Future Capture: Moral Disasters

Who Decides (Who is Made to Suffer)

Disaster preparedness is not, in the end, the same as disaster prevention. The latter would require something that is, from our current vantage, inconceivable: the political will to abandon the pernicious practices that currently support our economy. It would require a reckoning with human agency, an acknowledgment that no matter the scope of the disaster, no matter the exertions of essential workers, no matter how many times we bleach and scrub, rinse and disinfect, all of this is merely triage. We keep washing, but our hands are not clean.
  — Barrett Swanson «This Is Not A Test» (Harper’s)

What exactly is an “act of god,” and who deploys the idea that human politics are not to be held accountable? I read the above piece in Harpers’s and am struck by how closely the rhetoric of inevitability towards “natural disasters” mirrors that of “economic disasters.” Storms, hurricanes, earthquakes—I am not saying these are a result of human action, but that their effects can be, in large part, determined by human [in]action.

It is these effects that I want to think about, not the flood waters or the licking flames, but the sewers that overflow only in the poor part of town, the flameikkemas that engulf Grenfell tower because a contractor skimped on cladding. Storms are inevitable. The distribution of suffering is not. And yet what we have seen over the past decades is material abandonment being peddled as political “freedom.”

As a friend once said: “Anytime you hear someone say ‘That is just the way it is,’ they are only saying that is the way they want it to be.”

The uneven distribution of the current crises (all of the concurrent) is well-documented. All the suddenly “essential” workers working while “superfluously skilled” jobs cozy up; the mass infections at Amazon warehouses; billionaires retreating to luxury bunkers at the first signs of trouble.

Growing Pains

“In a democracy, people are not just consumers, workers, business owners, savers or investors. We are citizens. This is the tie that binds people together in a shared endeavour.”
  — Martin Wolf «Democracy Will Fail if We Don’t Think as Citizens» 2020-07-06 (FT)

Martin Wolf’s article in the Financial Times is an extremely modest call for a return of fairness, and yet by contemporary US standards it reads quite-left. How the Overton window has shifted rightward! I take issue with the division of labor into “skilled and un-skilled,” as anyone who has ever worked in an “unskilled” position will know, these jobs are extremely difficult, not helped by the fact that a majority of people not in those positions look down on and denigrate those positions, whether implicitly (by referring to them as unskilled) or explicitly (as a Karen).

Economic growth is not merely a number—it should be focused on, and stem from, the material world (as with any good Marxist analysis). One of the most fascinating claims to come out of the “era of globalization” from the 1980s-2010s is the global reduction in poverty, somehow achieved by a liberal capitalistic order. In reality, China alone accounts for ~75% of all global poverty eradication in that period.1) Economic growth is not an illusion, I want to make that very clear: access to clean water, to housing, to medical care, to leisure, art, and travel are real, tangible, experiential benefits. The financialized concept of growth, however, is detrimental to the lived experience. For being “the richest” country in the world, the US is a remarkably difficult place to live without vast personal wealth. What do we have to show for the “growth” of the past decade? New hospitals, schools, bridges, airports, housing, public parks, national forests? Not exactly. Rather, we have a Federal Reserve with a $6,000,000,000,000+ balance sheet (six million millions)2 , and cyclical mass bailouts for the wealthy banks and investors. It seems in the grand philosophical debate between idealism and materialism, the US political class has decided to espouse idealism while acting as materialists, at least where money is concerned.3

Photo of Chongqing, China (重庆) by Jerry Wang via Unsplash. I don’t think the US really understands how underdeveloped it’s infrastructure is.

I would be willing to bet that the average US 13-year old in 2020 has a higher real net worth than the average 30-year old. Probably due to student loans (which is debt with zero capital collateral: a pure form of wealth extraction that funnels money up up up) and a lack of access to actual ownership. Housing costs soar, car prices rise and rise and rise to the point that Ford Motor Co. makes half its money from loan servicing.

My argument is that the past twelve years or so of “recovery” have, in the US at least, been largely on paper. Our infrastructure continues to fail (see the West Seattle bridge as a harbinger of what is to come, or the dam collapses in Michigan), wages fall and the amount it costs to merely exist rises. My entire adult existence has been post-2008, informed by a political system that conceives of economics as something done with numbers in a spreadsheet, rather than the citizenry’s access to material wellbeing. We are consumers, not citizens: sources of wealth, our existence generates revenue streams that flow out and up to ever-larger corporate structures. That mobile scrabble app showing monetizes your brief interaction with a friend, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google hoover up ever more data for their “AIs” to process into profit. Your ISP sells your browsing history, ‘your’ OS monitors your usage and behaves like malware.

Why is this what we’ve chosen?

It doesn’t have to be like this. It really doesn’t.

The financialization of the liebenweld is directly related to democratic backsliding, to historical injustice, to the climate crisis, to real material suffering of billions. However, what it requires is going to be more than Mr. Wolf’s suggestions for social welfare, actual universal suffrage, and redistributive economic policies. In the last, for example, redistribution is a simple idea: take money from the billionaires (a lot of money, like 90% of it) and use it to fund “the public,” a group that has suffered much neglect. While simple, actually doing that in practice, under our current system, is impossible. There are no levers of power that we could tweak for a desired result—it will require a rather deep restructuring to accomplish. The trick that language plays is one of abstractly condensing an incredibly difficult project into a short phrase: “equitably redistribute wealth.”

I don’t have answers, obviously. I barely have analysis. One problem I do think that can be directly addressed is the lack of “big-picture discourse” in the US. We don’t often think in global or even multi-system terms; it’s rare even to encounter discussions about the idea of such systems. We talk about “the economy” as if it were a thing, a machine whose existence was predetermined and eternal, rather than a set of social human relations wholly created and contingent. In the words of Antonio Gramsci, we need to build an understanding of how we got to be where we are, and the ways in which it is unique, the choices that bring us to this moment: “it is thus imperative to compile such an inventory [of those contingent choices].”

To that end, I can only continue to share readings and reflections, and contribute what I can materially to a different world—through conversation, through monetary donations, through beliefs and education.

  1. UN International Poverty Reduction Center China 2018 (PDF, p.5 

  2. Federal Reserve Balance Sheet U.S. Federal Reserve System 2020-07-06 

  3. Idealists as in believing paper gains are equivalent to material gains. I fail to see how “wealth creation” of the type Wall Street excels at (WeWork, Wirecard, EY, Uber, cough cough) is not fundamentally so different from inflation, the difference being the former concentrates inflation in the hands of a few and leaves the rest relatively poorer while the latter affects everyone negatively.