It’s really something to live in a country that doesn’t know what it is doing in a world that doesn’t know where it is going in a time when anything can happen. I hope you can get comfortable with uncertainty.
If there’s one vibe emanating from this shadowy zeitgeist it’s a sense of the total exhaustion of culture, in particular the way the world does business. Everything looks tired, played out, and most of all false. Governments can’t really pay for what they do. Banks have no real money. Many households surely have no money. The human construct of money itself has become a shape-shifting phantom. Will it vanish into the vortex of unpaid debt until nobody has any? Or will there be plenty of worthless money that people can spend into futility? Either way they will be broke.
The looming fear whose name political leaders dare not speak is global depression, but that is not what we’re in for. The term suggests a temporary sidetrack from the smooth operation of integrated advanced economies. We’re heading into something quite different, a permanent departure from the standard conception of economic progress, the one in which there is always sure to be more comfort and convenience for everybody, the economy of automatic goodies.
A big part of the automatic economy was the idea of a “job.” In its journey to the present moment, the idea became crusted with barnacles of illusion, especially that a “job” was a sort of commodity “produced” by large corporate enterprises or governments and rationally distributed like any other commodity; that it came with a goodie bag filled with guaranteed pensions, medical care to remediate bad living habits, vacations to places of programmed entertainment, a warm, well-lighted dwelling, and a big steel machine to travel around in. Now we witness with helpless despair as these illusions dissolve.
The situation at hand is not a “depression,” though it may resemble the experience of the 1930s in the early going. It’s the permanent re-set and reorganization of everyday life amidst a desperate scramble for resources. It will go on and on until there are far fewer people competing for things while the ones who endure construct new systems for daily living based on fewer resources used differently.
In North America I believe this re-set will involve the re-establishment of an economy centered on agriculture, with a lot of other activities supporting it, all done on a fine-grained local and regional scale. It must be impossible for many of us to imagine such an outcome – hence the futility of our current politics, with its hollow promises, its laughable battles over sexual behavior, its pitiful religious boasting, its empty statistical blather, all in the service of wishing the disintegrating past back into existence.
This desperation may be why our recently-acquired traditions seem especially automatic this holiday season. Of course the “consumers” line up outside the big box stores the day after the automatic Thanksgiving exercise in gluttony. That is what they’re supposed to do this time of year. That is what has been on the cable TV news shows in recent years: see the crowds cheerfully huddled in their sleeping bags outside the Wal Mart… see them trample each other in the moment the doors open!
The biggest news story of a weekend stuporous from leftover turkey and ceremonial football was a $6.6 billion increase in “Black Friday” chain-store sales. All the attention to the numbers was a form of primitive augury to reassure superstitious economists – more than the catatonic public – that the automatic cargo cult would be operating normally at this crucial testing time. The larger objective is to get through the ordeal of Christmas.
I don’t see how Europe gets through it financially. The jig is up there. Lovely as Europe has become since the debacles of the last century – all those adorable cities with their treasures of deliberately-created beauty – the system running it all is bankrupt. Europe is on financial death-watch and when the money stops flowing between its major organs, the banks, the whole region must either go dark or combust. Nobody really knows what will happen there, except they know that something will happen – and whatever it is portends disruption and loss for the worlds largest collective economy. The historical record is not reassuring.
If Europe’s banks go down, many of America’s will, too, maybe all of them, maybe our whole money system. I’m not sure that we will see a normal election cycle here in 2012. A few bank runs, bank failures… gasoline shortages here and there… the failure of some food deliveries to supermarkets in some region… these are the kinds of things that can bring down a political system drained of once-ironclad legitimacy. All that is left now is the husk of ritual – witness the failure of the senate-house “super-committee.” The wash-out was so broadly anticipated that it was greeted with mere yawns of recognition. It would be like pointing at the sky and saying, “air there.”
This holiday season spend a little time musing on what the re-set economy will be like in your part of the country. Think of what you do in it as a “role,” or a “vocation,” or a “trade,” or a “calling,” or a “way of life,” rather than a “job.” Imagine that life will surely go on, even civilized life, though it will be organized differently. Add to this the notion that you are part of a larger group, a society, and that societies evolve emergently according to the circumstances that their time and place presents. Let that imagining be your new American Dream.