Sunday, January 15, 2017

Leadership and crisis

It's a function of Dunbar's number. Any group that exceeds a certain population threshold requires a layer of administration or management above it to organize its activity, suppress potential conflicts, and collect and redistribute goods. This is why anarchism can never 'work' except in groups that are fewer than around 150 people. The problem is, this leadership layer has qualities and characteristics that make it different from those it administers, and it inevitably does three things.

The leader group (1) begins making rules not only for the whole, but for the smooth running of the leadership function--best case--and (2) to strengthen the leadership layer--this can be a good or bad thing depending on the specific leaders--and (3) to aggrandize itself at the expense of those led--which requires the leader group to intentionally bewilder those led into believing that what the leader group is doing to aggrandize itself is for the good of the whole.



In the case of rule-making, especially in complex bureaucratic societies, the rules that apply to the whole, e.g., murder-taboos, are expected, understood, and accepted for fairly obvious reasons. But rules that facilitate more 'effective' management, e.g., the office is only open from 10-4, Monday through Thursday, also have a threshold whereupon they quit being for the good of the whole and begin subordinating the good of the whole to the good of the management layer. The management tail begins to wag the community dog. This dog-waggery is pernicious but not necessarily malicious. It is a pain in the collective ass, but through vigilance and good will, this tendency can theoretically be checked. In most cases, it is not; and this tendency is combined with those that follow. The larger the social organization, the more difficult this dog-waggery is to control, because of what we might call the social law of inertia. Mass times velocity equals momentum; and the granular self-organization of society within these larger administrative, economic, and juridical frameworks tends to minimize the capacity of individual leaders to operate effectively outside these frameworks.


In the case of strengthening leadership groups, motive is crucial, but good motives don't always have intended effects. The management group might want to strengthen its own power to more effectively respond to emergencies. Unity of command is a principle wedded to tactical agility, so to speak. On the other hand--motive again--the leader group may take more power out of a desire to impose its will on the group. And again, even a power-grab might be motivated by the desire to accomplish something good; but then again, this power might be sought for something malicious or selfish. Specifics matter, but the problem is, one leader might want more power to do good, then a replacement comes along who uses that power to do wrong. Or more nuanced, we can look at our situation between President Obama and President Trump, where the former strengthened the executive to do many wrongs (carrying water for Wall Street and the military-industrial-media complex, deportations, attacking whistle-blowers, supporting coup-makers and despots, and chronic paranoid bombing abroad), but did so with a certain circumspection and with an eye to stability--making him a kind of known quality--and the latter, at least from what we can glean from his past, has the mental and emotional makeup of a tyrannical six-year-old brat, and he will inherit this increased executive power, with even more unpredictable consequences.


In the third case, of leader self-aggrandizement, or what we might call corruption, the leaders use their positions and power to become rich, mainly, or richer; though we ought not discount the attraction of power itself to feed their egos and give them the capacity to abuse others for their own sadistic pleasure. Ambiguously situated between the latter two cases, human beings who are in positions of power also enjoy fame, or recognition, and often see the development of reputation as a kind of vain hedge against mortality. So you have leaders with an eye to their 'legacies,' which is still self-aggrandizing. This can serve the good of others in some cases (even though the motive is narcissistic), but it can also be pursued in ways that themselves have unintended negative consequences.


Crisis is variously defined, but we'll cobble together a definition here that applies to societies, big modern societies like ours, cribbed from Yeats: crises are periods in which things fall apart. Our systems and procedures no longer work. Our analyses and theories and purported solutions no longer work. Our epistemologies no longer work.

We are living through a period of nested crises. There is a general crisis of ecology, in which climate change is just one emerging catastrophe among several. Nested within that, there is a crisis of economy, in which capitalism itself is proving at least one Marxist thesis to be correct--it is unsustainable, because the ceaseless expansion of capital (which is a socio-ecologic relation) runs up against both ecological and social limitations. Nested within that is a crisis of stability, which includes wars and displacements, but also a general feeling of anxiety, insecurity, and simmering anger. This latter crisis is what became manifest in the 2016 US elections, which is where we are going with this. Running through all these crises are the moral impasses that incubated within modernity's now failing attempt to reconcile.

Crisis of ecology

Ecologic crisis begins locally, then expands until it achieves certain thresholds, whereupon quantity is transformed into quality, and the crisis generalizes.

Do we really need to expound here on our ecologic crisis? Well, yes, we do. Because we all may recognize what has happened to the atmosphere, the forests, the soils, the water, the ocean, and the species that are dying off at an unprecedented rate; but there is still an imperial narrative out there that the core problem is something called 'overpopulation,' and that the fix is reducing human fecundity. Especially humans that are not quite on par with 'us. This idea is popular even among many so-called progressives, which is unsurprising, given that progressivism has embarrassingly deep eugenic roots of which most progressives are actually unaware. I hesitate to even use the word population, because it has so many Malthusian and even eugenic echoes.

We need to say in advance that the world’s conditions are not firstly a ‘population problem’; although how-many-of-us-there-are, in conjunction with how much we use, what we make, where we live, how we relate to each other is an aspect of our total ecology. So we are seven billion more or less, spread all over the place, clustered around water, depending on land to produce foods, fuels, fibers, minerals, livestock, etc. On Malthus: Thomas Malthus was an Anglican curate who was friends with Hume and Rousseau in the latter eighteenth century who said that population increases faster than land can support it. Malthusianism has come to mean those who see the world’s problems are primarily a problem of ‘overpopulation.’ Many Malthusians have advocated policies like mandatory sterilization and birth control. Malthusianism does not always entail racist ideas, though it often has. In the Chinese case, mandatory population control measures have targeted women, and have resulted in far fewer female births (because traditional ideas favor male children and females are aborted).

Anti-Malthusians (like me) point out that population does not increase in advance of land use, but in response to it. When more food is available (due to changes in land use and agriculture), then the population increases in response. The problem we face now is that we have increased food production and thereby increased population based on a model of agriculture that is not sustainable. This still does not mean that the prime directive is population decrease, but that land use must again be redesigned. In fact, intensive hand-tended, organic polyculture can produced far more and far more variable food per hectare than extractive industrial agriculture and actually restore soils to biotic health, capture carbon, and prevent water pollution.

Returning to our present crisis, then, the narrative of overpopulation actually serves to obscure the role that industrial capitalism plays in this crisis, by presenting the problem as one of simple gross numbers instead of a set of complex and hierarchical relations. Those relations, it turns out, are exactly what our current leadership aim to preserve.

The $49 billion a year golf business in the US, with its 18,000 golf courses (that is half of the world's 35,000), use up 1.7 million acres of land into which we pour (and pollute with pesticides and herbicides, as well as tend with a fleet of fossil-energy powered machines) 4 billion gallons of water a day. That's enough water for all of Bangladesh, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Uganda, Rwanda, and Mozambique combined, given those nations' per capital water use. Those countries use around a dozen gallons per capita, taken together,whereas in the US out per capita water consumption is around 570 gallons a day. "I don't use a fraction of that," you may say, and you'd be right. Which is exactly why raw Malthusian numbers tell us very little. We use it up on golf courses, watering lawns (the biggest waste of water imaginable), and more than anything else, on industrial agriculture, which also pollutes that water before it is returned to the watersheds.

What is chewing through the biosphere is not raw population, but an economic model that demands ceaseless 'expansion,' or in the obfuscating biological euphemism of economists, 'growth.' This 'growth' serves our 'leadership,' because they are groomed and selected by those who are rich within this model, and it is that to which they are committed first.

Crisis of economy

The United States' Central Bank is the Federal Reserve. It is run by bankers, with a chief appointed by the state. In recent decades, the 'Fed,' as it is called, has tweaked the US economy by using the Federal funds interest rate as a tool to create unemployment. Bankers dislike inflation--X amount of money losing its relative purchasing power--because banks and other lenders thrive on debt repayment, which drawn out over time means that each passing day reduces the purchasing power of the money owed them. They have long enshrined their class-warfare from above in a pseudo-science called economics, which leads them to conclude that inflation is caused principally by workers receiving too much money, which is a double-problem.

First, it means workers have more to spend, which they believe stimulates sellers to charge more for goods, which leads to inflation. Second, and perhaps more importantly from a class standpoint, when workers are fully employed and there are more jobs than people to fill them, the market favors workers. Employers have to compete, via higher wages, to convince workers to choose them. This translates into greater social and political power for workers. When money is more available (via lower interest rates), more people build more businesses--so the logic goes--and therefore create more jobs, which expands profits overall, but also sets up that seller's market for workers. More jobs for the same number of people. So when the economy becomes 'overheated,' that is econo-speak for inflationary, the Fed raises interest rates, cutting off the creation of new jobs until unemployment reaches a certain threshold that transforms the worker-friendly market into an employer-friendly market again.

This 'logic' has dictated that the Fed raise interest rates until unemployment is acceptably high, then droop the rates if unemployment threatens to slow profitability when unemployed people begin to hoard their money for things like food, running water, and electricity. Balance between inflation on the one hand and stagnation on the other.

This idea is still the 'economic wisdom,' even though this 'logic' has serially failed, sometimes producing the unthinkable: stagflation, combined inflation and stagnation, which has not disabused economists of their 'theory' even after proving them wrong. In the last instance of failed economic 'theory,' after 2007, failed so spectacularly that the Fed has been forced to leave interest rates below one percent for the last nine years. Given that the Fed, in this regard at least, is a one-trick pony, one might say we are stuck in a chronic crisis. What they know how to do does not work.

Behind this superficial account of the Fed, however, there are a number of historical and economic complexities, not the least of which has been late capitalism's transfer of political power from industrial to financial capital. Industrial capital cobbles together some money, buys its infrastructure, hires workers, and makes widgets or bricks or computers or whatever. Then it sells its stuff at a profit, pays off its loans, and lives happily ever after (until the market is saturated, or a new widget comes along, or raw material s run out, and it's over). Financial capital does not accumulate money from making anything. It accumulated money as royalties--rents and interest and so forth. Financial capital loans money to industrial capital, but it also engages in all kinds of financial gambling, some riskier than others. The stock market, derivatives markets, etc., are really casinos. This can create dramatic instability, as we learned from the Great Depression, whereupon the state implemented a system of financial-pole repression, beginning with the enforced separation of savings and loan institutions from speculative financial enterprises. That wall between the two poles of capital was eventually eroded, and Bill Clinton drove the last nail in its coffin with the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act during his administration. By then, the finance capitalists, headquartered at Wall Street, had pretty much taken over the government and the global economy, which they repeatedly crashed through financial bubbles without any consequences. In fact, they had become 'too big to fail,' and taxpayers bailed them out. The last crash was 2007-8, which is ongoing, and the much-hyped Obama slow-recovery--during which the interest rate remains near zero--was accomplished by the government buying up billions of trash assets, again with tax monies, using a system called quantitative easing. This has served only to reflate the bubble that popped nine years ago, ensuring that the next crash will be a whopper. Economic historians, honest ones at least, like Peter Gowan or Michael Hudson or Susan Strange, will tell you that the US and global economy has blundered from one crisis to the next pretty much every since the tail end of the US invasion and occupation of Vietnam.

Democrats have served Wall Street with as much or more craven enthusiasm as any Republican. In fact, the one thing both parties have been consistently united around is their slavish and shared commitment to neoliberal economics, which began in earnest under Reagan and Thatcher.

The deeper and deeper international integration of the economy has ensured that all the problems stated above with regard to leadership at greater and greater scales pretty much defines the global economy, and defines the rest of us, including our political leadership, out of nay capacity to fix any of it. Like our ecological crisis, and closely related to it (capitalism is the accelerant that is burning the biosphere and the basis of its own existence), this is a runaway train aimed at a busted bridge.

Crisis of stability

Television news and flagship newspapers in the United States are propaganda organs. Their own leadership is part of an interlocking directorate for the dominant class in the US and the world. They attend parties with Presidents and CEOs and marry their children off to one another. They are committed nationalists, given that the US as presently constituted has been very good to them, and they are likewise committed to American global power. They have transferred that commitment to the majority of Americans, effectively, because they are skillful propagandists, and they have learned how to select what is considered 'news' or 'current affairs,' they have learned how to phrase what they choose to reports in ways that plaster veneer of dispassionate objectivity over agenda-driven stories, they have learned how to use repetition to drown out other narratives, and they have learned how to employ salaciousness and superficial pop culture obsessions to bury embarrassing stories that otherwise get through their screens. They are self-referential and mutually supporting, supplying one another with a cross-pollination of experts and other talking heads to lend further credence to the 'way of knowing' they construct for the rest of us. Perhaps most importantly, they believe their own bullshit. The most important things are really what the seldom or never report.

As this is written, though few would know it, there are extreme crises of political stability in various places all over the world. Americans do not read Asia Times or TeleSUR or The Guardian or Al Jazeera or All Africa or Nouvel Observateur, as a rule, which might de-center our point of view or disrupt the narrative of the Washington Post or CNN. As just one example, Mexico, one of our two contiguous international neighbors, with a population of 123 million and the 15th biggest economy in the world, is a severe crisis of stability, but the issues that underwrite that instability are too embarrassing to the US narrative--especially US neoliberal policies in Mexico that have contributed most dominantly to this crisis, as well as US involvement in Mexican elections--for US media to touch the current Mexican crisis with a barge pole. On January 6th, more than 700 people were arrested and four killed in protests over gas prices. If such a thing had happened in the US, which has more than double Mexico's population, this would have been front page news for weeks or until the next celebrity sex tape is published.

Our stability crisis took the form of a General Election; and what were destabilized were the two dominant political parties. A challenge from the Democratic establishment's left was so credibly mounted by the Sanders campaign--an anti-neoliberal outburst--that it took spying, cheating, media-collusion, and super-delegates to stop it. A challenge to the Republican Party establishment came from the rich brat Trump--who came off like a tin pot Mussolini, mobilizing racially-coded reaction in the face of establishment opposition in the RP, and he won not only the nomination, but the Presidency.


What happened during the campaigns and after the election was evocative of some experiment that turns pens full of generally docile rats into foaming cannibals. While the white Trumplings were fist pumping, flipping the world the bird, and scanning the horizon for brown threats, one Republican Senator declared, "My party has gone bat shit crazy," and those who opposed Trump began forming firing squads for anyone who didn't share their tactical approach to electioneering. The Party establishment managed to jam Clinton past the unwashed Sanderistas as the 'electable' candidate, and they were stunningly handed their asses on the evening of the second Tuesday of November.

Just like the economists whose interest-rate lever came up short, the tried and true system of triangulation, perfected by Clinton's husband during his heyday, curled and died like a frostbitten tomato. Neoliberalism's first family, the Clintons, were pushed off the stage and replaced by a combed-over loon. . . one they had secretly inflated as an easy knock-down toy.

The Republican establishment swallowed hard, the smarter ones seeing the demographic handwriting on the wall in the next decade--during which many of them will become the equivalent of establishment Democrats, and reluctantly lined up behind Trump, where they can at least spend the next two hegemonic years transferring as much wealth as possible to the rich by vandalizing social programs. The emboldened fraction of the Republican base that went for Trump's nostalgic macho white nationalist narrative is now a region of bent space that will eventually suck the RP into its black hole. The weight of the aging among whites will fall with each death, and entering into the other side of the demographic equation are those who leaned away from Trump and even Clinton. The relative power of 'white' people will continue to fall, and fewer and fewer of those left will opt for living into a white identity. Interracial marriage and inter-national marriage is increasing, and with it biracial/multiracial citizens born into those marriages. Those of us in the 65 and above bracket (which I now am) who got in under the wire for Social Security and other social insurance benefits may remain complacent; but for those who will eventually approach those years uncovered after the vandalism that is about to happen, in conjunction with mounting levels of unpayable debt, are moving us steadily toward scenarios like Mexico last week.

In the short term, Trump is exceedingly dangerous, because is a fool with unthinkable power. He must be resisted, and resisted aggressively. But how? And under whose leadership?

Trump and the Democrats

Corrupt, compromised, entrenched leadership never steps aside voluntarily. These leaders, even when and especially when they enter periods of crisis, tend to crash their ships on the rocks rather than cede control. This is exactly what the Democratic Party leadership is doing right now. They have achieved a kind of perfect storm of confusing being-in-charge with efficacy, of what MacIntyre describes as a kind of instrumentality that translates into ethical homelessness, and of the Peter Principle--of managers rising to the level of their incompetence. They regard fortunate accidents as evidence of their prescience and expertise; and unfortunate outcomes as the fault of others. The mere fact of Trump's victory over Clinton should be evidence enough for this assertion, even in the context of what was obviously a crisis of political stability in the United States. This crisis will only get worse, and that is the danger.

Already, this rotted establishment is trying to take up the mantle of resistance to Trump, which should be laughable, except that in the absence of clarity and vigilance it may work. In which case, the crisis will spiral out of control through the powerful downdrafts of a now moribund lesser-evilism. The one issue that most decisively differentiated Sanders from Clinton in the heartland was so-called free-trade, and tit was that issue that Trump beat her on in that same heartland. Now the Democratic Party establishment and its allies are taking up that split cudgel of 'protectionism' against Trump, betting once again that they can slip their discredit economic theories back in with the opposition to Trump's racialized nativism.

They have no clue that this crisis rests on an economic fault line of their own making, which in turn sits precariously atop an ecological crisis with unimaginable ramifications just around the bend. They represent the worst danger in a crisis, which is to ignore the evidence and continue down the same path. Right now, as we tumble into a reactionary abyss--ably prepared by Democrats and Republicans, and now ceded to this perilously insecure buffoon, what we need more than anything is a coherent, well-led, and agile resistance movement to blunt the momentum and begin triage.

The Democratic Party establishment is uniquely unqualified to lead that resistance; and that is exactly what they are trying to position themselves to do. They have the power of control of existing large institutions and their money. This means learning how to bypass them or usurp them within those institutions is critical.

The socialist alternatives

El socialismo puede llegar solo en bicicleta.

-Jorge Riechmann

We can parse words and correct popular misunderstandings as we go along, but we'll begin with a blunt statement. Wherever we are headed from here, continuation of the capitalist epoch (within which state socialisms were themselves entrapped by industrial promethianism, and therefore part of the capitalist order) is suicidal. There must be a movement for a socialist economic model; that is, one in which the central state directs and limits production. I know my distributist friends will balk at this; but new social organizations can not be created by decree. When I said triage, I meant exactly that. We have to stop the bleeding and restore the airway first. And that will mean a strong state that does several specific things as soon as possible. The most important of those things will be to nationalize the banks, the utilities, and other key industries; to unilaterally and immediately withdraw all US military forces from abroad; to systematically ensure that everyone is housed and fed; to guarantee a universal baseline income to all; to establish civilian control boards over all police agencies and prisons and abolish police tactical units; to make education through graduate school free to all who qualify; to forgive massive amounts of personal debt; and to adopt a single-payer health care system. This is just the lifesaving first step.

Here is where various socialisms need to be described and understood. As a former Marxist, I will say outright that I would work with Marxists, but I will under no circumstance accept their leadership. Their teleology is wrong. Their belief that the working class will lead The Revolution (TM) is more wrong. Their commitment to violence 'when necessary' is more wrong still. And yet, most of the Marxists I know, who are intelligent, decent, compassionate, and committed people, would support the basic triage goals listed above.

Because the complex crisis we face is ecological, any form of socialism will have to address these crises head-on; and it will have to aim all its efforts at ultimately restoring a balance between humankind and the rest of nature.

Because general-purpose money is an ecological phenomenon that dissolves traditions, communities, and the biosphere, any socialism worth its salt will have to begin the long march to reduce our dependence on general-purpose money, which inevitably means some form of the radical relocalization of all basic production, draconian control of 'markets,' and the reorganization of political subdivisions around watersheds instead of arbitrary lines drawn on the map.

To this end, the state's role will be crucial. First, once key industries are seized and prices controls set up, non-essential industries need to be systematically closed down. As they are closed, massive public works training and jobs programs must be put in place to guarantee full employment at living wages; and those jobs need to be geared to the transitional projects for repairing environmental damage and setting the stage for relocalization. With price controls, the state can print money for this purpose (they've printed about a trillion dollars to bail out bond traders so far). Priority programs must be to remediate areas where environmental injustices have been the worst. A maximum wage system needs to be established for various professionals--doctors, lawyers, et al. Dramatic conservation measures will need to be taken and enforced, beginning with energy and including any non-essential production that relies on imports that depend upon post-colonial (neoliberal) unequal exchange relations abroad. All subsidies and allowances in agriculture and forestry must be cancelled and-or redirected for both relocalization and sustainability. Any industry that exceeds a certain number of employees and which is not directed wholly by the state would be reorganized as worker-owned. All industry oversight and management would be conducted by subsets of the central authority who are representative of their watersheds.

Without this kind of emergency program, what we have now--crisis wracked and headed for disaster--will stutter along and crash, leaving us as vulnerable or more vulnerable to male authoritarian reactionaries than we already are, as evidenced by the narrow election of Trump. Socialism, and not merely the nationalistic and nostalgic Keyenesians of Bernie Sanders' stripe, is all we have to articulate a real alternative, with a vision upon which to build a real resistance to the period of reaction we are now entering. How that looks will depend on many things that are yet to be discovered in the process of redesigning the built environment; and if we do not redesign the built environment, that very environment will return us to it our present practical and epistemological default positions on the runaway train. Like it or not, we are already miles along the path of a world emergency. We may fail to take this kind of dramatic action, to mount this kind of resistance, to enter into this kind of mass movement; but if we fail at that, we will categorically leave our grandchildren a desperate, insecure, miserable, and dangerous world. For far too many around the world and at home, this is already the reality.

The church

The first thing the church needs to lose, and we've needed to lose it for some time, is the obsession with respectability. Jesus was not respectable. On the contrary, he broke every 'respectability' code there was. The path to the cross is not quiet white Happyville. The middle class church of shined shoes and starched shirts with a weekly dose of organ music and self-righteousness is not equal to the task of witnessing in a world headed toward Syria or Haiti writ large on everyone's horizon.

That said, the church has neither the standing nor the capacity to become Constantinian, and we should resist the desire to do so. The measures implicit for any movement of resistance or the articulation of political alternatives are based on the relations between what we have before us and what are next steps in that triage. They are not, nor should they be, seen as teleological. They should be seen as calling an ambulance and getting a patient to the hospital.

The church needs to find its footing as resident alien, then enter into practical alliances at each step along the way, as witnesses. Nonviolent, fearless, willing to work and sacrifice and speak truth to power as well as to allies. Moreover, the church is uniquely positioned as pre-organized local institutions to begin the practical life-saving work ahead of and alongside the political work. While we work for environmental justice, provide sanctuary and succor, and speak truth to power, we need to reclaim and rehabilitate land, water, and housing; begin to create alternative facts on the ground; and make peace between neighbors. Too often in the past, as corporations (churches are corporations now, with IRS charters) and money-dependent institutions, the church has remained silent in the face of injustices until others had already legitimated resistance. In this, we need to become true leaders--who are vigilant against bureaucratism, resistant to self-aggrandizing power, and inoculated against corruption.


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