When the light at the end of the tunnel is the tunnel

–The painter Gérard Fromanger pointed out that a blank canvas is also ‘‘black with everything every painter has painted before me’’. If also, as the painter František Kupka felt, “to abstract is to eliminate,” then stripping away the layers of black-on-black is akin to abstracting blankness. Yet how do many react when confronting opaque policy canvasses? Let’s sweep the table clear, make a clean slate, start all over again! Few see these for the dangerous abstractions they are.

–The policy and planning I’m familiar with remain very much that of trying to draw out a narrativized means and ends from the messy contingencies:

  • I can’t be the only one struck by the affinity between those 19th century novels whose plots were driven by coincidence after coincidence all the way to a happy ending and today’s crisis narratives where one mistake after another has led to certain disaster.
  • “For heaven’s sake, stop all the talking! We have to save the planet! Do something!!!” As if thinking and wish fulfillment have been—or could ever be—pushed to the side. This kind of thought-free “do-something-now!” is about as policy relevant as the urgency felt by a 19th century Yankee poet to commemorate a Civil War battle.
  • Planning emerges as a defense mechanism to the real-time struggle between contingency and consequence: We plan in order to avoid having to realize that too often we confront not discrete events with causal consequences but contingencies with disproportionate effects about which we little or no causal understanding.

–To take macroeconomics seriously is to indulge children’s bed-time stories. At one end, after three decades of grounding (down) macroeconomics into microeconomics. are the legion of still-breeding Lord Voldemorts and their trillions in wealth destruction. At the other extreme are the neo-Keynesian Mad Hatters, where the worst possible thing you can do when things get bad is to save for when things go worse and the best possible thing to do is to spend wads of money you don’t have.

Yes, yes, I know: Nations are not the bone-dry wire constructions of “individual household savers and spenders.” But really, aren’t there better stories to tell our people?

Here’s one. If I’m right (see the Poverty and War blog entry), since economies are complex, we can search for alternative stories anywhere, including from what I’m currently reading.

This afternoon, it’s been Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner. Davenport commends Charles Babbage’s Economy of Manufacturing and Machinery to Kenner, The book even “keeps track, within itself, of its own economy (cost of printing, paper, sales, advertising)” adding: “as if a dollarbill cd report on the role it plays in the total economy as it circulates.”

My counter-story is titled, “Money Talks,” and starts this way: “You don’t know it, but each dollarbill talks and what it talks about is what it does by walking that talk.” Walking the talk, from the perspective of the dollarbill, is about how it passes from hand to different hand, multiplying its uses and impact along the way. (Under the economic theory of marginalism, an added dollar is like the philosopher’s stone—it supposed to tell us something reallyReally important.) The dollarbill reports so many stories, each of which reads differently but all of which sound the same.

The pathways walked also talk, and from their view, the dollarbills behind follow the dollarbills ahead, as if those ahead must know what they’re doing. The dollarbills know that the infrastructure needs to be there to produce them and the pathways know that the infrastructure needs to be there so that dollarbills can circulate. The economy, however, doesn’t know any of that; in fact, the economy is stone-dumb, which causes all manner of exploits….

–“Actually-existing capitalism is a catastrophe”? Catastrophism to be about anything has to be about the end, as in: It ends in fire, our institutions explode and burn—or in ice, our institutions seize up, finally and entirely. Always-late capitalism, on the other hand, is about ensuring that things going its way do not end any time soon (i.e., ensuring that in the long run there’s just another short run). You’d be right in saying the engine of always-late capitalism is to generate seriatim uncertainties on which and from which to speculate and make money. (The irony for capitalism is extreme, however: “[T]he revolution does not know the secret of the future, but proceeds in the same manner as capitalism, exploiting every opening that presents itself”—Georges Sorel, French theorist on violence.)

Now, of course, you can insist that this state of affairs just can’t go on forever. As they say: If something can’t go on, it’ll stop. But may I suggest that, since we’ve been in always-late capitalism for so long as it is, we might as well assume it’s more likely what stops first will not be late capitalism but calling it such?

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