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Ethical Challenges Facing Greenland in the Present Era of Globalization: Towards Global Responsibility



Introduction: Ethics and the Arctic

Recently, the developments of ethics and politics in the Arctic region have again become an issue for international discussion. One main issue is the problem of climate change and sustainability of the Arctic region. This problem is linked to the issue of exploitation of natural resources in the Arctic region, not at least in Greenland. Indeed, the general issue is how we should define ethics of the environment and sustainability as a general principle for the Arctic region. It is important to discuss what is at stake and how we define the problem in relation to the different participating stakeholders.

  Continue reading Ethical Challenges Facing Greenland in the Present Era of Globalization: Towards Global Responsibility

Winning the War of the World

Not even prophets like Chris Hedges decode it. Journalists are trained not to. Not even moral philosophers question the system worship masked as ‘the free market”. Freedom means no accountability to human and world life, while competition means competing to externalize all costs onto the lives of citizens and environments. The value driver behind it all is no more questioned than the Almighty. It can do no wrong. But one underlying lock-step of false equations propels this unnamed war on the world through its mutations and metastases:

Rationality = Self-Maximizing Choice

= Always More Money-Value for the Self is Good

= Self-Multiplying Sequences of Ever More Money to the Top as the Ruling Growth System

= All Else is Disposable Means to this Multiplying Pathogenic Growth


My 15-year study, The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure diagnoses this ruling value mechanism as cancerous. It is, in short, a deregulated self-multiplication of transnational money sequences accountable to nothing but their own multiplication with no committed life functions. With the Hayek-Reagan-Thatcher crusade to reverse the history of the world into a moronic ‘free market’ and ‘conservative values’, the march was on. Marxists would not engage this Great Reversal on moral grounds because morality was believed to be only ruling class ideology. This left no value ground to stand on. From the transnational victory of corporate world rule from 1991 on, reversals of social states were portrayed as ‘market miracles’ whatever the results for people’s lives. ‘The magic of the market’ was the new world religion, ‘the end of history’. The mass media were  consolidated into one collective corporate organ across cities and borders. Death squads erased community opposition in the South. The academy was and is still defunded to serve the global corporate market and commodity development.

The nations of the world are all ‘restructured’  to be subordinate functions to the supreme moral goal of transforming humanity and the world into ever more private commodities and profits. Society itself s does not exist to this ruling value mechanism. Its logic of growth is totalitarian and malignant to the marrow. More precisely, deregulated global corporate money sequences abolish by treaties and wars all barriers whatever to their free multiplying growth through all that exists whatever the destruction of natural and social life support systems. My work has been to decode this globally life-invading value system. Predictably the diagnosis is taboo to mention in the press, however confirmed by the facts and predictions. No social disorder allows its ruling program to be publicly unmasked. Thus the malignant value code marches on. Alarm bells at the degenerate symptoms increase, but policies of solution only extend the system further and deeper. Life-value economics is as unspeakable as the fatal disorder itself.


The Essential First Step in Winning the War of the World is Comprehension of It

The essential first step in winning the war of the world is comprehension of it. Only system analysis can lay bare the underlying value program, but it is avoided. The sciences do not study values and specialize in domains of self-referential meaning. Journalists report facts, spectacles and impressions, but not the underlying values governing them. Philosophers seldom analyse the ruling value system of the societies within they live from social habit and fear. In the age of instant culture, value-system comprehension does not sell. Together these blocks of normalized avoidance make the value code selecting for all the degenerate trends invisible to us. As in immune system failure, the life host fails to recognise the disorder devouring it.

Lacking any unifying framework of comprehension, people are lost. Thus when millions rise in the Occupy Wall Street movement, there is no diagnosis or policy demand. Although Wall Street had indisputably defrauded masses and had failed to its knees broke, no policy shift arose – not even public control of the public money infusing the system cancer, $16 trillion dollars by Senate  count in the U.S. alone – thanks to the heroic Bernie Sanders. Nor was there movement for a needed public mortgage system – even after the private system had perpetrated the biggest fraud in history, indebted tens of millions into ruin and collapsed the economies of the West in irreversible debt. The lost alternative of public banking on which the U.S. revolution was founded, Lincoln won the war of Union, North Dakota has had 100 years of debt-free prosperity, the West itself managed the 1939-45 war and post-war years to unprecedented full employment, and first Japan and now China wins in productive investment – all is  amnesiac in the West.

Fast forward to today, and the underlying system cancer advances on. The financial giants causing the 2008 Crash are bigger and richer in criminal impunity. They speculate with publicly supplied trillions on food and water futures. They control even Rio + 20 as the life-ground catastrophe they finance explodes on one front after another. Transfused with endlessly with more public money to bleed and indebt the world dry, the money-printing system metastasizes further – now occupying the once prosperous social democracies of the European Union with public money bled out of peoples’ lives and life bases to private banks with no limit . Refusing any regulatory limits, converting pensions into more stockmarket feeding troughs, investing nothing as youth unemployment and debt spike ever higher – where does it all end? It ends when public money and human rights stop being fed to the failed system. It ends when commodity cycles of destructive waste are stopped. It ends at the base of the disorder when the 97%-counterfeiting of debt and credit by private financial institutions is publicly controlled.


Economic Doctrine Allows Money-Cancer System Free Reign

Neo-economic theory is a pseudo-science. Its defining postulates are unfalsifiable by facts. All organic, social and ecological life requirements are absurdly assumed away. Infinite demand on finite resources is presupposed as sustainable. Mechanical reversibility of everything is taken for granted. Whatever does not fit the doctrine is rejected. Endlessly self-maximizing atomic selves are believed to necessitate the best of all possible worlds by the market’s invisible hand.  

Is this not a fanatic religion? Supra-human laws dictate commands across peoples. No deadly consequences lower certitude in the miracles of the market God. Even when the ruling value mechanism visibly depredates the very life bases of the world, the only reforms are to globalize it further. Corporate-lawyer treaties coined in secret rule as the new laws of nations, while hostile zones are subjected to covert forces sponsoring civil wars, as promised in 2001 – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Syria Iraq, and now the Ukraine as I write.  All is believed in and pursued as a world crusade, even if fascists lead it. One supreme goal governs underneath bizarre beliefs –  multiplying growth of transnational money-sequences at ever higher velocities and volumes with no life limits tolerated. This is the moral DNA of the ruling value mechanism. In theory, it is expressed well by University of Chicago professor and godfather of the U.S. National Security Council, Leo Strauss, who wrote in his canonical Natural Right and History (p. 60): “limitless capital accumulation” is “a moral duty and perhaps the highest moral duty”.  On the ground, Strauss’s patron, David Rockefeller, expressed the moral-political program more concretely at the turning point in 1991, “A supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and bankers is surely preferable to the national auto-determination practiced in past centuries”.  The promises are kept. There is no binding regulation to protect any life carrying capacity on earth from the loot-and-pollute bank money system in the years since.

Many blame capitalism, but unlike classical capitalism this mechanism is not driven by productive force development. It is driven by transnational money-sequence multiplication with no productive standard which despoils more means of life than it produces. It eliminates the working class itself. The ruling idea that the system is peerlessly productive is increasingly contradicted by far more life goods disappearing than are created. Something much more sinister is afoot.  The social and natural life bases by which the human species evolves are reversed and overrun. Yet not even the opposition defines what ultimately counts – humanity’s universal life necessities themselves. The meaning of ‘the economy’ itself – to produce and distribute life goods otherwise in short supply through generational time – is lost. While the very air humanity breathes is going more toxic and acidic, the contradiction to ‘productive growth’ is unseen. As the waters of the world are simultaneously destroyed, the dots are not joined. Even as there are mass extinctions of species, youth without futures, and irreversible debt servitude of the world, all is well if ‘more growth is returning to the system’ which causes all of them. That at the same time the earth’s very soil cover taking tens of millions of years to evolve is simultaneously mined, acidified, salinated, degraded and exhausted as forest and mineral covers are stripped from one continent to the other are not connected into common meaning. The ruling value mechanism devours the life substance of humanity and the earth, but remains assumed as ever ‘more productive’ even by angry unions. 

Well at least, someone might reply, climate warming has been recognized by a blue-ribbon economic panel, Britain’s Stern Review, as “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”. This is a step towards rational observation. But even with a UN panel of over-1600 scientists on the case, there is no connection to the other basic life carrying capacities driven towards collapse by the same organizing value mechanism. No secret is more unspoken. So more rights to pollute and profit are instituted, and the climates and hydrological cycles spiral to more deadly extremes. “The world’s poor suffer first and most”, Lord Stern also rightly observes, but this fits the reigning value mechanism. Those without money do not exist.


Unmasking the Ruling Code of Value Driving the War on Life  

Let us summarize. Behind every step of the Great Reversal lie failures of knowledge and value understanding: (1) failure to diagnose the regulating value mechanism at work; (2) failure to connect across the domains of life despoliation as predictable from the system’s blind money-sequence multiplication; (3) failure to define or demand any public policies against its feeding on life support systems with public treasure; (4) failure to recognise any life-value principle or the life ground of the economy itself.

This knowledge black-out is understandable once one recognises that the vaunted “knowledge economy” has no criterion from the start. All it means is what can be controlled, sold or manipulated to grow the ruling value mechanism. Pause on that general fact. This is why true knowledge is now so often denied or attacked as “uncompetitive’.  Look for exceptions to this spread of the ruling money-value mechanism into the very capacities of human understanding.  Diagnosis of this disorder is the knowledge most needed, but unspeakable. Who even now recognises that ‘new efficiencies’, ‘reforms’ and ‘cost cutting’ are always attacks on people’s lives, means of life and life functions?  Who connects across the one-way falls of life standards and regulations, public science and testing, agrarian communities and lands, workers’ rights and unions, social infrastructures and protections, and social life security while money demand multiplies out of control at the top? Who names the innermost ruling code driving all – whatever protects or enable human and ecological life is eliminated as a barrier to private money-sequence multiplication. This is the source code of the cancer system. It explains why transnational corporate, equity and bank profits grow to ever new records as the world’s majorities are dispossessed. It explains why social and natural life-carrying capacities are despoiled across continents.  The war on life is built in.

The ideals of “freedom”, “democracy”, and “economic growth” are thus reversed in the name of them. The big lies become so automatic that few notice them– for example as I write, food-stamp slashes reducing 47 million hungry U.S. people below $1.40 a meal and $90 less a month for life necessities “protects the most vulnerable Americans” (President Obama, Jan. 29, 2014). There is a recourse against lies which is as old as the species. Humanity’s deciding evolutionary advantage is that knowledge wins in the end. Above all knowledge evolves through recognition of how life is enabled or disabled by material conditions and social rules. For example, the binding abolition of the most profitable commodity of world trade ever, human slaves, won. Knowledge won again from the 1929 Crash and subsequent World War when the collective life security of peoples evolved by known facts and social policies more in 30 years than in the prior twenty-five centuries.  

The missing link for this long life-and-death struggle is the life value code. We do not know it because we are without a reference body in a vast ocean of self-maximizing money-sequences for which the goods are only what sell for private profit. A life-ground and compass almost emerged after 1945 when peoples recognised how ruling delusions of self-maximizing fanaticism almost destroyed civilisation. Learning from the greatest war and depression in history, societies forged binding international covenants for collective life security and free human development. Universal education, health, and income security infrastructures were publicly formed across societies. But no unifying life-value code underlying them was found. In absence of any sound life base of understanding to re-ground in, the Great Reversal from 1980 on has gone from one extreme of life-blindness to the next with endless lies of better days to come – even as there is ever more joblessness, meaningless employment, deprivation of more majorities, commodity diseases across the globe, debt servitude chaining the futures of peoples, and deepening ecodidal trends advancing one way with the system’s growth. Locked into the ruling frame of thinking, people blame humanity for the catastrophe unfolding even as the demands of the ruling value mechanism have been imposed every step by a secretly negotiated and adjudicated transnational corporate system backed by global armed force, financial sabotage and embargo, and limitless lies. From secret codification by corporate lawyers of treaties overriding constitutions to free looting of human and natural life-carrying capacities across borders, ever more money-sequence ‘investor’ rights are prescribed and multiplied across nations. Those who resist are ‘against competition’ or ‘terrorists’. Reverse projection rules.

An absurd metaphysic is assumed throughout. The economy’s provision of goods through time mutates to ‘laws of supply and demand’ that are fatuous caricatures of both. Demand is never people’s needs or necessity. It is private money demand minted by private banks without the legal tender to back it to indebt people and gamble on their future means of life. ‘Supply’ is not the life means people require to survive and flourish. It is ever more priced commodities for profit promoting more human and ecological ill-being across continents. The supreme moral value of the system is then equated to its opposite as well. Freedom = freedom for private money demand only = in proportion to the amount controlled = ever less freedom for those with less of it = no right to life for those without it.  

When mass uprooting, joblessness and misery follow, more reverse meaning is proclaimed. “Uplifted out of poverty” headlines proliferate over a money-gain equal to the cost of a coffee for subsistence farmers who have been forced into city slums without any means of natural and communal life support left. Peoples are too distracted by competitions for vast prizes to notice. The global struggle for life is displaced by ever more contest spectacles as global mass-marketing sites – the meaning now of ‘sport’.  But behind the perpetually revolving mirrors, the meaning is taboo. People may see “greed of the rich”, but not that greed is the global system’s r driver at every level. “More productivity”   is liked across classes, but who sees that it only means less cost per unit of profitable commodities bringing more life waste and destruction. Workers and left thinkers may no more want to see this than the corporate press.

The meaning of ‘the free market’ itself is reversed. Over centuries it has meant the opposite of the global corporate system – public places of local life goods, all exchanged for legal tender, featuring real foods and crafts, no mass conditioning ads, no debt servitude, no dominance of transnational money-sequences, no throwaway packages and waste, no lobbies controlling government, no invisible head offices pulling puppet strings, and no bribery controlling supply and demand. Yet the free market like the real economy is overwhelmed. There are only more absentee money sequences with no required life functions or accountability to the communities and life conditions they competitively bleed. The enemy is undefined. The common life capital it attacks is unknown. But the life and death choice cannot be made without knowing both.  


The Life-Value Turn as the Next Stage of Civilisation

Reality hides in the language of the past. So ‘capitalism’ is blamed by critics when real capital is, in fact, destroyed every step. Journals report ‘global wealth has soared 68% in 10 years’. But life wealth is devoured as fast as the money-sequence system can grow.  Always the underlying life ground  is lost beneath the competitive self-multiplication of money demand invading all that exists. With no life value anchor and compass, the degenerate trends only deepen beneath reference body to recognise them. I have spent most of my life as a professional philosopher on the problem of life value and social value systems. Although the sane may agree life value is what ultimately matters, nothing has been less understood.  People called ‘pro-life’ usurp the woman’s body in the name of fundamentalist religions. Nations absurdly assume that ‘standard of living’ is measured by the private money spent. Animal rights theory has no criterion to tell the life value of a snail from a person. ‘Life sciences’ sacrifice billions of animal lives a year for private money-value gain. ‘New and better technology’ has no life-value standard to decide better from worse.  

Life value is the missing base. But there are as many proxies for life value as there are values. Specialist domains like physiotherapy and medicine recognise life-value in organic functions, but without principled meaning to apply to wider life systems. In general, life value ignorance defines the age. This is how the greatest of all fatal confusions has mutated: that money-sequence growth = life value growth. Just as the multiplying grotesque cells eating the life-host alive are not recognised on the micro level, so too on the social level. Thus tidal bank notes of bets, credit and debt without legal tender drive ‘financialization’ across the planet. They must loot life and life bases to keep growing without inflation as trillions of new dollars are printed without life function. Endless slashing of life goods in wages, benefits, social security, pensions and environmental protections result, as money-demand powers multiply at the top. This is why endless bonuses for financial failure, stripping of the middle classes and the poor, squandering of public wealth on rich corporations – the list can go on – are demanded as U.S.-led wars for resources, lands and corporate markets never stop and taxes on the rich are reversed. All is predictable once the cancer system is diagnosed.  


An ultimate question arises. What is the ground of response to this ruling value mechanism which cumulatively plunders human and other life to feed itself?  We know the ultimate ground is life value. But what is life value? To roll thirty years of research now in three UNESCO volumes – the objective standard and measure can be defined in three steps:   


(1)           all value whatever is life value,

(2)           good versus bad  equals the extent to which  life is more coherently enabled versus disabled,

(3)           by greater/lesser ranges or capacities of thought, felt being and action through time.


Visions of world peace, the classless flourishing of peoples, a planetary ecology in which humanity is its conscious understanding – all such ideals express this underlying life code of value.  But “who decides?” skeptics ask. No-one decides because gains and losses in life capacity are as objective as the laws of biology and medicine. Anything is better or worse by the greater or lesser range of life capacities it enables. This value code is built into evolution itself. It is no more a matter of opinion than people’s life necessities are: that without which life capacities are always reduced. The ruling value mechanism is the polar opposite. It attacks life and life conditions everywhere as ‘externalities’ to its self-multiplying growth. Because this growth is assumed to be life value, however, the greatest value reversal in history goes unseen.


The three-step life code of value provides the generic value compass and base which has been missing. It is objective because it is true independent of anyone’s perception of it. It has unlimited validity because there is no exception to it (which is testable by searching for one). It is presupposed in value judgements – as you can observe when these judgements are defended. Life value is also universalizable because all values derive their worth from it. Finally life value is sovereign because it trumps any other value in cases of conflict. All are testable generalizations.


But what of measure of more or less life value? Life value is measurable in degrees by greater/lesser capacities of thought, felt being and action shown through time – for example, how much life capacities gain or lose by nourishing versus junk foods. Today the macro trends are in one-way loss of life capacities. Knowledge is the exception. It forms the way stations of life understanding passed onto others and subsequent generations across epochs, the distinguishing life capacity of our species. But even knowledge is threatened by corporate rights against its dissemination at the same time as there is mass propagation of public lies. New electronic communication capacities without corporate control still win the war by the greatest civil community development in history. But the life-and-death fields of invasion by the ruling money-value mechanism are not decoded – the money tides of hit-and-run buying and selling of lands and currencies across the world, free and growing use of ecocidal extraction methods, life-starving hours, wages and no benefits in global dispossession of workers’ century-long gains, one way global growths of disease commodities and lethal arms trading, oil-guzzling and air-polluting noise vehicles of multiplying kinds, big oil and big pharma looting of public lands and health dollars growing business on ill effects, a world-wide pension raid for corporate-stock gains at the life cost of hundreds of millions of people, and most invisibly, full-spectrum assault on humanity’s thinking and feeling sides of living itself – the zombie effect.  


Where we might ask do the transnational money-sequences not destructively invade the evolved fields of life of humanity and fellow species? The movement is by exponentially multiplying money-sequences eating away at the margins of every private transaction, public funding, life exchange and substance within and across borders. Consider all the bites every moment across business and exchange sites – before and beyond the ‘carrying trade’ in exploiting lower interest in one country to flood another with the cheaper money advantage, beyond the trillions in derivatives betting every day, beyond the raids on sovereign currencies and bonds without tax or regulation. On the local level, hardly a shop, a buyer, a builder, a home-dweller, anybody who lives today is not invaded by the same financial mechanism with ever more rights to demand at every exchange site with no function while enforcement is paid by the public being stripped by it. The apparently free credit-card system, for example, imposes a 2% charge to the seller for sales at a hidden 33% annual debt-charge rate, before the debt predation of poorer consumers begins. There is no end to the invisible lines of life devouring demands now deeply into higher learning and public health themselves while destroying workforces and companies overnight by hostile takeovers, bid-up mergers, asset strippings, capital flights, and straight-on funding of civil wars and destabilizations from which fire prices and dominant positions are extracted. Ruining societies is the medium of metastases. How else would a cancer system behave? 


The world-choosing choice begins with what you buy. Clearly for example eating, selling or supplying junk foods is objectively bad to the measure that it disables human life and produces global epidemics of obesity, heart failure, cancer and diabetes. Yet even economic ‘science’ calls them all ‘goods’ whatever the rising disease effects. Simultaneously violence entertainments flood public airwaves and play-spaces before the same consumers – most avidly the young – with images of humanity being killed, tortured, injured and humiliated. As the sugar-salt-lard concoctions are ladled into bloodstreams and throwaways clog the earth`s circulatory channels at the same time, we begin to see the multiplying destructive occupation of the fields of life and life substance as built into these runaways growths and their ‘goods’. Life capacities at every level are attacked as ‘market freedom’. Only life-value ground and measure can penetrate the disease mechanism none define – to addictively disable human life capacities for more transnational money-sequences through ever more lives from infancy onwards.  Where is there exception to the pattern?  Life-activity-replacing motors and commercial games in multiplying life occupation, endless unneeded and non-recycled conveniences locking into habits of life, political-junkie election images and spectacles where the truth is what sells corporate lines and candidates, and commercial internet and television hooks everywhere in front of which children spend 11 waking hours. Which of any of these is not geared to addict consumers to compulsive consumption against life capacity development? Which does not input toxic wastes into the circulatory flows of ecosystems at the same time? But all is optimal for the ruling economic model for which life and society are reduced to atomic desiring machines propelling more money demand to money controllers as the nature of the growth the official world calls for..  


The moving line of the true war of liberation begins with what we are able to control, our own lives. Consider your own life, what you know best.  Every value you enjoy, lose or gain has a bottom line – its life capital, what enables life to reproduce and grow rather than degrade and stagnate through time. We defend it and our health by buying life goods and nothing else. The turning point is as old as physical and cultural evolution. Every human advance is by knowing what enables life from what does not. Collective life advance is transmitting this life-and-death knowledge across selves, space-time and generations. The life value code holds across cultures. But the universal life goods and necessities are not even known. Their meaning is obscured everywhere, but are exactly definable. Life goods are always that without which life capacities decline and die. All real needs are known by this criterion. Every human life suffers and degenerates towards disease and death without breathable and unpolluted air, clean water and waste cycles, nourishing food and drink, protective living space, supportive love, healthcare when needed, a life-coherent environment, symbolic interaction, and meaningful work to perform. All are measurable in sufficiency across cases. (author note: a systematic explanation is available by google of “Universal Human Life Necessities”). Yet all universal human life needs and capacities are attacked, polluted or perverted by the ruling value mechanism in product, process and lobby demand across the world. Yet where are the universal life needs named and  connected against the malignant growth system spreading through ever more nodes?


Not zero growth, but zero bad growth is the way. A real economy by definition regulates for these universal life necessities and against toxic junk, and individuals would not buy 99% of corporate commodities if they did. Victory or loss in the war of the world lies in how we live.. So why does anyone buy such commodities? System addiction is how it grows, and knowledge of life goods versus bads is the through-line of the good life and human evolution itself. What deeper motivation could there be? I like others have long lived without corporate-ad television, regular private auto or gas-vehicle use, any junk food or beverage, any throwaway  item, any new fashion or commodity not more life enabling than the old, or business with big private banks –  selecting solely for life goods at the local level. The organizing principle is the spirit of the Tao-te Ching and the free autonomy of the wise. It is as old as the good life. The life-code formula is clear: minimal market demand to enable life capacities to flourish. This value imperative defines transformation to true economy and liberates life wherever it moves.


Collective Life Capital as the Common Value Ground and Measure Across Divisions

We know the war of the world can be won. The plague addiction to corporate cigarettes has been conquered by 30-50% of the developed world’s population. This shows how the life code can select against habituated system harms of the most compulsive kind, and everyone live better the more it is done.  At the personal level, it begins with zero-base accounting with money demand only justified by life-enabling gain. Yet for collective life goods, we do not have a principled ground and measure. Collective life capital does not exist in public or expert meaning. Any common life interest or agency at all is excluded unless it promotes profits. The implications are fatal but unseen. Collective provision of the universal human life necessities that have evolved by long social organization and human evolution are blinkered out of the ruling value mechanism. It sees only mechanical ‘growth’ by commodity sales and profits. Everything that makes a society civilised or liveable is blinkered out – common water and sewage systems for all, free movement pathways and life spaces without cost to use, public libraries with unpriced books and films, non-profit healthcare and disease-prevention by public institution, public income security from disemployment, old age and disability, life-protective laws including sufficient minimum wages and environmental regulations, primary to higher education without multiplying debts, and family housing, food and means of life assistance for children without parental money. Yet all these are defunded or eliminated to pay debt-services to private banks and grow business, with the IMF to the Tea Party leading the charge as ‘new efficiencies’ and ‘savings’.


From this built-in erasure of common life ground, the hollowing out of collective life goods  proceeds without any feedback correction. Public wealth is privatized at every level to feed corporate money sequences. Thus fed with endless giant tax and subsidy hand-outs and deregulations to invade further, the demands of the ruling value mechanism multiply further. The collective life base to steer by and regulate does not exist. For example, when Amartya Sen titles his Nobel Laureate monograph “Social Choice”, even he can get no further than atomic aggregates of individual preferences. No collective life goods in themselves are conceivable within the market paradigm. When another progressive economist, Elinor Ostrom, wins the Nobel Prize for Economics years later for her book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution and Institution of Collective Action, she is trapped within the same paradigm. No principle of common life interest or agency beyond mutual self advantage can be conceived. “The commons” and “collective action” are posted on the cover, but no civil commons or agency is seen from universal health care to a public bicycle path. Common life bases can no more compute through the ruling prism than the collective actions required to provide them.  

In fact, the underlying problem is ancient. We have lacked a common life-ground since the genocides of first peoples began. It is a very ancient blind spot which has become increasingly fatal with all-powerful technologies of destruction and the deranged money-value code driving them. The eco-genocidal streak goes deep – from the old-testament tribal god command to exterminate all other peoples in Palestine to, millennia later, the first peoples in the New World saying to their modern invaders: “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.” Even “life, liberty and freedom” in the US Constitution reduces to the commerce clause and corporate rights by Supreme Court interpretation. Abdication of life responsibility is built into the-system. The Global Market God rules, and the common life interest and its agency do not exist to it.  

How are we to ground beneath this life-blind paradigm whose global mutations threaten evolved life on earth? In the end, the organizing principle crosses the lines of death itself – the life code of value at the collective level. But this common life interest is usurped in its very name. That is why, for example, the young can be killed in masses and arms budgets bankrupt U.S. public sectors  to enrich Big Oil, or people’s homes can be expropriated for private developers as ‘the public interest’ and ‘eminent domain’.  This is the dark side of history, one oppressor rule after another. But the collective life interest is the true bottom line of legitimate governance. The proof is in the conditions of its definition. It must be consistent with the life carrying capacities of all through time. It must be open to life-enabling change. It must go deeper than family, gender, and culture differences. It must include past as well as future generations. It must supersede the ruinous man/nature, economy/environment splits and individual/society duality of interests. It must realize the Three R’s of ecological literacy to be life coherent. It must bridge the past to the present to the future as one process to steer development beyond the holocausts of history. It must embody the economic principles of efficiency, productivity and innovation in life-serving form. It must make all freedom responsible to its life conditions of possibility. It must embed the life bases of all as supreme so it cannot in principle go wrong. 


Such a moral code seems impossible. Every demand of the ruling value mechanism is structured against it. Opposing ideologies do not find its common life base. Postmodernism and relativism deny any universal principle of value except the actually ruling one. Political policies are confined to what serves the corporate market system. Issue politics rule fixated on sexual preferences. There is no common life ground recognized or life-value compass to steer by. Collective life capital re-grounds us. It is the life base of the common interest – that without which humanity’s life capacities degrade and die. It is the bridging concept across the ‘the economy-environment’ division as well as cross present and future generations. It is the true meaning of economic necessity and the sole substance of growth and development. In all, collective life capital transcends all divisions by impartial principles that cannot go wrong: (1) a unifying life value regulator enabling all, (2) a generic life-value measure to tell greater from lesser by margins of capacity loss or gain in any case, (3) production of more life value capacity through generational time, (4) cumulative life gain as the organizing goal of the process throughout, (5) the more coherently inclusive in enabling life the better. In this way, the common interest is provided an exact progressive meaning, and collective agency is built into its inner logic of life progression.       


Conversely, whatever person, group or system destroys common life capital is objectively evil to the extent of life capacity destruction through time – for example, corporate U.S. oil wars or leisure vehicles destroying natural life. Advancing collective life capital, in contrast, is what “make the world a better place” means. It could be by cures to diseases, more ecological methods, life infrastructure building, advancing knowledge, new ways of seeing, or life-protective laws. All more inclusively enable life without loss and cumulative gain. No real progress is ever made without satisfying this logic of value.  Feeling with across species and tribes, for example, may bind many of us in this room. So too even more so advancing life-coherent knowledge and visual comprehension, as Peter’s films do. The understanding and feeling sides of life keep extending despite death and moral numbing by the ruling value mechanism. Public knowledge via the Internet commons wins against corporate media silencing and propaganda. We see here the underlying struggle across the fields of life. The rising and falling of life capital base and compass can in fact be found in every social policy, decision or movement that goes right or goes wrong. There is no exception. The war of the world is everywhere, and so is our task of life commons awareness and building.


This is not hope without substance. The common life interest is already built into our lives over millennia without our knowing it – the ‘civil commons’ of language, collective water sources and sewage, common safety regimes, shared pathways everywhere, community health rules and healing sites, and everyday life-enabling knowledge institutions at every level – all collective life capital formations that keep advancing beneath notice despite and through diseases and wars. Unseen too is that all are more threatened now by the ruling value mechanism than ever before.   The defining general meaning is all social constructs which enable universal access to life goods. This too is no utopian ideal. It is the measure of true development across all cultures before and after our lives – from environmental economy to universal libraries and education to public water and waste cycles to life-serving laws before which all are equal. These are all forms of collective capital in continuous development without loss and cumulative gain but all are attacked bite by bite by the multiplying money-sequence system now out of control.

The collective life capital developments that are needed now are many, but can be crystallized into three system shifts in general:

(1) public banking for credit and investment in individual and collective life capital growth,

(2) ecological quotas for all consumption of non-renewable energies and materials,

(3) citizen income security guaranteed in return for life-enabling hours of public service.


Movements of masses to demand them completes knowledge in public action.


Under the ruling value mechanism today, in contrast, evolved life on earth is under totalizing attack. 95% of all gains go to 1% with no required life function, while 95% of the world’s life support capacities are pillaged by life-blind money-sequences.. Yet life-value steering is easier than not. Norway for example has led the world in holding onto and advancing its common life capital bases through the system sickness, and emergent Latin America is implicitly building collective life capital deciders from decades of death-squad and foreign money-sequence ruin. Before the Great Reversal, societies everywhere were becoming governed by public policy patterns of similar kinds  – national recovery of control over public owned resources, progressive taxation, public banking and investment, and policy-led elimination of structural depredation of the poor and the environment.  All are methods of collective life capital formation inclusively enabling the lives of individuals across time. “Inclusiveness” is a concept much invoked today, but not with the life capital bases and compass required in the real world.


Let us overview the condition we face. Once upon a time in the distant past, capitalist organization under public control mass-produced healthy food, clothing and utensil commodities despite brutally exploitative methods.  There was a long painful taming of it over 200 years, and then the Great Reversal from 1980 on usurped progressive social development at every level possible. Since then, the private transnational money-sequence system has been increasingly deregulated to competitively multiply and override all life carrying capacities as its supreme goal – propelling endless wars, public and public sector debt slavery, mass disemployment and majority dispossession for obscene riches. This is the global cancer system which occupied states subsidize, enforce and grow as fast as they can – stripping the soils and forests, poisoning the waters, disemploying peoples and producing disease-causing junks in ever greater volumes. Re-grounding in common life capital, however, exposes every disorder and directs solution to it – the long missing base and measure of ‘the moral science’. It re-sets evolutionary theory itself in which only selfish gene multiplication counts – the biological correlative of the self-multiplying money mechanism. Self-maximizing game theory dominates both and military doctrine, justice and moral analysis besides. Yet common life capital bases are excluded from all of them as the lost life-ground and reference body of our capsizing planetary condition.  


New ‘natural’ and ‘social capital’ categories may seem to assist us here. But they now only repeat the vicious circle. ‘Natural capital’ is what can be exploited for more money. ‘Human capital’ is more future private money-demand for its owner. ‘Social capital’ is lower transaction costs for profit. ‘Physical capital’ follows suit. Life capital remains without a name. Collective life capital does not exist. All must be steered back into conserving and producing life goods rather than destroying them, the ultimate policy imperative of the world. The public authority, policies, subsidies and right to issue sovereign money now lavished upon the life-destructive mutations of private money capital thus end without a shot fired. They are now so dependent on counterfeit money-sequences, treaty edicts, public hand-outs and resources that they cannot go a day without them. The public needs only to reclaim them, not to take a thing. .


“Let the Market decide!” all money interests cry. This ruling superstition is more barbaric than any before – essentially, ever more for those with more money to suck the lifeblood of humanity and the earth dry.  Its  ruling delusion is that the best of all possible worlds must follow by the invisible hand. In fact, a deregulated global chaos of private transnational money-sequences exponentially multiply while the world of life capital and goods is cumulatively destroyed. The life capital alternative is self-evident once seen. It grounds in common life capital – life wealth that produces more without loss and new gains for successive generations. Its moral logic is, in fact, the through-line of all human development since language and the cooperative provision of means of life. Unlike the global market of atomically self-maximizing corporations devouring the world for more private profit extraction without end in the delusion that an unseen hand directs all to the best of all possible worlds, collective life capital steers across divisions by an objective and universal life-value base and measure in exact progression which cannot  as life-coherent go wrong. Ecological capital and knowledge capital are its baselines of value compass and coordination across life capital domains, and the unifying principle of all is already implicit in the architecture of modern human thought.


All that is lacking is life value, ground and measure. They connect life, the ultimate onto-ethical concept, to capital, the ultimate concept of political economy: and so by transitivity, to law, human rights, sustainability and intergenerational equity. The meaning is clear. Valid law is a collective life capital formation providing the rules to live by that coherently protect and enable life.  Human rights are instituted claims of all to what enables their life capacities to be realised as human. Sustainability is of collective life capital, or it is a fraud. Intergenerational equity is access to collective life capital across generational time without loss, or it is a lie. Throughout we see a missing life base presupposed but not yet conscious or defined. Throughout we see that the ruling money-sequence value mechanism is incompetent to comprehend it. Building without loss and for better life across generations is what is ultimately worthwhile. No-one might deny it, but ignorant usurpation of its meaning is what rules. All universally life-enabling progressions of human evolution and history to now are the result of its implicit understanding. You cannot take a clean breath, meet a child safely, enjoy a drink of water, without their support from the past. The warped streak of epics and histories of power is opposite, but even state mass murderers and Wall Street bankers think that they are improving the world – the primary delusion which received theory rationalizes so that few understand.  


The lost life-ground is already implicit in healthy lives. Our organic fitness and powers, our depth and breadth of knowledge acquisition, our abilities to perform productive tasks of needed kinds, and most of all our sustained intent to create more life wealth without loss and cumulative gain are the generic parameters of a life code already built into us as human. More than ever we know the plague is ruling, and “the 1% and the 99%” expresses it. But a real economic law holds beneath opinions and times. Public investment in common life capital capacities is the only allocation that works over time.  We know this from America and Canada before their falls, Germany, Japan, Korea after 1950, and the post-1945 age of social life standards across the world. It has been proven again despite sabotages, coups and financial strangulations in Latin America after 1999. The unseen enemy is borderless money sequences with ever more rights. The missing map is diagnosis of the ruling value cancer. The missing link is the life-capital economy all breathe and move by. The war of the world today is won by knowledge action.   


It is the age of forgetting everything,

It is the age of remembering all.

It is the age of competing to death,

It is the age of our coming together.

It is the age of ignorance and falling apart,

It is the age of more knowing more than ever.

It is the age of losing all that lives,

It is the age of finding common life ground.

It is the age of ever more commodity diseases,

It is the age of choosing world life.

It is the age of sleepwalk

to catastrophe,

It is the age of awakening

to shared life meaning.

It is the age when capital destroys the world.

It is the age when life capital wins.




Sustainable Liberalism: A Modest Proposal for Global Recovery


Actually the same crisis, apparently caused by a severe drop of investors’ faith, given the huge amount of national public debts, has already devoured the other so-called “Pigs” (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain), and even the iron economy of Germany, as ECB’s Governor Dr. Mario Draghi has recently pointed out, seems to be threatened by this European plague. In turn, global economic growth shows signs of indisputable weakness: along with Europe and the USA, almost all emerging countries – with the notable exception of Brazil, for now – experience a substantial slow-down in their glorious path towards well-being.


That’s the story. At least, the story we have been told in the last five years. And it conveys a bunch of sickening, although necessary, consequences: cuts in the public budget, decline of welfare-State policies, shakeups in the labour market, higher taxes etc. Will this strategy carry us out of the crisis, soon or later? Honestly, I’m afraid it won’t. Quite the reverse, we should seize the day and reconsider the most basic patterns of our social and economic model.


It is a common belief that market liberalism, whose dictatorship seems to mark the last three decades, led to the complete deregulation of global financial economy, together with a growing emphasis on capital gains as the main source of wealth and the corresponding decrease of labour incomes – not to speak of the continuing depredation of natural resources that caused a long series of catastrophic environmental tragedies. We should question, however, if those achievements be really consistent with core liberal principles.


Rather correctly, French economist Valérie Charolles has stated that “we are indeed widely persuaded to live in a liberal world, while the variety of capitalism that governs us has little to do with liberal theory”. In fact, “the liberal model doesn’t serve as the basis of the system. It merely provides a justification for the liberalization of public services, but it is quickly put aside in the face of too rapid a process of concentration undergone by the private sector. These processes blatantly contradict the theoretical corpus of liberalism, which claims competition to act as a tool capable of multiplying the number of actors and limiting any position of power” (Charolles 2006: 13, 52).


Furthermore, classical liberals were perfectly aware of the dangers – though social, moral and political – posed by an endless economic growth. And even when they did support development and progress, as in the case of David Hume and Adam Smith, the most negative consequences were never forgotten nor ignored.[1] If Hume strongly encouraged commerce, since “it increases frugality by giving occupation to men, and employing them in the arts of gain, which soon engage their affection, and remove all relish for pleasure and expense”, promoting “the greatness of a state, and the happiness of its subjects”, he soon added that “a too great disproportion among the citizens weakens any state”, so that “every person, if possible, ought to enjoy the fruits of his labour, in a full possession of the necessaries, and many of the conveniencies of life” (Hume 1987: 255, 265, 301). Similarly Benjamin Franklin, trying to preserve Americans from European corruption and depravity, advocated “a general happy mediocrity” by which, obliging people “to follow some business for subsistence, those vices that arise usually from idleness, are in a great measure prevented” (Franklin 1959: 274, 282).


Not merely inequalities did Smith fear indeed. True, “no society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”; but, although “commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them the liberty and security of individuals” (Smith 1981: 96, 412), an extensive division of labour could produce serious moral and psychological consequences on “the great body of the people”, preventing a conscious citizenship and their natural search for “happiness [which] consists in tranquility and enjoyment” (Smith 1982: 149).[2] His friend Henry Home, Lord Kames, was far more categorical: “great opulence opens a wide door to indolence, sensuality, corruption, prostitution, perdition” (Kames 2007: 333).


We should, then, try to disclose the hidden roots of the present crisis – and I believe that, in so doing, we’d be forced to go back and back in time. We can find many traces of the path taken by the global economic system in the last 40 years: the end of the new gold standard in 1971, the great oil crisis of 1973-74, the emergence of neo-conservative policies along with the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the deregulation wave of the 1990s (culminated in 1999, when the Glass-Steagall Act was finally repealed by President Bill Clinton), the growth of international investment banks and the naissance of computer-managed financial dealings. 


Therefore, the greatest crisis since 1929 has been prepared by a long series of economic mistakes, as well as by an intentional implementation of misleading public (and private) policies. While most scholars and policymakers silently accepted such a new paradigm, few voices were raised to warn against the likely dangers. Among these, the case of Michel Albert still deserves some consideration: a social economist and former CEO of Assurances Générales de France, in his brilliant book Capitalisme contre capitalisme (1991) he foresaw the aftermaths of an economic regime – notably dubbed “the Anglo-Saxon model” – relying more on financial means and less on production and trade of goods and services, with growing inequalities and a troublesome lessening of social security (Albert 1991: chap. viii, ix).


But there is something more – so much more, indeed – he did not foresee: that such a model has reached quite soon the point of no return, becoming no longer sustainable upon a strictly financial, as well as social and ecological, view. How to reconcile economic development, human flourishing and the preservation of natural capital? How to settle a dynamic and free economy with the promotion of labour and a structural safeguard of biodiversity? A contribution to unravel this intricate puzzle might come from an approach that I will call sustainable liberalism: an attempt to revive the ethical, political and economic discourse of classical liberalism in strict dialogue with contemporary sustainable-development theories.


It must surely sound quite bizarre, since liberal economists and philosophers mostly look with a skeptical eye at any effort to sketch a theoretical framework capable of merging individual liberty with social equality and a systematic protection of the environment. However a number of scholars, by the middle of the 20th century, had tried to reconsider the feedback of economic growth on social and natural organisms within the wider context of a novel humanistic philosophy, claiming that every measure was to be implemented à la taille de l’homme. Among these ‘neo-liberals’ – as they labeled themselves to avoid any association with Hobhouse, Keynes and Beveridge’s new liberalism – were Walter Lippmann, Wilhelm Röpke, Luigi Einaudi and many more, who had tied up ethics, politics and economics in a comprehensive design of the ‘good society’.[3]


Their most cherished aim was, for sure, the reestablishment of political and economic freedom after the tragedy of totalitarianism; even so, they did assume that “we [humankind] represent by no means the dizzy summit of a steady development; that the unique mechanical and quantitative achievements of a technical civilization do not disembarrass us of the eternal problems of an ordered society and an existence compatible with human dignity” (Röpke 1950: 2). In their view, “economic liberalism, true to its rationalist origin, exhibited a supreme disregard for the organic and anthropological conditions which must limit the development of capitalist industrialism unless a wholly unnatural form of existence is to be forced upon men” (Röpke 1950: 52).


Hence they advocated an extensive program of social, political and economic reforms aimed at restoring justice, equality of opportunities and social market economy, given that “progress and economic development rely much more on moral values than on mere efficiency” (Einaudi 1987: 48). Such a development, however, should absolutely avoid “the rape of irreplaceable natural reserves [whose] consequences are already making themselves felt in many instances and in an alarming manner», among which they pointed at «the annihilation campaigns against the forests on all continents and against the whales of the oceans”, not to speak of “the inevitable consequences of the excessive use of artificial manure and the progressively more serious problems of every country’s water supplies” (Röpke 1950: 144).


 Curiously enough, their intellectual heirs weren’t (and still aren’t) ready to capture the spirit of such an innovative attitude. Quite the reverse, after the pioneering warning launched by the Club of Rome in 1972, sustainable-development theorists (almost) alone have tried to handle – at both levels, normative and practical – the overwhelming burden of forecasting a transition towards a ‘humane economy’, as Röpke called it once. The truth being that “we have, today, reached the end of a template for life and business that, for 200 years, has been extremely successful – one that worked quite magnificently under the old conditions. Those conditions – namely the availability of an entire planet for a small part of humanity and its economic model – however, no longer exist” (Welzer 2011: 33).


We need, then, an integrate approach to economics, since “the conventional wisdom is mistaken in seeing priorities in economic, environmental, and social policy as competing. The best solutions are based not on tradeoffs or ‘balance’ between these objectives but on design integration achieving all of them together – at every level, from technical devices to production systems to companies to economic sectors to entire cities and societies” (Hawken – Lovins – Hunter Lovins 1999: xi). Whatever opponents may think of it, there would still be room for economic liberty. Bill McKibben has recently reminded us in his remarkable book Deep Economy, devoted to advocate a large-scale reform centred on a huge process of downsizing, that “shifting our focus to local economies will not mean abandoning Adam Smith or doing away with markets. Markets, obviously, work. Building a local economy will mean, however, ceasing to worship markets as infallible and consciously setting limits on their scope. We will need to downplay efficiency and pay attention to other goals” (McKibben 2008: 2).  


Other goals, by the way, require new tools for their own analysis, study and measurement. That’s why, in recent times, the former President of the French Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, appointed a Commission led by Professors Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi in order “to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress [and] to consider what additional information might be required for the production of more relevant indicators of social progress”.[4] The Commission’s report, lengthy and well-reasoned, is nonetheless crystal clear on the absolute inadequacy of the conceptual background underneath contemporary economics; so that, for instance, “choices between promoting GDP and protecting the environment may be false choices, once environmental degradation is appropriately included in our measurement of economic performance” (Stiglitz – Sen – Fitoussi 2009: 7).  


Sustainable liberalism should not pretend to stand as the sole theoretical framework, nor to provide the most useful solutions. It is, rather, an intellectual approach that might help social scientists and policymakers, as well as every citizen on Earth, to imagine new life-styles and eventually put up an alternative scenario, in which individual liberty, equality and preservation of the biosphere could really walk side by side towards the only, valuable end of social and economic life: the well-being of every sentient organism on our planet.




– Albert, M. (1991), Capitalisme contre capitalisme, Paris: Editions du Seuil.

– Audier, S. (2012), Néo-libéralisme(s). Une archéologie intellectuelle, Paris: Bernard Grasset.

– Bruni, L. and Porta, P. L. (eds., 2005),  Economics and Happiness, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

– Charolles, V. (2006), Le libéralisme contre le capitalisme, Paris: Arthème Fayard.

– Einaudi, L. (1987), Le prediche della domenica, with an introduction by G. Carli, Turin: Einaudi.

– Franklin, B. (1959), Autobiography and Selected Writings, edited by D. Wecter and L. Ziff, Toronto: Rinehart and Co.

– Hawken, P., Lovins, A. and Hunter Lovins, L., (1999), Natural Capitalism. Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Boston: Little Brown and Co.

– Hume, D. (1987), Essays. Moral, Political and Literary, edited by E. F. Miller, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

– Kames, H. Home Lord (2007), Sketches of the History of Men, vol. I, edited with an introduction by James A. Harris, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.   

– McCoy, D. R. (1982), The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co.

– McKibben, B. (2008), Deep Economy. The Wealth of the Communities and the Durable Future, New York: Times Books/Henry Holt & Co.

– Rasmussen, D. C. (2006), “Does ‘Bettering Our Condition’ Really Makes Us Better Off? Adam Smith on Progress and Happiness”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 100, No. 3.

– Röpke W. (1950), The Social Crisis of Our Time, translated by A. and P. Schiffer Jacobsohn, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

– Smith A. (1981), An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

– Smith A. (1982), The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by A. L. Macfie and D. D. Raphael, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

– Stiglitz, J., Sen, A. and Fitoussi, J.P. (eds., 2009), Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr/documents/rapport_anglais

– Welzer H. (2011), Mental Infrastructures. How Growth Entered the World and Our Souls, Berlin: Heinrich Böll Foundation.


[1] For a concise yet complete overview of this approach, see especially McCoy 1982, 13-47.

[2] Here I follow the sketch drawn by Rasmussen 2006.

[3] On neo-liberals, their saga and place in American and European culture see Audier 2012.

[4] Individual and common happiness could fit perfectly into the agenda. The theoretical connections between economics and happiness have been largely investigated by economists, psychologists and philosophers alike; a rich collection of essays on these topics may be found in Bruni – Porta (2005).


Outline of Fading Empire


It is strange.


No-one knows how to present a worldview; where to start, what to say, where to stop.


The Big Book of Worldviews is a collection of failures. In each section the writing slips away.


They say that when writing slips away it leaves the process stranded on the surface of the sentences like ghosts.


When I open the book I find bookmarks and food wrappers, grocery receipts and other bits of paper, elements of the transactional frames that oriented previous readings.


Sometimes I use them to block out words. Other times I arrange them across the floor into a path: I imagine my carpet a swamp and jump across it; one, two, three.


But I do not go anywhere.  


There is nowhere to go.


I never lose myself in The Big Book of Worldviews. I’m always of aware of hanging in the air looking at worlds as if I am not in one. The longer I stay there the less I exist.






























There was a time we would find cars stopped in the road. Each was sealed up tight.


People gathered to look at the occupants suspended inside, their hair and clothing drifting about like seaweed.


I would say: The crisis poured through the radio and drowned them. Someone else would say: There is no crisis.


And we would go back to silent looking.


Sometimes there were one or two; others an entire neighborhood.


We never knew what happened.


After a while, we got used to it.






























When people finally rose up, they swapped foreground and background. The security apparatus took control.  They put the former leadership on trial.  They defined enemies and disappeared them.


They appointed a nice man to represent them. The nice man came on television and told the people that he loved them.


The people wanted to believe him. 


The people were wrung out.  


The people wanted normal. 

The revolution disappeared into archives, works of art that migrated to galleries and film festivals, reference points for popular songs and a fashion of being photographed in the same clothes and poses as before. 

Everything is as it had been. No-one has what they wanted. Every overlap of realities is thrust and parry. Everyone watches everyone and waits for a mistake.















The Leader






The Leader sits in a chair. The Leader looks out a window.



That morning The Leader had been summoned to a meeting with the military high command.   He was surprised to see them in dress uniforms.

One said:   Those powers you granted yourself?  We don’t think so.

You can’t talk to me like that.  I am commander-in-chief.

Another: No you aren’t.


Later, the speech he gives will be the same speech as every other: democracy; enemies; emergency.


The crowd will be an orchestration based on the latest demographic information. Camera men and technicians will have compared angles and breadth of field against the event design. The way the crowd fills the screen will say: You, the nation, are watching: they, the others, are on the streets.


While the lighting designers make their final adjustments The Leader will rehearse the choreography of expansiveness and determination above an empty square.


A cue card will sit on the podium: Wait for the applause. Stand back. Let it sink in. 














Another night, the Leader watched himself on television.


Maintaining balance requires the temporary suspension of the pretenses of democracy until we can fashion an adequate framework for their return.


We are caught in Amorphousness.


Events hurtle forward.


We cannot act. We cannot fail to act.


As he watched the footage, the Event Choreographer gave him notes.





Now the Leader sits in a chair. None of this was supposed to happen





The Leader’s mind drifts.


Every afternoon, he passed by where she lived and every afternoon she was there. They looked at each other through windows.  


He wanted to stop and speak with her. But she made his mind go blank.


Rounding the corner he would imagine an alternate possibility.


I am here with nothing to say.  


That would not be good: at least not at first.


He kept walking.



















The nation watches TV. It says everything is grand but in ways that show something has changed.


Legitimacy is a machine that spins: its motion is easy to maintain but difficult to restart.




The Leader is indecisive in a shifting situation. The deep state does not care what the direction is, only that there is one. The military tries to remain invisible. But it is waiting.


The perimeters of power are complexes of metal barriers and riot police.




Beyond them, when the people inhale they become one: when they exhale they scatter again. The hive mind that links them is buzzing. What will happen if we do not lose?


It is hard to imagine beyond what exists so what exists becomes the horizon.




Once magical workers created revolution in factories and each top-down party claimed to understand that better than anyone else. But no-one believed them.


There is always something you cannot see and something you make up to replace it.













The Leader






The head of the Leader is between her legs when the news begins.


He hears his name and constitution then he hesitates: she pushes his head closer and sighs.


There is an announcement of a referendum her movements intensify clips edited from his speeches she lifts herself from the sofa.


He no longer controls his image.


O how he tries to not think about that.


She pulls his head up by the hair like John the Baptist.


Seriously?  she says, pushing him back.


It’s important he says as she is standing up.


Wait for sports as she is walking away.











Much later, the Leader lay in bed watching Conestogas and other characters from dime store novels move through a series of Los Angeles canyons and justifications of genocide and thinks: Those people played the game correctly.


















Then a team killed the referent. The war should be over.  The corpse was moved in hurried secrecy to an air base and flown from there to the capital. The order originated somewhere as if bureaucracy itself was acting on its own. 


When it arrives a group of high military officials enters the hum of the cooling system and neon buzz. They gather around a table in the center of the white cube and looked at the puffy bruised face poking out from the top of a strange green plastic bag.  


The refrigerated interior feels like the end of an era. 


Finally, one of the officials speaks.   There was a time when the head of the enemy on the end of a pike would be paraded through the capital in triumph.  


We have already had too much trouble due to breakdowns in packaging.  


This will not play well on TV. 


Gentlemen, we have reached a pass where achieving an objective is a mistake. A good objective must always race just ahead of us.  This situation can only be seen as an operational failure.   Our activities exceeded their ambit and have put us in an awkward position.



Later as a television story unfolds of surveillance technology and weapon systems, the strange green bag follows a ship’s anchor down and down through the depths of the ocean.  The order had originated somewhere as if bureaucracy itself was acting on its own.



























This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.  The answer was: if any action can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it.  And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.


It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us at least for  moment until we thought of yet another standing behind it.  What this shows is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call “obeying a rule” and “going against it” in actual cases.


Hence there is an inclination to say: every action according to the rule is an interpretation.  But we ought to restrict the term “interpretation” to the substitution of one expression of the rule for another.



















The Splice














Sometimes the film breaks and the actors and actresses find themselves in the projection booth or wandering the hallway by the popcorn machine.


I herd them back toward the booth and tell them that if they stay put, I can get them back to their plotlines.


I admit that I may look at an actress and think that I would be just as open to physical expressions of gratitude as the next guy…but they look so bewildered and vulnerable.


Even I have limits.  


I make the splice and rethread the film. As the projector starts up again, I look away because getting absorbed in a loop is an intimacy not easily shared with a stranger.



































The television broadcasts game shows for their rules given in advance, commercials because you do not burn down the store if you do not like a dress, programs about the Leader for how it makes him sad to see his children unhappy and brief reports of clashes and casualties.




Beyond TV the streets go pop pop pop.


Paramilitaries move through neighborhoods.


Everywhere the teetering is palpable.


The Leader feels weightless as a balloon.



































Do not look be fooled by shiny young things.


Do not be taken in by their promises.


They are dreamers. 


They do not know.


The Leader loves you.





















Drone Operator












When I put on the goggles I become a god who watches over people in distant places. I get to know them through their patterns. I feel close. I do not want them to disappoint. My vengeance is implacable when they do.


On the way home I stop at the supermarket. The cashier asks me how my day has been. I do not know what to say. This morning I killed some people. So I smile.


I am quite apart.


When I need to get away I drive up into the mountains to the series of names that mark the edge of the world. Every time I stop I see snipers. They wave at me. I wonder who they are and where they come from.


I dream in infra-red.






























In my dreams I sense my extension.


I am subject and object, predator and prey. 


I am a meteor that shatters bodies and buildings.

I am the hell from war movies.


I am superimposed layers of time.


I am an infrared space of blood and spatter.


I am an anglerfish in an oscilloscope among maps of waveforms.


I am body parts that reassemble and dance.


I hear them howling into storms of noise.


I hang in the air and look at the world as if I am not in it.


The longer I stay the less I exist.





















I see everything there is flickering infrared.


I see the incantations of time.


I see the capital flows and voices that bounce between the satellites.


I see the mass dream, the spaces in which it is open and where it is policed.


I see city streets and moving cars, geographies of fracture and pain.


I see the transient gardens that teargas makes as it drifts through the air.


I see the neighborhood I am from flickering infrared.





















Drone Operator





I watch barometric pressures form into aerial equations.


I adjust the tin foil on the rabbit ears.

Through intermittent squalls I monitor the arrangements of share prices.





Everything is lining up.





The electricity cuts out so I go walking.


The ground beneath my feet is peeling skin.


I stop by Asbestos Mountain to watch the wind, filigreed & black.




The sound of every passing tanker is a swirl of devils.


I pull my scarf around my face.





When Christmas lights repeat my house I go inside.


I pour a shot of whiskey and turn on the TV.


There is nothing on except game shows and war.























The Leader loves you from a billboard over a locomotive of cylinders, rods and diamonds with open metal spinning flower wheels that shudders a plane of smoke and indeterminacy through a network of electrical cables, cracking towers and tongues of fire. The Leader’s love is dense with tags. Here I am.




































The Leader’s actions inadvertently revealed that power is held by the state: appointees control continuity; change is superficial.


That was not what the people wanted. It brought them onto the streets.


Now the perimeter of power is in the shifting battles among the barriers and tear gas.


The police break unauthorized cameras and observers.


The Nation watches official footage stream from their TVs.


Both People and Nation make themselves within circulations of images. Each image moves through a climate that aligns it with premises. The world is made from derived conclusions. The city intertwines them into accidental arrangements. 


Everywhere is the sense that something is slipping away. Everywhere is an image that circulates through particular spaces. Everywhere is ineffable. 



































Everyday life is walked across a net.  The ground on which the net was laid is dissolving. Everyone continues their routines. The net pulls around them.  They struggle to get out but their thinking is circular. No-one has a plan.



























Journal of Failed Institutions

English Abstracts







An analysis of the implosion of traditional (Marxian) revolutionary theory by the withdrawal of consent in the context of overlapping top-down repetition based media environments. A description of how this rendered largely invisible the crumbling Marxist Imaginary. How this enabled such indications as did surface to be contained in the language of loss of faith. The implosion, which had multiple centers and which was spread over a considerable duration, crystallized at certain moments as something that had already happened.  There follows a brief consideration of the implications of a collapse of a sense of horizons that lay beyond the immediate.  The question is posed of beginning again.  The author has no sense of who he is talking to.  The considerations are vague.




This critical piece outlines the problem of analytic writing in a situation of ideological paralysis.  The position of the reader as one hanging outside the world affected by paralysis, reading sentences that assimilate it back into a meta-register that is not affected is discussed, along with the problem of how that register assimilates everything back into a version the same.  The more vexing question of how to proceed in the face of the above is outlined. But awareness of the contradiction between that project and the stated problem of analysis progressively undermines the writing and grinds the paper to a halt. 




A second piece by the same author takes up the problems of writing in a situation of ideological paralysis using less self-undermining premises.  The earlier position regarding analysis is retained as a structuring assumption. The project then moves through a series of spaces shot through with interference.  The results are indeterminate as to genre.  The argument, if there is one, amounts to: this is a mapping of paralysis. But a map is subject to interpretation, and the work of interpretation recapitulates the problem of analysis.  Perhaps the rejection of analysis is self-blinding. No good alternatives present themselves. The paper breaks off.


























In the beginning claims they made were ethical. We will bring the greatest good. We will bring prosperity. We will make you safe. These claims cannot be falsified. They are a tone of voice that invites you to survey a landscape of wreckage and see it as other than it is.
























Event Choreographer



Q. How do you see your role as event choreographer?


For a major political event, the multitude that fills the screen is a composition based on the latest demographic information. The Nation sees itself watching. The Leader is a television Charlemagne.


In the control booth I conduct a symphony of video feeds and sound. My crew is most responsive. My movements, made continuous and unbroken, become the movement that links the many to the one to their destiny.


Of course, the importance of event design cannot be overstated: the set design and positioning of cameras, the hiring of the caterers and the small amounts of tranquilizers that we give spectators so they feel content during the expositions, don’t fidget about or show impatience, while allowing them to still get excited at the appropriate moments.


So we are meticulous in our preparations. Then we improvise.


It’s all about rhythmic continuity.  We do not impose it. We couldn’t if we wanted to. We find it. We bathe in it. The rhythm comes from the cycling of electricity and the pulses that move liquids through pipelines. These regularities are knit into the cadences of peoples’ speech.


People—communities—nations—-are figures spread out in time. These figures are rooted shared rhythms.


We merely condense and heighten them.

We do not exercise power. Power exercised is power made fragile.


We organize the dance of consent. 



Q. What do you think of the current unrest?



I do not watch events.



Q. Would you care to clarify?



We are not concerned with details.   We do not provide messages. We leave that to the private sector.

We encourage the multiplicity of positions. We encourage debate. At times that debate spills into the streets. This does not perturb.  



We do not want to dominate. Domination is inefficient. We simply maintain boundaries.  










































Rumor of Arbitrary Disappearances




He was moving among the exploding snakes of tear gas when they came.


He was pushed into the back of a car.


A rag was stuffed over his face.


When he awoke was blindfolded.


He could feel handcuffs and leg irons.


When they stood him up, they removed the blindfold.


Someone said: The decision taken here will be immediately carried out.


Now he has been walked to a gathering by a fire.


Standing on a beach watching shadows huddle around a table, he imagines himself feeling his way along the end of this dreamtime until he finds a seam and climbs through it to the space occupied by the story with respect to itself and becomes one with the narrator who sees without himself being seen.


He looks toward the edge of a black plastic sea.


A call will arrive: they will say “Keep an eye on him” and drive away in their cars. In the confusion he will use the key George Washington gave him to unlock the irons and slip away, running until he hits the edge of continuity like a bird hitting mirrored glass.


He stands flanked by two men with another behind him.


One of the people by the table turns and addresses him.


You have been chosen by lot.


It does not matter who you are.  


He watches the mouth of the Other move.


He can no longer speak their language.


Tranquility courses through him.  


Perhaps he has already escaped.


He cannot move his arms or legs.


He looks up into a night full of waver.





















































Everywhere you look you see Bartleby blocking traffic, Bartleby obstructing trade, Bartleby violating the prerogatives of private property, Bartleby inconveniencing with his I would prefer not to, Bartleby who does not want anything except to embarrass the regime.


























The State of Emergency Show




The set design and reddish-brown lighting gives the theater the feel of a tavern scene from a Pieter Breughel painting.


The actors sit around a table, drinking and playing cards.

Soon an actor stands and moves to the foreground. He says:


The State of Emergency Show started long ago and there is no end in sight.


We have reached the end of one cycle. Here another begins.



As you can see, we sit around a table playing a game of cards. Who speaks and what they say is determined by the game.


We are a map of the world. We restate what everyone knows using an ontology particular to ourselves.


Security representations exclude security: we map security back in.


The military writes itself into the landscape: we erase the landscapes around them.


We are a state of exception: we are coterminous with everyday life.



Feel free to come and stay as long as you like. Or go do other things and return.


We will still be here.


If you feel inclined to come up on stage, we will deal you in.


That is how we grow and change.



There are rumors that we drink heavily throughout our performance.


I assure you those rumors are greatly overstated.



The actor smiles and holds up a tankard in a toast.




The actor sits at the table.


The card game continues.



Soon another stands, obviously drunk. The other wears a general’s hat. He says:



We are the nervous system of the nation-state.


Our activity is the container within which social being unfolds.


We are the present that monitors the present.


Because the enemy is probabilistic we hold up algorithmic mirrors.


We wait for the enemy to appear.

We are continuous war.





































Elsewhere is a low-rise facility in which the new invisible proletariat moves metal tubes through work stations, cutting them to spec and bending them a few degrees to the left. Elsewhere is a resort where she lay on a chaise lounge watching walls of water move like solids until the surface tensions fracture and the wave collapses into a clap, each followed by another message to decipher as you reach for your mojito and look the length of her legs, your lingering on an arrangement of moles accompanied by a clap of collapse and she turns to look at you from behind sunglasses that erase her eyes and replace them with holes.


Elsewhere is the containers that arrive for famine relief filled with left plastic stiletto heeled shoes and millions of razor blades because you know how easy it is to break a heel in a drought and a gentleman needs to shave. 

Elsewhere is an arrangement of people wearing business suits who sit in lotus position along a low-tide line, eyes closed, jackets and ties adrift in the rising water, waiting for something to occur to them.

















The Leader

















Before The Leader was The Leader, he looked and looked for something until he forgot what that something might have been.


But he continued to search for this thing that he had forgotten and emptied himself out in the doing. He made himself a function. Now situations define him. He becomes what you want to see.


But I feel The Leader dissolving. Consent will not be orchestrated.   There was a referendum and no-one voted.   Such stubbornness and ingratitude after all I’ve done.

























We look for what is hidden in plain sight like those drone operators who find themselves in front of the infrared exoskeletons of the world they are from searching for the points where a bureaucratic reality intersects with the enemy’s horizontal surfaces.


There are no secrets. 


Consider the national security state.  We know that it is sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. We could map its extension, but the map would be endless. We could say what it costs, but the tally would be infinite. So there is no interest in knowing.


Concealment is needless expenditure.






The state allocates funds for our use, so we make the geography of institutions.


We gather data from e-book readers and cell phones to construct maps of the ways ideas move around.  


At first we said: We know who reads what and where. We have abstracted figures and made them actionable. If X performs the movements that associate him or her with an idea dangerous to the state, X becomes a target.


But Ideological Forensics declared that an outmoded approach.






Now I maintain the database on my own: I chart the dances of activation and forgetting, sedimentation and variation and watch the world being made and remade there.























The presidential palace is a network of barriers, a grove of antennae, a backdrop for broadcasts, a bristle of weapons systems, a knot of transmissions, a skein of referrals.


The presidential palace is simultaneous press conferences, gatherings of courtiers, images that were to be sent to mobile editing rooms replaced with the pre-packaged interactions provided by the helpful persons of the Press Office a real time saver, they say, we know how busy you are with all that breaking information and the doorways you must stand near in case the Important walks through.


The central square is jammed with people in the swelter and traffic and dust and the messages that transform it from one kind of space to another, from circulation to liberation, continuity to refusal by a reversal of polarities.


She is drawn to the swirling energies. A radiant moth she relays slogans. She moves discussion to discussion. She takes it all in. She works her way to the front lines of confrontation with the police. She looks around for informants. She thinks: Half of these people work for the FBI.

















Detail View















Like all of us he finds himself in an environment of video feeds, tracking signals and monitored written communications all packaged as benign concern. It’s for your own good. You’ll never go missing.


He is shaped by economic conditions and adaptation toward the elimination of what is unnecessary. The restriction of his movements is accompanied by increasing pressure.  


Late at night over a bottle of bourbon he plays a game of Russian roulette.   When he loses, no electronic devices will signal: no-one will be notified; no search parties sent out. He will become details spattered about a room, invisible as the corporate persons who hide among the tax havens.




















The Secret Lives of Generals




Accompanied by a wave of silence and another of flashbulbs, The Leader enters the press conference.


The prepared statement he reads is the same as every other: democracy; enemies; emergency.


The networks had preceded the event with grainy photographs by swimming pools and chains of compromising text messages.


The reporters want to know about the secret lives of generals.


The Leader talks about strides forward how we are all in this together.


But the secret lives of generals will not go away.


He adheres to the strategic line of not dignifying with a direct response


Inwardly, The Leader is pleased.


The press conference is being carried live.








What offended were not the indiscretions but their banality.


Risking everything should be beyond vanilla sex and protestations of undying love with interns who treat their situation like a Cotillion.


The Generals should be more something: more imaginative; more intelligent; more ruthless; more amoral.


That would justify the arrangements.


But The Generals did the same thing The Leader would have done.


It ran against his sense of hierarchy.











The Leader in a series of business suits steps down from a series of helicopters. 



The Leader is a lifestyle. 


He is in demand. 


The Leader is the guest of honor at parties. 


He is the center of attention. 


The Leader makes friends and influences people. 


He elicits the yes yes response.


The Leader reads Machiavelli on the weekend.


He drives a little red corvette.


The Leader is modest about his accomplishments. 


He struggles with golf.



The Leader is different because he loves you. 


The Leader loves you because he is you. 


















The Empire talks of freedom but relies on debt peonage to force open markets for agricultural overproduction.  So freedom means freedom from necessity for shareholders in the corporations that benefit from this arrangement.  The Empire is built on weapons sales. When a war breaks out involving those weapons, The Empire dispatches negotiators most attentive to detail and process to broker a slow end to hostilities. These negotiators act as if they know nothing of how the weapons systems used by the combatants came to be in that place.The Empire is a maze of bounded rationalities within which well-intentioned people carry out well-intentioned policies to the exclusion of feedback loops that would connect them to outcomes.  The Empire is spaces made of mirrors.The Empire devotes most of its resources to the elimination of The Enemy.  The Enemy is the consequence of the Empire’s actions.  The Enemy will never be eliminated. The Empire is a war on itself.


The Empire does not record its deterioration.  It leaves that to the servants who archive things. 















Interior Ministry Note:


This tract was found on the streets in front of the Presidential Palace.

We have it on reasonable authority that it was written by one of our people.


Outline of Fading Empire



















In the waning days the old stories do not hold.   In the waning days language becomes thin and ghostly. In the waning days none of this registers. In the waning days people cling to routines.


In the waning days, trapped inside obsolete maps that distinguish up from down and figure from ground people see the world as given in advance as what is slipping away.



Learning from Bjartur About Today’s Icelandic Economic Crisis

Without ever have been, I never cared much for Iceland. Too much nature and too little density for my tastes. Then, work brought me to Iceland in August 2008. I fell in love—while the Icelandic economy fell apart.

I wanted to learn about Iceland and the Icelandic culture. All the Icelanders I met told me I should read Independent People. So I read about Bjartur’s Winterhouse transformed into Summerhouse as simultaneously I read about the land of ice and fire transformed into the land of bankruptcy and failures.

I was struck by the similarities of the two stories: the basic framework of the plot of Independent People and today’s situation are almost the same. They both start from a status quo. There is an economic boom. There is a delusion that the boom will last forever. The boom includes a real estate boom. There are people buying things that they cannot afford. There is a bad mix of local politicians and local businessmen. There are a lot of bad loans. There is the bust after the boom. There are loans that cannot be repaid. Houses are abandoned, empty, some unfinished. Bjartur’s framework strikes me as the same basic framework as today’s.

But there is a difference, a big difference. After the bust, Bjartur went, on foot, to a destroyed house with no heat, no privacy, with his uneducated young daughter who is killed by a common disease. After today’s bust, people drive to their large high-tech homes and send their healthy kids to college.

This is not a small difference. In a few decades, the country went from having Bjartur’s lifestyles to being able to allow twenty-three year-old men to stay in school without working. To me this is an incredible and marvelous difference!

On Icelandic blogs in English, I read comments about the great figure of Bjartur and the great mistakes of Iceland today. Glory to Bjartur and disgrace to today’s public figures. And I think: hold on! You cannot be serious! The difference between Bjartur’s time and ours is a wonderful achievement and an almost miraculous lesson. Looking back on Bjartur’s time with nostalgia is made possible only because of the wealth that today’s Iceland enjoys. Today, nobody wants to live in a turf house with no electricity, no bathroom, and one bedroom shared by a mother-in-law and three kids, little food, one book, and many diseases.

True, there were mistakes during the recent crisis. Icelanders are human, like everybody else. And mistakes are an unavoidable part of the human condition. But there were also many successes. Iceland did something right, after all. The increase in standards of living from the First World War to the Second seems to me to have been minimal (my knowledge is based again on a novel by Laxness—The Atom Station). By contrast, the growth in the last couple of decades is immense and real.

There was an economic boom and a bust in Bjartur’s time. There was an economic boom and a bust in our time. It is normal to have booms and busts, not just in Iceland but everywhere else in the world. Economies cycle. All of them. There have been cycles in the past, and there will be cycles in the future. They are inevitable. Booms and busts are not the issue. What matters is how well one ends up after the bust. I hope that Iceland keeps doing what it has done recently, rather than trying to go back to what generated misery for centuries.

I believe this economic crisis is an opportunity for Iceland to look at its recent success and to learn what made it possible. This is an opportunity to look back at Bjartur, rejoice at the permanent departure from his lifestyle, and understand what made it possible for very similar events to occur today without Iceland ending up in such a terrible situation.

So let’s go back to Bjartur’s story. Let’s look at the economic boom and bust described there. Booms and busts, with all their differences, are nevertheless similar enough that we can draw parallels. Bjartur’s story and today’s story are similar enough that we can look at one to get a better sense of the other.

In Independent People there was an economic boom. But was there a boom-maker? Was there someone responsible for the boom in that story? Was there a Mr. X at whom we can point our finger and say: “Him—he is the person who made the boom”? No. The beginning of the boom is described roughly as: “and then there was an economic boom.” The boom just happened. It came from abroad, from the presence of the Great War. Bjartur’s Iceland reacted to international economic forces. There was no single politician or political party that was responsible for that boom. Iceland let itself be carried by those external economic forces. Bjartur did not understand what was going on. He just saw that he was making more money by selling wool. He saw the opportunity to improve his lifestyle and build a different house. He got a loan, which was now available. He did build a new house. He was happy and felt fulfilled. The local politicians and “bankers” also did not plan the boom, did not make the boom happen. They, like Bjartur, just saw an opportunity to improve their lifestyle. And they did.

Today’s boom was, in many ways, no different. Icelanders saw their wealth increase, and the opportunity to improve their lifestyle. And so they did. And just like the politicians and bankers in Bjartur’s time, as much as some politicians or bankers of our time may have wished to claim responsibility for the Icelandic boom of the early 2000, they were not responsible for it. Nobody was. The boom was a world-wide phenomenon. Again, there was nobody at whom one could have pointed a finger and said: “Him! He is the cause of our (global) expansion!” Politicians and bankers saw an opportunity to better their conditions and they did—as it was done in the United States and in the rest of the world. One person, no matter how competent, is not able to expand the entire economy of a country and to drag the world economy along in that expansion.

Thinking that there is a boom-maker is a mistake based on human pride and hubris. It is a common claim. But that does not make it true. The economy of a country, even of a small country, is too complex a phenomenon to be controlled by one person or by a small group of people. And when the economy is subject to global forces, that claim becomes even more nonsensical. Politicians like to think of themselves as directing the economy: “See? Look how good I am. I did this!” But claiming to do something is not the same as actually having the power to do it.  An economy is not a machine that can be controlled at will. An economy is not a car. An economy is an order that, in a sense, has a life of its own. It lives off the interactions of many, many people—off their decisions, their knowledge. Even the most consciously-designed of human economies did not follow the intended plans and took on lives of their own. An economy is an order, to repeat an old expression, that emerges from human actions but not from human design. We know it exists. We know it works. But at a deep level, we do not know how.

And the bust? Well, again look at the story in Independent People. The bust, like the boom, happened. No politician was able to stop it. It came from abroad. It came with the end of the war. It came with some warnings, which were not taken seriously. And it was no politician or banker’s fault. No individual politician or banker was directly responsible for it.

Similarly, today, the economy experienced a bust. A big one, but still a bust, like others before it. And as with other busts, the local politicians, whether competent or incompetent, honest or corrupt, are not the direct cause of it, no matter what some are willing to claim. One single politician, or even one political party, does not have that kind of power.

The economy in Bjartur’s time cycled. The economy in our time cycles. All economies cycle. They always have. An economy is not stable. No economy is. They expand and they contract. It is a normal part of economic life. The cycles of economies are like heartbeats in humans. A heart that does not beat is a dead heart. Similarly, an economy that does not cycle is not a functioning economy. The difference is that a heartbeat usually comes at a regular rhythm, while economic “beats” are irregular and unpredictable.

Why do economies cycle? Because they are built upon human beings. Human beings make economic decisions. Some decisions turn out to be correct and some decisions turn out to be incorrect. Why do people make decisions that turn out to be incorrect? Ignorance, incompetence, overconfidence, or, often, just bad luck. Circumstances change. So decisions made under different circumstances are no longer applicable. Cycles are important because often they are ways to make ourselves aware of decisions that are not appropriate under present circumstances and to try to change our behavior accordingly. Busts can therefore be valuable in the life of an economy. Busts allow us to adjust to different circumstances.

Nevertheless, we hear all the time that we should avoid busts, that we should smooth the cycle. The idea of smoothing the cycle is appealing. We do not like changes, especially changes that may hurt us in the present or immediate future. Additionally, the idea of smoothing the cycle implies that someone can control the economy and knows how to do it. This is a very appealing idea indeed. Who does not want to play rain-maker? But no one really possesses the power or knowledge necessary to control the economy. Economists know a lot. But they also know a lot about what they do not know. They know that an economy is not a car to be driven at pleasure. And even if the economy were a car, they know they would not necessarily know how to fix it or drive it. The attempts of the past ended the same way—as wrecks.  Some economists become policy advisers and their salaries come from leaders who want to be, and publicly claim to be, the drivers of the economic machine. What can we expect such economists to say? “Listen, there is not much we can do…just make sure people play by the rules”? Or instead: “Yeah, we can fix this!”

Saying that the economy is an order that has a sort of life of its own and that it cannot be driven like a car does not imply that there is absolutely nothing that politicians can do. What politicians can do is set up institutions and incentives that either let the economy live or strangle it.

In a sense, if one really wants to think about the economy as a car to be driven by some politicians, then I think that the best car to fit this image would be Herbie, the Volkswagen Bug of many Disney movies. Herbie, to the shock of all its drivers, is alive. It moves independently of the will of its drivers. It moves by itself to attract attention when it needs care. It stubbornly refuses to cooperate when something wrong is done to it. It behaves differently with different drivers: with the “good” drivers it goes fast, but with the “evil” drivers it goes very slowly, if it goes at all. “Good” drivers, of an economy, are good institutions. “Evil” drivers are bad institutions.

Today economists know that institutions matters. The institutions that usually matter for allowing an economy to flourish are freedom and open markets, definition and protection of property rights, political stability, immigration, and development of human capital. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I was struck by the similarity between Bjartur’s time and today. But I was also struck by their differences. What happened between Bjartur’s time and today that made Bjartur’s miserable conditions disappear? Iceland developed many good institutions in the past few decades. Ones it lacked in Bjartur’s time.

What matters, then, is not to avoid every fall, which is not possible, but to fall in the least painful way. The fall of Bjartur was painful. The fall of today is painful too, but it takes place on a much softer and warmer surface than Bjartur’s hard and frozen ground. Bjartur, in his quest for self-sufficiency, basically killed everybody around him (with the exception of his mother-in-law!). Bjartur’s is a life of misery and death. And Bjartur’s Iceland was a miserable economy, poor and isolated from the rest of the world. As Independent People shows us, self-sufficiency is a recipe for misery. Iceland started its way to wealth when it allowed itself to be “dependent,” when it opened itself to the rest of the world. I used the word “dependent” in quotation marks because “dependent” seems to be the most obvious opposite of independent. But it is not. The correct word is actually interdependent. Iceland was able to abandon its poverty when it embraced the rest of the world. The more open a country is, the larger the markets in which it trades, the more interdependent it becomes, the more prosperity that country will have.

Good institutions matter. Having well-defined and enforced property rights matters. Having light regulations and taxation matters. Having an open policy for immigration matters. Having good incentives for the development of human capital matters. But for Iceland, this does not necessarily imply joining the EU. Iceland can benefit from the open markets of the union even without joining it, as it has done in the past. By contrast, actually joining the EU can be used as a blame-shifter. In the future if something goes wrong, one can blame the EU, lending undeserved cover to local politicians. Joining the EU can also be used to add economic disruptions to political games. The more regulations and the more bureaucracy, the more power politicians have. Corruption will have an added layer, rather than being eliminated. The more regulations, the more opportunities to bribe or curry favor though offering to close one eye, or both eyes, or to make an exception. Iceland did well in the past few decades by building the right institutions, without joining the EU. It should keep going in that direction even now.

The current crop of politicians seem to worry about how Iceland can meet the standards necessary to join the EU. But they should be worrying about the cost that that would impose on Iceland. On top of the additional laws, regulations, and taxations that will burden the economy as a whole, fishing (the most valuable industry in Iceland) would be particularly hard hit. The replacement of the Krona with the Euro would also be another major cost. Having the choice between more than currency is by all standards better than not being able to choose. If the prospect of joining the EU would indeed bring hope for Iceland, why are so many Icelanders leaving? Why is even McDonald’s leaving—and saying that there are no plans to come back in the near future? Herbie is coughing and spitting; the threat of the return of some bad institutions seems strong. What if Bjartur’s times come back?

If Iceland did so many good things in the recent past, if Iceland was lucky enough to develop good institutions when the global timing was right, why did Iceland tumble? To ask why Iceland? is like asking why Lehman Brothers? We can point to a direct, immediate cause, but in many ways we have to simply say the answer is “bad luck.” It could have happened to someone else. Iceland, like Lehman, was the first to go. Ignorance and uncertainty about what was going on seem to have mattered. Remedies taken later by others were possible in part because both Iceland and Lehman provided examples for the world of how bad things could get.

How bad is it if a developed country asks for emergency loans and those loans, for some unknown reason, are not granted? Now we know. It is very bad. It is a financial meltdown. Other countries, which asked for emergency loans after Iceland collapsed, got their loans. Their fall was not as bad as Iceland’s. How bad is it if a foreign country causes a bank run (as the UK did in the case of Iceland) and simultaneously freezes the assets of that bank (and of the country to which that bank belongs)? Now we know. It is very, very bad. It is a collapse of the banking system. This, actually, we knew even before. Banks work on a fractional reserve principle. This means that a bank assumes that all the people who have deposits in it will not ask for their money back at the same time. So the bank can use part of those deposits to finance loans. But if all the depositors do ask for their money back at the same time, the bank goes belly up since it will not have enough reserve to pay back all the customers.  Maybe the UK forgot? Now, surely, it is reminded, as is the whole world.

So this is what I learned from Bjartur. I hope not to be alone when I look at Bjartur and appreciate how Iceland grew in the past few decades, how much more better off people are today than in Bjartur’s time. I hope that Icelanders will be able to appreciate the miracle they experienced thanks to their successful attempts to build good institutions, and that they will continue on the road to openness and growth.

Relevant references:

Boyes, Roger. 2009. Meltdown Iceland: Lessons on the world financial crisis from a small bankrupt island. New York: Bloomsbury.

Ferguson, Adam. [1767] 2007. An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garrison, Roger. 2001.Time and Money: The Macroeconomics of Capital Structure. New York: Routledge

Hayek, Friederich. 1945. “The Use of Knowledge in Society” American Economic Review.

Jonsson, Asgeir. 2009. Why Iceland? How one of the world’s smallest countries became the meltdown’s biggest casualty. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Laxness, Halldor. [1946] 1997. Independent People. New York: Vintage International.

Laxness, Halldor. [1948] 1982. The Atom Station. Sag Harbor, NY: Second Chance Press.

Tullock, Gordon. 2005. The Rent Seeking Society. Indianapolis: Liberty Press.

Smith, Adam [1776] 1981. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Indianapolis: Liberty Press.

White, Larry. 1999. The Theory of Monetary Institutions. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.