Talking with Madmen, Playing for Time
Written by Chris Floyd   
Friday, 29 July 2011 13:58


Pressing matters of various kinds have kept me from my appointed rounds in these precincts of late – and there will probably be further lacunae over the next few weeks. My apologies. We hope to be back to more regular programming soon.

Circumstances aside, there is another factor at play in the recent dearth of posting: the inherent difficulty of saying anything meaningful about a political world that has become almost totally hallucinatory. This is currently being exemplified by the debt-ceiling “crisis.” Every single element of the public presentation of this “crisis” is transparently, even brazenly false. It is obvious – even to many of our ever-somnolent Establishment commentators – that the situation is an entirely manufactured crisis designed solely to impose shock-doctrine “austerity” on the American system, thus completing its long, painful mutation into a neo-feudal oligarchy backed by a militarist police state.

One can speculate till the cows come home about why this is happening – and why it is being so meekly accepted not only by the institutions of civic society but also by the population whose lives, communities and futures are being so aggressively degraded by this savage class war. But what one cannot do is to make a sensible comment about “current events” (as this phrase is usually understood), because the “events” themselves are nonsensical. Treating surface data of these "events" as substantive realities – as most “serious” commentators do – is like  engaging in debate with a madman lost in some infinitely variegated imaginary world. And this sense of irreality holds across the spectrum of our public life, especially in our endless, monstrous wars and the operations of our vicious and voracious “security” organs.

There is a reality behind these massive deceptions and pathological self-delusions, of course. And the main purpose of this blog is to unearth and examine whatever fragments of reality one can pull from the meaningless slagheap that surrounds us. But just at the moment, it’s difficult to find the time and energy necessary to do this properly. We’ll get back to the task as soon as possible.

UPDATE: Speaking of debt ceilings and things monetary, I've been reading a fascinating book by anthropologist David Graeber -- described by the New York Times as "a scholar whose books are used in college classrooms around the world and an anarchist who is a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World." He also teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London. An interesting chap, as they say.

His latest book is Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I picked it up by chance the other day at what is probably the best bookstore in the world, Blackwell's, in Oxford. Here is Graeber's own take on what the book is about:

This book is a history of debt, but it also uses that history as a way to ask fundamental questions about what human beings and human society are or could be like -- what we actually do owe each other, what it even means to ask that question. As a result the book begins by attempting to puncture a series of myths .... In the common-sense view, the State and the Market tower above all else as diametrically opposed principles. Historical reality reveals, however, that they were born together and have always been intertwined. The one thing that all these misconceptions have in common, we will find, is that they tend to reduce all human relations to exchange, as if our ties to society, even to the cosmos itself, can be imagined in the same terms as a business deal ....

[In later chapters], I return to the question of the origins of money to demonstrate how the very principle of exchange emerged largely as an effect of violence -- that the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption. That, in turn, opens the way to an actual history of the last five thousand years of debt and credit ... Many of the discoveries here are profoundly unexpected: from the origins of the conceptions of rights and freedoms in ancient slave law, to the origins of investment capital in medieval Chinese Buddhism, to the fact that many of Adam Smith's most famous arguments appear to have been cribbed from the works of free-market theorists from medieval Persia ... For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask the Great Questions. Increasingly, it's looking like we have no other choice.

Graeber also explores some alternative approaches to the myths that have pervaded our societal and individual consciousnesses so thoroughly that we can't even conceive of anything else:

[One example of a different approach comes] from "the words of an actual hunter-gatherer -- an Inuit from Greenland made famous in the Danish writer Peter Freuchen's Book of the Eskimo. Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly:

"Up in our country we are human!" said the hunter. "And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs."

... The refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found throughout the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human meant *refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began "comparing power with power, measuring, calculating" and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt.

It's not that he, like untold millions of similar egalitarian spirits throughout history, was unaware that humans have a propensity to calculate. If he wasn't aware of it, he could not have said what he did. Of course we have a propensity to calculate. We have all sorts of propensities. In any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilization.

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