The Chaos Protocols

51-gyw8JpLLSeveral people mentioned this book, and I was intrigued enough to pick it up and read it. In one sense, it’s a light read — I finished it in a day. In another sense, it’s perhaps the most simultaneously delightful, horrifying, and challenging book I’ve ever read.

Religion, mysticism, and magic are intertwined in the modern imagination, but they are actually three quite distinct things. All deal with the unseen. However, religion seeks to contain our experience of the unseen, mysticism seeks to expand our experience of the unseen, and magic attempts to use our experience of the unseen for practical purposes.

This is a book about magic.

Unlike so many other magical tomes, it is neither academically dry, nor froo-froo fluffy. The writing is hard-hitting, no-nonsense, and practical. In addition, White’s asides and turns of phrase are hilarious, and one of his chapter heading-quotes struck me as so funny and so in-tune with the tone of the book, that I have to reproduce it here:

I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum. — John Nada, They Live

Here’s the funny thing about magic: often, in fact usually, the “unseen” is plain as day, right in front of you. It is unseen not because it is composed of ineffable spiritual corpuscles that can only manifest on our material plane under a full moon in July; it is unseen because you simply don’t notice it.

Let’s say that you need a trench dug in your front yard; you have a shovel, but your back is no longer strong enough to dig it yourself, and you don’t have enough money to hire someone to dig it for you. So you do magic to get your trench dug.

One of the primary functions of magic is to change your perspective: after working your spell, you suddenly notice, as if for the first time, that your neighbor two houses down owns a backhoe. In fact, you’ve even complained when he parks it on the street. You just never thought to put his skill and equipment together with your need. You go talk to him, one thing leads to another, and in the end he’s willing to dig your trench in exchange for you writing an article about him for the local paper. Or something else equally within your reach. Or maybe he does it for free just to be neighborly.

Did the magic work? Of course it did: your trench is now dug, and had you not done the magic, it very likely would not. Like it or not, that is cause and effect.

Most magic works this way: it’s a disciplined way of messing with your own head to remove the truly formidable mental blocks that keep you from seeing opportunities and achieving practical goals.

One of the first steps, of course, is getting out of the head-space we’ve all been sold. The head-space we’ve been sold is not intended for our benefit. It is intended for the benefit of those who sold it to us, and while this has been argued (by the sellers) to be a win-win proposition, it has never really been win-win, and can no longer even be perfumed strongly enough to disguise the stench of deceit — if you can only see (and smell) clearly.

Seeing (or smelling) clearly isn’t easy, and that’s why magic is so useful.

What I found especially interesting about this book is how much White’s magical advice mirrors the practical advice I gave my sons as they approached adulthood and independence.

In my father’s time, coming out of the Great Depression and into the unprecedented economic stability of the post-War years in the US, the most viable route to success was the slow, conservative route: get a stable job with the government, or a big corporation, marry, have children, send your children to college, retire and enjoy your Golden Years.

That model was no longer sensible even for my generation, coming into adulthood in the late 1970’s, and it was one of the major disconnects between my father’s generation and mine. My father’s model was worthless by the time I needed a model, and he did not understand the world I was entering. He could not really guide me into adulthood.

I recognized this same problem when my own children came of age. My father’s world was literally inconceivable to them. My model of relative success had become useless by 2000, and I barely understood the world they were entering. I could not really guide them into adulthood.

What I did understand, and told them, was that they were entering into a world dominated by chaos, and that if they wanted to plot a successful course through it, there was no formula: they would have to embrace continuous, disruptive change, and to develop the instincts to find opportunity, weigh it, and to either follow it hard, or drop it cold and keep looking.

This is precisely how a Chaos magician views the world, as White describes it. This is interesting to me, because I’d never heard of Chaos Magic.

In many ways, I’ve been a Chaos magician — of sorts — my entire life.

That is why I have to caution that, although I found this to be “light reading,” it’s only because I’ve been unknowingly working with Chaos magic for forty years, trying to see (and smell) clearly, and I’ve come to most of the same conclusions that White has. I read this book like it was an old favorite.

I don’t think most people will see it that way. The first chapter is going to stop most people cold, as it should. I’m not going to try to give a precis here. White does a brilliant job, and I’m not going to improve on it. Buy, borrow, or steal the book and read it yourself.

But I strongly suspect that anyone encountering this set of ideas for the first time is either going to avert their eyes and say (in varying emotional tones ranging from contempt to horror), “No, this can’t be true;” or they will go into a shock of overwhelmed recognition, and will have to take a long walk and get an ice-cream cone or a shot of whiskey (or both) before they continue.

I recommend the book, but with a strong caution: it just might change your life.

Casting the Second Stone

lottolrgAnd the scribes and Pharisees brought unto [Jesus] a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?”

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him.

But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?”

She said, “No man, Lord.”

And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

This has always been a centerpiece story of the Christian faith. It appears in the Gospel of John, one of the later Gospels — scholars tend to date it as being written sometime in the 90’s, or perhaps as late as the 120’s. It was a core piece of Christianity for at least two centuries before the Council of Nicea met and formalized the Christian Faith, and it survived that culling.

This story seems so terribly at odds with modern Christians’ reputation — particularly US American Christians — of being moralistic and judgmental, exactly as the scribes and Pharisees are described in this story.

One of the twisted excuses I’ve heard revolves around the last five words of this story: “Go, and sin no more.”

After all, the argument goes, Jesus said to sin no more. So what if she didn’t do what he said to do? What if she went straight out and committed some more adultery? What then?

Well, the argument continues, she’s basically disrespecting Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit. We can quote from other places in the Bible that the only “unforgivable sin” is to “blaspheme the Holy Spirit,” and if totally dissing Jesus — Jesus Himself — is not blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I don’t know what is. So there you have it. She’s gonna roast in Hell. So go ahead and stone her. She deserves it.

Unless, of course, she later responds to an altar-call. Or goes to confession. Or offers up a two doves and spotless heifer. Then she’s completely off the hook (again). She can go — and sin no more, this time for real.

Messed up again? Okay, that’ll be another altar call/confession/dove-plus.

But it all turns around such a delicate subtlety of language.

Now I’ve read that some Qabalistic strains of Judaism had an interesting take on the literality of the Jewish scripture: their idea was that God made not only Jews, but also their language and their script. So — since God made all of these miraculously, in one piece out of one fabric, there’s nothing odd about saying that you can contemplate the first word of the Torah, Bereshith, which begins with the Hebrew letter Beth, and infer from the fact that this is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet that something hidden precedes the beginning of the universe — the mysterious Aleph, the thing before the Beth that initiates Bereshith. It takes literalism to a completely new level, and it works (sort of) because presumably God Himself spoke and wrote in ancient Hebrew. There could be all sorts of hidden messages and codes in the Torah, left like bread crumb trails.

No one has that luxury with English. Try to read Chaucer in the original English: and good luck with that. Yet Chaucer was writing in the relatively recent English of the 1300’s, and it only gets worse the further back you go. There was no English language in Jesus’ era, nor anything like it, much less at the beginning of creation, when God might (theoretically) have been making white Englishmen from white English chalk.

To be more specific: the passage as it appears above was translated into a now-archaic dialect of English from an ancient Latin translation of a Koine (Greek) translation of a story that might have been first told in a first-century Galilean dialect of Aramaic. Aramaic was, in turn, a language that stretches back to the Neo-Assyrian empire, a thousand years before Jesus spoke, and subsequently broke into a thousand different dialects, one of which is believed to have been spoken in first-century Galilee by a certain itinerant rabbi endorsed by John the Baptist. There are various Aramaic dialects still in use, and they are reportedly very poetic, metaphorical languages with many layers of meaning that shift according to context: it’s entirely possible that Galilean Aramaic was also an imprecise, poetic language, a language that lends itself to parables, metaphor, and shades of meaning that come clear only after a thing has been said many times in many different ways.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” How many times did Jesus use those words to start a new parable about the Kingdom of Heaven? And then, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

If you want to parse commas in something “Jesus said,” as it appears in the King James Version of the Bible, you are three kinds of ignorant fool.

My wife and I talk about translation frequently, because we both enjoy words, and she is a professional translator. She often comes to me to talk about idiomatic English phrases. What exactly does it imply to “make your bed and lie in it?” When someone says, “He hit a home run” in a romantic novel, exactly what does it mean? Try it, some time: translate any idiomatic phrase in English into a dry, literal, objective, universal meaning. It’s always tricky — sometimes, it’s virtually impossible.

Even worse, exactly the same thought can often be conveyed only by using completely different words. “His shit doesn’t stink,” is a bizarre statement if translated literally into Spanish, but the expression, “He pisses perfume” is a well-worn phrase with exactly the right nuance. “He’s batshit crazy” is unknown in German, but “He has birds in his head” gets the idea across perfectly.

In particular, the little words — the if, the and, the but — carry a huge burden of significance in English. A misplaced comma can wreak havoc on a sentence: read about the Oxford comma. All languages have subtleties of this sort, but they are all different, and the subtleties often come between the words.

So I’m going to try out a retranslation of this final sentence:

And Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, for you sin no more.”

Interesting, no?

In the modern, judgmental interpretation, that tiny word “and” is freighted with a ton of subtle meaning. The word “go” appears in the imperative, English shorthand for “you can/may/should/must go now,” as a command that applies to the woman in the immediate future; this word “and” is generally taken to imply a second command, also applying to the woman in the immediate future, as “you can/may/should/must sin no more.” That is a peculiarity of the use of the word “and” in this purely English construction.

Is that precisely what was said in archaic Latin? In Koine? In first-century Galilean Aramaic?

I’m suggesting we treat the “and” as a King James English way of connecting two Latin (or Greek, or Aramaic) phrases that appear in conjunction for a completely different reason  — the first phrase is still an imperative, but the second clarifies the first by expressing why she is now free to go.

She can go, because no one can judge her sin, not even Jesus. If no one can judge her sin, then she has not sinned.

Does anyone really want to parse the word “and” this closely in King James English? Knowing that it’s a translation of a translation of a translation of a poetic, metaphorical language?

What we need to do instead is, as in Aramaic, listen to all the stories told over and over in different ways, until the meaning is clear.

Throughout all the stories, Jesus was unflinchingly brutal in his treatment of religious leaders: the scribes and the Pharisees. He called them “vipers” and “whitewashed tombs.” That’s how it comes out in King James English, but this loses all the bite those words would likely have had in first-century Palestine. A slightly better contemporary translation might be “toxic cockroaches” and “perfumed sacks of shit.”

Jesus was not being nice in these passages.

Religious leaders were pretty much the only people Jesus ever went after this way. He didn’t go after whores, nor tax collectors, nor lepers, nor even bloody worthless Samaritans. He didn’t even go after the Romans.

He only went after the religious leaders of his own people.

And all those sinners? “Your sins are forgiven.” Over and over. That’s what got him into so much trouble.

So I have to ask myself how it is that so many Christian leaders in the US have somehow decided that Jesus would have — for some reason that completely escapes me — drawn the line at homosexuals. That is, he can completely forgive an adulteress, but a homosexual?

Nah. Jesus surely would have cast the first stone in that case.

So, of course, these modern religious leaders — Jesus would never have called them toxic cockroaches — are free to cast the second stone.


Those who have ears, let them hear.

Steady-State Capitalism

In previous posts, I’ve offered a rather bleak prognosis for capitalism.

I’ve proposed a definition of capitalism that seems to cover the many kinds of capitalism we’ve experienced in the last five centuries. I’ve observed that the central flaw in all these forms of capitalism is the expectation of sustained exponential economic growth. I’ve noted that this expectation is based on the false premise that wealth is created rather than being moved and transformed, and that capitalism has been devouring the natural economy — the ecosystem that supports our very existence — in order to create our human economic wealth. I’ve pointed out the obvious fact that this isn’t sustainable — certainly not on Earth, nor in a non-material “information economy,” nor even if we develop starships and ravage the whole galaxy. I’ve suggested that capitalism is probably pretty close to its end, with the caution that it has been on its deathbed before, then gotten back up; it may well do so again, perhaps multiple times, before it goes down for good.

I’d like to explore a bit what might come after capitalism.

Note the following, in bold red letters:

We are now entering the time-honored tradition of purest speculation. 

While I speak of “likelihoods,” it’s my opinion. I have no idea what will actually happen. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughtful alternatives.

The Likely Scenario

images-1The most likely way this all plays out is an extended repeat of the boom and bust cycles we’ve seen throughout our written history. Think of Babylon, Greece, or Rome. Think of the Mayans, or the Anasazi. Think of Easter Island.

Our future most likely holds the collapse of our global capitalist civilization into a world-wide dark age, followed by the rise of subsequent civilizations that make ours look — to the people of that future time — grand, in its way, but also primitive and violent. Just as we now view ancient Rome, or Greece, or Assyria.

Civilizations have a life-cycle. While every such rise and fall has unique elements, there is a common structure to most: a rhyme-scheme, if you will, for those of you familiar with the statement that history never repeats, but it always rhymes.

One of the common rhymes in the fall of societies and civilizations is the appearance of a huge and growing gap in status and wealth between the upper and lower classes.

One way of looking at this, to follow with the language I’ve been developing in this series of essays, is that the society’s economic system, whatever it is, switches from an aerobic form to an anaerobic form — in the former, it really is creating human wealth for that society by taking it from somewhere else (Nature or other societies), while in the latter, it is simply going through the motions of wealth creation while, in fact, it is the rich stealing from others within the same society. This impoverishes the very people who provide the machinery for enriching the wealthy, and the society then becomes so weak that it either falls apart, or becomes prey to some other society.

Regardless of the mechanism, however, a large and growing wealth-gap between the rich and the poor is a strong indication that a society has peaked, and is ripe for decline.

This boom-and-bust cycle doesn’t require capitalism by any means, else we wouldn’t see it throughout history. However, capitalism feeds the cycle with enthusiastic abandon by attempting to expand the wealth of the owners at an exponential rate, leaving the other classes to suffocate as the economy turns anaerobic.

John Michael Greer takes this approach of boom-and-bust, and talks about our civilization being the first and most wasteful (and destructive) of a long sequence of rising and falling “technic societies,” which is an interesting, and actually rather hopeful way to look at this cycle.

It’s impossible to predict what greatness or depravity future high societies will embody, or what they will look like, after the intervening dark age. Will they build floating cities made of aerogels? Will they live in huge networks of self-sufficient rural villages linked by a solar-powered Internet? Will they form martial empires, or peaceful enclaves of philosophy, art, and music?

No one knows. It’s rich ground for speculative fiction.

The End of the World

A few people have preached that the end of our current global capitalist economy is the End of Humanity.

This is based mostly on the belief that Our Way of Life is also the Only Way of Life Worth Living — which is both childish and absurd.

But there is the idea of “technological overshoot.” This means that we do so much damage to the Earth’s ecosystem using technology to sustain our unsustainable way of life, that when our society falls and we lose our technological edge, people can’t find their way back to a simpler lifestyle. Soil is too damaged to farm, and fertilizer is no longer available; water is polluted at the source, and there is no technology to clean it; unprocessed air is unbreathable. In the extreme case, we trigger a cascade of extinctions that wipe out humans and other species, right down to the bugs, and evolution has to start over; or, if you’re of a religious bent, God has to dip his hands into the clay again.

This has certainly happened in isolated cultures. Easter Island is a classic example, and it isn’t the only example.

While global overshoot is possible, I personally think it unlikely. I believe our global civilization is a whole lot more fragile than people think. I believe we’ll blink before all of Nature does: our civilization will collapse, and stop destroying the environment, which will slowly recover. Our descendants may spend millennia herding goats in a steamy, rainforested Antarctica, but there will be descendants.

My biggest objection to this story, however, is that it’s not very interesting to talk about. Humans pollute their environment and go extinct. Meh. End of stories and storytelling alike. We can argue about whether Mother Nature’s “human experiment” was a tragedy or a farce, though we have to adopt a transcendent viewpoint to make the argument on either side. What else is there to say?

The more interesting question is whether there is a way to climb down from the capitalist money-tree before the branches break off and tumble us into either a dark age, or extinction.

Steady-State Capitalism

visittodowntownhdExponential growth isn’t part of the definition of capitalism. Perhaps we could have a capitalism that supports a more modest kind of growth.

The basic problem with any sub-exponential growth in a capitalist system is a scaling problem. Perhaps I can explain it this way.

If I want to invest $100, I’m expecting some return on that investment. If I want to invest $1000, I’m expecting roughly ten times the return. It doesn’t matter whether I invest the $1000 in a single enterprise, or try to spread it out over ten $100 enterprises, or whether I’m representing ten different investors, each of whom wants a return on his $100.

Returns are expected to be proportional to the total investment. As I’ve explained at length elsewhere, proportional returns are one way of defining exponential growth. Proportional growth and exponential growth are two different names for exactly the same thing.

So if you don’t have exponential growth, then returns can’t be proportional to the investment.

My son was arguing for linear growth the other night, but once he grasped this scaling issue, he saw the problem. Linear growth means that the economy grows by a fixed amount each year: it generates (say) a total of $100 in new human wealth every year. So if you are the only person to invest $100 in the economy, you get a return of $100. If you are the only person to invest $1000 in the economy, you still only get a return of $100. If ten people each invest $100 in the economy, and they have to share the $100 return, then each of them gets a return of $10. If a thousand people each invest $100, each of them gets a return of ten cents.

With linear economic growth, all of the investors (and investments) are competing for the same fixed amount of wealth generated by the economy. Over time, as the investors’ fortunes grow (albeit slowly), they will want to invest more of their money, but they are still all competing for that $100 in actual growth. Investing more reduces their proportional return.

There’s no real point to investing $100 in such an economy, because the best you can hope for is your $100 back. It might make sense to invest $90, to get that $100. But if that makes sense, then lots of people will want to invest $90, which means the $100 gets split by lots of people, meaning the return is now far less than $90. The only way this could possibly be worthwhile as a financial investment, is if the number of investors is strictly limited.

The same is true of any sub-exponential economic growth. One of the examples I’ve used before is the science fiction concept of an expanding galactic empire that collects resources from entire planets and distributes the wealth instantly through teleporting star gates. The fastest this empire could grow, economically, is quadratically — that is, as the square of time, representing the surface of a sphere expanding at the speed of light (since new resources are only available at the frontier). This is faster than linear growth, but it’s still sub-exponential. Investors are still going to see diminishing returns over time, unless the number of investors, and the amount they can each invest, is strictly limited.

So we might as well jump right in and ask how capitalism would fare in a steady-state, zero-growth economy with zero returns on investment — in the long run, this is what any sub-exponential growth looks like.

Can capitalism survive in a zero-growth setting?

The Owners in Steady-State Capitalism

We have to be careful with this idea of “steady-state.” Nothing lasts forever. And just about anything, no matter how nutty or out-of-balance, can last a few years. So let’s set an arbitrary bound of 1000 years. Anything that could last 1000 years, clearly doesn’t have a systemic problem built into it, as capitalism does, though it still might fail for other reasons.

Thus, we’re imagining a kind of steady-state capitalism that’s going strong 1000 years from now, with no economic growth, no expectation of growth, and good prospects for running another 1000 years.

I’ve proposed that the only real innovation that capitalism introduced to the Medieval European idea of hereditary feudal landholdings, was the idea that entitlements could be bought and sold.

I believe the late Medieval period actually came to this point, even within the aristocracy: in the late 1300’s, impoverished knights were quietly selling off their holdings and their titles, which they could no longer afford to support. In the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, written a few centuries later, we see a long section of gossip about whether Comte Edmond Dantès’ title was inherited or bought. This still persists in the concept of “old money” versus “new money.”

Medieval European feudalism, unlike our modern society, believed in steady state. God appointed the clergy, the clergy ratified the rulers, the rulers assigned the land to lords, the serfs were bound to the land and worked it for themselves and everyone else, and all the other professions, from hooper to whore to moneylender, worked within this static system. World without end, Amen.

imagesSo some kind of feudal capitalism, consisting of semi-hereditary fortunes with ownership trades among the owners, is not at all unthinkable. The House Atreides and House Harkonnen in the Frank Herbert novel, Dune, both come to mind for me. In fact, we already see modern corporatism headed in precisely this direction: Coke and Pepsi are, essentially, feudal estates, and their controlling shareholders, board members, and executives are the aristocratic court. The corporation holds market share rather than land, and the aristocracy holds controlling stock rather than titles.

Open acknowledgement that economic growth has ceased will, however, cause a few not-so-minor shifts in the economy.

Our current model of Federal Reserve and fractional-reserve banking will have to be replaced or radically revised. Fractional reserve banking is an odd beast, only a little over a century old: it loans money into existence, and demands repayment with interest, meaning that every dollar you have in your wallet is a promissory note that obligates you (or your descendants) to pay back more than a dollar. This is one of the root causes of both inflation, and the endless need for exponential economic growth. Such a money system simply can’t survive in a zero-growth economy, because there is no place for the interest to come from.

We’ll also lose the idea of the interest-bearing US Treasury Bond, which is the bank-note the Federal Reserve issues: the US economy won’t be growing, so again, there’s no place for the interest to come from. That, in turn, will force governments back into balanced budgets based on taxation, or (bad idea) borrowing money directly from the rich for really big endeavors, like putting on a war. I’m thinking now of the amusing and recurring situation between the Medici and the Popes in the 1400’s, where the Pope requests a loan, both parties proclaim eternal admiration, gratitude, and friendship, the Pope glibly refuses to repay the loan, the lender lays siege to the Papal vineyards, the Pope excommunicates everyone involved, renegade priests defy the Pope and offer Mass anyway, and — in the end — the Pope coughs up the money with proclamations of kissy-kissy-friends-forever-again.

Municipal bonds will go the same route. These are currently a relatively painless alternative to voting for a municipal tax to support some community enterprise, like a water plant or a school. In a zero-growth economy, no one is going to buy bonds as an investment.

Commodity markets might persist, because they serve as a seasonal hedge for both buyers and sellers of commodities. But they’ll change a lot, because non-renewable resources won’t generally be commodities. Things like wheat, bananas, and pork-bellies will remain: things like oil and coal will not. There’s more room for speculation as to how precious and useful metals will shake out, and whether speculative buying on margin will still work. What seems certain, however, is that speculating in the commodity markets will be even more risky than it is now.

Stock markets will vanish. Stock won’t vanish — it is the new aristocratic title — but corporate stock will be more like real estate: not the mortgage papers, but the actual properties. Like land holdings in feudal Europe, they’ll be valuable for the rents (dividends) they return, and the power they offer. Properties that are easy to acquire will be generally worthless. Valuable properties will not change hands often, and the trades will be personal, and limited. That trade will doubtless support brokers — but I can’t see it supporting an open marketplace.

Overall, “investments” of any sort won’t yield wealth. Investment will still happen, but it will cease to be about making money, and more about getting things done: more like Kickstarter campaigns.

In particular, corporations and the wealthy holders of controlling shares will use investments, not for wealth-generation, but for ego-feeding, political power, and even general social benefit. I’m thinking now of the funeral tombs of Egypt, the sculptures of Greece, the Medieval cathedrals, the artwork of the Renaissance, or the Italian and German patronage of music during the classical period.

The only way to gain more wealth in a steady state system is to acquire it from someone else.

That means there will be war. I’ll return to this in a moment.

Commoners in Steady-State Capitalism

Let’s look briefly at the situation of the commoner, the serf, in our steady-state feudal corporate capitalism.

The first issue is population.

People breed like bunnies: that is, exponentially, at least until they eat all the lettuce and starve, or become numerous enough to attract wolves. Modern people have considered this an intractable problem that leads to inevitable doom, but there’s an odd thing: human societies have, in fact, been able to control their populations. One of the most astonishing to me is the little island of Tikopia, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which can support no more than about a thousand people. They’ve apparently been there for at least a thousand years. So they clearly figured it out — they’ve proven it’s possible (as have other cultures) to put limits on population growth.

Having a stable population, however, means cultural, legal, religious, and economic commitment to keeping the population stable. There cannot be an economic advantage to having too many children; if there is, there will need to be extremely strong legal, cultural, or religious taboos to counterbalance the economic incentive. That would require a very different culture than the one we currently live in, here in the US.

There also needs to be a good mechanism for dealing with “normal” bulges and troughs in population, such as our “Baby Boom” generation, or the Black Death in the fourteenth century in Europe, which so drastically disrupted the Medieval system. Zero population growth does not mean people can’t have children: it means that, on the average, two breeders must have exactly two children that live to reproduce. But things will happen, and the population will rise and fall. The system needs to withstand this.

The current economic and cultural forces that drive people from one place to another, looking for work, in the process breaking up families and communities, will vanish: with no epidemic economic reason to move and keep moving, and stronger communities that lack our modern expectation that kids will go to a distant college and then move to a distant city to get a job, more people will simply stay put. Not everyone, of course: there will always be free spirits and malcontents.

Our current process of trying to prepare for old age, illness, and such through personal “investments” will vanish, since there is no economic growth to provide these returns. It’s quite possible that the common folk won’t even have access to banks: banks may be useful only to the wealthy. However, overall inflation should be zero, so if you put a coin in a box and bury it, then dig it up fifty years later, it will still be worth what it was worth when you buried it.

Our hyper-individualistic current outlook, as US Americans, sees this as leading to people hoarding coins, other people stealing those coins, brutal police forces and/or vigilantes seeking to get their parents’ money back, and so forth. It’s a well-worn plot cycle: kindly old restaurant owner is robbed by thugs of the Evil Triad Cartel, renegade Shaolin Monk appears from nowhere and defeats the bad guys and gets the money back, then rides into the sunset. You can set the same story in the American Old West. Or Gotham City.

In practice, this is romantic nonsense. In a stable system, you can’t have the Dickensian horror of most old people dying as beggars in a dark alley, trying to keep warm, nor can you have the free-for-all of a lawless Old West with individuals stashing a few coins in a hidden box under a mesquite tree. What real people in real societies do is, in general, called a mutual aid society. US Social Security is an example, scaled up to the national level. Before there was Social Security, there were mutual aid societies, like the Odd Fellows, or the BPOE. Before that, there were trade guilds — or at the rural level, real local communities.

Beyond those basic features, I can’t see too many constraints on the common life imposed by steady-state capitalism. There’s room for all kinds and levels of social mobility based on skills and merit, room for technology (though not for wasteful extractive technology), room for all kinds of social conventions (that don’t result in population growth).

On the whole, life for most people will be good, and satisfying. If it isn’t, people will get restive, and the system will become unstable.

The Art of War

Ownership, in capitalism, is individual and sovereign, and in a world with a finite number of things to own — specifically in a zero-sum economy that is not growing and is not expected to grow — it is inherently competitive.

The traditional way of increasing ownership of this sort has always been to take it by force. If the current owner objects, you kill him. It’s called right of conquest. It’s also known as war.

The positive side of the capitalist innovation is that it gave people an alternative to war. Ownership of the critical resources could be bought and sold, rather than inherited or granted by divine right or taken by right of conquest.

The thing that free-market fundamentalists don’t seem to understand about marketplaces, is that they depend on impartial law to validate and enforce ownership claims.

It’s like the Medici and the Pope. If you lend money to the Pope, to what authority will you appeal if he simply decides to not pay you back? If you buy controlling stock from another aristocrat in a steady-state capitalist economy, what can you do if he takes your money and then refuses to turn over the executive washroom key?

If there is no such authority to appeal to, then our steady-state capitalism will turn into an unending series of wars among the owners, using commoners as soldiers. This is not a stable system.

If there is an overarching authority, with sufficient power to reign in any individual owner or small group of owners — a corporate government, if you will — then its courts, and its bureaucracy, will be more corrupt and intrigue-ridden than any imperial court the world has ever known. That opens covert routes to increasing wealth and power, and a kind of war in the shadows. The system will not long remain impartial. Again, I think the system will prove unstable.

I would be very surprised to see any form of steady-state capitalism last a thousand years. I’d love to hear others’ thoughtful explorations of how it might be made to work.

In a subsequent post, I’d like to explore some alternatives to capitalism by playing with the concept of ownership.

The Shifting Sand of Context

“He has the right to defend himself from deadly force.”

That’s a line that gets tossed around a lot these days, particularly whenever a cop kills a black person.

It’s a nice-sounding sentiment, but it isn’t true. For instance, it doesn’t apply to a citizen who defends himself when a cop pulls a gun and threatens to shoot.

So there’s an asymmetry here. A context. “It was self-defense” applies to a cop who shoots a citizen, but it doesn’t apply to a citizen who shoots a cop.

So, if we want to be clear, we have to say that a cop has the right to defend himself from deadly force. A citizen does not have the right to defend himself against a cop.

Let’s broaden the context a bit. What if you shoot a cop who is off-duty, in plain clothes, who pulls a gun and threatens to shoot you over a matter of your dog pooping in his yard?

Well, your life is probably over, either way — if the cop doesn’t kill you, then the lawyers will make you wish he had, and you’ll almost certainly go to prison, even if you only winged him. But that’s our current fuckup of a legal system. In theory, you would have the right to defend yourself. I think.

We would have to clarify again, by saying that a citizen does not have the right to defend himself against a cop who is doing his assigned duty.

Let’s broaden the context a bit further. What if the cop’s assigned duty is to provoke a violent response?

There used to be a concept of “fightin’ words” — the idea that normal people can be provoked, sometimes with words alone, into a violent action. I don’t know if this actually had any legal standing, but it certainly served to take the edge off a judge’s sentencing in the past.

Think of that scene in the film Crash, when Matt Dillon’s cop character is feeling up the black man’s attractive wife while “searching” for weapons, just to try to provoke a violent reaction from the husband. It resonates, because we all recognize the asymmetry of power in this scene. The cop can do whatever the hell he wants, and get away with it.

“That’s a movie, it doesn’t happen in real life,” is one predictable response. Uh-huh. That’s exactly why the scene resonates so strongly.

“There are always a few bad apples,” is another predictable response. “And they are prosecuted vigorously and drummed out of the … well….” Uh-huh. We see lots of that vigorous prosecution, and bad cops getting drummed out.

This is basically saying that no one assigns cops the duty of stirring up trouble. That just doesn’t happen. Right?

Except when you look at a place like Ferguson, where the dim-witted city officials decide that they are short on funds, and decide to take up highway robbery.

Jaywalking? Fine ’em. Double parking? Fine ’em. Sleeping on a park bench? Lock ’em up and fine ’em. If they can’t pay the fine, double it. If they don’t show up to pay the fine, put out an arrest warrant and fine ’em again. If they can’t pay that, put them in the prison system and get kickbacks, as well as giving the “perp” a police record that effectively ruins their life.

That’s not stirring up trouble? Really? Before you make that your final answer, are you sure you don’t want to call a friend?

The fact is, it is increasingly the official duty of police officers to enforce laws that stir up trouble.

In many cases, these laws are the legacy of our national history of racism and slavery: the laws are intended to enforce an inequality in society that was considered natural and just at the time — at least by those (white) people with legal voice and standing — which is now considered natural and just by almost no one.

In many other cases, these laws are merely intended to keep the poor impoverished, and out of sight. No one wants beggars on the street, or sleeping on park benches, and we’ve always had this strange, Puritanical, Calvinist belief that the poor somehow deserve their lot, so it doesn’t matter much if we make their hard life harder.

The biggest problem is, of course, the disastrous Drug War, which has been going on for nearly a century. The Drug War was founded in racism, and resulted in the twisted vision of “law and order” that we see flourishing around us now: something that any American citizen from the 1800’s would have viewed as standing in complete antithesis to the ideal of Freedom this country was presumably founded upon. Virtually every criminal law on the books regarding “drugs” is a legal abomination, and its enforcement is all but guaranteed to stir up huge buckets of flaming trouble.

Finally, adding spice to this unholy mix, we have the neoliberal economics of the last forty years, which has twisted our nation’s vision from freedom, to “free markets,” in which the whole of human activity and governance is reduced to competing against each other for money in the marketplace. Entire cities are being effectively defunded, though they are still expected to provide all the normal services. City officials have been reduced to extorting money from their citizens, and it is the cops who are officially ordered to go around breaking the knees of people who don’t pay up.

So let’s look at the question again in this still-broader context.

A cop goes to the door of a person who already lives on the edge of ruin, to serve a warrant that is going to destroy that person’s life: force them to pay trivial fines they can’t afford, take time off work that will cause them to lose their job, brand them with a police record that will make it hard to get a new job afterward, get them evicted from their home and have their children taken away, and — to top it off — all this in an environment where cops can do whatever the hell they want.

Even if the cops don’t, they can. And everyone knows it, including the cops.

Is it any real surprise that someone might come to the door with a shotgun?

So it leads me to the question: when you hold the power to stop someone on the street and do literally anything you want to them, right up to killing them without consequence, and then deliberately provoke a fight with that person, holding not only their future, but their children’s future hostage, do you give up the right to defend yourself from deadly force?

I’m not asking the legal question. I’m asking the moral question.

Go watch the movie, Rob Roy. This is not a new question.

Sherilyn’s Song

So last week, I went completely nuts and bought four grand pianos.

I had to pay a little extra for a new hard disk drive, so I’d have someplace to put them.

I upgraded my entire electronic orchestra last summer, and it has made an enormous difference in the quality of the music I’m putting up on this site. But it was completely lacking in any piano samples.

The reason is simple enough. The piano samples take up thirty-five CDs. Hence, the expanded hard drive. They include a Bechstein 280, a Bosendorfer 290, a Steinway model D, and a Yamaha model C7 — four of the high-end concert grand pianos you’ll find in the big concert halls.

One of my next projects will be to remix the Piano Concerto, because none of the mixes I’ve done to date do it justice.

But just to try it out on something, I decided to remix Sherilyn’s Song, from my 1996 tape. My son was asking about it the other day, and now that I have a decent piano, I thought I’d give it a shot. The result is up on the music page. I think it turned out very well.

There’s a little story behind Sherilyn’s Song. Yes, it’s a love song. Yes, it’s wistful, and a little sad.

In 1996, I was a year out from divorce — entirely amicable, but based on an irreconcilable similarity I won’t go into here — and I was newly single, forty years old, and free to … well, whatever.

At the time, I was rooming with a friend, since the separation agreement involved a year of pretty much all I could afford in child support and maintenance; and so, although I had a good job, I was as cash-strapped as a college student. Jim, who was renting me a room in his house, was a really good guy, and we would go out to bars together on weekends and flirt with the ladies. All catch-and-release fantasy fishing: I wasn’t ready for complications. Jim was equally uninterested in casual hook-ups.

It was a very good time of life for me.

Sherilyn was a bartender at one of the watering holes we frequented. She was a little less than twenty years my junior, cute as a button, and I flirted shamelessly. I even developed a full-scale crush. I’m pretty sure it was not reciprocated, and I was fine with that. It didn’t have to be reciprocated. Dante had his Beatrice.

The flirting, and the crush — let’s call it what it is, a particular kind of love — of an older man for a younger woman, a kind of idealized fantasy of reliving innocence in romance, inspired the music, and allowed me to experience the rather unique pleasure of presenting a score of “Sherilyn’s Song” to her, one day, along with a tape. It was a kind of farewell — I was already moving on into the next stage of my life, and she was still finding her feet in the world.

It’s a beautiful little piece of music. Enjoy.