Archive for Março, 2015


Once upon a time—and a fairly long time it was—most of the thickly settled parts of the world had something called feudalism. It was a way of organizing society hierarchically. Typically, at the very top there was a sovereign (king, prince, emperor, pharaoh, along with some high priests). Below the sovereign were several ranks of noblemen, with hereditary titles. Below the noblemen were commoners, who likewise inherited their stations in life, be it by being bound to a piece of land upon which they toiled, or by being granted the right to engage in a certain type of production or trade, in case of craftsmen and merchants. Everybody was locked into position through permanent relationships of allegiance, tribute and customary duties: tribute and customary duties flowed up through the ranks, while favors, privileges and protection flowed down.

It was a remarkably resilient, self-perpetuating system, based largely on the use of land and other renewable resources, all ultimately powered by sunlight. Wealth was primarily derived from land and the various uses of land. Here is a simplified org chart showing the pecking order of a medieval society.

Feudalism was essentially a steady-state system. Population pressures were relieved primarily through emigration, war, pestilence and, failing all of the above, periodic famine. Wars of conquest sometimes opened up temporary new venues for economic growth, but since land and sunlight are finite, this amounted to a zero-sum game.

But all of that changed when feudalism was replaced with capitalism. What made the change possible was the exploitation of nonrenewable resources, the most important of which was energy from burning fossilized hydrocarbons: first peat and coal, then oil and natural gas. Suddenly, productive capacity was decoupled from the availability of land and sunlight, and could be ramped up almost, but not quite, ad infinitum, simply by burning more hydrocarbons. Energy use, industry and population all started going up exponentially. A new system of economic relations was brought into being, based on money that could be generated at will, in the form of debt, which could be repaid with interest using the products of ever-increasing future production. Compared with the previous, steady-state system, the change amounted to a new assumption: that the future will always be bigger and richer—rich enough to afford to pay back both principal and interest.

With this new, capitalistic arrangement, the old, feudal relationships and customs fell into disuse, replaced by a new system in which the ever-richer owners of capital squared off against increasingly dispossessed labor. The trade union movement and collective bargaining allowed labor to hold its own for a while, but eventually a number of factors, such as automation and globalization, undermined the labor movement, leaving the owners of capital with all the leverage they could want over a demoralized surplus population of former industrial workers. In the meantime, the owners of capital formed their own pseudo-aristocracy, but without the titles or the hereditary duties and privileges. Their new pecking order was predicated on just one thing: net worth. How many dollar signs people have next to their name is all that’s necessary to determine their position in society.

But eventually almost all the good, local sources of hydrocarbon-based energy became depleted, and had to be replaced using lower-quality, more remote, harder-to-produce, more expensive ones. This took a big bite out of economic growth, because with each passing year more and more of it had to be plowed right back into producing the energy needed to simply sustain, never mind grow, the system. At the same time, industry produced a lot of unpleasant byproducts: environmental pollution and degradation, climate destabilization and other externalities. Eventually these started showing up as high insurance premiums and remediation costs for natural and man-made disasters, and these too put a damper on economic growth.


Population growth has its penalties too. You see, bigger populations translate to bigger population centers, and research results show that the bigger the city, the higher is its energy use per capita. Unlike biological organisms, where the larger the animal, the slower is its metabolism, the intensity of activity needed to sustain a population center increases along with population. Observe that in big cities people talk faster, walk faster, and generally have to live more intensely and operate on a tighter schedule just to stay alive. All of this hectic activity takes energy away from constructing a bigger, richer future. Yes, the future may be ever more populous (for now) but the fastest-growing form of human settlement on the planet is the urban slum—lacking in social services, sanitation, rife with crime and generally unsafe.

What all of this means is that growth is self-limiting. Next, observe that we have already reached these limits, and have in some cases gone far beyond them. The currently failing fad of hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits and steaming oil out of tar sands is indicative of the advanced state of depletion of fossil fuel sources. Climate destabilization is producing ever more violent storms, ever more severe droughts (California now has just a year’s worth of water left) and is predicted to wipe out entire countries because of rising ocean levels, failing monsoon seasons and dwindling irrigation water from glacial melt. Pollution has likewise reached its limits in many areas: urban smog, be it in Paris, Beijing, Moscow or Teheran, has become so bad that industrial activities are being curtailed simply so that people can breathe. Radioactivity from the melted-down nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan is showing up in fish caught on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

All of these problems are causing a very strange thing to happen to money. In the previous, growth phase of capitalism, money was borrowed into existence in order to bring consumption forward and by so doing to stimulate economic growth. But a few years ago a threshold was reached in the US, which was at the time still the epicenter of global economic activity (since eclipsed by China), where a unit of new debt produced less than one unit of economic growth. This made borrowing from the future with interest no longer possible.

Whereas before money was borrowed in order to produce growth, now it had to be borrowed, in ever-larger amounts, simply to prevent financial and industrial collapse. Consequently, interest rates on new debt were reduced all the way to zero, in something that came to be known as ZIRP, for Zero Interest Rate Policy. To make it even sweeter, central banks accepted the money they loaned out at 0% interest as deposits, which earned a tiny bit of interest, allowing banks to make a profit by doing absolutely nothing.

Unsurprisingly, doing absolutely nothing proved to be rather ineffective, and around the world economies started to shrink. Many countries resorted to forging their statistics to paint a rosier picture, but one statistic that doesn’t lie is energy consumption. It is indicative of the overall level of economic activity, and it is down across the entire world. A glut of oil, and a much lower oil price, is what we are currently witnessing as a result. Another indicator that doesn’t lie is the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks the level of shipping activity, and it has plummeted too.

And so ZIRP set the stage for the latest, most queer development: interest rates have started to go negative, both on loans and deposits. Good bye, ZIRP, hello, NIRP! Central banks around the world are starting to make loans at small negative rates of interest. That’s right, certain central banks now pay certain financial institutions to borrow money! In the meantime, interest rates on bank deposits have gone negative as well: keeping your money in the bank is now a privilege, for which one must pay.

But interest rates are certainly not negative for everyone. Access to free money is a privilege, and those who are privileged are the bankers, and the industrialists they fund. Those who have to borrow to finance housing are less privileged; those who borrow to pay for education even less so. Those not privileged at all are those who are forced to buy food using credit cards, or take out payday loans to pay rent.

The functions which borrowing once played in capitalist economies have been all but abandoned. Once upon a time, the idea was that access to capital could be obtained based on a good business plan, and that this allowed entrepreneurship to flourish and many new businesses to be formed. Since anybody, and not just the privileged, could take out a loan and start a business, this meant that economic success depended, at least to some extent, on merit. But now business formation has gone in reverse, with many more enterprises going out of business than are being formed, and social mobility has become largely a thing of the past. What is left is a rigidly stratified society, with privileges dispensed based on hereditary wealth: those at the top get paid to borrow, and get to surf on a wave of free money, while those at the bottom are driven ever further into debt servitude and destitution.

Can NIRP underpin a new feudalism? It certainly cannot reverse the downward slide, because the factors that are putting limits on growth are not amenable to financial manipulation, being physical in nature. You see, no amount of free money can make new natural resources spring into existence. What it can do, however, is freeze the social hierarchy among the owners of capital—for a while, but not forever.

Everywhere you care to look, the ever-shrinking economy eventually results in populist revolt, war and national bankruptcy, and these cause money to stop working in a number of ways. There is usually devaluation, bank failures, inability to finance imports, and the demise of pensions and of the public sector. The desire to survive causes people to focus on getting direct access to physical resources, distributing them among friends and family.

In turn, this causes market mechanisms to become extremely opaque and distorted, and often to stop functioning altogether. Under these circumstances, how many dollar signs someone has next to their name becomes rather a moot point, and we should expect the social hierarchy among the owners of capital to become unstable and capsize. A few among them have the talents to become warlords, and these few fleece the rest out of existence. But overall, in a situation where financial institutions have failed, where factories and other enterprises are no longer functioning, and where real estate holdings have been overrun by marauding mobs and/or invaded by squatters, one’s net worth becomes rather difficult to compute. And so we should expect the org chart of the post-capitalist society, in spreadsheet terms, to look like this. (“#REF!” is what Excel displays when it encounters an invalid cell reference in a formula.)

A good, precise term for this state of affairs is “anarchy.” Once a new, low level of steady-state subsistence is reached, the process of aristocratic formation can begin anew. But unless a new source of cheap fossil fuels is somehow magically discovered, this process would have to proceed along the traditional, feudal lines.

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sudan, o último rinoceronte branco macho no planeta photo ed. Barthrop

Sudan, 38 anos de idade, impotente, o último rinoceronte-branco do norte (Ceratotherium simum cottoni)

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There Will Be Blood

Pray For Calamity, February 11, 2015

“He said that men believe the blood of the slain to be of no consequence but that the wolf knows better. He said that the wolf is a being of great order and that it knows what men do not: that there is no order in this world save that which death has put there.”
― Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

In Theodore Kacynski’s manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” he lays out many premises concerning the existence of man in relation to technology and technological societies. One of these premises is that modern people in technological societies are afraid of death because they have never lived. They have not used their bodies, minds, and souls to their full potential, and thus even in old age, feel like they are yet to begin. Kacynski writes about the primitive man who in his sixties, having seen the successful life of his child and feeling the weariness in his muscles and bones, does not fear, but welcomes his turn to sleep. Where these intuitions were passed on, cultures of indigenous peoples were able to form warrior societies whose success rested on the fact that individual braves had no fear of death. They viewed themselves as one with their people and their land, both of which were timeless, granting them strength of conviction when the situation called for it.
When we hear of people dying in our culture, such news is often quickly followed with statements about the unfairness of one dying so young. Even a fifty-year-old heart attack victim will generally be granted laments and declarations that their passing was too early. While of course the loss of a loved one is saddening, there does appear to be a trend throughout this culture that seems to speak of death as if it is not the ultimate outcome of every life. Death, like the environment, is but another inconvenience to be conquered by our cleverness.
In this culture, there is language of “rights” concerning life. It is said that individuals have a “right” to life, meaning then that death is some violation against the individual. There are even those who would like to extend such rights to animals. No one, according to modern people enculturated by the dominant dogmas, is supposed to die. Ever.
Of course, every living being is only so for a limited time. Death and birth are two phases in the same biological process, and where there is the latter, inevitably we will come to the former. What I find so maddening, is that this culture, so lacking in its ability to confront death, let alone to create and support the psychological and emotional infrastructure to deal with death, is such an efficient bringer of death. How a people so vocally dedicated to peace and the preservation of life can then unflinchingly create nuclear and biological weapons, institute economic castes which immiserate the majority to establish the privilege of the minority, and daily exterminate upwards of two hundred species is possibly the grand irony of our time.
The mind reels.

When just last month, the study “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” was released, it got a lot of traction across the internet. The study, prepared by eighteen scientists from various international universities, grabbed headlines by claiming that human civilization had crossed four of nine environmental boundaries.
Of course such studies digitally shared from hard drive, to hard drive, to hard drive have never served to accomplish much in the way of real world action towards deindustrialization, and likely this one was and will remain no different. The trend seems to be that alarming data confirming that human industrial civilization is driving the global ecology to ruin, likely even to the near term detriment of this very civilization, only ends up spurring on those who believe that human industrial civilization can be done in a less harmful way, perhaps with the addition of more solar panels or the subtraction of capitalist motives.
Those who dare argue that civilization, and industrial civilization in particular, is the root cause of the destructive habits which are bringing all living beings to a point of potential collapse or extinction, are routinely dismissed as extreme. Such critics, before dismissal, are reminded of the dominant culture’s primary directive; “We cannot go backwards.” Suggestions that we must, in order to maintain a survivable habitat, drastically reduce reliance on industrial methods, products, and infrastructure are waved off as impossible, insane, or even genocidal. Defenders of the dominant culture and systems of industrial civilization claim that such reductions in technological application will axiomatically mean reductions in human population, and thus are off the table. These claimants are either oblivious to the fact that “going forward” with the methods and practices of the dominant culture would be at least equally genocidal, if not more so, or they harbor a quasi religious belief that human invention will save us from every single problem caused by previous scores of human invention. Always ignored is the clear fact that so called “going forward” will mean an increase in human population before the ecosystems which support them collapse, meaning there will be more humans to die when drought, famine, sea level rise, resource scarcity, and every other calamity currently rising to crescendo ultimately manifest in a symphony of systemic failures that existing political, technological, and economic structures are incapable of mitigating
And then there are the non-human genotypes that most defenders of the dominant culture refuse to ever enter into their calculations.
When someone refuses to acknowledge a solution to a problem because it will indirectly involve death – even when the solution in question is attempting to select fewer deaths sooner as opposed to a great many more deaths later – this person is inserting hidden premises into the discussion, the most obvious of which is that people alive now have the right to exhaust the health of the land which people not yet born will need to rely on in the future. If upon the suggestion that we must globally act to deindustrialize in order to prevent overwhelming climate catastrophe, a person floats the counter argument that such deindustrialization will result in a reduction of currently available medical technologies, and is therefore an unacceptable proposition, this person is inserting into the discussion a premise that the lives of those who would no longer have access to the medical technologies they require are more valuable – this is to say, they have more of a right to survival – than the lives that will be lost – human and non – when industrial civilization fails and brings down with it the functioning ecology of the planet.
Such premises, to me, seem insane. A patent refusal to acknowledge the bare reality that all life, including human life, requires as a foundation a healthy and viable habitat is either obstinacy or a shameful level of ignorance. Claiming that one group of humans has more of a right to survival than others, or that humans have more of a right to survival than the rest of the web of life, is doubly insane.
At the end of it all, defenders of the status quo are not defending life, they are defending lifestyle. Proponents of the dominant culture and its myths of progress are really arguing for their own comfort, of both body and mind. Changing nothing presents no difficult ethical questions or messy physical conflicts. Going forward is the easy choice. This fact alone should ring alarm bells.


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Dmitri Orlov

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


Scanning the headlines in the western mainstream press, and then peering behind the one-way mirror to compare that to the actual goings-on, one can’t but get the impression that America’s propagandists, and all those who follow in their wake, are struggling with all their might to concoct rationales for military action of one sort or another, be it supplying weapons to the largely defunct Ukrainian military, or staging parades of US military hardware and troops in the almost completely Russian town of Narva, in Estonia, a few hundred meters away from the Russian border, or putting US “advisers” in harm’s way in parts of Iraq mostly controlled by Islamic militants.

The strenuous efforts to whip up Cold War-like hysteria in the face of an otherwise preoccupied and essentially passive Russia seems out of all proportion to the actual military threat Russia poses. (Yes, volunteers and ammo do filter into Ukraine across the Russian border, but that’s about it.) Further south, the efforts to topple the government of Syria by aiding and arming Islamist radicals seem to be backfiring nicely. But that’s the pattern, isn’t it? What US military involvement in recent memory hasn’t resulted in a fiasco? Maybe failure is not just an option, but more of a requirement?

Let’s review. Afghanistan, after the longest military campaign in US history, is being handed back to the Taliban. Iraq no longer exists as a sovereign nation, but has fractured into three pieces, one of them controlled by radical Islamists. Egypt has been democratically reformed into a military dictatorship. Libya is a defunct state in the middle of a civil war. The Ukraine will soon be in a similar state; it has been reduced to pauper status in record time—less than a year. A recent government overthrow has caused Yemen to stop being US-friendly. Closer to home, things are going so well in the US-dominated Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that they have produced a flood of refugees, all trying to get into the US in the hopes of finding any sort of sanctuary.

Looking at this broad landscape of failure, there are two ways to interpret it. One is that the US officialdom is the most incompetent one imaginable, and can’t ever get anything right. But another is that they do not succeed for a distinctly different reason: they don’t succeed because results don’t matter. You see, if failure were a problem, then there would be some sort of pressure coming from somewhere or other within the establishment, and that pressure to succeed might sporadically give rise to improved performance, leading to at least a few instances of success. But if in fact failure is no problem at all, and if instead there was some sort of pressure to fail, then we would see exactly what we do see.

In fact, a point can be made that it is the limited scope of failure that is the problem. This would explain the recent saber-rattling in the direction of Russia, accusing it of imperial ambitions (Russia is not interested in territorial gains), demonizing Vladimir Putin (who is effective and popular) and behaving provocatively along Russia’s various borders (leaving Russia vaguely insulted but generally unconcerned). It can be argued that all the previous victims of US foreign policy—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, even the Ukraine—are too small to produce failure writ large enough to satisfy America’s appetite for failure. Russia, on the other hand, especially when incentivized by thinking that it is standing up to some sort of new, American-style fascism, has the ability to deliver to the US a foreign policy failure that will dwarf all the previous ones.

Analysis have proposed a variety of explanations for America’s hyperactive, oversized militarism. Here are the top three:

1. The US government has been captured by the military-industrial complex, which demands to be financed lavishly. Rationales are created artificially to achieve that result. But there does seem to be some sort of pressure to actually make weapons and field armies, because wouldn’t it be far more cost-effective to achieve full-spectrum failure simply by stealing all the money and skip building the weapons systems altogether? So something else must be going on.

2. The US military posture is designed to insure America’s full spectrum dominance over the entire planet. But “full-spectrum dominance” sounds a little bit like “success,” whereas what we see is full-spectrum failure. Again, this story doesn’t fit the facts.

3. The US acts militarily to defend the status of the US dollar as the global reserve currency. But the US dollar is slowly but surely losing its attractiveness as a reserve currency, as witnessed by China and Russia acting as swiftly as they can to unload their US dollar reserves, and to stockpile gold instead. Numerous other nations have entered into arrangements with each other to stop using the US dollar in international trade. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t take a huge military to flush one’s national currency down the toilet, so, once again, something else must be going on.

There are many other explanations on offer as well, but none of them explain the fact that the goal of all this militarism seems to be to achieve failure.

Perhaps a simpler explanation would suffice? How about this one:

The US has surrendered its sovereignty to a clique of financial oligarchs. Having nobody at all to answer to, this American (and to some extent international) oligarchy has been ruining the financial condition of the country, running up staggering levels of debt, destroying savings and retirements, debasing the currency and so on. The inevitable end-game is that the Federal Reserve (along with the central banks of other “developed economies”) will end up buying up all the sovereign debt issuance with money they print for that purpose, and in the end this inevitably leads to hyperinflation and national bankruptcy. A very special set of conditions has prevented these two events from taking place thus far, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t, because that’s what always happens, sooner or later.

Now, let’s suppose a financial oligarchy has seized control of the country, and, since it can’t control its own appetites, is running it into the ground. Then it would make sense for it to have some sort of back-up plan for when the whole financial house of cards falls apart. Ideally, this plan would effectively put down any chance of revolt of the downtrodden masses, and allow the oligarchy to maintain security and hold onto its wealth. Peacetime is fine for as long as it can placate the populace with bread and circuses, but when a financial calamity causes the economy to crater and bread and circuses turn scarce, a handy fallback is war.

Any rationale for war will do, be it terrorists foreign and domestic, Big Bad Russia, or hallucinated space aliens. Military success is unimportant, because failure is even better than success for maintaining order because it makes it possible to force through various emergency security measures. Various training runs, such as the military occupation of Boston following the staged bombings at the Boston Marathon, have already taken place. The surveillance infrastructure and the partially privatized prison-industrial complex are already in place for locking up the undesirables. A really huge failure would provide the best rationale for putting the economy on a war footing, imposing martial law, suppressing dissent, outlawing “extremist” political activity and so on.

And so perhaps that is what we should expect. Financial collapse is already baked in, and it’s only a matter of time before it happens, and precipitates commercial collapse when global supply chains stop functioning. Political collapse will be resisted, and the way it will be resisted is by starting as many wars as possible, to produce a vast backdrop of failure to serve as a rationale for all sorts of “emergency measures,” all of which will have just one aim: to suppress rebellion and to keep the oligarchy in power. Outside the US, it will look like Americans blowing things up: countries, things, innocent bystanders, even themselves (because, you know, apparently that works too). From the outside looking into America’s hall of one-way mirrors, it will look like a country gone mad; but then it already looks that way. And inside the hall of one-way mirrors it will look like valiant defenders of liberty battling implacable foes around the world. Most people will remain docile and just wave their little flags.

But I would venture to guess that at some point failure will translate into meta-failure: America will fail even at failing. I hope that there is something we can do to help this meta-failure of failure happen sooner rather than later.

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