As governments worldwide descend into a state of farce, daily life for the 99% continues to get more difficult. Because of this suffering, we hear calls to return to party politics and make demands on the state at the very time that representative politics appears to have collapsed. It is said that mutual aid cannot help restore devalued pensions or create jobs. If we recognize the literal inhumanity of genetically-modified computer-driven modern capitalism for what it is, mutual aid has actually become the only way, first to assist people in dire need, and second to create conditions for change. And a specter is haunting them now, the specter of debt default. By us, not the U.S.
The paradox is not new. As Marx famously put it:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
But Marx forgot to add: their farce is our tragedy. As the US Congress appears ready to shut its own government down, it has become a visible farce, even if some escape route is found. Meanwhile, in the real world:
15% of US citizens live in federally-defined poverty, meaning $23,000 or less for a household of four.
37% of African-American children live in poverty.
In the first quarter of 2013, there were 600,000 new bankruptcies and foreclosures, which explains why personal debt has slightly declined.
Except for student debt, which cannot be bankrupted. The conservative estimate of the Federal Reserve of NY has student debt at $994 billion. Everyone else thinks it’s well over a trillion dollars.
The Italian government, not for the first time, has become farcical, as Berlusconi withdraws from it yet again to try and avoid going to jail–again. Meanwhile, in the real world:
The OECD sees unemployment as “structural” in Italy and the rest of Europe, including Germany.
Italian youth unemployment is officially running at 37.5%.
15% of Italians (8.6 million) meet the official criteria for poverty. 10% more–a quarter of all Italians–are just one indicator behind falling into poverty.
Other farces have been less visible but have had no less consequential effects. When the Irish people elected a new government in 2011, dedicated to what it called a “democratic revolution,” real change was expected. On March 28, 2011, the coalition decided to default on €6 billion of bonds from the mafia capitalist Anglo Irish Bank in public ownership. European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet signaled: “if you do it, the bomb will go off,” meaning that Troika support would be withdrawn, and the Irish economy would collapse. So the bonds were redeemed, and investors made a killing. Meanwhile, in the real world:
One person now emigrates from Ireland every six minutes.
Youth unemployment is 30%. The government announced in September that it has no money to provide more staff at unemployment centers.
Irish poverty rates are 6.9%. They would rise to over 50% if it were not for welfare payments.
Statistics of this kind launched the call for major reform in Ireland. People did what they could and elected a new government. But the figures have stayed much the same since 2008, and people are, to quote The Irish Times, “up to our necks in excrement,” while austerity continues unabated.
For capitalism has come close to a place where people are surplus to its requirements. At the level of financial transactions, 80% of trades are made by computer already and it is estimated that within the decade all U.K. trading will be automated. The photographer Mark Curran (above) has visualized the dehumanized modern markets in his new show in Dublin, The Market. Shipping is now a matter of robots loading and unloading containers onto vessels steered by computer and kept functioning by deregulated crews, who are not allowed off the boats. Even textiles are being woven by robots. This example shows why even South and East Asian economies live in fear. The labor-intensive textile sweatshops of somewhere like Bangladesh are now being replaced by automated factories.
To understand how this affects the rest of us, consider the example of genetically-modified corn. One of the four major agri-business crops, GMO corn practically grows itself. Where farming once employed most Americans, these crops require very little attention. In considerable part, that is because they have been made resistant to weed-killers, especially Roundup. So fields can be saturated with herbicide and the corn still grows. If, however, you happen to be farming nearby using conventional or organic methods, the Roundup drifts onto your fields or gets washed into them by rain. And then it kills or stunts your crop. This is how neo-liberalism rolls. You play their way or they kill you. It’s not even necessarily intentional, it’s just a side effect.
And so for us, the humans, this is a tragedy. In these circumstances, mutual aid is not a hippy alternative to hard-edged politics. It’s the only politics left, if politics is a socially-mediated relation between people. The machines and the computers are running the economy now. It’s not surprising that they have ignored the destruction their labor has caused to the biosphere because they are not alive. Meanwhile, in the real world, mutual aid is nothing more than what we already do. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39.8 million people over age 15 provide unpaid care to someone over 65 “because of a condition related to aging.” Such mutual aid is why more unemployed young people are not starving, why the retirees whose pensions have been cut in half manage to survive, and so on.
When that mutual aid comes together as a collective form, it can exert pressure on the remains of the state, even as it begins to build a new form in the ruins of the old. The politicizing of already-existing social relations that are invisible to the state always takes them by surprise. A century ago, the Dublin Lockout of 1913 saw Irish workers defeated as they tried to create syndicalist unions. A few years later, the Easter Uprising of 1916 inaugurated the Irish revolution. The claim of Wages for Housework in the 1970s was not realized as such but such feminist action forced the state to do more. Two years after Occupy Wall Street, there’s the possibility of new taxes on the rich for child care in New York. It’s not the revolution. But you’ll only sneer at it if you’ve never had to do child care.
There’s a still more interesting possibility on the horizon. The US government is very likely to default on its debt. Market response is schizophrenic, as usual. First, they say:
Let us be perfectly clear: crossing the debt ceiling would be catastrophic.
But just a few lines later, the Financial Times blog I’m quoting says:
we think the probability of the debt ceiling causing a technical default in the Treasury market is near zero.
So what’s the catastrophe? They use some technical charts about short-term interest rates but, really, who cares? The specter haunting the financial world is clear from the viewpoint of the real world. If paying debt becomes optional based on political circumstances, why is that only an option for party politics? Is it not already, as it has been since the biblical Jubilee, a central tenet of mutual aid? In other words, if people get the idea that repaying debt is optional, then there’s a financial catastrophe. Except this time it would be for them, not for us. For once.
More than ever, our watchword is just as it was two autumns ago: “You are not alone. You are not a loan.”