Monday 30 March 2009

A dose of reality

When protesters shout about burning effigies of bankers and around 15,000 people gather in Frankfurt, several thousand in Berlin, and in London the crowd is estimated at up to 35,000, all to make a point ahead of the G20 meeting, it should be time to think about what point this could be.
The financial crisis seems evident enough, but consider the headlines crowding yesterday's Daily Telegraph page and the picture is somewhat bewildering. Trillion-dollar deals abandoned just when our minds are getting used to rivers of money sluiced with abandon, suggestions to return to the gold standard, China seen as the world's saviour, extremists gaining ground, and dire warnings all around - it's a hotchpotch of the old and the new leading to the realisation that perhaps the leading minds at a recent conference at the Columbia Centre in the US got one thing right: we don't really know what's going on. "Reshaping capitalism" has become one common theme though, but do we understand what depths such a concept can reach? George Soros already argued for reconstruction back in 1997 but his rationalism is a far cry from what can be heard today, now that the pressure is on. Left-wing militants expecting our entire planet to be one country within months, a self-professed witch, a senior lecturer indulging herself in menstruation and the origins of art... that's news as of today, at least in the UK.
In his article George Soros talks about recognising certain fundamentals that give society its structure and hence its stability, fundamentals which go beyond money and riches and even transcend culture and religion.
Let's do one better and talk about the real basics around which living systems turn. The principles that govern human activity systems in general regardless of time and place, the ones that determine what happens along their time lines through history.
Such a system is situated in reality, which is to say it exists within its environment with its own vagaries, and success or otherwise depends on the system's flexibility and resourcefulness to deal with them. A simple system, if it survives, needs to devote all of its resources just to maintain itself, and the conditions are as harsh as its surrounds. It can be done, as the existence of indigenous people around today's world attests. However, the more complex the system the more buffer zones there are and the less immediate any negative effects from the outside will be. This comes at a cost: complex systems require more maintenance and place a higher demand on the intellectual capabilities of its members. Complex systems also feature a higher degree of variety and are better placed to confront changes in their surrounds.
Agrarian economies are more prone to falter during natural disasters than industrialised ones, and the more varied the industry in general the more assured the survival of the whole in the face of this or that downturn.
One factor that is often forgotten is time. It plays a significant role in the current malaise as I have argued elsewhere and it should be considered in more detail.
Usually the focus is on leisure, and it has grown into a considerable one. Time seen as a functional element without value-laden connotations however allows a more comprehensive view.
A complex, varied society permits the creation of niches that are largely removed from the immediacy of confrontational demands. If we consider the temporal path of a society in terms of standard time increments (rather like the clock ticks of a computer that allocate definite time periods to its processes) all of the society's dynamics span a given number of increments. The life cycle of any given dynamic can be measured against those of others on that basis, and they all form the wider system.
Different time spans impose their own constraints. For example, the construction of a bridge will interfere with dynamics of a smaller duration (such as travelling to and from work) and for that reason alone the system's resources will need the capacity to address the difference.
In the case of niches (activities that are not in immediate contact with the generality of their environment) a difference in time can mean the growth of activities that not only sit aside the common contingencies but whose effects on the system as a whole demonstrate a similar disengagement, at least for a certain period. Yet sooner or later their existence will impact on the rest, and the nature of the impact as well as the elapsed time influence the status of the host.
Regardless of their scale and type, there comes a point when the host responds. A couple of people spreading graffiti around their street won't change council policy, but by the time entire suburbs are affected the response sets in. In addition, at that point the practice will have grown into a sub-culture that changes the rules of the game considerably.
In principle, nothing has changed in the respective dynamics from the very start (whether in the mind of a bored kid or in the basic attitude of council members), but the difference in time lines impacts on the economy in the end.
As the financial crisis has shown, despite the decades-long existence of particular banking practices it is only now that their full nature has come to the fore - and the reaction ranges from the alarmed to the ridiculous.
Monetary adventurism is not the only threat; there are number of others waiting in the wings, all answering to similar dynamics of precarious transparency, the swallowing of resources, and delayed impact. Separate niches have grown and eventually influence their society, at which point they can't be separated any longer. Here are some of them.
The idea that everyone is equal and it is only a question of money to alleviate disparities has progressed from the small to the global radius. While opportunities need to be provided, the reality of an over-arching culture has been disregarded in favour of an evangelical idealism. Billions of dollars are poured into places like Africa without the desired effect.
The obsession with illegal drugs - the very definition a function of an ideological moralism rather than a pragmatic perspective - has created world-wide cartels and militant armies that have greater financial clout than many smaller nations. Mexico is torn apart by gangs that are financed by consumers in the US across the border. America's answer? Thousands of more soldiers and another few hundred million dollars in military hardware. At the same time a similarly predisposed attitude opened the way for many of their legal counterparts to play havoc with public health.
Although the emancipation of women has opened the doors to many opportunities denied in past ages (and enriched society), the ideological side of feminism has made demands on society without supplying the means to address them. For example, in Australia the Medicare safety net was designed to protect individuals from the often prohibitive costs of medical treatment, but over the past four years IVF costs under that scheme have risen 57 percent to $79 million. Women want babies, but at what cost?
Christian culture, in its ever-lasting war against the human eros, has swung from one craze to another. Gays, adultery, masturbation, and now anything to do with the young. Entire police forces have been created to assuage the spectres of moralists and once again the heaviest punishments are reserved for those who run foul of what is termed 'decency'. The hysteria led to the case of a 14-year-old girl in New Jersey who posted naked pictures of herself on MySpace and is now charged with child pornography facing up to 17 years in jail. Consider the sheer costs involved for everyone, and that includes the taxpayer. What should have been dismissed out of hand or at most invited a slap on the bottom has been turned into an international spectacle.
Just as with finance, there are a number of self-generated aspects of Western culture that have been allowed to flourish and no thought given as to their effects on us all. And just as with finance, under certain pressures those costs engulf us all.
Whether the calls for stringing up bankers remain a joke or not, there were times when actual people were indeed lynched and the enraged mob vented its fury on the enemies of society. All it takes is some pressure and the public's gaze turned just so.

Sunday 8 March 2009

The hidden face of ownership

A father has two sons: one is musically gifted, not the other. Who should get the guitar?

Surely the instrument ought to go to him who can make use of it.

The concept of ownership changed over time. With an evolving formality came a symbolism standing in for the original notion of a more direct relationship. The latter still exists, even if not always acknowledged. The functionality of the object behind the symbol cannot be erased through a transference of meaning; against the reality of the former the substitution remains superficial.

If symbolism is allowed to rule what constitutes ownership becomes sidetracked towards the trivial.

True ownership does not present itself through imaginary perception. It lives and activates itself through the relationship between subject and object, and the relationship has to be a fulfilling one.

The superficial view does not reach beyond the trivial and does not recognise the absence of a meaningful nexus.

Descend from the abstract to the tangible and apply the principle to like scenarios. Extend its scope across society, across enterprises. Replace the guitar with machinery, exchange it for a corporation, an estate; include land and territory. Let the family become a nation and all the people within it.

If a mere instrument is not worth arguing about (although a musician may see things differently), once we arrive at the larger scale the sheer magnitude gives substantial weight to any such relationship.

What is technology, what is a corporation worth in the hands of the dilettante; what becomes of a land falling into the custody of the less accomplished?

True ownership is not some artifact that waits for a higher provenance to be bestowed. While it exists for the taking it requires the will to be grasped and pressed into service. Only those to whom the significance of the act is obvious possess the will to use it for their ends; no-one else does it for them.

In that sense societies define themselves and live to enjoy or otherwise their fruits. Not to know, not to understand their own role condemns them to servitude.

In the end serfdom is an act of negative will.