Sunday, May 11, 2008

Measured Rage Amidst Opulence

Natasha’ in Pacific Views (10 May) writes a brief history of energy from the single cell of several billion years ago to modern the recent phenomenon of capitalism (US version or, rather, its Californian vision), entitled: Global Suicide Pact: The Efficiency Trap (HERE)

Some extracts: “Energy, fuel and materials, often symbolized by money, but always coming back to a basic capacity to do work, is supposed to flow towards fewer and fewer hands to be efficient in the modern capitalist sense. In living systems, it's supposed to flow through ever more hands, getting trapped and held at every level for the work of powering all sorts of life processes, but never held permanently.

A lion, for example, concentrates a lot of energy and nutrients, but at some point it releases them back down the chain, which allows living things other than lions, and less efficient at trapping energy, to flourish. That's good for the lions, because otherwise they'd eventually run out of food. You see how it is.
Modern economies are structured with the goal of efficiently reducing the energy stored at every stage to produce large concentrations of wealth that are not released for other processes. Ecosystems are structured with the goal of storing energy (i.e., wealth) across as many structures and in as many hands as possible in case ... well, there's always an 'in case
.' ”

...“There are climate changes, disease epidemics, natural disasters, damaging mutations, droughts, famines, all kinds of problems that are unpredictable but come around over and over again with a certainty. Living systems that are diverse and superficially inefficient, where at every stage there's enough energy to maintain a flourishing bounty of living beings, ensure the greatest chance of survival of at least some of them. On the other hand, in ecosystems where one species has over-concentrated energy to the detriment of all the others, a change in circumstance can be far more destructive than it might have been otherwise.
It's actively inimical to life. Also, an indication of a floundering economy, as Adam Smith himself noted in Wealth of Nations:

‘The liberal reward of labour, therefore, ... is the natural symptom of increasing national wealth. The scanty maintenance of the labouring poor, on the other hand, is the natural symptom that things are at a stand, and their starving condition that they are going fast backwards.

…."The Original Purchase-Money"

“From the beginning of industrialization, when it became possible to super-concentrate more wealth than ever before, humans have been rapidly displacing other chemical machines. We consume nearly 40% of the primary productivity, (that energy captured into living things and stored as carbon compounds,) of the entire planet.
There are now fewer kinds of things that don't stay where they're put. Fewer kinds of things that can take energy and make something more fun happen with it than the production of waste heat. Again, that sounds like an increase in the boredom quotient to me. And I so hate that!

We've increased the efficiency of the process of nutrient and energy flow on the planet. It goes from the sun, to a plant, maybe to an animal that eats that plant, and onto our dinner tables or into our consumer goods chain, then ... waste heat. Then, the loss of the nutrients fixed by that energy to the ocean, or a waste dump, or the atmosphere.

We're starving our fellow species out and impoverishing ourselves in the process.
Because there's always as much dead matter as there ever was. Matter, the base chemical components of the universe, can neither be created nor destroyed. There aren't always more living, chemical machines; with their quirky operating instructions, engineering creativity, inefficiency, and autonomous motion. Machines that can do truly interesting work and ... remember that we're talking about the capacity to do work, right? Adam Smith, once more from Wealth of Nations:
Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased; and its value, to those who posses it, and who want to exchange it for some new productions, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it can enable them to purchase or command.

There is nothing that so distinguishes the Earth from sweltering Venus, or from the frigid mineral opulence of the asteroid belt, as the laboring life that it harbors.”
“Simple enough, it seems the goal is, that an illiterate child working for $0.25 an hour could run it from a sweatshop, with the sole intent of her employers being to afford another dead yacht.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. This is the call of the clockwork culture. Simplifying everything, not to free energy to sustain a greater wealth of life. No. To put everything within reach of ever simpler processes, and then use those processes to support ever fewer beings with ever greater energy.”

Natasha’s theme and its implications are highlighted, ironically, by Pacific Views’ mast heading, a quote from Malcolm X:

‘You’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok.

There is a flaw running through her analysis of modern capitalism (her science is probably sound; sort of mood music, perhaps).

She confuses the role of ‘wealth’, a not uncommon problem, against which Adam Smith had plenty to say. I am minded of his parable of the rich landlord surveying all his fields and what grew on them – ‘mine, all mine’, he thought as he salivated, but, noted Adam Smith, it ain’t quite what it seems:

Our imagination, which in pain and sorrow seems to be confined and cooped up within our own persons, in times of ease and prosperity expands itself to every thing around us. We are then charmed with the beauty of that accommodation which reigns in the palaces and oeconomy of the great; and admire how every thing is adapted to promote their ease, to prevent their wants, to gratify their wishes, and to amuse and entertain their most frivolous desires. If we consider the real satisfaction which all these things are capable of affording, by itself and separated from the beauty of that arrangement which is fitted to promote it, it will always appear in the highest degree contemptible and trifling. But we rarely view it in this abstract and philosophical light. We naturally confound it in our imagination with the order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system, the machine or oeconomy by means of which it is produced. The pleasures of wealth and greatness, when considered in this complex view, strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it.

And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants. It is to no purpose, that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets, which are employed in the oeconomy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice. The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.” (Moral Sentiments, IV.1.9-10: pp 183-85)

Natasha sees the system she lives in as being about:

“Energy, fuel and materials, often symbolized by money, but always coming back to a basic capacity to do work, is supposed to flow towards fewer and fewer hands to be efficient in the modern capitalist sense” (emphasis added).

She confuses ownership in the legal system with consumption of the total income flow, which has to pass through the hands of thousands, nay, millions, because profits are always a smaller proportion of the total flow and are owned by fewer people (shareholders and those who own the institutions.

What is earned is not necessarily consumed. Even the richest billionaires of India (let alone those in the US) consume less than the total incomes of the vast mass of impoverished others – Natasha confuses gross inequalities of means with total income flows.

Hence, her statement that “it seems the goal is, that an illiterate child working for $0.25 an hour could run it from a sweatshop, with the sole intent of her employers being to afford another dead yacht” is striking, as journalism read mainly, if not exclusively, by people in the USA, themselves opulent by any standards across the world, and certainly more so than any previous age of subsistence since humans left Africa millennia.

But is she close to ‘hoodwinking’ herself?

Consider, the lives of kids working for 25 cents an hour, $3 a day, in what Adam Smith called the great ‘operose machine’ of commerce, now capitalism, the guilty party in Natasha’s view for the ills which she highlights, compared to their alternative (real not imagined in some mind state of the world that has never, yet, existed).

Smith said it is a ‘deception’ that drives some people to aspire to ‘another yacht’ or such like, but the deception ‘employs thousands’, at the very top, hundreds of thousands, directly and millions indirectly.

The exploited labour of the ‘illiterate child’, and scores like her, helps produce the wherewithal that eventually cumulates to the price of the ‘dead yacht’, and en route to this ‘frivolous’ goal, the others who co-operate in this process ‘derive from [the rich man’s] luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice’, and more important, which in any different circumstances that are realistically imaginable (given the evidence of history), would not be produced at all.

Too often, the alternative income for the child in the reality of many places is working as rent boy or girl prostitutes (documented for many Asian countries), or for adult women working in Vietnam in big-brand factories, the alternative is 18-hour days in the fields for even less a day.

This is not to excuse or defend the life work ‘balance’ of people in developing economies; I am challenging the views of articulate authors from comfortable California, lashing out in all directions in measured rage at the vary basis of their opulence, guilt and all, perhaps mitigated by their feelings that their own privileges are minute compared to the really rich celebrities who live around them.

Adam Smith saw his role as a moral philosopher to ‘do nothing, but observe everything’. The latter is a necessary precondition for informing those who wish to do something. That was Adam Smith’s role in writing Moral Sentiments and Wealth Of Nations.

I would suggest humbly that Natasha pause in her certainties and read Adam Smith on the ‘man of system – very wise in his own conceit’ in Moral Sentiments (VI.ii.2: pp 227-34).

I doubt whether it would have an immediate affect on her passions but I hope it remains as a nagging challenge to them.


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