The Progressive Century
The Dust of an Epoch
We see in the air the dust of an epoch. It is the age of carbon combustion which is choking on its own soot. There are those who are ready to break from the chains that oxidation of carbon imposes, they look into digital realms, into a clarity of mind and energy which is possible beyond the bars of this gilded age. Humanity has a gulf, and it is close to being ready to awaken and sing.
Powerful forces want to keep society in its current shape. For good reason, there is not only physical capital, but the doctrine of incorporation to contend with: we become physically the shapes and habits that they live.
Moses never reached the promised land, and there is a desert to cross to take this generation out of the desert and into the land of milk and honey. Either we will face a reactionary century, or a new, progressive century, there is no third choice.
Catching the Bullet
Fire is one of the defining differences between human beings and virtually every other animal. Fire has been tended for tens of thousands of years, and the ability to make fire part of the tool kit that changes how people think and act. It can be argued that we are able to think ahead for three primary reasons: to predict people, to predict the movements of animals, and to predict fire.
But economically, the age of combustion truly began when we could, with greater and greater ability, convert combustion into mechanical work. The bullet is an example of this, and catching the power of a bullet has been the challenge of much of technology. However before the drive to catch the bullet drove the break out from the Malthusian reality, industrialization began with the conversion of metals to more useful forms. In Europe Industrialization begins with mining and metallurgy in the 1500’s, and the Europeans were late to the party.
There was another strand, not of explosive combustion, but of the harnessing of deep power. Deep power is the power generated not by rapid oxidation, but by unleashing gravity, the fusion power of the sun in the form of wind and wave. Deep power’s place is hard to see, precisely because it is pervasive. It’s easier to credit the steam engine, which did not revolutionize travel and manufacture until the 1830’s, then the discovery of vitamins, that made long sea voyages possible, or the development of navigation and the chronometer, which created the unification of trade and exploration.
Deep power is found in the spread of the ethno-culture of the potato, in advances in medicine, and the production of scientific knowledge. Deep power involves the careful manipulation of systems in dynamic equilibrium. Deep power then involves information used to enact transformation. This means that at the heart of the modern world are two dynamic and non-linear forces: the disruptive power of combustion thinking, and the transformative thinking of deep power thinking. While combustion is spectacular and makes the highlight reel, it is deep power which provides the organization within which disruption occurs. Eventually deep power absorbs combustion, making a technology or power source pervasive.
The problems with the present involve both limitations on our combustive power, and on the deep power of the society. Failure to recognize this dual problem lies at the root of political paralysis, because most prescriptions attempt to preserve the core of combustive disruption and malformed deep power problems, while merely ameliorating present points of disruption.
The Neo-Conservative Era
The long 18th century, that is from the end of the Thirty Years War until it’s inflationary collapse in 1789, is the Absolutist era: while looked back on as having incorporated into it “The Enlightenment” in fact the period is marked by repeated genius in the service of wrong-headedness. Many of the sparkling mathematical and physical proofs of the age are made in service of an ontological model of an absolute God and repressive monarchism. It’s not surprising that mathematicians employed by church and state saw ideas such as logarithms, probability and the binary number system as proofs of God and King. While the Enlightenment laid many of the foundation stones of the coming age, it was a fundamentally sick era which embraced slavery, fear, and ignorance.
The 19th century was more or less one long attempt to evade this contradiction while integrating industrialization and science in service of hierarchies. However, it sowed the seeds of its own demise in two ways. First it spread its children over the globe, and created there by the notion of Freedom, action without reference to direct control of the state as a positive, not merely corollary to the absence of state power, and the idea of Liberty which was the idea that state power existed at all for the purpose of the citizens. These two ideas, produce in turn the idea of the Republic, and Democracy. They are not orthogonal, but are mirrors. Freedom is liberty in the open country side, Liberty is Freedom in the streets of the cities. So too Republic and Democracy become merged, because one is not possible in any meaningful sense with the other.
Freedom rests upon the ability to use combustive power to harness and exploit the deep power present in nature. It uses combustion to propel itself out of the reach of the state, and the tools of combustion, most particularly firearms, to disrupt pre-state orders that it finds, and to extract resources. Liberty is the reverse, it takes the city, a product of industrial and capital concentration, and turns the deep power of analytic and synthetic processing and communication, that is the power of thinking and communicating to organize people and process, to create greater wealth. They are the people that the resources are sold to, and they are the people who produce the new forms of combustion and means of exploiting deep power.
Mathematically Freedom is the search for Nash Disequilibria: where individual actors can unilaterally act to improve their position, Liberty is the reverse, it is the search for Nash Equilbiria which have a positive tendency. That is actors acting together to make the net sum of human activity better. Each has degenerate forms. The degenerate form of Freedom does not regard the sum of the payouts from the matrix of choices as being important. That’s dense, let’s unpack it.
Think of all of the choices possible to an individual. Some will be better, some will be worse. If the better choices require other actors to cooperate in being better, then the actor cannot make themselves better off without cooperation. We can describe then three sets of choice regions, one where an actor can choose to be better off without cooperation, one where the actor receives disproportionate compensation, which means that integrating the choice matrix leads to the first case, and those choice regions where an actor must make other actors as least as much better in sum as himself.
The degenerate case of Freedom is one which does not regard how well others are doing as important, or postulates that there is no second order matrix of relative goods. Since it is easy to construct the first, and to empirically show the second, the degenerate case of Freedom rests on denial of mathematics or history, or both.
The degenerate case of liberty is the reverse, it is the worship of the Nash Equilibrium itself, without regard to the positive feedback state. This degenerate case leads to paralysis. These degenerate cases can produce an oscillator: those who fear change clinging to degenerate co-dependency, and those who chafe at the co-dependency wanting disruptive unilateral action for its own sake.
I don’t think I need to say that this is a death spiral, and it is the death spiral that American politics finds itself in at present. The Republican Party, and the Right more generally, worships unilateral action for its own sake, such as the invasion of Iraq, the Democratic Party, and the Left more generally, worships interdependence. Both assume that their preferred state leads to a positive feedback.
This is where the physical challenges, and social equilibria intervene against them: pure “Freedom”, especially in its degenerate form, does not lead to any more oil in the world, nor does it lead to an improved LCA in the face of global warming. Pure interdependence is vulnerable to disequilibria, and thus, when established, eventually there is a political coalition that votes to gamble on a land rush mentality, destroying whatever positive progress was made during the previous period, simply because it is not sufficient to maintain political cohesion.
Or to say it another way, every time degenerate Liberty saves up a little money, degenerate Freedom goes to the casino, plays rigged games, chases scantily clad women and crawls back home, drunk, broke, and needing a prompt course of treatment for a Sexual Transmitted Disease.
The Neo-Conservative era has been an oscillation between these two states, with a resulting relatively static state for most developed world workers, and a perilous trade off for those in industrializing states. Life isn’t so bad in new China, if you don’t mind Asthma and picking bits of your children out of the school that collapsed on them.
The Dust of an Epoch
One of the most difficult concepts to get across to people who are institutionalized in the present world is that technology produces certain kinds of mathematical forms in its application. That is to say, you can’t put anything you want into a gas powered mower, and you can’t get anything out of it you want.
The dust of the combustion era then comes from two directions, not one. One is the physical limitations of the technology to be sustainable and scalable, the other is that there are areas that the technology simply cannot go even if it did not have the physical constraints imposed on it. It is also locked in a degenerate co-cycle of politics which does not produce enough positive productivity gains to balance its increasing liabilities. These are long term numbers, which means that the problem of the present is two fold: one is to remove one of the two degenerate states, and the other is to overcome the disequilibria of the Death Bet, namely that the degenerate Freedom form, the form of the right, allows for continued bad judgments which spiral downwards, because by the time they must be paid for, the actors who profited will be long dead, or think they will be.
Or to unpack that: there is no path that leads to enough productivity gains that everyone can see, and there is a downward path that leads to enough potential gains for a few that those few ill both defend the unilateral choice to gamble on getting the unequal gains, and will chose the unequal gains. This problem infects both the right globally, and the left in industrialized countries. If you need an example, take a look a the primary returns from West Virginia.
There is a good deal of focus in the internet left community, rightly, on the physical limitations of the combustion age. This combats both the Death Bet and the degenerate form of Freedom. However it does not avoid the degenerate problem of liberty: it merely preaches interdependence, which the right argues against by predicting economic doom should we say, reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions.
Not enough attention is paid directly to the other part of the problem ”“ that the present system cannot produce certain kinds of happiness that people desire, and which, in theory, could be provided at much lower cost of scarcities than our current substitutes. In general, this part of the equation is attacked through its symptoms: inability of elections to produce candidates that generate enthusiasm, media monopolies, the poor quality of popular culture. The problem is that the underlying theory is one of false consciousness, that is that people are voting against their interests because of media pressure. While this is the case on the margins, the lack of Liberty is more essential. If there were a path towards a growing economy that relied upon the point of view of the left, then people would be taking it. They jump at even marginal chances.
This leads back to the mesoÃ«conomic problem of lack of investment supply, which is, in turn related to both the physical constraints of the combustion economy, and to the gaps in the pattern of happiness that it can produce. This neatly ties together both the physical limits and the structural limits. The physical limits are the limits of supply of high return carbon based energy sources, the structural limits are the things that combustive energy cannot produce as changes in deep energy.
The Reactionary Century
From this we can see what the degenerate freedom position of the right rests upon. First it must assure people that keeping disequilibria will overcome the physical limitations of the combustion economy, and that it will eventually solve, or prove unnecessary, the structural limits. It tries to create a pseudo-scientific proof that the present system can do what it is not doing, and doesn’t need to do what it can’t do.
The first part is limited in that it does not have to, for political purposes, actually prove it can solve things like Global Warming or scarcity of Carbon Sources, or the lack of scalabilty. It just needs to lull people asleep long enough in saying that even if thing don’t work out, the present temporary plurality will be dead and gone, or at least so rich as to be undisplacable.
The second part is also in contradiction. It is the reason for the rise of religious theonomy ”“ theocratic economics ”“ in the world. Being unable to convince people that the present economy doesn’t need to do what it can’t do, it tries to convince people that they don’t want what they want, and nobody else should either. If they won’t join you, beat them. Religious denial of pleasure is itself a pleasure, and it is a time honored gambit of top down economies to use it to reduce demand for goods and services.
This cannot be emphasized enough: the present system has a problem, that problem is that while it can redistribute consumption and production, it is not increasing real production fast enough to evaluate it’s own future. This means there has been massive inflation in the cost of a dollar of future earnings. This asset inflation is good for those who rent dollars of future earnings, but generally bad for those of us who pay that rent. More over, it means that the periodic bailouts of those who own the rights to future dollars of earnings are going to accelerate. Each bailout further increases investment demand over the available investment supply.
The problem here is that no amount of disruptive combustion can alter this deep energy lack. The conversion of a technology from disruptive to deep energy is the process by which economies are able to produce real rises in standard of living. Funneling that deep energy towards stand of living and away from brute reproduction. In sense the modern world is built on a failure of industrialization ”“ it cannot produce as much food as it can of other kinds of goods, and that means that people find it rapidly less worthwhile to have more children than to have other kinds of consumption. This is made sustainable by modern medicine, which makes it possible to have smaller families and still leave behind progeny.
The contra-side is the risk of those progeny dying in instability. As it becomes more and more difficult to convert combustive gains into deep energy stability, the swings of volatility will grow. This means, in simple terms, more people will die than otherwise would have, and this risk of dying to the system becomes a powerful incentive to opt out, or overturn, the present system.
The case for the reactionary century fails on its own terms as well. In order to continue with an economy which is a clear descendant of the present one, ways to scale the sprawlconomy – which is the engine of happiness production ”“ must be found. The sum of these is not only daunting, but undercuts the assertion of the reactionary economy that we can have permanent disruptive waves flow through society without overturnimg the top down nature of it. In fact the reactionary society must postulate that Freedom, of a decentralized kind, can be had, even as economic power concentrates. The “freedom” they speak of is a freedom from the ability of political power to redistribute the results of abstract exchange. In otherwise a defense of the degenerate form of freedom.
Let us list the problems for those people who have not thought about this. First the supply problem of hydrocarbons must be addressed. This requires economical conversion of non-conventional hydrocarbons, or synthetic hydro-carbons, as well as a massive increase in the use of coal for electricity. This in turn requires the generation of heat and access to water in large quantities, since all such solutions trade water for hydrocarbons, water being where we get the hydrogen from, It also requires a massive expansion in the supply of lithium for batteries, or the development of much more practical hydrocarbon fuel cells, which unlike the more glamorous hydrox fuel cells, burn hydrocarbons more efficiently. These, in turn, require process heat nuclear power plants to blast hydrocarbons out, or to gasify carbon for turning into synfuels. On top of this the carbon dioxide produced must be sequestered, or reconverted into hydrocarbons with various synthetic processes. This requires a massive new generation of nuclear powerplants, since this is a negative return process.
On top of this set of undeveloped, unproven technologies, which must be produced at massive scale in a generation, there is the requirement for amelioration of the accelerating global warming trend, and the rebalancing of the economic production scales around the world as places that have arable land now become deserts. Not ironically, in a scenario that requires large amounts of fresh water, or the desalinization of sea water, the amount of fresh water is going down, and the energy demands that might otherwise meet the water challenge must be spent.
At the heart of this problem is that all reactionary century scenarios require a lower Life Cycle return on input energy, abbreviated LCA, for Life Cycle Analysis, than is currently the case, which means, by definition, more GDP must be spent acquiring energy.
In short, even if the reactionary century can do the impossible and fix its unfixable problems, it does not access any solution that is better than current trendline solutions, it merely distributes the gains in a particular way. This gets back to the degenerate freedom case from above ”“ it only works if some actors can unilaterally force their will on others as a matter of ideology, because it does not work as a matter of economic choice. The reactionary century, on its face, produces no new energy or production, and it demands, at minimum massive allocations of it.
And we haven’t touched what happens as the price of food rises dramatically, which, historically speaking, is the point when an economic order collapses. In fact we can call this the Sen-Fischer limit. Sen pointing out that famine comes when the square of starvation in the cost of food creates a large number of people below it, and Fischer pointing out that great waves of inflation culminate in food inflation and collapse of the political consensus. We can define the Sen-Fischer limit then in terms of the rapid increase in the size of the square of starvation when inflation rent takes hold.
This is because the influx into the square of starvation is filled with people who still have their capacity and expectations of previous entitlement bundles. If there is a log curve of inflation, as all market peaks form, a rapid rise when rent rather than investment takes over ”“ or to put it in simple terms, when a rapid rise in price decreases the supplyu of production rather than increases it ”“ then the rise in the square of starvation moves rapidly up the flat part of income distribution, which does not see the knee of its curve anywhere close to the normal square of starvation from information friction. To put it another way, some people will be starving normally, because there figuring out which ones of them are worth employing costs more than the utility of their production. It takes more to sort the poor out and train them, in a pure market, than they can possibly produce in marginal utility.
This means that like a typhoon over flat land, starvation sweeps up the population scale quickly, and rapidly people who could eat yesterday, and are hungry but not yet lethargic from hunger, are left with the choice of finding a way to make more money, spending savings, or using the market of markets to put their time and energy and risk into political or physical revolt. When savings runs out, eaten by the inflation tax, revolt becomes a clearer and clearer imperative.
The fact that the Sen-Fischer limit has been far away from much of the world in the Green Revolution has been because of what has been called “The Oil We Eat”. This means that with the return of oil scarcity, it is more difficult to keep more people fed, and the areas under threat of reaching the Sen-Fischer limit grow.
This means that more energy must be spent repressing, incarcerating, or otherwise denying this sector of the population. The United States has tried this with a generation of increasing incarceration, however the costs of this are growing logarithmically, because each prisoner stays in prison longer, and the new ones keep arriving, since they are not the result of bad genetics, but bad economics.
The Progressive Century
What this means is that there is no reactionary century really, the question is what kind of progressive century we are to have. Either we can have a century which will spend every bit of economic, social and technological progress in a vain attempt to hold on to an old order which, while it has many people who want it because of its potential to produce passive income, is producing a greater and greater displeasure by those who are milked for this passive income. Or we can commit to finding a different political order.
One of the first defining conflicts of this century was the response to 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. While public displeasure over Iraq has subsided, it has been replaced by the economic dislocation and strangulation which is a child of the reactionary policy which Iraq was the centerpiece for. Without Iraq, there would have been no Bush second term, nor the ability to rewrite the Federal Budget into an attempt to produce a Reactionary American Republic.
Iraq then, specifically unwinding Iraq, is one of the essential first steps in changing course. McCain has admitted that Iraq is going to end in his first term: only Reactionaries have access to war money, not others. Iraq is a fund of money to turn the United States of America into a militarized nation.
In this congressional election there is, really, one question, and that question is what to do in the aftermath of this expensive disaster. However, neither party is proposing real change, merely hinting that perhaps change will happen, later. Paid for by some other people. But even with this seeming paralysis, the question remains. We currently have two parties: one which wants to slow down the pillaging of the old order, the other that periodically lurches it forward. We’ve oscillated between these two points since 1969. It might seem that cleaning house and being conservative with a doomed order is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But buying time is important, we can meet these problems with some fraction of our resources, or we can plunge headlong over the cliff.
In 2005 the United States got a foreshock of a nation too poor to rebuild itself, and a foreshock of inflation, This was ignored, even by people who ought to have known better. Instead the economy was revved up even more, and we are now facing even more severe, and global, inflation shocks. Weather in 2007 was poor, and there is a foreshock of the food crisis yet tocome. 2008 will be a better harvest probably,and food pressures will, temporarily subside. But as oil will remain high for some time to come, this is only temporary.
These pressures will not be continuous, over the scale of history individual years ebb and flow. However, the are relentless. Global warming could decelerate for a decade at a time, or be slowed by volcanic activity. It will merely return to trend when these shorter term fluctuations ease. Food prices will rise as the energy input rises, and the demand for better food for children rises. Materials prices will rise even more, as people in developing countries demand safer shools and houses.
However, these physical problems must be seen in the context of the top down society, and the strategic forms that it creates. Changing dead variables on the margins, without changing the fundamental ratios of payouts and dynamics, will mean that actors might be happier or unhappier making certain decisions, but they will make the same decisions. Only by altering the states of the game will there be genuine political change.
This means that the strategic problem outlined: that a desire for unilateral self-improvement on one hand, and an empty interdependence on the other hand bounce back and forth without every actually settling on the real mean, and without changing the game itself. The foxes chase the hares forever. Since the desire for unilateralism will yield only in the face of overwhelming facts, the only road forward is to grow the progressive idea first. Since the problem facing the world is not caused by peak oil and global warming, but is causing them, these overwhelming facts will accelerate.
The inconvenient truth is that the global left needs to understand a fundamentally different brief for its strategy. The goal is not fairer distribution of wealth being produced, but a public direction of public resources to change the basic pattern of wealth production. The first step towards this is turning away from the reactionary policy of attempting to take rents using capital, which only burns the resources we need to face problems rather than dumping them on others. That means the first step is a clear and decisive shift in policy on the American economy, rooted in an end of the massive militarization project of the last two Presidential Terms.
But beyond that there is an entire Progressive Century, whose shape will be determined by the years to come, even as the old century and old political order ends.