Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Deal or No Deal? - II

I'm trying to feel my way around this moment in the politics of the US, which is supposed to be historic and charged with the potential for CHANGE, groping for something in the still-scattered flurry of symbolic and practical bits being tossed around as our "New Deal" that might actually respond to what seems to me a very serious, systemic crisis. My readers should know the punchline: All real change comes from the people themselves, acting together in mutual relations. But we probably satisfy ourselves with the punchline a bit too often, without exploring all the ways to get there. Pardon me while I reconnoiter a bit

It does really seem to me that the moment is a serious one. The layoff numbers in the last couple of days are remarkable, and I'm sitting none too comfortably in a very part-time job, with a company that's riding along today at roughly 5% or their last-year stock value, while the corporate types reshuffle and try to second-guess the trend. Viewed from the retail sales floor, the picture is a relatively grim one. A Big Box Bookstore is, first of all, a Big Box, and that means that 1) you have to maintain a pretty big inventory, or you look like you're in trouble, and 2) you need a certain number of employees on the clock at all times, just to minimize theft, damage, etc., even if you decide that the customer-service model of your online competitors (generally no customer service) is sufficient, and you can't do that, since the warm, semi-informed bodies are about the only thing you have going for you. That means that your basic costs can never drop below a certain level without creating a situation that every customer can recognize as an austerity program of one sort or another. Compare any Big Box you can think of with the small bookstore I described recently, and it should be fairly clear how the stakes differ in that regard. I can barely imagine what things must feel like in the corporate offices, where the lack of alternatives remaining in such a centralized industry must be painfully obvious. There are probably some of the "winners" in the last few rounds of destructive competition, and this is probably the case in more than just the book world, who wish they had left a little less scorched earth in their wake. I spend my days learning to put a friendly, helpful face on what seem to me obviously bad mistakes in business organization and customer relations, but I can't honestly imagine how my own industry will recover any sort of robustness without going through a fairly complete reorganization, opening itself to new models and new players.

Kevin Carson's work on pull models of production seems very promising. But we are still probably lacking a working model of our new agora, and we need to confront some of the problems that retailers currently face regarding the uses of semi-public space.

Those problems, which come down to the fact that much of retail sales work now amounts to a kind of endless war with the customers. I've been a bookseller off and on for nearly thirty years. Right now, I spend all too much of my time picking up after people who look like adults and act like I was their parent or servant. All the "loyalty programs" in the world will not put an end to that struggle, particularly when those programs depend on rather transparent manipulations of various incentives and when "more with less" staffing means stretches the abilities and patience of the staff. Retail sellers are on the front line daily in times like these, breaking the latest bad news to a public still largely in denial -- which isn't entirely irrational, since they have plenty of evidence that businesses are not entirely honest with them, but certainly isn't rational either -- in the form of higher prices, reduced promotions, stricter return and exchange policies, and new corporate dictates of all sorts, frequently driven by every sort of concern except efficient customer service. I think we perhaps see some true things about the state of the nation, and some of what I think I see undercuts some of our current self-congratulation.

When I compare the frequently self-absorbed and abusive behavior of customers that supposed new spirit of toleration that is supposed to be represented by the results of the last election, I wonder if perhaps that tolerance is, at least in part, something more like indifference. The neighbor ready to fly off the handle because I won't honor an expired coupon may simply lack the energy to be a bigot in any robust, old-school sense. Hate may just be too much work for a lot of us, and perhaps too much commitment.

Perhaps that's cynical of me, but it seems an important question to confront: are we looking at renewal or ennui? If it is the first, then we have a chance. None of the systems that might pull, or help to pull us from our current mess can be relied upon to run themselves. A free market can as easily manifest the invisible hand of a deranged sense of social justice as a healthy one. All the traditional criticisms of utopias apply. This is why I've felt it so important to reintroduce the antinomian elements of Proudhon's thought, -- particularly as they relate to concepts like property, the gift, and the free market, -- to emphasize his anti-foundational and anti-fundamentalist elements, his reliance on approximation, his philosophy of progress, and why I have felt it so important to make his Justice in the Revolution and in the Church available in English. It's also why I've starting to work with the Fourierist elements that were so important for Proudhon, Leroux, Déjacque, etc., -- not his own utopias, but his general approach to the notion of series, and his resolutely positive theory of the passions.

None of us, -- not the President of the United States, nor any of the elements in the anarchist movement, -- can expect real change where there is not active involvement by the people. Which probably means all of us who want to be contenders for changing things need to think hard about what our situation really is, what those pesky old "real conditions" might be, both in the material and in the ideological realm.

I'm creeping up on some things here, -- potato patches and acts of national recovery, infoshops that might be organized for a real long haul, ships and sealing-wax, no doubt -- while I'm trying to read my personal dole of socio-economic tea leaves and get that pesky first issue of LeftLiberty completed and formatted. And the waters get damned deep damned fast, which is probably why we never seem to get much deeper into things. I'm personally very sick of tinkering and vague incentives, and am leaning towards an anarchist appropriation of that mythology of the New Deal which seems to be all that is really in play at the moment anyway. I think Kevin's Change.gov "briefing" and his criticism of the likely direction of infrastructure projects are both required reading at the moment, but if I was going to emphasize either right now, if would have to be the briefing, which suggests a road forward. I think we've all got very good at anticipating the bumps along the way...

[to be continued...]

1 comment:

Kevin Carson said...

I'm pretty optimistic (assuming things aren't complicated by some ecological mega-catastrophe and die-off) about the resilience of people in civil society in negotiating the transition.

All the examples of large-scale social innovation (production for barter by unemployed Owenites in the 1830s and by unemployed workers in 1930s California, Argentina in recent years, etc.) have occurred in the face of necessity.

People will be pretty damned creative at negotiating local currency systems to trade their skills with each other, when the FRN becomes worthless.

Recently I've been reading S.M. Stirling's Nantucket trilogy, starting from the premise that Nantucket island was transported in one big lump back to the late Bronze Age, ca. 1250 BC. Despite the godawfulness of the premise, it's a very engaging story, particularly because of the story line involving the creation of a flexible manufacturing economy from the ground up, starting with a hobbyist's basement machine shop.

In the story, the combination of generators powered by fuel reserves, a small wind farm, etc., was enough to bootstrap the process of replicating new machines with old ones, the building of small steam engines to adapt to existing machinery, etc.

Even with Peak Oil at its worst, I doubt the average local economy will ever be as abruptly and catastrophically cut off from fossil fuels as Stirling's Nantucket. There are enough backyard gardeners and local truck farmers, enough backyard workshops, and enough generators and energy reserves, that I expect people will be pretty clever at finding new ways of doing things if the transition occurs over a decade or two.

My main concern is with how vigorous and coordinated a rearguard action the corporate state may attempt to fight in the last days. The state could especially complicate things, in the event of a total economic collapse, by using its remaining resources in a last-ditch effort to enforce old property titles. The transition probably hinges, to a large extent, on whether the state attempts to carry out forced mass evictions against defaulting tenants and mortgagees, or whether they are able to maintain undisturbed possession as de facto owners when the banks collapse.