The Present of Presence
by Daniel Pinchbeck Dec. 2008 This article originally appeared in Conscious Choice.
MOST PEOPLE HAVE not yet fully processed the magnitude of the economic crisis that will continue to deepen in the next years. Our lives may depend upon working through the causes and logical consequences of this disaster, which can be blamed on the greed and ineptitude of our ruling elite. The short-term prognosis is devastating. The hundreds of billions — potentially trillions — of dollars created by the U.S. government and Federal Reserve for bailouts should lead to hyperinflation and a sharp rise in the price of basic goods. At the same time, some analysts are predicting the U.S. government will be insolvent by next summer and forced to declare bankruptcy.
One consequence of the credit freeze has been that many farmers around the world, who often live on narrow margins and depend upon loans to see them through the annual harvest, have not been able to get credit. This could lead to diminished production of food at a time when climate change is reducing the amount of arable land. Last year, there were already hunger riots in a number of countries, and by next summer we may see famine on a larger scale.
Hunger may also become a problem in the U.S. While layoffs and mass foreclosures continue and our economy contracts, a large segment of our populace (who have no savings and much debt) could become a new pauper class. We have already seen over a million homes turned over to banks. One can only wonder where those people – and the millions more soon to join them – are going to end up.
Meanwhile, the turmoil in the markets will continue, potentially getting much worse. Apparently, hundreds of trillions of virtual dollars spin in the roulette machine of the derivatives market, which is beginning to disintegrate. The collapse of the housing market may be followed by mass waves of credit card defaults. Our economy was a house of cards, based on the extraordinary premise that ever-expanding debt was a desirable product, and it is now falling down upon us.
We are facing a time of great change and spiritual challenge. Those of us who have undergone a process of awakening and initiation during the last decades will be called upon to act as truth-tellers, leaders and compassionate caretakers for the multitudes that have been duped and deluded by the system. We may have to abandon our comfort zones and personal ambitions to be of service to the situation as it unfolds.
In the time available to us before the situation becomes critical, priorities include strengthening local communities and disseminating techniques of self-sufficiency, such as getting many more people to grow their own food. It is tragic that our mass media continues to act as a mechanism of distraction. The media could be used to explain to people how our world is changing, to teach them the basic life skills that we forfeited a few generations ago, and to imprint new behavior patterns based on sustainable life-ways. Perhaps public broadcasting, at least, can be repurposed for this necessary effort.
The partial nationalization of financial institutions around the world reveals the failure of capitalism – the end of capitalism in its old form. In the future, it should be obvious that capitalism was a transitional system for our global community. Capitalism meshed the world together through networks of trade and communication, while maintaining monstrous inequities and irrational misuse of resources.
The question that faces us now is: what comes after capitalism, and how do we get there? In the short term, we may see dangerous efforts at authoritarian control. The longer-term answer may be a collapse of centralized structures of authority and the blossoming of a new form of global direct democracy – what the anthropologist Pierre Clastres called “society without a state.” By necessity, our future system will be collaborative rather than competitive.
If the crisis now confronting the human community is mishandled, vast populations will experience untold suffering and starvation in the next few years. If “we the people” can rise to the occasion, we may be able to radically change the direction of human society, along with the basic paradigms and underlying operating systems of our culture, in a rapid timeframe. This appears to be the message of many prophetic traditions – as the Hopi say, “We are the ones we have been waiting for” — which have anticipated this climactic passage in human affairs.
As we approach the holiday season and the Gregorian New Year, we can give thanks for having been born into this extraordinary, precious time. Our actions over the next few years could have tremendous consequences for humanity’s future on this planet. At such a juncture, the best present we can give to the people around us is our authentic presence – our willingness to listen, learn and remain open to transformation, as the pace of change quickens around us.
Put a Fork in It
by Daniel Pinchbeck Nov 2008
I HAVE DEVELOPED the late-night habit of obsessively tracking through articles and reports on the global financial system. It appears that the patient is in the throes of a massive heart attack, after years of abuse and hyper-activity, and all attempts at resuscitation are failing quickly. Recent highlights include:
A LEAP2020 report argues persuasively that the US will be forced to default on its debt next summer, and The Telegraph agrees that the current infusion of hundreds of billions of dollars from European and American central banks will only delay the next level of collapse by a few months, potentially leading to martial law in the US and many European countries.
An editorial from Sunday’s NY Times anticipates an upcoming “rash of corporate bankruptcies” that will be “very bad news” for stockholders, employees, and lenders. An analysis concludes the $700 trillion derivatives market is about to melt down, along with thousands of hedge funds, according to The Guardian.
Meanwhile, the lack of credit is crippling export of basic goods from the “developing world,” endangering the lives of millions of people whose existence depends on our purchase of their products. A mega-crisis caused by the greed of the rich is destroying the lives of the poor.
All of this data, and much more, strongly suggest that the global financial system, in its current form, cannot be salvaged. At best, we may have a year or 18 months before the system fails us entirely. After that, money, in its current form, may have no value at all, as basic trust in our institutions evaporates.
Since previous human societies used different mediums of exchange – such as the gift economies of tribal people – it is quite possible that our current form of money could also be displaced by a different mechanism. Few people in our society have considered this prospect. Nobody has developed a working contingency plan that address all of the problems we face in a systemic way. In order to do this, we need a “comprehensivist” approach – think Buckminster Fuller meets Machiavelli – that takes into account all of the essential elements, including human psychology and design science. We need a new model, along with a message that appeals to the vast majority of global stakeholders, one that speaks to both the wisdom and madness of crowds.
If the global financial system goes down, what will have value, and how will value be exchanged? How will we maintain the inextricably complex support systems that sustain billions of human lives in our globalized world? How can we evolve to a new ecological and ethical paradigm instead of degenerating into warring factions? We better come up with answers to these questions, as quickly as possible. It may help to study recent case studies, such as Cuba and Argentina, which demonstrate how complex modern cultures can reorganize manpower and resources when they have been cut off by the global system.
We can only find the answers when we share a coherent understanding of how we arrived at this juncture. With a crisis as massive and multidimensional as this one, it seems difficult to find the proper framework to interpret and understand it. While one immediate cause was the overvaluing of housing and the packaging of sub-prime mortgages into complex financial instruments, that was ultimately only a symptom of deeper structural flaws. For the last decades, financial speculation was used to extract value and tangible assets from the poor and middle class, and transfer it to the wealthy. This greed-based system has self-destructed, as happened previously when the “roaring Twenties” led to the Great Depression and New Deal.
The modern West created an economic system fundamentally based on the creation of debt. Capitalism requires constant expansion and exploitation of new markets in order to maintain itself. Economists have ignored the hard limits on planetary resources when calculating future potential for development. It was an absurd, almost cartoonish error to believe that we could continue limitless growth on a finite planet.
Capitalism has tremendous dynamism but is inherently unstable. In the future, we will look back to realize that capitalism was a transitional system, unifying the world into a single market and communications grid, before being replaced by a more durable and sustainable economic order. Ironically, considering his repudiation in recent decades, much of Marx’s analysis is proving accurate and prescient.
On another level, we can see that the current global crisis has been forced by the mindset of domination and competition that reflects our immaturity as a species. The Darwinian notion of the “Survival of the Fittest” was an imposition of our competitive and ego-centric worldview onto the natural world. As most biologists now see it, healthy ecosystems are based on complex patterns of cooperation and interdependence. As the WBAI talk show host Tiokasin Ghosthorse notes, humanity must shift from living “on” the earth, to living with her.
Put in the simplest terms, then, our global society is going to have to undergo a rapid – almost instant – transition from competitive and possessive behavior to cooperation and sharing if we want our species to survive, let alone thrive, into the future. Considering the ecological crisis of species extinction and climate change and the fragility of our support systems, this change has to happen in an extraordinarily compressed timeframe. What we don’t have yet is a realistic plan of action that gets us from here to there.