The View from my Bed

Yeah, hard to believe, but this sciatica is keeping me down. I’m on Day 12 of mostly lying prone in one place or another. My folks are setting up a mattress near the xmas tree in their living room where I’ll be eating my holiday dinner later today. Blessed with a couple of nice dinner party experiences, both of which accommodated my horizontalism… Adriana has been simply angelic, revealing herself as a great chef, and enormously patient in the role of Florence Nightingale to my role as simply patient, the injured one. Now she’s sniffling with a bad cold, so we’re laughing about our mutual incapacitation…

Anyway, good time to catch up on reading (as if I will ever finish reading the books I already own!), and like this typing I’m doing right now, I find I can do my “normal” work pretty easily too, laptop in lap… I went next door last week to a small party that included what was labeled a “heart circle,” wherein any of the 15 people in attendance could take the floor for as long as they wanted and speak to anything that mattered to them. It was a cozy and intimate evening and a lot of emotions flowed, personal sagas were touched upon, memories and hopes and fears were shared. I’m glad I went, but as often happens to me in such situations, I found myself slightly revolting against the extremely personal and quasi-narcissistic focus of most of the comments. Instead, I wanted to contextualize the commentaries in the bigger picture, the end of 2007, the beginning of the 21st century, the incomprehensibly enormous moment in world history that we’re living through, mostly unconsciously.

I’ve been reading some books that encourage this longer view. In particular, the sense of collapse that I touched on in my last blog post, whether the climate change that is threatening fresh water and food production, energy and resource wars, the slowly unfolding international financial crisis that is far from finished and may land us in this century’s first Great Depression, the diminishing power of the U.S. over its own fate–a degradation made much more rapid by the Bush years… all this and more. I see it as part of a moment in history when the old paradigms are giving way, and the new ones are far from clear. It’s much more complicated than the demise of U.S. empire and its replacement by China, or by a new multilateral world order, even if those latter developments are part of what we can perceive. There’s also the demise of nation-states after the furious and passionate and urgent rise and spread of nationalism in the late 20th century.

The book Illicit by Moises Naim is an important contribution to this new look at what’s happening all around us. In the midst of the credit crisis, which is a symptom of how much the “financial creativity” (as The Economist likes to call it) of the past two decades has created unprecedented amounts of purely fictitious capital, then hidden it in convoluted “instruments” and now no one knows who is holding what in terms of real assets and liabilities, Naim’s book details how black markets have swelled, now rivalling many official industries, and making economic statistics increasingly meaningless. The ways people are integrated in their everyday lives into drug dealing, sex work, copyright violations, gray market analogues of brand-name commodities, and much more, indicate the permanence and centrality of the many economic activities that are moralistically dismissed as “illegal.” Naim edits Foreign Affairs and is close to traditional liberal thinking, preferring to let markets do what they do and to remove pointless moral crusades from public policy. It’s quite compelling though, to realize how many governments in the world are fully compromised and corrupted by the huge flows of capital moving around, and that within those flows there are no clearcut ways to distinguish legal from illegal, or clean from dirty money.

I’ve had this argument with various friends for years. People want to do good, find work that they care about and feels meaningful, and then on the flipside, hold variously disapproving attitudes towards how other people get their money, laying moral judgements on supposedly bad work, whether for corporations, or dealing pot, or doing sensual massage. I’ve never understood this, since to me, the problem is in selling my time rather than in the specific work. I can imagine doing lots of different kinds of work, and I don’t mind doing lots of things, but whatever I do for money, pretty quickly starts to feel like some kind of prostitution. When I’m working for money, I’m doing someone else’s bidding, not my own. Of course I’m lucky since most of my days and hours are spent doing my own (unpaid) bidding, and even though I don’t mind my paid work much, I can’t deny that something essential of myself is lost during those hours that I toil for pay…

In this respect, I find arguments like Naim’s refreshing. That if we were sensible, we would remove the legal prohibitions on drugs and treat them as medical problems. We would open and regulate the trade in many things, following the logic of “harm reduction” rather than prohibition. When it comes to the international trade in banned exotic species, or human organs, or what have you, the opening of borders via globalization and the spread of high technologies has made such trade much easier. The legitimacy of international efforts to control human smuggling (and the re-emergence of slavery), organ theft, or endangered species harvesting would be greatly enhanced if the counterproductive efforts to control drugs and bootleg DVDs were abandoned… And at the root we have to abandon the pretension that most of us are clean and doing good while bad people are dirty and doing bad. We’re all in the same system, and all relationships surrounding transactions and money tend to reproduce themselves in similar ways, and with them, reproduce similar kinds of personalities and behaviors.

I’m also reading a couple of books that fill in the 20th century story that precedes this time quite well. Overthrow by Steven Kinzer is a very readable account of the many times the U.S. has overthrown governments in other countries since it started such heinous and unforgivable empire-building with the seizure of the Hawaiian Islands in 1893. The fraudulent taking of the Philippines and Cuba and Puerto Rico under the guise of the Spanish-American War followed soon after (1898), then the overt interventions in Nicaragua, Colombia (to create the breakaway “country” of Panama), Honduras (on behalf of United Fruit), Guatemala, Iran, etc. It’s a great read if you don’t know the history of U.S. criminality when it comes to the long 20th century of international intrigue. Kinzer goes through Vietnam and Chile before bringing it up to 2003 and the sacking of Iraq, and after all that, you see how utterly typical and normal this stupid war is, following over 100 years of well-established patterns. In fact, the story could have been usefully started a bit earlier, with the fraudulent declaration of war on Mexico in 1846 which led to the seizure of California and the southwest from Mexico…

The rise of the 3rd World is itself a story of political and diplomatic imagination, not to mention complicated national stories of colonialism and its overthrow. In The Darker Nations, Vijay Prashad lays out a fantastically detailed look at the process all over what we often call the “global south.” I haven’t read very far in this book yet, but it’s really fascinating. I did see a companion piece by Prashad on CounterPunch a few days ago, where he describes the Ghadar movement and its founding in San Francisco in 1912, and the complicated history of 3rd World anti-colonial radicalism that flourished before WWI, and then percolated through many forms until emerging in India and elsewhere in the latter part of the 20th century.

On a lighter note I made it through Akiba, the latest from p.m. in Zurich, the guy who wrote bolo’bolo years ago. I enjoyed it, though I have to say it wasn’t a quick read for me. As a piece of fiction, and utopian fiction at that, it bobs and weaves through a lot of explanations, and the story seems to stall again and again as you are confronted with complicated philosophical and political questions to mull over. In our last Processed World we published a short story by p.m. called No Nonsense, and I could see some continuity between that and Akiba. One of the author’s strengths, and one of his major concerns, is to come to grips with a proper sense of sustainability, which he tends to regulate by BTUs or some kind of measuring of basic energy units, which should be allocated very equally among everyone. In No Nonsense this is taken to its logical extreme.

In Akiba it is bypassed by a marvelous world called Limboland, a place where everyone goes when they die, but when you get there you realize that there is no life nor death, everything is but a grand simulation by a master computer. Somehow the driving force of history in Akiba is for characters from Limboland to go into the infinite worlds and encourage “mortal” beings to work towards the manufacture of the totalizing computer which will then be able to simulate the entirety of everything. But the obvious conundrum is to wonder why this would be important or interesting since the very existence of everything already proves that there’s a master computer somewhere producing this amazing simulation… in some ways it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at Spectacular Society, in other ways it’s p.m.’s chance to air out many of his own inspiring and wacky and romantic visions of utopian life. The book’s main characters, once in Limboland, get to sample a wide variety of imaginative, ornate, detailed places and experiences, all of which are wonderful contributions to the long history of utopian literature. But I have to admit that I bogged down a lot of times and did not find the story propelling me along, as I generally prefer when it comes to fiction. My curiosity and previous experience with the author and his works made me see it through, and I’m glad I did.

Well, happy holidaze everyone! 2008 is surely going to be fraught with surprises–let’s hope we can carry on with our lives in the months to come, finding new ways to challenge the wreckage being wrought by the madmen (and women) who can’t stop the runaway train they set in motion!

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