The Age of Abundant (Plastic) and the Age of Loneliness

Sunset over Lake Chapala from Monte Cosala, New Year’s Eve, 2017.

It’s 2018. The next big war is on the horizon, though how it will begin and against whom is entirely unclear since the government is a thrashing incoherent mess. Meanwhile the U.S. is already in dozens of wars across the world, with hostilities, death, bombing, and mayhem occurring in more places than most Americans could find on a map… the old dictum to learn geography through bombing isn’t even holding up anymore…

The strange disconnect between a society and its imperial misadventures says more about the oblivious psychology of most Americans than it does about the actual effects because those are quite real. The tens of thousands of desperately poor people huddled in doorways and in vacant lots, hoping for a miracle, are the necessary and inevitable complement to the barbarism that leaves a tiny few with the wealth of billions while the U.S. government pisses billions more away every month to instill global terror under the Orwellian banner of fighting terrorism! Anyone with a heart and brain is deeply ashamed of U.S. society these days.

The hysterical hand-wringing about Trump and his venal minions is used to push all “resistance” towards voting for Democrats in the Fall—yes, the Democrats. The same ones who last week were yelling about Russia and racism while voting to maintain unlimited warrantless NSA surveillance under the control of that most trustworthy leader, Trump. We have a government of millionaires, by and for millionaires, and yet a stunning number of people still think voting in a batch of fresh-faced Democrats is going to alter our trajectory. It’s enough to start looking at long-term escape from this asylum.

American white pelicans winter on Lake Chapala… mostly on the southern shore, far from where we stay…

In Petetan, where they feed the pelicans every morning at dawn.

But all of this isolated fretting is so typical of this era, sitting alone watching cable news or the social media feed on a phone. We are living in a world that is profoundly lonely. Even I feel that way, in spite of having dozens of friends, and a fairly vibrant network of smart, engaged, artistic and political friends. There is a self-imposed isolation that is increasingly the easy “choice”–in the face of the social trauma and political psychoses that masquerade as our democratic society it seems perfectly reasonable to pull back, to ratchet down how much attention I give it all. And that in turn feeds a sense of sad and desperate isolation that becomes more insurmountable the longer this dynamic goes on. Knowing that the Trumpist plutocratic agenda is to destroy all forms of social resistance and leave everyone more isolated and full of self-doubt simply underscores the self-awareness of this predicament.

I admit I’ve been reading a lot of things lately that have made it hard to feel optimistic. In Sierra Magazine, where editor Jason Mark has taken a dull monthly and given it some real editorial life, I read an excerpt from Naomi Klein’s recent book “No is not Enough”–and while I appreciate the sentiment, her account of the death of more than half the Australian Great Barrier Reef was heartbreaking in its finality. I saw an article over the holidays in the Guardian about how the boom in fracking and all the new natural gas had lowered the raw material cost for most plastic products by 2/3. So in this decade, from 2010-2020 we have already produced more plastic than in the entire 20th century. Investment is pouring in to take advantage of the newly cheapened feedstocks and $185 billion in new plant was expected to increase plastic production by over 50%. Hey, just what we need! Ocean-clogging microplastics, which is where the used plastic all ends up, are already disrupting food chains in the oceans. Few fish or birds are without plastic debris in their bellies. In just an hour of garbage pickup along Lake Chapala during our holiday we filled more than 9 large trash bags with plastic debris from that gorgeous Mexican freshwater lake full of herons, egrets, cormorants, and pelicans. Every beach in the world is full of plastic crap. The idea that producers see a big profit in producing 50% more than we’ve ever produced, when we clearly already need to radically reduce its use is just one glaring symptom of a world gone totally mad.

I read David Harvey’s latest, aptly titled Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason. By the time he is wrapping up he is citing the insanity of today’s politics and posits that it HAS to have something to do with the madness of economic reason. I don’t need any convincing of that. But I do wonder if Harvey’s adherence to the classic version of Marx’s Labor Theory of Value is an adequate explanation as the motor that keeps it all churning. Perhaps we are like Wiley Coyote, having already run far off the end of a precipice and are hanging in space (looking at our phones, astonished at any of a number of dramas in sports, entertainment, or politics), and the inevitable pull of gravity is being mysteriously delayed. Harvey is quite thorough in showing how much the internal contradictions of capital are reaching exhaustion, citing an earlier work of his for the three main ways that capital is reaching crisis again:

…There are three contradictions that pose a clear and present danger to the survival of capitalism in the present era. The first [is] the deteriorating state of our relation to nature (everything from global warming to habitat and species destruction, water scarcities and environmental degradations). The second [is] compound growth forever that had reached that inflexion point on the exponential growth curve that [is] rapidly proving harder and harder to perpetuate in the face of increasing paucity of profitable investment opportunities. It [is] also putting intense pressure on that one form of capital that can increase without limit, particularly the credit forms of money that seemed to be spiralling out of control. The third was what I called universal alienation.

Trying to untangle the dynamics of capital accumulation in this epoch is pretty confusing. Clearly there is a great deal of surplus value being produced in the far-flung factories of the global economy in the classic form of making commodities for sale. But I don’t agree that surplus value is only produced in that old traditional way. As detailed a bit in the previous blog post, the argument of Hardt and Negri that value production is overspilling the boundaries of what we know has to be taken into account. The hours spent every day on social media posting photographs, comments, reactions, links, etc., not to mention all the unmeasured cooperative activity that underpins the modern economy, is itself being exploited these days. It gets monetized not in the act of doing, but at the end of the month when—regardless of how you made any money all month, whether from black market activities, vaporware software coding, driving for Lyft, whatever—you are forced to pay for your housing. The rent, mortgage, and debt payments we are all bound to make every month is the means by which our uncaptured and unmeasured productive activity is monetized and recaptured by the value economy.

Delivering the hay.

In another book I read over the holidays, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism Peter Frase offers a useful, if breezy overview of four basic scenarios into which our future probably has to fall. He is assuming that we cannot go back to anything that preceded this time. Like Immanuel Wallerstein’s prognostications that we are in the midst of a half-century process of moving to something that will become the new World System after capitalism, Frase suggests that we should understand our options in terms of a simple set of binaries: equality vs. hierarchy and abundance vs. scarcity. (Wallerstein has been arguing in his ongoing columns that we are faced with something brutal and barbaric based on military hierarchies and worse unless we can create a new system that is rooted in real democratic participation, horizontalist logic and egalitarian mutual aid—the rosy alternative.) Frase has his own chart to lay out our possibilities which looks like this:

                        | Equality | Hierarchy

Abundance | Communism | Rentism

        Scarcity | Socialism | Exterminism

At this point, the “rentism” model is the one that is giving neoliberal capitalism a mechanism to rechannel all the new kinds of social and cooperative behaviors into money-making activities. It also reinforces the coercive pressure to “make money” even if your work might not lend itself to earning much. You may feel compelled to do more of an activity that does produce cash as opposed to something that is actually doing well for your community, your art, your passion.

George Monbiot’s latest, Out of the Wreckage, is another strong effort from him. He’s a sharp critic, usually writing about ecological politics (I’ve written earlier about his book Feral), but having lived through Brexit and Trump and the rise of the right, he’s trying to look more deeply at the social world that is producing these nightmares. He offers a long, interesting rumination but the quick takeaway is that he christens this the “Age of Loneliness” and locates the antidote to most of the problems facing modern life in a new spirit of belonging. The bitterness, alienation, and fear we see raging on all sides is best addressed by slowly rebuilding communities and relationships that help us feel more deeply connected to each other and give us a real stake, a real sense of belonging to our world. He goes a lot further and lays out a remarkably fleshed out set of organizing proposals, but clearly he is operating in the same world I’m in. We are frustrated by the growing isolation and loneliness of our world. The despair at the heart of politics and society is a direct result of the neoliberal consensus that has convinced so many there is “no alternative” even if that belief is precisely why so many people have checked out from the possibilities of political change. Articulating how much better life can be, how urgent our reorganization of economy and ecology are, and how much we have a shared mission to create this new logic might lead to a growing movement that actually could overcome “economic madness.” Seems like we have to try, even if our own morale is not always up to it.

The dock in Ajijic, along shore of Lake Chapala.

Parque Metropolitano in Zapopan, Guadalajara area.

3 comments to The Age of Abundant (Plastic) and the Age of Loneliness

  • Martin

    Ah, the joys of putting pen to public paper for our fearless blog host!
    “Dedicated, aggressive, persevering subversive (s) with physical energy, wit and style” ends up at a “deadening office gig” settling 40 years-buried micro-scores through revolution-instructing “keystrokes.”
    O it’s a Processed World all right.

  • Kevin Keating

    Idly surfing the internet at my deadening office gig I find this. Yes, I read it — what’s your point? Nothing you are saying here appears to be factually inaccurate, but, as always with you and your entire smug and compulsively disengaged social set there is no capacity for action — sustained, collective public action, in the real world, among real people, not protester-weenies, of a caliber that gets taken seriously by friend and foe alike — that might help give rise to a larger social movement that might remedy these problems.

    More than a third of a century ago you and some others produced ‘Processed World,’ a journal of passive social criticism. In retrospect that effort ran out of gas somewhere between its seventh and tenth issue but PW did have some noteworthy qualities that might somewhat compliment a point of departure for a better effort than PW today.

    To give credit where credit is due — and actually very much due to some of you behind PW at its inception:

    1. PW began as an authentic anti-wage labor effort inspired by a trifecta of authentic subversive currents; class struggle anarchism, ultra-left Marxism, and the Situationists. At least that’s how I read it. You yourself outlined this in a response to a letter from some hostile businessman in an early issue. And at first your social set were undogmatically upfront about this;

    2. PW immediately found an audience for its message among mainstream working people who are very much outside of, indifferent to and disengaged from leftist, anarchist and protest-ghetto scenes. This audience of working people was in a seemingly new and then-expanding sector of office workers, bike messengers, custodial staff, service workers, and people employed in what was then called high tech, at the early 1980’s beginnings of the repulsive information technology revolution. With this Processed World found an audience among wage slaves who are generally ignored by unions and leftist organizer types.

    In its first few issues, PW was actually a fine effort. It could have been an excellent first step. Unfortunately like most good first steps in and against capitalist America, there was no second step. There were clear and specific proposals for expanding the effort into something more outwardly-directed, complex and aggressive. Although I wasn’t involved in PW on any deeper level than assisting at collating parties I know there was for example a proposal to put together some kind of ‘rebel office workers’ conference. This got nixed — and by you in particular — because you and your crowd were too lacking in authentic conviction to use your initial success to help spread and develop more advanced forms of late 20th century workplace resistance, and expand sideways as well into other forms of proletarian action and resistance.

    PW quickly tailored what it had to say to the audience that PW believed it had found, and you did this in an ever-more patronizing and fundamentally a-political way. The PW crowd were content to whine about how working for a living is bad mostly because it is not endlessly fun, and with this being the only thing you had to say your project took on a puerile quality. There was no effort to go any further than continuing to produce issues of PW and no vision of anything more aggressive or ambitious than whining in each issue that office work was somehow surprisingly still just as boring as you had discovered it to be at the time of Processed World’s first issue. The humor in PW was never particularly incisive or mordant and its endless repetition helped give the publication an ever more stalled, petulant and juvenile quality.

    A revolutionary effort requires revolutionaries. This means dedicated, energetic, capable, dependable enemies of capitalism and the state, not mildly disgruntled liberals or passive holders of exotic opinions, but people who can be taken seriously by friend and foe alike, who will take a few risks, who will “get stuck in” as the English say. By the tenth issue of Processed World it was clear that there were no people like this involved with ‘Processed World.’ There’s a world of difference between people who toy with radical ideas to keep themselves entertained and authentic subversives who have what the ultra-left International Communist Current once called the will to intervene. Mankind does not seek entertainment; only the American does. PW quickly became an expression of people who endlessly bemoan the evils of capitalism without being willing to expend time, effort and energy turning these opinions into a force in the larger world –and that what I still see here. You long ago found a comfortable and miserable niche within San Francisco’s larger weenie culture and you and your breathtakingly smug friends never left this niche. Not a one of you has done anything since then that can be taken seriously as an expression of opposition to capitalist society.

    Of course this abject political worthlessness also applies to what became PW’s expanding retinue of ostensibly radical opponents, most of them refugees from the Addams Family. In those days this included me. In their conflicts with one another both the proprietors of PW and their anarcho-scene enemies comported themselves in the manner of cranks and fools and not like people who can be taken seriously by grown-ups in the real world. Plenty of people expended plenty of time and energy tearing down Processed World but there was nothing stopping these people from taking PW’s limits and failings as a style model for something to avoid and launching better efforts of their own. PW’s enemies didn’t try to come up with anything better than Processed World because they were uniformly inadequate to the task of anything more ambitious than running down other people’s efforts.

    Reading what you have written here I can smell the resignation rising off my computer screen. Yes, I often feel frightened or despairing about what’s happening — but I can’t be bothered to expend so many keystrokes on it. To quote myself from elsewhere, ongoing collective action against what capitalism does to our lives has never been more necessary and the conditions that can give rise to this grow more promising by the day. Since Trump is here anyway he should be related to as manna from heaven; he is a grade-Z bad actor placed on center stage by history’s central casting in the role of Citizen Capet or Nicholas Romanov for the revolutionary destruction of capitalist America. Dedicated, aggressive, persevering subversives with physical energy, wit and style can make all the difference in the world; too bad I myself never met any of them in my 35-plus years in the Bay Area clown show.

    Kevin Keating

  • Molly Martin

    Yes we have to try. And don’t forget: there are a lot of us. W’re not really alone, although I understand the sentiment. Thanks for doing all this reading and cogitating.

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