Talkin’ ‘Bout Capitalism

Now and then, at the end of the day, my partner and I sometimes end up talking about capitalism — what it is, what it does, what it encourages, what it does and/or does not allow.  We observe that it seems to foster creativity and innovation, but we wonder whether it’s part of its nature to then squash any truly status-quo-challenging pursuits.  We don’t know whether or not it contains within itself the capacity for facing and solving the problems it has caused. These are sincere questions.

capitalism

Not long after one of these late-night conversations, I randomly came across this lecture by Paul Mason, recipient of the Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize, published in the New Statesman on June 12, and it attracted my interest. Keynes, Mason says, believed that capitalism (barring unforeseen circumstances) would have to end up providing for the well-being of all. But Mason disagrees, or rather points out that the circumstances that followed Keynes’ prediction were indeed unforeseen, and as a result of these circumstances, most recently the rise of information technology, capitalism has evolved into a system that can’t support itself indefinitely. (In my words, I would say that the system is unsustainable).

Mason describes the economic impact of a situation “where large amounts of information are produced and exchanged at negligible real prices, if not for free.”  He argues,

Consider the social implications: if the cost of information goods tends towards zero, and the ability to standardise and virtualise the manufacture of real things also rapidly reduces their cost, the real price of labour will also fall because a) supply exceeds demand and b) the input costs fall.

That is what I think underpins the surprise outcome of the neoliberal revolution: the impoverishment of the developed-world working class. It looks like the outcome of class struggle and defeat, but it may also be the product of a one-time technology event.

Mason goes on to point out specific ways in which the phenomenon of the concentration of wealth constrains people’s movement, speech, choice, and wellness.  The examples he gives, like the protester being kicked by the official, resonate with his analysis; really, they are just a very few of the many possible events, public and private, that could be cited.

Yet Mason also notes that the new information technology and culture have led to a flourishing of “non-managed, peer-produced, non-market activity based around information” — all the content and all the software that people are creating and giving away for free.  “Non-market activity”!  Those are good words, to me.  Activity that exists outside of the market?  Really?  It can exist?  What an important site of production.  Mason thinks that it has the potential, if not the destiny, to unravel capitalism itself.

What most stood out to me in this lecture, however, might have been nothing more than a quirk of phraseology.  Toward the end of the essay, he writes:

If we avoid this dire outcome, it will because the forces for good, for understanding and knowledge and restraint are also being strengthened by technology. I think we should imagine new technology creating the world of abundance Keynes longed for, but it is likely to be decoupled from the question of pure GDP growth and compound interest.

It won’t happen by 2030. It will not be the transition Marxists imagined, led by the state suppressing market forces, but a transition based on the controlled dissolution of market forces by abundant information and a delinking of work from income. I call this – following economists as diverse as Peter Drucker and David Harvey – post-capitalism. In making it happen, the main issue is not economics but power, and it revolves around who can envisage and create the better life.

It’s this language of imagination that compels me.  “Creating the world of abundance … decoupled from the question of …” What he’s calling for, or maybe just observing the need for, is a paradigm shift.  Can we imagine a world of abundance?  One that’s based on something other than the working models of the current economic system?  Can we imagine that?  I think we NEED to devote a lot of our attention to imagining that, and imagining the tools that we would need to get there.

I love the last line of this passage.  It points to the idea that power, as it is currently aligned, stands in the way of any type of paradigm change.  It states that “the better life,” hopefully the sustainable life, is something that needs to be envisaged, visualized, envisioned (or held as a vision), and created, emerging from our creativity, imagined and brought into being.  My interpretation: that the practice of envisioning a better world, of a different order entirely, must be nurtured and spread, until so many people are doing it that it begins to have power of its own.

Post-capitalism.

Mason ends the lecture by claiming that “the true Keynesian thing to do is to imagine a humanist future based on abundance and freedom, and explore what tools we have that might make it come about. There is no better time to imagine it.”

Social change needs imagination right now.  Ok, it needs a lot of things.  And one of those things is imagination.  From school to business to personal relationships.  From science and technology to human services to politics.  Everybody has imagination.  It is a truly vast, undertapped resource (here in America in the present day).

If imagination were truly valued in America, would we stand for companies buying out promising innovators with planet-saving solutions simply to shut them down? Or companies like Monsanto buying the research firms that test their products for safety?

Would we cut every imagination-developing class from our public schools?

Why does anyone wonder why we haven’t yet imagined, on a mass scale, a sustainable society?

And who does the status quo serve?

It is said that every system does exactly what it is designed to do.

What is our system doing?

Is that really the best we can imagine?

Right Brain Friday

This semester, I’m finally availing myself of my tuition benefit and taking a class at the community college where I teach.  I’m taking Drawing 101.  I’m taking this class because I want to write a graphic-novel-style memoir (what I would call “panel-form,” because you know how I feel about the term “graphic novel” being used to describe all kinds of things that aren’t fiction), and although I have a lot of ideas and even a sort of beginning of an outline, I was not feeling like my drawing skills were up to snuff.  So even though I have a million other things going on (like reapplying for my job, which ends after this year, and teaching my own five classes), I decided to plunge in and become a student again.  And man, is it messing with my brain — in the best possible way!

I am actually learning how to draw.  But taking this class is giving me so many other benefits that I would never have dreamed of.  One of the biggest is that it’s putting me back in beginner’s mind.  I really entered this class knowing nothing about actual drawing techniques; I had blundered my way through a few cartoons that came out reasonably ok after hours of frustrated sketching, erasing, and redoing.  Occasionally I would intuit my way to a particular shape or curved line that suggested what I wanted to convey, but I knew I was never going to get through a major project in this way (at least not in anything less than twenty years, by which time graphic novels and their nonfiction genre counterparts will probably be obsolete and everyone will be on to a new way of making literature that I will also not know how to do).  The point is, even though I had produced the odd successful drawing in the recent past, when I showed up on the first day of this class my ego thudded up against the truth that I know nothing about how this is done.

For the first two sessions, I felt almost paralyzed!  The anxiety I felt about doing something that I had no idea how to do, and then having to submit the results to critique by the whole class, just stopped me from getting going at all.  The first time I had to actually draw something — in this case, a sculpture of a head — I worked for a couple of hours (the studio part of the class is actually a six-hour Friday night session, from 3:15 to 9:15 pm) and then got what I called “stuck.”  It wasn’t that I didn’t have the energy to keep going, as I explained to the instructor (who had said he wanted us to gradually build up our stamina for longer and longer drawing sessions); it was that I felt that I had reached the end of my ability to make it any better.

So I took a break.  I wandered around the room, went up to my office and had a snack, then went back down to the basement, where the art department is.  I picked up my eraser and erased a bunch of stuff and started doing it over.  And when I put the new lines on the paper, they looked a little bit more like the thing I was trying to recreate.  Not exactly like it, but more like it.  And when, half an hour or so later, the instructor called it a night, I could have kept on going for at least another hour, erasing and redrawing and erasing and redrawing and erasing and … you know.

What did this feel like?  It felt like Wow!!!  I could practically feel the neurons in the right side of my brain waking up and stretching, and waving to each other across the gaps of disuse.  It felt like sparklers in the middle of a deep, warm, humid, Midwestern summer night.  Something clicked together with something else and the result was a release of energy.  I felt like going for a run; I felt like solving a problem; I felt like laughing out loud.  Yeah!!!

The recommended textbook for this class is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.  In this book, the author makes the argument that the unrelenting stripping away of all arts programs from American public schools is not just a loss for those who are interested in, or who have “natural talent” for, those subjects; nor is it simply a setback to the general humanities approach to a well-rounded education.  The lack of arts instruction, she asserts, constitutes a truly tragic deficiency for ALL students, because nothing remains in the curriculum (besides what insistent individual teachers sneak in, against the will of test-score-driven policymakers and administrators) to develop and train the right brain, which is the source of creative thinking.  And it is creative thinking, right brain thinking, that is utterly fundamental to the putting of science, technology, and mathematics to use to actually explore the world, solve stubborn problems, and innovate new designs for the future.  I can’t put it strongly enough: I am all for STEM; STEM is awesome; science and math are both fun and vitally important.  BUT IN THE REAL WORLD, SCIENCE, MATH, AND ENGINEERING ARE CREATIVE FIELDS.  

Art is not a luxury.  Art is what makes science GO.

(steps down from soapbox)

Anyway.  Today I attended a five-hour professional development session on using the web-based digital movie program wevideo in the composition classroom.  In the workshop, I recorded a poem I had written; I selected photos (some I had taken and some stock images) that expressed the essence of the poem; I combined the text and the images with sound and visual effects.  (Even though I still think of it as a draft, I’ll let you see it: here.)  As soon as the workshop was done, I raced across campus and downstairs for drawing class.  I knew that today we’d be doing something new again, something that scared me: adding imagined elements into a real scene.

Now, when I had heard what the topic would be at the end of last week’s class, it was as though every imaginative idea was erased from my brain.  My mind became as a blank whiteboard.  All week long I thought about today’s class with trepidation, like, “What the H. am I going to draw from my imagination?????”  Even though I had signed up for this class because there were so many ideas in my imagination that I wanted to learn to bring out onto the page, when actually asked to consider this possibility, I became as the proverbial deer, you know where.  By this morning I had come up with something cute-ish, something I could do if I couldn’t think of anything better, but it wasn’t anything that came close to expressing my real passion, the passion that brought me to the class in the first place.

But after the five hours of video editing (in that class, I worked feverishly through the lunch break to capture as many of my ideas as I could, and again could have kept going long after the ending time — hence my comment above about it being an unfinished draft), when I went and stood in front of the easel, I actually saw something in the cavernous empty room that I was drawing — something that came from my heart.  And when, a few hours (not enough) later, the instructor called us all in, and I pleaded for five more minutes, I had produced the first thing that I actually liked so far this semester (this is week five).  And after the critique session, after we were all kicked out of the art room, I came up to my office and kept working on the drawing, filling in just a few more details from my memory, and a few others from my imagination.

And then I turned to my computer and wrote a blog post for the first time in months.  Because if on the first day, those long-hibernating neurons felt like sparklers when they woke up, today it feels like the freaking Fourth of July in the right hemisphere of my brain.  I guess the more I use it, the more there is to use.  And I feel like a million bucks.  And I can’t describe it any better than that.

face

room

Balance: Life and Art

What a year it’s been.  Moving to Colorado, many ups & downs (and not just my commute over the mountains ha ha ha) … a lot of fodder for thought packed into a relatively short amount of time.  You could say the stimuli have been highly concentrated for the past while.

Lately I’ve felt my pendulum swinging from a strong drive to go out and meet people, join groups, visit family and friends all over the country and interact constantly with others, to a definite and un-ignorable desire to go inward.   I have really felt most like getting down on my hands and knees and digging around in the muddy earth that is my brain.  Since May (spring Sufi camp, actually) my main desires have been to pray; to chant; to push deeper into understanding, even just a tiny bit more; and to create and create and create!  The feeling of fertility in the inner landscape has lasted a long enough time to surprise me.  Though I hold the awareness that it IS a cycle, and it WILL end, and swing in perhaps a third, as yet unknown direction — I still fear its end because I don’t have faith in myself to make the most of it.

Instead of just sitting down and making stuff, which is what I want to do, instead I sit down and ponder how best to divide up my time, and then I have a discussion about it, and then I dust my furniture, and then I remember something I need to do for work, and THEN I might squeeze in half an hour of letting neat things flow from my hands.  But really, even those half hours, even those fifteen minutes sometimes, they come around more often than is normal for me and so *I* feel like it is a rather lavish abundance.  So, that’s a good thing!

The more I decide to let myself be absorbed in what I really want to do, the less fear will have room to rise up and distract me.  So, that’s what I’m working on right now.