this to me once. We were having dinner, back when he was new and I hadn't entirely come out as the enemy. As far as I know it was his first Seattle visit. We reconnected as Boston acquaintances.
As Phil and I, two over-privileged white guys whose most pressing problem at the moment was the interruptions of the over-solicitous waitstaff, sat there sorting out the future of the homeless, we kept coming back to the same issue, mainly because Phil kept dodging the question: what about inequality?

The New York Times Magazine had just documented for the thousandth time since the Reagan administration that the gap between the rich and poor is wider than ever. How could the Bush administration fix homelessness without discussing economic justice?

Phil, staring at his pasta, became uncharacteristically silent. When he finally spoke, it was to say that people getting rich had little to do with others becoming poor. While a rising tide, he admits, does not lift all boats, it does not follow that big ships sink little ones (my metaphor, not his).
I imagine this isn't an uncommon opinion in some circles.

After dismissing the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights as out of date and defining any downward transfer of wealth or resources as unrealistic, the commission comes to the heart of the matter.

There are simply too many people who have no value, and their sustenance drags down everyone else. In the global economy, individual human rights have become an unsustainable anachronism. The logic of the past no longer holds.
"We have ... lost touch with the notions of collective offence and the greatest good of the whole. This good may sometimes necessitate coercion and sacrifices which our era no longer recognizes as legally or morally justifiable. Our societies are hard put to apply the concept of collective responsibility, much less that of collective guilt for the state of the Commonweal.

The proof is that we still consider it 'ethically correct' that illiterate, unemployable, superfluous, and degenerate people continue to proliferate and to propagate as much as they like; to the point that judgments such as this one cannot even be expressed in public without immediate censure, pious denunciation, and, in certain contexts, legal action. Plato, Aristotle, and Tertullian wouold have been dismayed by this state of affairs, just as they would have been astonished by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The world population, they recommend, should be reduced by about 2 billion people in twenty years, or by about a hundred million people a year over two decades.

For this to happen, however, the commonsense of things needs to change. People would not, without careful groundwork being laid, come to accept the idea.

What makes this book both so brilliant and disturbing is that the data going into the analysis is real. There are ruling class biases, but she's not making anything up. Her grasp of the literature and culture of global capitalism is complete and her feel for the bureaucratic mindset is astonishing. The effect is chilling, and all too real for comfort.
It is plain that the market, on its own, cannot create mass welfare under present demographic conditions and that these must consequently be corrected. For genuine population control to become acceptable, a new culture of thought and opinion must be instituted; one which does not assume doctrinaire and unlimited personal freedom as its starting point or 'human rights' as its fulcrum.
She goes on to describe the various superstructural changes that might be employed to bring about this shift, changes that use available educational, policy, and media apparatus to chip away at the old order and usher in the new.

This is a fantasy. While George extends current logic to its conclusion, we're not there yet. But it's where we're going.

The other day I watched a guy call for the "euthanization" of drug dealers at a City Council meeting. He said that's what "we" would do.
"On the fourth conviction, we're going to euthanize him. I know this sounds drastic, but it is the leverage tool to get compliance to stop the bleeding of taxpayers dollars for prisons and police officers. It addresses the problem to the point."
Who the hell is we? I don't think it's too early to start asking this question. This, I've been thinking, is how it begins. People like him start pushing the limits. Maybe they start running for office. Toss in a terrorist attack and a depression, and all bets are off. Things would get very ugly very fast.

These are not normal times.

This is part of why I find the new enthusiasm for homeless sweeps, with its focus on the criminality and public health risk of outdoor survival, so incredibly disturbing. As community after community seeks to actively criminalize squatting on public land, the logic of global capitalism and surplus people is several orders removed from the bureaucratic imposition of order. And yet, it is there.

People are being removed and criminalized without regard to their rights or need for survival, and this is already acceptable to many. At bottom, their removal is a by-product of heightened 'quality of life' expectations that co-occur with rising property values. Their misery is inconvenient.

The equation runs like this: camping on public land is illegal, therefore, all campers are in violation of the law and engaged in criminal activity. Arrest them, or at least make them leave. For this to work, under present notions of morality, there must be an alternative. One needn't bother making the alternative credible. No one of any consequence is watching all that closely.

The warm pretense of services softens the glare of the hard icy terrain. We're on the slope, and we're sliding.

1 comment:

Retromancer said...

"The warm pretense of services softens the glare of the hard icy terrain."

Kudos to whoever left the Report in the outhouse. They performed a public service. As Orwell said the hardest things to see are often those right at the end of our noses. Sometimes we need an "intervention" so we can finally make out the connections between ostensibly separate events.

The "10 year plan" and the city's encampment policy are indeed two sides of the same administrative coin.

To believe that the end game is to triage the indigent out is not paranoia. Instead it is the acknowledgement of cold business logic. The time is coming to remove "non-performing assets" from the balance sheets...

"Its not personal. It's strictly business."