Michigan Central Station, Deroit. Image Source: Next Nature.
The Great Recession did not hit everyone equally. The suffering went deep, but not everyone felt the downturn to the same degree. There is a quote attributed to Harry S. Truman: "It's a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it's a depression when you lose yours."
Some people still consume in a pre-2007 fashion. And the recession is only reaching some industries and economic regions now. As a result, understanding what really happened during the recession is skewed between the experiences and corresponding perceptions of the new haves and the new have nots.
Although many individuals and small communities are still limping back to recovery, the financial rhetoric is optimistic. Vast quantities of wealth are floating around, if you look in the right nooks (see here, here, here and here) and crannies.
The Red Cross: The European Recovery is a Delusion
In October 2013, the Red Cross announced that the Great Recession involved structural changes to the entire post-World War II European social welfare capitalist state. The charity dismissed reports of a European recovery as a "delusion," and stated that younger generation of middle classes in Europe risked falling into a life of poverty, while those making money made even more. The supranational EU is weakened by a faltering euro. But Europe's component nation states have also been undermined by the supranational mechanism. In that power vacuum, and with conspicuous consumption of the still-wealthy portion of the population undiminished, the Red Cross expected that alienated and impoverished members of the middle classes would turn to more radical ideologies:
Mass unemployment - especially among the young, 120 million Europeans living in or at risk of poverty - increased waves of illegal immigration clashing with rising xenophobia in the host countries, growing risks of social unrest and political instability estimated to be two to three times higher than most other parts of the world, greater levels of insecurity among the traditional middle classes - all combine to make a European future more uncertain than at any time in the postwar era.
"As the economic crisis has planted its roots, millions of Europeans live with insecurity, uncertain about what the future holds. This is one of the worst psychological states of mind for human beings. We see quiet desperation spreading among Europeans, resulting in depression, resignation and loss of hope. Compared to 2009, millions more find themselves queuing for food, unable to buy medicine nor access healthcare. Millions are without a job and many of those who still have work face difficulties to sustain their families due to insufficient wages and skyrocketing prices.
"Many from the middle class have spiralled down to poverty. The amount of people depending on Red Cross food distributions in 22 of the surveyed countries has increased by 75% between 2009 and 2012. More people are getting poor, the poor are getting poorer."
According to the detailed study being released on Thursday [10 October 2013] by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: "The long-term consequences of this crisis have yet to surface. The problems caused will be felt for decades … The economic crisis is creating the conditions for a widespread social crisis, whereby a growing gap in the distribution of resources (the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer) and the competition for shrinking resources could bring about growing xenophobia, discrimination, social exclusion, as well as abuse and domestic problems."
Perhaps it was inevitable that the happy family myth about the EU would eventually drop away to reveal the French-German ambitions behind it. The recession enabled Germany's domination of the EU over and above French interests.A huge proportion of Europe's young have no hope of finding a job; the middle classes are being reduced to benefit claimants; young couples are moving back in with their parents and grandparents; the soup kitchen queues are lengthening; the children of the poor are going without medicines as free health services are scrapped.
"Europe has a long record of maintaining a plausible trust in the future of its young people, even during turmoil. Not anymore," the study found.
The European model, the social market economy or welfarist capitalism, is being radically changed as a result of the crisis and because of the policy prescriptions mainly ordered in Berlin and administered from Brussels.
The German argument is that it needs radical reform in order to survive. On the evidence of the Red Cross findings, the question is whether the medicine is curing or killing. ...
The policies are exacting a very high price. The social, political, and psychological distress is growing. From fascist murders on the streets of Athens to a shrinking middle class in Germany itself, to places like Latvia, where the word doctor has almost become a term of abuse, Merkel's Europe is becoming a colder place.
The recession also changed things further afield, economically, socially, on global structural levels. Yet the financial sector does not spend as much time as it could assessing the exact nature of this transformation. Analysts have not, for example, revised the basic terms they use to understand the economy. Most commentators simply look for opportunities where the recession has made investment affordable; or they explore places where growth is still good; or they wait for a 'correction,' that is, a return to pre-recession conditions so that they can return to their original exploitative behaviour. Or they immerse themselves in a politicized debate over Keynesian policies.
But these debates miss the point. The world emerging from the Great Recession is not exactly characterized by a growing gap between rich and poor. Nor do polarized politics truly explain what happened during the recession. These are symptoms of a deeper problem, namely, that we all face two realities.
One reality is 'real' reality - on the ground, where reality actually plays out. The other reality is a construct generated by branding, marketing, hype. This latter world is full of materialist dreams and political promises. Because the mass media have become so enormously powerful, intimately embedded in our lives, and hypnotic, it is easy to believe this grand image. It is not just an image of consumerist escapism. It is also a story about progress and policy, about politics, trade, democracy and government.
In fact, the Keynesian-versus-anti-Keynesian debate is a fairy tale. Politics plays out in very different terms from the superficial arguments which adorn its surface. This discrepancy between words and action originated in the 20th century. In the pre-World War II era, a figure like Hitler could get as far as he did because of stalemate between conventional political parties, and because what he said he was doing did not always correspond with his real policies. At the level of international pacts, Chamberlain, and even Stalin, accepted traditions in foreign affairs of gentlemanly agreements. Both men were shocked when Hitler broke his word to one, then the other. Both leaders likely thought that Hitler had dishonourably broken his word.
Rather, honour never came into it, because Hitler was already a master of working in two realities. At one level, he would say whatever was necessary to advance his goals. Among the socialists, he was a socialist. Among the gentlemen, he was a gentleman. Among the gathered youth, he was an outdoorsy health enthusiast. Among the old school conservatives, he was a decorated World War I veteran, traditionalist, and dog lover. Among the disenchanted masses, he was a nationalist populist. But the true level at which he operated was the one of actions, where, regardless of what came out of his mouth, certain things got done, such as scapegoating, attacking, then removing the Jews for being the purported source of local and global economic problems.
This 'ye shall know them by their fruits' mode has become common among post-World War II politicians. Internet chatter regularly recognizes discrepancies between the words and actions of powerful people, but assumes it to be the product of cynicism, hypocrisy, and conspiracy theories. Is this really such a deep dark secret? Or is this simply now the standard manner of running affairs? Feed the dream, the ideal picture of what people have been told to believe. Meanwhile, behind the democratic and political theatrics, achieve Realpolitik goals, regardless of how they line up with official policies.
This is how the Americans officially withdrew from Iraq under Obama, but that same administration simply pushed on, formally dove-like, informally not-so-dove-like, in the same conflict with hired mercenaries, drones, and worldwide spying on friends and enemies alike. It is also how the happy family of the EU became a German-dominated quasi-imperial project.
Nor is this phenomenon confined to politicians. One would probably expect this trend as well in the world of big business - and so it goes. Earth Rights International calls failures in corporate accountability a 'governance gap.' But even at the humblest level of individuals, saying one thing and doing another has been normalized since 1945. Responsibility, consequences, honour, duty, karma. These were the old connections between talk and action. For all the talk of transparency, the old values have been replaced by irresponsibility, consensus, praise, self-hype and success at the expense of others. In North America, meritocracies have been condemned as being hierarchical, non-democratic and non-inclusive. As a result, children get medals and trophies now, not just for winning or truly achieving something, but also for 'trying' to do something. Trophies, once produced sparingly by the local jeweller, are now a billion-dollar business. Everyone gets rewarded, just for showing up and breathing in and out. Whatever these children's 'real' realities are - and many reports indicate it is a ferocious world of bully-or-be-bullied or a fake world of social networking, self-promotion and cultivating perfect, ultra-achieving public identities - they certainly are not revealed by the candy-coated system in which everyone goes home at the end of the day with a blue ribbon.
The Unintended Consequence of the Technological Revolution
One of the most plausible explanations of the economic crash does not involve investment bubbles and bad mortgages, so much as it considers the Great Recession to have been an unintended consequence of the Technological Revolution (see related posts here and here).
Paul Kemp-Robertson TED talk: Bitcoin. Sweat. Tide. Meet the future of branded currency. Video Source: TED via Youtube.
So what really happened in the recession? A recession reflects a dislocation between actions and consequences, a rupture between us and the natural world; between how we operate in, and perceive, the world - and the way it really is. Nowhere is this gap between what we think we are doing and what is actually happening more evident than in the tech sector.
Buddhist Economic Critique: Separation, Monoculture and Decline
With that in mind, I googled around for some unconventional analyses of the recession and found a Buddhist economic critique. Buddhists are asking: was the recession a product of consciousness breaking down, a loss of confidence, an inability to believe the ocean of bullshit necessary to keep the Big Dream going? A Buddhist analysis of these problems indicates that people no longer relate their actions to consequences, due to the way the economy and technology have meshed together. In fact, that disconnection is the founding principle of the technology-driven global economy. Helena Norberg-Hodge, director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, argues that the only way out of this trap is through a mental reconnection with our immediate surroundings:
In the Buddha’s day, societies were more deeply rooted to their place in the natural world. Economies were more localized — in other words, of a scale that made explicit the human interdependence with other sentient beings and the rest of creation. Relations between people and between culture and nature were relatively unmediated. Direct observations and experiences of the natural world provided the basis for ethical decisions in individual lives. ...
In the modern industrial world, on the other hand, complex technologies and large-scale social institutions have led to a fundamental separation between people, as well as between humans and the living world. Since our daily lives seem to depend largely on a man-made world — the economy, electric power, cars and highways, the medical system — it’s easy to believe we depend more on the technosphere than on life, or the biosphere. As the scale of the economy grows, it also becomes increasingly difficult for us to know the effects of our actions on nature or on other people. ... [M]odern society is based on the assumption that we are separate from and able to control the natural world. Thus the structures and institutions on which we depend are reifications of ignorance and greed — a denial of interdependence and impermanence. ...
Globalization: ... At its core this system is based on a very narrow view of human needs and motivations: it is concerned almost exclusively with monetary transactions, and largely ignores such non-material aspects of life as family and community, meaningful work, or spiritual values. The focus on monetized social relations is echoed in the belief that people are motivated primarily by self-interest and endless material desires. Significantly, the western economic system does not set about trying to temper our supposedly self-centered, acquisitive nature, but rather to exploit it: it is believed that an ‘invisible hand’ will transform the selfish actions of individuals into benefits for society as a whole.
What does the globalized economy really mean? The president of Nabisco once defined it as ‘a world of homogeneous consumption’ — a world in which people everywhere eat the same food, wear the same clothing and live in houses built from the same materials. It is a world in which every society employs the same technologies, depends on the same centrally managed economy, offers the same Western education for its children, speaks the same language, consumes the same media images, holds the same values, and even thinks the same thoughts. In effect, globalization means the destruction of cultural diversity. It means monoculture. ...
At a structural level, the fundamental problem is scale. The ever-expanding scope and scale of the global economy obscures the consequences of our actions: in effect, our arms have been so lengthened that we no longer see what our hands are doing. Our situation thus exacerbates and furthers our ignorance, preventing us from acting out of compassion and wisdom. ...
The globalization of culture and information has led to a way of life in which the nearby is treated with contempt. We get news from China but not next door, and at the touch of a TV button we have access to all the wildlife of Africa. As a consequence, our immediate surroundings seem dull and uninteresting by comparison. A sense of place means helping ourselves and our children to see the living environment around us: reconnecting with the sources of our food — perhaps even growing some of our own — learning to recognize the cycles of the seasons, the characteristics of flora and fauna.
Detroit: The World's Largest Urban Farm
If there ever was an object lesson on how easy it is for the capitalist, democratic fairy tale to disintegrate, it is the city of Detroit. See my earlier post on hopes for Detroit's regeneration. In late October 2013, an agreement was finalized which will radically shift how Detroit's problems are viewed. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder approved the sale of nearly 150 acres of the devastated city to Hantz Woodlands, a private business, for about $500,000. Hantz Woodlands will divide up the 150 acres into 1,500 small urban farming plots, which will become available for about $300 per plot.
That initial allotment was not sold without objections. The city council passed the initiative by a narrow majority. Hantz will also buy more of Detroit's land in coming years to expand his urban woodlands business. Other urban farming initiatives have started in the city, led by Bank of America and individual enterpreneurs; i09 and Next Nature on how city-dwellers must take control of their city when their government has failed, no longer works, and has effectively given up:
Now bankrupt, Detroit’s population has halved over the last fifty years. No one actually knows just how many buildings are abandoned, but it is estimated at over 1/3 of all structures. In the midst of this urban decay, farming has started to fill the hole left by industry.
Local businessman John Hantz just bought 600,000 square meters of land from the city of Detroit with an option to buy an additional 700,000 [approximately 170 acres], promising to demolish all the existing (abandoned) buildings, clean up the land, and plant hardwood trees. The Bank of America announced plans to demolish 100 homes and donate the land to urban agriculture. They’re not alone, as other small-scale urban farmers are adapting what’s left of the city to meet their needs. Detractors are quick to point out that urban farming will never be a large-scale, mass-produced operation that could compete with big agriculture, but urban farmers have a different goal in mind. Greg Willerer of Detroit says that he isn’t trying to save the world, just to save his city.
In the first three years of this enterprise, Hantz will also invest $3 million in this area, removing debris and garbage, cutting the grass, demolishing gutted houses and businesses along the broken streets, and clearing the land for cultivation of food crops and tree farms. This project reflects a larger trend well beyond Detroit, where people badly affected by the recession have begun returning to agriculture as a means for survival - and reconnecting with reality.“For all intents and purposes, there is no government here,” says Willerer. While Detroit’s story is unique for now, the finances of other similarly affected cities may mean that the Motor City won’t be alone in its misery for long. Detroit’s urban farmers are helping to make the city more self-sufficient even when its own government has given up.
Hantz Farms introduction. Video Source: Youtube.