Keep it simple, silly

Monday, September 29, 2008

How bad you gonna smell?

Back in the early ‘90s, my flatmate and I came to the realization that the world was really fucked up. It wasn’t just the rampant consumerism destroying the planet that we noticed, but a combination of unsustainable practices being championed by every political and industrial leader in existence. Everywhere people were talking about progress, and we were holed up in our flat talking about the regression we could see coming: regression back to the Middle Ages if we were lucky or, more likely, the Dark Ages.

We used to ask, “How bad you gonna smell when the shit hits the fan?”

I’m no economist, and I’ve never understood how debt can continue to increase without it all eventually collapsing into one big black hole. There’s a story I heard once that illustrates this: a man comes onto an island where the people have no concept of money. He has a big bag of marbles with him, and he shows the people how—instead of bartering—they can just give each other an agreed upon number of marbles for each transaction. He gives each of the people on the island 50 marbles to get started, with the simple proviso that when he returns in a year, they each give him 55 back.

News flash: we’re living on that island, folks! Have you got all your marbles?

It doesn’t really matter, because 700 billion more of them ain’t gonna stop the inevitable from happening. You see, this is the thing: all the current US Administration’s policies have done is catalyse an outcome that was always going to happen. You can’t have everyone spending more than they make without a consequence. And the longer it takes to get there, the bigger that consequence is going to be.

The proposed bailout package is like using a bandage to stop internal bleeding. Listen to what they’re saying: all they want to do is ensure that everyone can still get credit! It’s like that guy coming over with a ship full of marbles and saying, “This should solve your problem. Just remember to give me a ship and a bit back when I return next year.”

The problem is systemic. John Ralston Saul said it well in his definition of Competition in The Doubter’s Companion: “An event in which there are more losers than winners. Otherwise it’s not a competition. A society based on competition is therefore primarily a society of losers.” Our entire economic system is based on the idea of competition. At the end of any competition, there is only one winner. We could well be nearing the end of ours.

So the question is, who wins? Microsoft? Politicians? China? The Illuminati? The real question is, what is the definition of winning when the whole world is losing? It is altogether possible that our existing definitions of power will be meaningless on the other side of the black hole.

My guess was, and remains, that the winner will be the one who can look after himself. It will be the person who can feed and clothe and house himself without owing anyone a cent. It will be the one who doesn’t need any of the institutions which are folding now to keep him afloat.

The winner, I think, will not be an individual. The winner will be community. When a group of people use their individual talents to support one another, there is more power than any bank could ever possess. No bank can ever touch a group of people who have never needed it.

I love the irony: the competition winner is community.

So … how bad you gonna smell when the shit hits the fan?