Thursday, March 31, 2016

Still talking to the hand

The Hand by Pants
I heard an unfamiliar expression the other day - 'lifestyle refugee'. I gather it refers to someone who has chosen to embark on a particularly severe form of tree-slash-sea change.

'I think they mean you, Pants.'

'Barney, will you shut the fuck up.'

I mean no disrespect to the millions of real refugees who've been forced to trudge across Europe in search of the most basic of human needs, but I have to admit that seeking 'refuge' is not a million miles removed from what we do here at Seat of Pants. To be clear - we are very grateful for the beauty and security of our Larrikin's End hideaway, but we are less pleased with the diet of intellectual empty calories and even obvious and blatant lies on which we are expected to satisfy our still-active minds.

It comes as no surprise to me at all that some young, idealistic refugees from Syria, Libya and Iraq,  having reached safety and had a chance to draw breath, might find themselves horrified to discover that they have risked their lives for a future comprising Coke, McDonald's and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Perhaps they had some understanding of the post-WW2 social settlement that had, until relatively recently, underpinned the stability and cultural flourishing of Europe and the Anglophone countries for which they strike out with the greatest of hope. Capitalists love to claim credit for our spectacular lifestyle advances since 1945, but higher worker wages, decent housing and access to education and healthcare created the rising tide that lifted all boats. These were not provided by capitalism but fiercely fought for by socialists and grudgingly conceded by business owners left with no choice but to pay some tax.

It's very Australian to suspend compassion towards the desperate fellow humans to whom we've extended our largesse if they display even a hint of ingratitude or non-cooperation. Our outrage is almost always fuelled by incongruity. We simply don't get it if they don't immediately fall in love with our terrible food and menu of cultural options limited to watching other people chase a ball around or splashing about in swirling water. We're constantly being told that anything other than total embrace of our national inanities is a 'threat to our way of life'. I can only imagine the shock once it sinks in that our version of 'the west' really is culturally bankrupt. It's been bad enough for me and I should have known better.

John Gray, writing in Lapham's Quarterly has this to say about the rise of ISIS,

'It is baffling only for those who believe—despite everything that occurred in the twentieth century—that modernization and civilization are advancing hand in hand. In fact, now as in the past some of the most modern movements are among the most barbaric. But to admit this would mean surrendering the ruling political faith, a decayed form of liberalism without which Western leaders and opinion formers would be disoriented and lost. To accept that liberal societies may not be “on the right side of history” would leave their lives drained of significance, while a stoical response—which is ready to fight while being doubtful of ultimate victory—seems to be beyond their powers. With mounting bewilderment and desperation, they cling to the faith that the normal course of history has somehow been temporarily derailed.'

Yep, and those of us who ignore our history are doomed to repeat it. Capitalism is, quite literally, the monster that devoured Cleveland - to quote my hero Maynard G. Krebs. The vacuum of value we're experiencing now is the beginning of its grizzly end. Douglas Rushkoff, whose most recent book is Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, (and what a great idea that is), said this in recent interview on our ABC Radio National,

'Here in America, many Walmart branches are going out of business because they've bankrupted the communities on which they depended. They put everybody else out of business, they don't pay a living wage, so they've gotten to the point where they don't have customers, they just have poor people living around them. That's not a good long-term business strategy.

'But when you are looking at quarter-over-quarter growth, when you are a CEO who just wants to get another two or three quarters of bonuses out of this and then leave, then that's what you're going to do. It's bankrupting not just the people, it's bankrupting corporate America as well.'

This is what it looks like when a system starts eating itself. We don't want to believe it's happening because the structure appears to have served us so well, and what else is there? Some of us do believe and wonder what we can do in mitigation. Believe me, if there were an honest and serious socialist revolution to join, I'd be there in seconds. I long for that. I actually believe in collectivism. The best working experiences of my life were in collectives. If we could just eliminate the zero-sum-game problem of power corrupting... there's a human advance that's crying out for invention. Any takers from the corporate sector? Nah, didn't think so.

I absolutely get why people who've been raised with a community ethic, as many have in Asia and the Middle East, would be horrified when they see that all we seem to do is consume and compete, whilst waxing lyrical that we do nothing of the sort. I'm less clear on why they think that sexually harassing young girls in the street is the antidote to that. Kant said, 'a sane child put with mad children will go mad.' I suspect that may be true.

The Pants strategy is not in any way a solution to the problems of the world. Even I don't believe that we can stop the monster that devoured Cleveland from eating us all for supper, eventually. I do, however, think that those of us who still want humanity to have half a chance of surviving, can and should use whatever passive weapons we have at our disposal to fend it off for as long as possible. We might not be able to stop but we can stall. I don't shop - even though I can. I've pared down the need for buying to the bare basics, (books, wine, smoked salmon). I grow my own vegetables. I'm in a garden club and now have an allotment as well as my own large patch at home. I use recycled framed boards from charity shops for my paintings. I don't buy clothes - I mend and make do.

I'm as obnoxious as I can get away with when dealing with the few authorities and corporations I can't avoid. The bigger the entity, the more belligerent I become - in the nicest possible way, of course. I make my life as simple as possible. Capitalism hates that. The most potent power a woman has is to withdraw cooperation. I exercise that power. No entreaties to my vanity will ever tempt me to buy creams or pay money to have my hair cut or volunteer my labour to cover for the shortfall in social spending.

Back to John Gray,

'For many in the West, the threat ISIS poses to their view of the world seems a greater disaster than the atrocities ISIS has committed and threatens to repeat. The bafflement with which the West approaches the group is a symptom of the senility of the liberal mind, a condition for which there is no obvious remedy. Perhaps what our culture lacks, in the end, is the ability to understand itself.'  

I agree, and it's absolutely infuriating. It's a sign of addiction when you know what you're doing will kill you but you can't stop. You simply don't believe there's another, better way. Individually, we can challenge that belief. I'm very lucky, I am in a position to opt out and I'm going at it for all I'm (not) worth. The less you have, the less you fear and the less you crave. I've discovered that to be true.

'Barney - you were right! Though I prefer 'lifestyle refusenik', it sounds more radical. Now bring me wine, there's a good chap.'

Chardonnay socialism - now there's an idea.