This is not a Diary: while these observations were recorded in autumn 2010 and spring 2011 in the form of dated entries, they are not a personal reflection but an attempt to capture signs of our times in their movement - possibly at birth, at a stage when they are still barely perceptible, and in any case before they have matured into common, all too familiar forms, escaping our attention due to their banality. Some will perhaps settle in our daily life for a long time to come, others will fade and vanish before they would otherwise have a chance to be noted, recorded and explored in depth: in our fast-moving, protean and kaleidoscopic world, it is hardly possible to predict their future course and to decide in advance which of them will grow in volume and significance and which will prove to have been still-born. Whatever their fate, the author tried to take a leaf from William Blake's precept of seeing the universe in a grain of sand - and, having done so, alert us to what is or may be happening to our individual lives, forms of togetherness, shared prospects; to the ways we perceive and relate to each other, the forces that shape our life chances and itineraries; and to the ways we try to control, or at least influence, and sometimes even reform for the better, some or all those dimensions of our existence. These timely meditations by one of the most perceptive social thinkers of our time will appeal to a wide range of readers.
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Table of Contents
3 September 2010
4 September 2010
5 September 2010
11 September 2010
12 September 2010
13 September 2010
14 September 2010
19 September 2010
21 September 2010
22 September 2010
29 September 2010
7 October 2010
13 October 2010
14 October 2010
17 October 2010
20 October 2010
30 October 2010
30 November 2010
2 December 2010
4 December 2010
16 December 2010
17 December 2010
18 December 2010
21 December 2010
25 December 2010
26 December 2010
27 December 2010
28 December 2010
29 December 2010
31 December 2010
1 January 2011
2 January 2011
3 January 2011
4 January 2011
5 January 2011
6 January 2011
7 January 2011
16 January 2011
17 January 2011
18 January 2011
20 January 2011
28 January 2011
30 January 2011
2 February 2011
4 February 2011
8 February 2011
9 February 2011
12 February 2011
13 February 2011
19 February 2011
22 February 2011
25 February 2011
26 February 2011
27 February 2011
1 March 2011
Copyright © Zygmunt Bauman 2012
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First published in 2012 by Polity Press
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3 September 2010
On the sense and senselessness of diary-keeping
I confess: as I am starting to write (it is 5 a.m.), I haven’t the slightest idea what, if anything, will follow, how long it will go on and how long I’ll need, feel the urge and wish to keep it going. And the intention, let alone a purpose, is anything but clear. The question ‘what for’ can hardly be answered. At the moment when I sat down at the computer, there was no new burning issue waiting to be chewed over and digested, no new book to be written or old stuff to be revised, recycled or updated, no new interviewer’s curiosity to be satiated, no new lecture to be sketched out in writing before being spoken – no request, commission or deadline … In short, there was neither a frame nailed together waiting to be filled, nor a plateful of podgy stuff in search of a mould and a form.
I guess the question ‘because of what’ is more in order in this case than the question ‘what for’. Causes to write are abundant, a crowd of volunteers line up to be noted, picked and chosen. The decision to start writing is, so to speak, ‘overdetermined’.
To begin with, I’ve failed to learn any other form of life except writing. A day without scribbling feels like a day wasted or criminally aborted, a duty neglected, a calling betrayed.
To go on, the game of words is for me the most heavenly of pleasures. I enjoy that game enormously – and the enjoyment reaches its peak when, after another reshuffle of the cards, the hand I get happens to be poor and I need to strain my brains and struggle hard to make up for the blanks and bypass the traps. Forget the destination; it is being on the move, and jumping over or kicking away the hurdles, that gives life its flavour.
Another cause: I seem unable to think without writing … I suppose I am a reader first and writer second – scraps, snippets, bits and pieces of thoughts struggling to be born, their ghostly/ghastly spectres whirling, piling up, condensing and dissipating again, need to be caught by the eyes first, before they can be stopped, held in place and given contours. They must first be written down in a row for the tolerably rounded thought to be born; or, failing that, to be aborted or buried as stillborn.
In addition, while adoring solitude, I abhor loneliness. After Janina’s departure I’ve reached the darkest bottom of loneliness (if there is a bottom to loneliness), where its bitter and most pungent sediments and its most toxic effluvia gather. Since Janina’s face is the first image I see when switching on my desktop, the rest that follows the opening of Microsoft Word is nothing if not a dialogue. And dialogue makes an impossibility of loneliness.
Last, though not least, I suspect I am a natural or nurtured graphomaniac … an addict, needing another daily dose, or risking agonies of withdrawal. Ich kann nicht anders. And this, probably, is the underlying reason, one that makes the search for reasons as desperate and inconclusive as it is inescapable.
As to yet other reasons and causes, they can’t be really counted, and for all I know their number will keep growing daily. Among those that figure most prominently at the moment is the gathering feeling that I am overstaying my welcome, that I have done already what my immoderately moderate capacities entitled or obliged me to, and that the time has therefore arrived to apply to myself Wittgenstein’s recommendation to keep silent about things I can’t speak of or about (I would add, things I can’t speak of or about responsibly, that is with a bona fide conviction of having something useful to offer). And things I can’t speak about are increasingly those things that are nowadays the most worth speaking about. My curiosity refuses to retire, but my capacity to satisfy it or at least placate and alleviate it cannot be either cajoled or persuaded to stay. Things flow too fast to allow room for the hope of catching them in flight. This is why a new topic for scrutiny, a new theme for a full-length study hoping to do justice to its object, is no longer on my cards. And not for a dearth of knowledge available for consumption – but because of its excess, defying all attempts at absorbing and digesting it.
Perhaps this unfeasibility of absorption is an outcome of ageing and of fading strength – a fully or mostly physical and biological matter, rooted ultimately in the changing condition of my own body and psyche (a plausible guess, made still more credible by the impression that the resources needed to obtain and process new information, supplied in my younger years in the form, so to speak, of a limited number of banknotes of large denominations, are now on offer in huge heaps of copper coins, tremendously high in bulk and heaviness, yet abominably low in purchasing power – which makes them, to borrow Günther Anders’s expression, ‘overliminal’ for an aged body and easily tiring psyche). Our time excels in pulverizing everything, but nothing as thoroughly as the world image: that image has become as pointillist as the image of the time that presides over its fraying and grinding.
I gather that at long last the fragmented world has caught up with the painters of its likenesses. An old Indian fable comes to mind, in which half a dozen people, having bumped into an elephant on their way, try to assess the nature of the strange object they have encountered. Five of them are blind, none of them able to reach far enough to touch and feel the elephant all over and tie together their scattered impressions into a vision of its totality; the only one who has his eyes wide open to see is, however, dumb … Or Einstein’s warning that although a theory can, in principle, be proved by experiments, there is no path leading from experiments to the birth of a theory. That much Einstein must have known. What he did not and could not surmise was the advent of a world, and a way of living-in-the-world, composed only of experiments, with no theory to design them, no reliable advice on how to start them off, pursue them and evaluate their results …
What, after all, is the difference between living and reporting life? We can do worse than take a hint from José Saramago, my lately discovered fount of inspiration. On his own quasi-diary he reflects: ‘I believe that all the words we speak, all the movements and gestures we make … can each and every one of them be understood as stray pieces of unintended autobiography, which, however involuntary, perhaps precisely because it is involuntary, is no less sincere or truthful than the most detailed account of life put into writing and onto paper.’
4 September 2010
On the usefulness of fighting windmills
At the threshold of the third millennium, France, like most of the planet, was in the throes of uncertainty. The entry into the new era was appropriately preceded by what might have been (we would never know for sure) one of the most successful hoaxes in history: the ‘millennium bug’ affair, which cast thousands of serious, down-to-earth business corporations and governmental offices, as well as millions of their clients and subjects, into a state of alert aroused by the horrifying, well-nigh apocalyptic vision of the routines of Planet Earth stopping dead, of life on the planet grinding to a halt, at the moment of encounter between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That end of the world having failed to arrive, the computer-service companies counted their blessings and summed up their profits, and the disaster that never struck was promptly forgotten, elbowed out of the endemically excitable and chronically agitated attention of the public by disasters that did strike, or were expected to hit at any moment; whereas the crumbling of public trust and the condensation of public uncertainties – the kinds of troubles the story of the ‘millennium bug’ symbolized – stood fast and refused to budge, let alone to bid farewell.
Perhaps the end of computerized civilization ‘as we knew it’ was not after all nigh, as was proclaimed on the outer edge of the preceding millennium, but the end of the happy-go-lucky years presaged by that proclamation may well have been. One by one, the habitual foundations of security trembled, cracked and fell apart, the prospects of steady jobs and incomes dimmed, once solid bonds and partnerships grew sickly and frail, many a lighthouse of allegedly unshakeable reliability collapsed or shook under the burden of its own corruptions or imploded together with the confidence of beguiled and straying sailors. As for the governments expected to make the insecure secure again and put the disorderly in order, they responded with a staunch and blunt ‘there is no alternative’ answer to the complaints and protests of their increasingly confused and frightened subjects; that is, if they stooped to responding, instead of returning the ‘help me’ and ‘do something’ petitions with ‘wrong address’ or ‘addressee unknown’ rubber stamps …
Against the background of all such noises and silences, the words (and the televised shows that shortly followed them) of Nicolas Sarkozy, newly appointed as Minister of the Interior – French Home Secretary (in 2002) – sounded like a message overflowing with just the right meaning – the first such message for years. The appointment, coming so quickly after the beginning of what seemed to many to be a millennium, or a century at least, of uncertainty, appeared to open the door to a new governmental role and strategy, and to usher in the time of a ‘listening government’, a government following the example set by the banks that were tempting their prospective clients by assuring them that they ‘loved to say “yes” ’. Sarkozy’s appointment promised the advent of times that would render powers-that-be trustworthy once again, and their subjects confident once more that they would not find themselves abandoned to their atrociously scarce resources in their desperate struggle to find firm ground under their feet.
Sarkozy’s message was threefold. First, the hothouse of the insecurity known to torment ordinary folks like you and me, that den of vice and gushing source of daytime horrors and nightmares, has been found, pinpointed and located: as a matter of fact, in the banlieues, the French wholesale name for rough districts and mean streets, populated by people of strange (read, not like ours) look and demeanour, and so probably strange (read, suspect) habits and intentions. Second, as the deepest roots of the adversities and inequities of Frenchmen’s fate have finally been mapped, we the people-in-power, powerful guys, can and will at long last ‘strike at the roots’ of evil – something we are indeed beginning already to do (as seen on TV). Third, what you’ve just seen on TV (the forces of law and order flexing their muscles and raiding the fortresses of crime at dawn in order to round up and incarcerate past, present and prospective criminals, those ultimate culprits of your harrowing days and sleepless nights) is just one example, but a vivid one, of the government in action, determined from the start to end in victory. (Lest such optimism bewilders present readers, let me recall that it was the year 2002, a timing fortunate for the author of the message because, two or three years later, he could have added, to his subsequently yet greater shame, that the governmental actions were ‘bound to end in triumph just like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are bound to’.) In short, what is said by the government is done by the government … or at least is already beginning to be done.
It is 2010 now. In the course of the passing years, that Home Secretary ran on his ‘death to insecurity’ ticket and was elected President of France (in 2007), moving from somewhat humbler premises on Place Beauvau to the dazzling splendours of the Élysée Palace. And now, eight years after the message first summoned Frenchmen and Frenchwomen to listen and take note, that identical triple message is being sent again, with the President’s passionate endorsement and blessing, by Brice Hortefeux, his successor at Place Beauvau. According to Denis Muzet, writing in today’s Le Monde, the replacement and heir of Nicolas Sarkozy followed point by point the 2002 feat of his boss and mentor, extending his own workday to twenty hours and using the impressively expanded time to show up and be seen ‘where the action is’. He personally supervised the dismantling of Roma camps, rounding up the evicted and sending them back to ‘where they came from’ (that is, back to their previous misery), calling in local prefects for reporting and briefing, or catching them unawares ‘in the field’ in order to admonish them and spur them into more action: into one more try, one more effort, one more Summer (Autumn, Winter, whatever) Offensive against the perpetrators and culprits of the misfortune of decent folks known by the name of ‘insecurity’; one more final drive to finish another war promised to end all wars. You are haunted by monsters? Let’s start by getting rid of windmills. This doesn’t stand to reason? Perhaps, but at least you know now that we don’t sit idly by. We do something – don’t we? As seen on TV!
The French warriors against insecurity-by-proxy are not alone in promising to burn insecurity out in the form of Roma and Sinti effigies. Their close ally is Il Cavaliere – The Cavalier – ruling neighbouring Italy. It so happens that today there is also a report by Elisabetta Povoledo, in the New York Times, from Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi’s government, with an eye on the Roma, passed a decree in 2007 allowing it to expel citizens of the European Union after three months’ stay in the country if they could be shown to lack the means to support themselves; following it in 2008 with another decree, granting the state authorities new powers to expel European Union citizens for reasons of public safety – if you are a threat to public safety, you may, should, and will be picked up and escorted to the nearest airport.
To profit from such brand-new wonder weapons in the war declared on insecurity, one needs first to make sure that the hated Gypsies do become, and above all are seen as, a paramount threat to public safety; just to make sure that the word of the powers-that-be becomes flesh indeed, and the forces of law and order do not flex their muscles in vain. Or, yet more to the point, to make one’s prediction into a self-fulfilling prophecy: having foretold on Good Morning TV a forest fire, proceed right away to sprinkle trees with petrol and to strike matches, so that by the end of the day one’s reliability and trustworthiness can be documented on Newsnight. ‘When municipally authorized camps are built,’ Povoledo reports, it is often on the outskirts of a city, segregated from the rest of the population, with living conditions well below standard. That allows governments ‘to bypass the question of integration, a process that would include giving Roma permanent residences and access to schools’. Governments incite suspicion towards Roma on the ground of their nomadic inclinations, and then the same governments force Roma to stay nomadic despite their wish to settle, and try hard to force back into a nomadic life those who have already settled, willingly and quite a time ago – so that the original summary dismissal of the whole ethnic group as ‘travellers’ can after all be convincingly corroborated by statistics, those least debatable ‘facts of the matter’. The Roma are resented as obtrusive beggars? Well, make sure they have no chance of ‘decently’ earning a living. And as to our forest-burning allegory,
temporary camps are a hazard. Last week in Rome, a three-year-old Roma boy was burned to death when a fire broke out in the hut he was living in with his family in an illegal camp near Fiumicino Airport. Afterward, the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno [another politician elected on a ‘war on insecurity’ ticket], said the city would begin dismantling 200 illegal camps this month.
In a flash of prevision, shortly before being crowned Queen of the United Kingdom, young, simple-hearted and plain-speaking Victoria noted in her diary under the date of 28 December 1836: ‘whenever any poor Gypsies are encamped anywhere and crimes and robberies &c. occur, it is invariably laid to their account, which is shocking; and if they are always looked upon as vagabonds, how can they become good people?’
Marx said that history tends to happen twice: the first time as drama, the second time as farce. That rule came into action once more in the case of the two successive wars against insecurity declared by Sarkozy in the course of one decade. On the second of the two wars, Alain Touraine caustically observed that, in sharp distinction from the crowds who applauded the declaration of the first war, ‘no one believes that the Roma or Gypsies are responsible for our misfortunes’. Few indeed do, even though some still swallow the bait and delay spitting it out. But it was not in order to debate the causes of evil, or make the nation believe the official version, that this particular campaign of fear was launched. Touraine hits the bull’s eye when he observes that all that front-page headlines, hullabaloo and public excitement takes place ‘in a setting remote from the great catastrophes we live through’. The effects of politics Sarkozy-style are not to be measured by the number of minds converted to, or continuing to cling to blaming the Roma, but by the number of eyes diverted (even if only temporarily) away from what is truly relevant to people’s lives and their prospects – as well as away from assessing how far, if at all, the government of the country is acquitting itself in the duties which, as it claims, legitimize its prerogatives, its pretensions, and its very presence. If measured in this – proper – fashion, Sarkozy-style politics cannot be easily dismissed as a straightforward failure. Nor is it bankrupt – as vividly testified by the growing number of governments hurrying to concoct local imitations and put them into operation.
The eyes of the nation, you may comment, are unlikely to stay averted forever, so won’t the respite gained by rulers be short-lived? But what these days, forgive me asking, is long-lived? And how many suckers still believe in long terms and ultimate solutions? It will be quite enough, thank you, if the respite lasts long enough to allow the rulers to find another attraction equally likely to draw eyes to itself before they have a chance to turn to what really does matter, to those things about which the rulers neither can nor want to do anything that matters.
There is also another collateral casualty of Sarkozy-style governance. Surprisingly, though not so very surprisingly, the additional casualty is the self-same value which such governance promised and continues to promise to promote and serve: the sentiments of safety and security, of being protected and insured against adverse fate. Frenchmen may now be more sceptical or even downright cynical about the effectiveness of the government’s promises, and about the value of the videotaped and televised governmental undertakings, than they were at the beginning of the first of Sarkozy’s wars; but it is sure that they are now more frightened than ever before. They have lost much of their past faith in the possibility of making their situation any better. They are beginning to believe that insecurity is here to stay, and that it is likely to turn into a normal human condition; and most certainly that state governments are not the sort of instrument which can be used to try to tinker with that particular verdict of nature, of history, or of human fate. Whether by design or by default, Sarkozy’s warlike actions ploughed and fertilized the soil for lush fundamentalist and tribal crops … The soil so prepared is a temptation to adventurous conquistadores which few if any aspiring politicians will find easy to resist.
This kind of governance also needs appointed victims. In the events reported by Denis Muzet and Elisabetta Povoledo, such victims are, of course, the Roma and Sinti populations. But in the kind of politics increasingly à la mode, victims, whether appointed or ‘collateral’, are not just pawns in other people’s games; in the games currently being staged they are also anonymous and expendable extras, easy to replace – supernumeraries whose demise or departure no players, and only a few spectators, are likely to notice and remember, let alone bewail and mourn.
5 September 2010
On virtual eternity
A bus from Tokyo disgorged a large group of youngsters on a beach at Atami, a little sea resort and a favourite weekend haunt for the capital’s seekers after erotic adventure; this is what we learn from today’s edition of Yahoo! News. Buses arrive from Tokyo several times a day, so how come that one of them earned space in the widely read online news bulletin? This particular bus brought to Atami the first batch of the new Nintendo Love+ game players; this bus was a swallow announcing a long and profitable spring for Atami restaurateurs and hoteliers.
The youngsters who alighted from the bus, unlike other passengers, paid no attention to the scantily clad ‘girls frolicking on the sand’. Clutching their smartphone cameras, armed with AR (‘augmented reality’) software, they hurried instead straight to the genuine objects of their desire, the real thing: the virtual girlfriends, enchanted in a little barcode glued to the plinth of a love couple’s sculpture. The software fed into the boys’ smartphones allowed them to ‘disenchant’ from the barcode the one and only girl of their virtual dreams, take her for a walk, entertain her, ingratiate themselves in her eyes and win her favours just by following the clear-cut, unambiguous rules spelled out in the interactive onscreen instructions – results guaranteed or your money back. They can even spend a hotel night together: kissing is allowed and encouraged, though sex alas is for the time being barred; there are still some limits which even the cutting edge technology is unable to cross. One can bet, however, that the technowizards will be able to break this limit, as with so many other limits in the past, by the time Love++ or Love2 is launched.
A serious technological website, dbtechno.com, convinced that technology exists in order to serve human needs and satisfy humans’ demands, is impressed: ‘Love+ is a new game devoted to the man who cannot handle having a real woman in their life and in the country of Japan it has taken off big time,’ it says. As to the services rendered, it is hopeful: ‘For the men out there who do not want to put up with a woman in their life, the virtual girlfriend may be the answer.’
Another ‘need niche’ yearning to be filled is spotted by creamglobal.com: ‘A generation who grew up with Tamagotchi’ (alas, no longer in fashion and so out of the market) has developed a ‘caring habit’, indeed, a sort of addiction (to virtual) caring for (virtual) beings (virtually) alive – a habit which they are no longer able to satisfy because they don’t possess the appropriate technogadgets to unload it. They need a new gizmo with which to practise the contrived habit, and possibly in a manner yet more exciting and pleasurable (for a time). Thanks to Love+, however, the worry is over: ‘To keep the girlfriend, the player must tap a stylus on the DS touch-screen where they can then walk hand-in-hand to school, exchange flirtations, text messages and even meet in the school courtyard for a little afternoon kiss. Through a built-in microphone, the player can even carry on sweet, albeit mundane, conversations.’ Note: inserting ‘albeit’ does not necessarily signal regret; remember that Tamagotchi did not manage to make conversing, let alone non-mundane conversing, into a habit.
On ChicagoNow.com, Jenina Nunez wonders: ‘In the era of dating and virtual reality, have we become so lonely (and given up on real, human love) that we’re willing to court the image of the perfect companion?’ And she hypothesizes in response to that question: ‘I’m starting to think that Love+, which seems to eliminate a human companion from the equation entirely, is a clear example of how far people would go to avoid feeling lonely … ’ The surmise underpinning that answer – a guess which Jenina Nunez unfortunately neglected to make explicit and failed to develop – is right on target. Yes, the revolution that the latest Nintendo game portends, and the secret of its instant marketing success, is the elimination of a human companion entirely from the human relations game. While being rather in the style of non-alcoholic beer, fat-free butter or calorie-free food, it is something hitherto attempted only cravenly, surreptitiously, or in inept, primitive, cottage-industry style and manner in its application to what for techno-boffins and techno-traders is the supreme challenge and the nearest equivalent to a can of worms or a lion’s den: the sphere of human partnerships, bonds, friendship, love …
This is an ambitious new game, this Love+. In supplying virtual (read, sanitized, stripped of ‘strings attached’, of side-effects, of ‘unanticipated consequences’ and fears of pre-empting future liberty) substitutes, it aims at the very peak: at the future itself. It offers eternity for instant, on-the-spot consumption. It offers a way to keep eternity at bay and under control, and the ability to stop it the moment it ceases to be enjoyable and desired. It offers ‘eternal love’ to be imbibed and relished in full on a short coach trip to Atami – with no need to carry it back home. As Naoyuki Sakazaki, a man in his forties, put it: ‘Love Plus is fun because the relationship continues forever’ (italics added). He should know: the Love+ campaign in Atami started on 10 July and had finished by the end of August …
For this kind of accomplishment, there has been, to my knowledge, only one known precedent, albeit apocryphal and unprovable. The Mogul emperor Shah Jahan was so deeply in love with his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, that when she died he summoned, hired and paid the greatest architects of his time, and spent twenty-one years supervising the construction of a fitting monument to her charm and beauty: the Taj (‘crown of buildings’) of Mahal. When the last frieze was engraved and the last ornamentation polished, Shah Jahan allegedly inspected the masterpiece and found his love longings finally gratified and nostalgia for his lost love satiated.
What spoiled his delight, however, so obviously distorting the harmony and elegance of the supreme composition, was a strange, coffin-like box at the centre. It was the removal of that box that needs to be seen as the fully and truly last, ultimate and crowning finishing touch of the Jahan–Mumtaz romance …
11 September 2010
On farming words
About giving interviews, as about many other forcefully promoted customs of our times, José Saramago had his doubts. He noted on 16 November 2008, having turned eighty-six, a year older than I am now: ‘I’m told that the interviews were worth doing. I, as usual, tend to doubt this, perhaps because I’m tired of listening to myself.’ So am I … More than once, pressed by interviewers to reveal what they thought they did not know but their readers yearned to learn, I have felt humiliated by being forced to repeat what ‘has with the passing of time turned into a reheated soup for me’: discoveries once exciting and impatient to be shared now felt soporific in their banality … ‘Worse still,’ as Saramago hastens to add, ‘the handful of sensible things I’ve said in my life have turned out after all to be of absolutely no consequence. And why should they be of consequence?’ Again, I know the pain: when urged by interviewers and reciting my own, incomparably tinier handful of once iconoclastic thoughts, all too often I have seen and could think only of icons that were meant and hoped to crumble long ago out of shame and belated remorse, but which instead hit back at me, even more unsightly than I remembered them and just as self-confident as they were in their tender years, if not more so – now staring me arrogantly in the face, sneering, jeering, jibing …
‘Do we talk for the same reason we perspire? Just because we do?’ Saramago asks. Sweat, as we know, promptly evaporates or is keenly washed away, and ‘sooner or later ends up in the clouds’. Perhaps this is the fate for which, in their own manner, words are destined.
And then Saramago recalls his grandfather Jeronimo, who ‘in his final hours went to bid farewell to the trees he had planted, embracing them and weeping because he knew he wouldn’t see them again. It’s a lesson worth learning. So I embrace the words I have written, I wish them long life, and resume my writing where I left off.’
‘There can be’, he adds, ‘no other response’. So be it.
12 September 2010
On superpower, superbroke
Two days ago America celebrated/mourned/regurgitated another 9/11 anniversary.
‘American pacifists need not worry any more about “wars of choice”,’ Thomas L. Friedman suggested a few days earlier. ‘We are not doing that again. We can’t afford to invade Grenada today.’ The superpower is now superbroke, he opines, and bound to turn – for many years to come – superfrugal. ‘America is about to learn a very hard lesson: You can borrow your way to prosperity over the short run but not to geopolitical power over the long run.’
Not that Friedman’s opinion is universally shared. Hillary Clinton, for instance, is on record trying just four days ago to convince the members of the Council on Foreign Relations that the ‘United States can, and shall lead, and in fact does lead’ the world in the beginning century. Well, what else could the chief of diplomacy say? Another member of the federal government, Robert Gates, in charge of the military, strikes a different chord. He recommends that quite a large dose of modesty and realism be inserted into American international initiatives. He does not elaborate, counting on the readers of Foreign Affairs to decipher his meaning without crib or prompting.
Nations are reluctant to learn, and if they do learn, it is mostly from their previous mistakes and misdeeds, from the funerals of their past fantasies. ‘As the Pentagon rebrands Operation Iraqi Freedom as Operation New Dawn,’ says Frank Rich, quoting Boston professor Andrew Bacevich, ‘a name suggesting a skin cream or dishwashing liquid’, 60 per cent of Americans believe – now – that the war in Iraq was a mistake, and 10 per cent more condemn it as unworthy of American lives, whereas only one in four Americans supposes that war to have made them safer from terrorism. The war’s official costs to Americans is now (at the moment President Obama asks Americans ‘to turn the page on Iraq’) estimated to have been $750 billion. For that money, about 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis were killed, and at least 2 million Iraqis were forced into exile, while Iran was enabled to rev up its nuclear programme ‘and Osama bin Laden and his fanatics’ have been set free ‘to regroup in Afghanistan and Pakistan’.
One mistake brings another in its wake. ‘The biggest legacy of the Iraq war at home’, observes Rich, ‘was to codify the illusion that Americans can have it all at no cost.’ Well, what the Americans are learning now, still reluctantly, is that even repulsive and abhorrent things they hadn’t in the least bargained for cannot be bought without huge spending, and one of the most repulsive aspects of those repulsive things is running short of the money with which something else – good or bad, desired or feared, delighting or disgusting – can be purchased. ‘The cultural synergy between the heedless irresponsibility we practiced in Iraq and our economic collapse at home could not be more naked,’ Rich concludes. The fight-now-pay-later war, and almost universal blindness to its human costs, were aided and abetted by the same disregard of realities as in the flood of subprime mortgages, the housing bubble and other Wall Street games of hazard. The true reckoning of all those happy-go-lucky years is only beginning to be counted and weighed, but the interest to be paid on the federal debt is expected to rise to $516 billion by 2014, that is more than the US domestic budget – and half has to be paid to foreign investors. Fears are voiced time and again about the Armageddon that may follow if foreign creditors decide to sell the American debt. Those fears are mitigated, if not entirely quashed, by a gamble on the foreigners’ prudence: a massive selling of that debt would provoke stock exchanges all over the world into a radical devaluation of stocks, and so it stands to reason, doesn’t it, for the creditors to settle for a steady income from ‘debt servicing’ – at least as long as the US Treasury manages to repay the interest …
The other collateral casualties of the reckless adventure in Iraq are the trustworthiness and credibility of both halves of the American party establishment, of the American news media, and of the pundits, boffins and reputable experts, who all – with only a few noble exceptions (out-shouted as a rule and hunted down by a pugnacious and vociferous majority) – played up to the warmongering spokesmen of unreason.
But there is another kind of collateral damage that just may (who can be sure it won’t) haunt America, with its as yet unsung accomplices, willing, reluctant or inadvertent, for who knows how long a future. ‘Instead of bringing American-style democracy and freedom to Iraq,’ Rich muses, ‘the costly war we fought there has, if anything, brought the bitter taste of Iraq’s dysfunction to America.’ Is the story of the ‘hellenization effect’, of Roman conquerors culturally absorbed, swallowed, converted, assimilated and recycled by the defeated and the conquered, about to repeat itself, if only as its gruesome caricature?
13 September 2010
‘Americans are not being honest with themselves about the structural changes in the economy that have bestowed fabulous wealth on a tiny sliver at the top, while undermining the living standards of the middle class and absolutely crushing the poor. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a viable strategy for reversing this dreadful state of affairs’ – so writes Bob Herbert in today’s New York Times:
There was plenty of growth, but the economic benefits went overwhelmingly – and unfairly – to those already at the top. [Robert] Reich (in his new book Aftershock) cites the work of analysts who have tracked the increasing share of national income that has gone to the top 1 percent of earners since the 1970s, when their share was 8 percent to 9 percent. In the 1980s, it rose from 10 percent to 14 percent. In the late-’90s, it was 15 percent to 19 percent. In 2005, it passed 21 percent. By 2007, the last year for which complete data are available, the richest 1 percent were taking more than 23 percent of all income. The richest one-tenth of 1 percent, representing just 13,000 households, took in more than 11 percent of total income in 2007.
Learning from the past, even from its mistakes and misdeeds, does not come easy. Particularly to those who made those mistakes and committed those misdeeds. Exactly one year ago, Alex Berenson noted in the New York Times ‘little change on Wall St’. Today, he could surely reprint his conclusion unaltered, only with a much swollen store of data and much heavier factual backing. He could repeat, if anything with yet more self-assurance, that ‘the biggest banks have restructured only around the edges’, and that the pay of the bankers – responsible for the catastrophe of two years ago and still unpunished for their misdemeanours – is back to, if not above, its pre-crash levels, with 30,000 employees of Goldman Sachs (the company bailed out by the federal debt from the threat of bankruptcy) earning an average of $700,000 a year. According to Kian Abouhossein, a J. P. Morgan analyst, eight major American and European banks pay on average $543,000 to their 141,000 employees. The ‘system’, whatever that word may mean in that thoroughly deregulated setting, has grown riskier still. ‘Investors will lend money to the financial industry on easy terms. In turn, financial institutions will use that cheap money to make risky loans and trades. The banks will keep the profits when their bets pay off, while taxpayers will swallow the losses when the bets go bad and threaten the system.’ Bankers even have a special term for that tactic, IBG: by the time the bets are lost, ‘I’ll Be Gone’ (with a handsome bonus, of course, and a platinum handshake). This is the other face of the labour market’s deregulation that has already cast millions of workers, with more following them daily, into prospectless poverty; or, to borrow Peter S. Goodman’s phrase, into ‘the deserts of joblessness’.
It is a desert – for the 15 million people declared redundant, about 3 million of whom have already seen their unemployment assistance expire, with many more watching in despair as the same predicament relentlessly approaches. In their lives, unlike on Wall Street, everything has changed, and beyond recognition. People promised a middle-class income (fraudulently, as they find out now) and lured into middle-class spending, have now (most of them for the first time in their lives) no other choice except to hope for a lifeline from public assistance. But even that hope, their last, is growing more tenuous, more filigree and gaseous, by the day. Forty-four US states have cut off welfare payments from households with a total income less than one-quarter below the official poverty line. As Randy Abelda of the University of Massachusetts calculates, entitlements to public assistance stop when a family of three reaches $1,383 a month (that is, about $1.5 per person a day; though by the time of my writing that might have dropped again … ).
Yours is a class society, Madame, yours is a class society, Sir – and don’t you forget it, lest you wish to have your amnesia ended with shock therapy. It is also a capitalist, market-operated society – and it is an attribute of such a society to stutter from one depression/recession to another. Being a class society, it distributes the costs of the recession and the benefits of the recovery unevenly, using every occasion to give further firmness to its backbone: class hierarchy. The depth of the fall and the duration of the stay at the prospectless bottom are also differentiated by class. It all depends which rung of the ladder you fall off: if it was a high one, your chances of a climb-back are high. But if you fell from the lower rungs of the ladder, a return of sunshine to the boardrooms will not be enough to raise your hopes. After every successive bout of economic depression, fewer workers find themselves in employment than were registered before the economy contracted. In 2000, at the beginning of the previous recession, 34 million were employed; but the number never rose again, despite the ‘economy growing again’, above 30 million. And no wonder. Institutional investors are thirsty for a ‘killing’ – a quick profit on investment – and nothing slakes their thirst more promptly and thoroughly than a solid cut in the payroll. Disarming and disabling the trade unions made it possible to shift stable jobs to casual labourers. Automation is believed to be responsible for the disappearance of about 5.6 million industrial jobs in the last decade. Last but not least, a lot of blue-collar as well as white-collar jobs have recently ‘emigrated’ to the low-pay and no-union countries of Asia and Latin America, and are still doing so. At the moment, the average duration of unemployment among redundant American workers is growing by two weeks every month. Experts anticipate this trend will continue.
Crises are reputed to strike at random, but their consequences, and above all their long-term consequences, are class-managed. The severity of the crises may result from the intensity of deregulation, but the harshness and pungency of their human effects stay stubbornly – and tightly – class-controlled.
I have focused thus far on the US experience. But quite similar trends mark the rest of our deregulated globe. As Margaret Bounting notes in a trenchant warning addressed to an impending session of the United Nations, ‘at the current progress more than a billion of the world’s population will still be living in extreme poverty in 2015; half of all children in India are malnourished; in sub-Saharan Africa, one child in seven dies before their fifth birthday … [T]he goals are bypassing the poorest in the world … [T]hree quarters of the world’s poorest now live in middle-income countries such as India or Nigeria.’ While the ‘UN prefers to talk of global inequality rather than the inequality within developing countries – India, for all its feted economic growth, has barely touched the proportion of those going hungry in the last twenty years. ’ Most UN members and managers wouldn’t touch the idea of ‘equity’, let alone of ‘equality’, with a barge pole.
We go on routinely, duly and diligently computing statistical averages. Some of the averages are encouraging, a few are downright delightful and even justify some degree of self-congratulation. Others are considerably less heart-warming, while a few signal abominable failure and inspire questions to which no good answers have been found (or for that matter sought in earnest). But unlike the averages, the statistics of the collateral victims of the markets’ free-for-all and catch-as-catch-can – the poor and hungry left out of the enrich-yourself thrust of the rest and badly hit by its results – are routinely, invariably, stubbornly and monotonously dismal and dreary, and with each successive fit of economic depression become ever more so. As Margaret Bounting implies, this is not a question of a different way of manipulating the chronically insufficient aid funds. It is instead a question of politics, a thoroughly political challenge and task.
14 September 2010
From the dawn of the consumerist era the main worry of marketing experts was the brevity of the time that prospective clients could devote to consumption; time had its natural limits and could not be stretched beyond twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Time’s inflexibility seemed in turn to set natural limits to the expansion of the consumer market.
As stretching the size of the day or the week was out of the question, the obvious way to deal with that worry was to try to pack more consumption into each time unit – by training people to consume more than one commodity at a time. Eating and drinking was the most evident candidate to be piled on top of other consumer activities: you can swallow fast food while driving a car, queuing for a theatre ticket, or watching a film or a football match. That was easily done: different parts of the bodily organs and different pleasure-arousing senses were engaged in consuming different goods, none of them demanding full and undivided mental concentration, and they could be deployed simultaneously, only minimally detracting from the intensity of the pleasure (the total sensual relish was perhaps a little smaller than the sum of the delights which each of the goods consumed could offer in its own, separate time – but then there was not enough time to allow them to be so consumed). But what if the goods on offer engaged the same senses and called for the same aspect of our attention? You can have music to dine by or to jog by, to fall asleep by or to wake up by – but can you have music to listen to music by?
Well, it seems that at long last the consumer markets have found their philosopher’s stone. Time can finally be stretched beyond its ‘natural’ limits. Though, at least thus far, only one of the many markets can cash in on that discovery/invention: that of electronic gizmos and gadgets. As recent research conducted by Ofcom revealed, media ‘multi-tasking’ now occupies 20 per cent of total media-using time. That means that an average Briton manages to squeeze 8 hours 48 minutes of media time into just over 7 hours of media consumption.
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