Dystopia 7: The Rebels

“Yes: death–or renewal! Either the state forever, crushing individual and local life, taking over in all fields of human activity, bringing with it its wars and its domestic struggles for power, its palace revolutions which only replace one tyrant by another, and inevitably at the end of this development there is…death! Or the destruction of the state, and new life starting again in thousands of centers on the principle of the lively initiative of the individual and groups and that of the free agreement. The choice lies with you!”

Peter Kropotkin  

The Rebels

Jack woke up before dawn.  He opened his eyes and froze, trying to remember where he was.  The room was so dark and stuffy, he thought for a moment that he was back in the cell at Fort Cheney but then memory came back to him.  He was in a storage area of the rebel camp.  He had not had a chance to investigate his surroundings before he had fallen asleep last night but it was too dark to see now.   He reached his hand out over the sand and found a crate in front of him.  He sat up slowly and quietly.  He wanted a moment before the guard outside knew he was awake.  He wanted to see if there was anything in the area he could use to help him escape.

He braced himself against the crate and rose slowly and silently to his feet.  He then let his hands explore the top of the crate.  The crate was sealed shut, and with no tools he had no way to open it. Jack allowed his fingers to explore along the edge until he reached the next crate.  The storage area contained several open crates with what felt like cooking gear, clothing, canteens, and glass jars–probably preserved food.  In the back of the cave there were some empty open crates.

As the first rays of gray light hit the back of the cave wall Jack heard the guard outside stir.  He was in the back of the storage area and just made it back to the blanket as the guard entered.  Jack was sitting on the blanket doing an impression of a man who had just woken up when the guard entered.  The guard indicated that Jack should stand.

Jack was marched to the edge of the compound. The guard pointed to a bush and Jack figured out immediately what he was supposed to do. The guard then marched him back to the room he had initially been in the previous night.

Epifanio and Liassi were sitting at the table with the the older guard from the previous night.  The young man that Epifanio apparently lived with was also present.  Jack assumed that this was Epifanio’s grandson.  Epifanio began by introducing his companions. Beto was the name of Epifanio’s grandson, and Arndt was the older fellow who had helped to capture Jack.  The younger fellow, who had argued for Jack’s demise, was absent. Liassi looked somewhat less hostile, or maybe she was just getting used to him. That kind of hate took energy to keep up for any period of time. Jack knew this from experience.

They offered him more food and water which he gladly gulped down.

Jawk,” Liassi began, “Epi is curious. He wants to know about your home.”

Jack did not know exactly which place they were interested in. He had been born in Colorado just as the big dust storms had reached there. In fact he was born in one of the first big storms. His family had already lost their home in Nebraska due to the dust, and they were one of the many families slowly roaming the West looking for food and shelter as well as work. That was when the government was still intact. His father had been fairly active in the food riots and in the attempts to change the government while Jack was growing up. That is before his death in one of the many food riots.

The real disaster started when Jack’s father was killed by the emerging Blackwater forces during the riot. Jack had been only 8 years old. Then he and his mother were at the mercy of every difficulty in America at the time. The land in the mid portion of the United States became drier and more wind torn. The areas where they had once lived became uninhabitable. In fact the Great American Desert, as it became known, was increasing in size daily and the people seemed powerless to stop it. So his mother and he had slowly moved West as they searched for food and shelter.

They became adept at living without shelter but food and water were critical. So his mother became one of an army of people that would work for those with land that still produced and who had wells that still held water. The American dollar had long since collapsed under its own weight and so she worked from sunrise to sunset for the benefit of a days rations for her and her son. By age 9, Jack also had to work for his food and drink. He learned to tend gardens, do repairs, even slaughter animals for a share of the meat.

When he was in his early 20’s, his mother finally succumbed to poor nutrition and the constant work and exposure. She died a horrible death of the plague. There were no hospitals or medicines by that time and so she slowly died in his arms of fever, covered in buboes and sucking her last breaths through water logged lungs.  Fortunately the plague that hit America during this time was infinitely less virulent than the version that had so scarred Europe and Asia in the ancient past.  The descendants of  European invaders of America were also somewhat protected by the fact that their own ancestry had been exposed to the Plague and survived. And so it was that young DJ was not infected.

After her death, DJ had wandered on his own. Finally ending up at Fort Cheney.  From there he had been kidnapped and forced into service at Fort Jenna.  With little resistance on his part, truth be told.

His audience sat in polite silence while his life story was told to them. When he got to the end they started to rifle questions at him again.

How many forts are there in America?

Jack had no idea. But when he and Gerry had walked between forts they saw few people and there was a 5-8 day journey between forts. That meant you had to be prepared with rations to move from one fort to another. It also explained the reason Gerry and he had stayed at Fort Cheney for so long.  He had no idea how much usable land was left in America that still contained the forts.

How many people in a fort?

Who could say. Jack had only seen certain parts of the forts. Maybe 30 Blackwaters, the family they protected, half a dozen personal servants and 100 people who were outside the fort.

How was the American government run?

Jack laughed. There was no American government any more. The families who ran the forts did communicate and seemed to plan together but that was all. He was never let in on the plans and he doubted the Blackwaters knew more than they had to either. They just took orders from the families that owned the forts.

Where was Fort Cheney?

Close to Canada. That is what he and Gerry had been doing there. They had hoped to sneak into Canada using a “coyote”, a person who is adept at getting people into Canada. In Canada it is rumored there was still open water. Lakes and streams. Food could be grown with ease. People were fat. Or so the rumors went.

How long did it take to get to Fort Jenna?

Eight days using the train.

How much military training had Jack gotten before he came here?

Jack was some what more reticent to discuss this. The other questions satisfied their curiosity and were about people who meant them no harm.  People so far away they might as well have been living on the moon. This question was about the protection Fort Jenna had.  He was certain that they would eventually kill him whether they got the information they sought or not.  There was no use in betraying his friends for nothing.

“Some. Not as much as the Blackwaters.” He kept his answer purposefully vague.  As they continued down this course of questioning Jack’s answers became increasingly vague.

When they had tired of asking him questions, Epi told him it was time to pay for his meals.  Jack gave Epi a stony stare.  Was this it then?  Now was when he would be killed?  Epi spoke to Arndt for a second in a calm fashion.

Arndt reached down to grab his rifle which was propped against the table.  Jack tensed but was determined to meet his end like a man.  He sat motionless staring at Epi.  Then Arndt signaled that he was to get up and walk.  Of course, they would not kill him here, in their home.  He was led by his guard to the back of the compound and behind the water truck to a garden.  They were using the water to grow food.

Arndt stopped by the garden near a stack of tools. Suddenly, Jack realized what was expected of him. With an overwhelming sense of relief, Jack grabbed a hoe with the casual air of a man who was born with a garden tool in his hand.  He slung the hoe over his shoulder with a single, quick motion and turned to find Arndt tensed with his rifle trained on Jack.  Then Jack understood.  His rapid motion with the hoe had been misinterpreted by Arndt as an act of aggression.  Without dropping the hoe Jack put up his hands.

“Woe, woe, woe!” Jack began to back away, “Didn’t mean anythin’ by it, pal.”  He purposefully slowed his movements and backed into the garden.  He was vaguely aware that all work in the garden had ceased and several pairs of eyes were on him.  A woman in the garden took several steps forward and grabbed a young boy who she positioned behind her slight frame.

Jack backed toward an empty row and lowered the hoe slowly to the ground without taking his eyes off of Arndt.  “See.  Nothinhappenin‘ here, pal.   Just payinfo‘ my breakfast, Arnie my friend.”

Arndt snorted and lowered the weapon.  He positioned himself outside the garden with his back to Jack.

Jack did not slow his work.  He could still feel a dozen eyes boring their way through his skin.  It was not until he felt the last pair of eyes leave him and the conversations in the garden resumed that he finally exhaled and let his shoulders relax into the work at hand.  His mind went immediately to planning his escape.

The Concepts Behind the Fiction:

1.  Evolution Anyone?

While DJ is preoccupied with rebel forces, and before he moves on to the next topic I want him to illustrate, I wanted to continue to develop thoughts about what our alternatives might be if we did use this time in history to change our lives.

I have already made the case that capitalism is in its death throes.

For 500 years of capitalism, the world’s economy has grown 2.5-3% a year.  The world can simply not support another 5 years of exponential growth at this rate.

We are soon to hit the wall of growth, and for that matter, we are currently hitting the wall of debt. Capitalism, as it is now, can not tolerate a stagnant or even shrinking economy.  At least not without a lot of pain and suffering as well as hunger and starvation.  Yet a shrinking economy is what the environment and our survival as a species demands.  What a conundrum.  That is why Obama continues to promise growth in his administration.

At some point we will not be able to achieve that growth.  The destruction that we have done to the planet already will prevent it.  Indeed, the global economy will have to shrink with our diminished resources.  Does that mean that we will regress into some previous form of governance?  Will the world regress to a state of barbaric feudalism, as in DJ’s world?  Or will we evolve.  Will we adapt systems that will actually improve our lives, like Jack’s world?

2.  Gift Economy

Hard to conceptualize, but we have not always had capitalism as a dominant economic force in our lives.  We have evolved through several systems.  For illustration, I am going to start at the beginning of economic evolution.

Imagine that you are in one of man’s first societies. Clovis people for example.  You are a hunter-gatherer.  (By the way, little known fact, this society had more leisure time then any other arrangement so far devised by man.  Just a fun fact I thought I would throw in there.)

You live in a tribe of your close and not so close relatives.  The concept of possessions is very different.  It may encompass where you sleep or the things you wear or tools that you have made and use yourself.  The thought that one person might own the land that you and your tribe inhabit, or the animals and plants that feed your people would be so foreign to you that you could not even conceive of such a thought. The food and other resources that you and others take from the surroundings are shared among your tribe equally according to the members needs.  Women and children may eat less, but they are smaller and need less.  That does not diminish their importance to your tribe.

There are other tribes in neighboring areas.  You may respect their borders or you may have a hostile relationship with them and be trying to take their traditional resources for your people. If you have a respectful relationship with them you probably trade things that are unique to your tribe with things that are unique to theirs.  Additionally this is a genetic pool for young people to find mates and so intermarriage may keep the bonds between your tribes strong.  In fact your 2 tribes might come together to celebrate certain times of the year for the purpose of trade, mate finding, and general good times.  Food would be free and abundant at those times.

This is economic power shared fairly equally by all.  This system does not rely on growth and can be managed sustainably.

3.  Monarchy/Theocracy

At all points along the way, there are leaders in the tribe.  For a long time the leaders are the people with the best ideas and the most charisma.  Sometimes they are the best providers.  But for most of man’s stay on the Earth they do not get anything more than anyone else.

Slowly, they start to single themselves out.  They get to eat first, or get the best food.  They get the best mates.  They wear the most bling.  They pass this privilege on to their children, even if their children are not as talented at leadership.

Sometimes it is one person with this privilege (monarchy) and sometimes it is a whole class of people (theocracy–the old testament Jewish tribes, or Hinduism).  But whoever gets the privilege it is seen as a right ordained by God.

So we can say that this system is economic power given to an elite class by God.  Again, economic growth is not a prerequisite and this can be sustainable.

3.  Feudalism

This is a system that arose in both Europe and Asia.  Initially, the elite class only got certain privileges.  There was still no concept of ownership.  The land still provided everything and although there was unequal sharing, it was still sharing.  In other words, production was contained in the commons.

When agriculture began to dominate over hunter-gather lifestyles the land was still just the land.  Anyone could farm or herd as much land as they had the energy to do so.  In fact herds were frequently cared for in common and only the meat, milk or fur was taken by the owner.  Some farming was also done in common.  Orchards produce too much for any one family to eat or preserve at once.  It made sense to own them in common.  Hunting and fishing were still life sustaining activities.  No one owned the undeveloped land or the water.  A person took what they needed from these sources.  Since you can only eat until you are full there was no pressure to take more than that.  No pressure to take more than what was necessary.

At some point the monarch was ruling very large numbers of people and seemed very distant.  People who were remotely related to the monarch also wanted a piece of the action.  The monarchy began to “grant” certain areas and land to a single family.  This family then took some of the excess production from the area.  They used it for their own benefit and paid it in tribute (tax) to the monarchy.  These people were responsible for the people that were in their area.  They had to ensure that they were protected and productive so that the tax could be maintained.  As more and more land was “enclosed” in this way the commons shrank.  Families began to mark off territory for themselves so that they would have enough ground to survive.  The modern concept of ownership was born.

Feudalism is similar to monarchy or theocracy except that the economic power travels down a hierarchy with the monarch at the top owning the most power and each successive layer with less and less power.  It is still seen as ordained by God, though.  Economic growth is desirable as it creates more and more wealth at the top, but not a prerequisite.  It is harder to do this sustainably but it can be done.

4.  Capitalism

Workers and their families may starve to death in the New World Order of economic rationality, but diamond necklaces are cheaper in elegant New York shops, thanks to the miracle of the market. —Noam Chomsky

Asking an American to define capitalism is a little like asking a fish to define water but I’m going to give it my best go.

Capital is the means of production.  In other words, capitalists are the people who own the factories, companies etc. in which work is done.  Capitalists make money off of the profits of their capital and other people’s efforts.  After they pay the mortgage, production costs and the employees, what is left (profit) is theirs.  If you do not own your own business and make money off of other people’s work, you are not a capitalist.  You are a worker or an entrepreneur, possibly you are in the managerial class, but you are not a capitalist.  Capitalism is the elevation of those who make money on other people’s work to a ruling class–at least as far as the economy is concerned.  I would make the argument that this is the elevation of the capitalist class politically as well, but today’s discussion is exclusively about the economy.

Now I will admit, this was a huge leap forward.  Economic power is no longer seen as something ordained by God and therefore any person, in theory, has the ability to achieve the capitalist class.   Some people start their lives with a clear advantage over others, though, that makes this a very unfair contest.  For example, a black slave at the birth of the nation, has almost no chance while the slave owner is born into the capitalist class from the start.  Even when the slave is freed at the end of the Civil War, the slave is at an eggregious disadvantage compared to the former slave owner.

Capitalists operate under certain rules.  First and most obvious, they must “seize the surplus”.  They must take the profit from the business as their own.  They must own things and in so doing claim the right to keep what others produce as their own.  Remember, this is just one idea about how things should be.  Ownership was a concept foreign to most Native Americans when the Europeans arrived here.  It is a concept most of us have grown up with and it is almost sacriligious to consider a world that does not see ownership as the ultimate goal of every human.  But it is only a concept, and therefore is something that we can abandon if we so choose and if our survival dictates.

Second, they must “compete or die”.  If a corporation is nice to its employees and pays them more, while another corporation pays their employees less and thus sells their product for less, the cheap corporation will out compete the kind corporation and eventually drive it out of business.  Nice guys always lose in this system and therefore for most of us this is a race to the bottom.

Third, they ignore or outsource the costs of doing business as much as possible.  This is actually a corollary of rule number 2.  If you don’t have to pay for health care, don’t.  If you can get water for free to make your product then do.  If you can sell water you got for free, then by all means do (Coke).  If you can get rid of your waste at public expense then do.  If you can make the public pay for your bad judgment then of course you should (AIG).  By no means should you be burdened with the cost of children and their education, even though you need children to grow up and be workers some day.  In fact our national budget has no negative side.  There is no subtraction in the calculation of the GDP.  We do not take off for forests that are destroyed, air and water that is polluted, people who die prematurely, divorce, pain, unhappiness, war.  We count all the things that create those ills as good but we don’t keep track of the ills that we create at all.  Its like only counting your paycheck without every counting your bills.

Fourth, you should find a unique niche that no one else is exploiting to exploit for your own profit, even if you have to make the niche yourself.  For example if you can make people sick with pollutants, and then sell them a pharmaceutical or a water purifier, then by all means do.  Thus the invention of advertising to make people think they need things (make-up, the latest gadgets, new gas guzzling cars) that they really do not need.  In some ways this creates the psychology of unhappiness, and offers to make you whole with what ever thing is being sold in the ad.

Free market capitalism (neoconcervatism in the US or neoliberalism in Europe) is a particularly interesting theory of capitalism.  It supposes that the capitalist, because of their unique business sense, can make everything better, including politics and society.  They theorize that a truly greedy person will do a better job of running things for a profit even if that thing is a school, an army or a prison.  They suppose  the that because the truly greedy are so good at running things, that people who are not capitalists (government, laws, regulatory agencies) should be minimized for the good of everyone.

They forget that the greedy people of the world are, well, greedy.  That they find ways to manipulate society to ensure more profits for themselves at any expense to society.  If you run a prison, then find a way to put more people in jail. Viola, the US has the most people in jail of any nation.  If you run a health insurance company, find a way to take money from the healthy while not providing care for the sick.  The US is the only industrialized nation in which 22,000 people a year (US government figure) die for lack of care.  If you run a bank, suck all the profits out of it and leave all the debt at the doorstep of the public.

Capitalism is supposed to spread the wealth around to the most people and to provide everyone an opportunity to be at the top of the economic ladder.  What actually happens is that the people at the top give an advantage to their offspring.  So much so that some people will never advance no matter how much they work.  In fact, the most capitalist nation on Earth, the US, has some of the poorest upward mobility.  In other words, unlike what you were taught in school, the odds of you climbing out of your economic bracket in the US are slimmer than if you were in a Socialist country.  Additionally, the wealth, instead of being spread around, gets concentrated with each successive generation to the top.  The poor get poorer and the rich get richer.  And that is exactly what has happened in the US in the last 20 years.

Finally, our type of capitalism is absolutely and completely dependent on growth.  With every dollar that is created, debt (interest) is also created.  In order to pay off the debt (interest) more dollars must be created.  This makes economic growth a prerequisite for a healthy economy.  Failure to grow or, God forbid, a shrinking economy is akin to economic collapse.  Things like the Great Depression, or worse run away inflation where the money in your pocket has less value than a roll of toilet tissue, are the result of a shrinking economy.

So in keeping with our comparison, capitalism is the voluntary giving of economic power from the masses to the elite capitalist class in the hopes that these very economically adept (greedy) people will raise the living standard of all people in the nation (tribe).  It presupposes that the

capitalist will have a better living standard and that they will share some of that living standard with the masses.  These presumptions have not proven to pan out.  The goal of everyone in the capitalist society, in theory, is to become a capitalist.

It requires constantly increasing growth in the economy. When I say economic growth, you should be translating that in your mind to environmental degradation, and the depletion of resources.  In fact the current crisis that we are in, is one of overproduction.  There is more stuff made then the masses have money to purchase causing recession until the stocks in the warehouses decrease to the point where factories feel comfortable making more stuff again. Because there is  debt inherent in manufacturing money, capitalism can not be maintained sustainably.

5.  Communism (State Capitalism)

Marx saw the inequality in capitalism and was appauled.  He decided to try to devise another system of government and economy.

He felt that the best way to run things was to return in some ways to a gift economy with the “tribe” being the whole nation.

Lenin took some of Marx’s ideas, all be it not all of them, and put them into action in the birth of communism.  Unfortunately, one of the most important ideas did not come through.  Instead of the economic power being shared by everyone, the economic power was consolidated at he national level.  The nation owned production and everyone was therefore a worker.  The state was in a very paternalistic relationship to the workers.  The workers had some say, they elected their representatives on a regular basis, but because the power was very consolidated, the people already in power had an advantage in setting the rules for those elections and therefore could maintain their power.  This is not what Marx had in mind at all.

In the meantime, the state competed with other states in traditional capitalism on the international level.  So this is still capitalism, just on a much larger scale.  The only capitalist in this system is the state.  So again, it is dependent on growth for economic health as recent years inside Russia have proven.

Of course consolidating the power in this way makes it much easier for greedy people to manipulate and dominate.  They do not have to work nearly as hard to dominate this system as they do in the Western capitalist world.

Needless to say, most people in the West consider communism a failed experiment.  Oddly, after the rape and pillege of the USSR by capitalists after Perestroika, most former soviets wanted to go back to communism because capitalism is seen as so brutal and unfair.

6.  Socialism/Democratic Socialism/Liberalism/Revisionism

For most of the people in the US, it will be news that socialism and communism are considered 2 different things by most of the world.  So I will try to give a very simple explanation of the difference.

Western capitalism has democracy, at least in theory, over their political life but feudal control dominates our economic life.  The captialist are the lords and ladies and they take care of the serfs (the workers) who then pay them tribute (profits of their labor) to the lords (capitalists).  Revisionist countries try to put some democratic controls over the feudal system of capitalism.

For example, they heavily regulate markets (forcing capitalists to share the profits with the masses), create limits to how much you can work a worker (ie the 40 hour work week), try to give everyone a baseline of advantages (ie education, social safety net), employ a progressive tax structure (rich people pay more), and baseline security (minimum wage, unemployment, pensions, health care).

In such countries it is not socially shameful to rely on the government.  In fact, if the government is not providing you with security, what are you paying the taxes to the government for?  Oh yeah, your paying them so the capitalists can be secure.  I forgot for a second.

For my US audience: Just so you know, if you were in a Socialist state you would most likely have free healthcare, free higher education, a 35 hour work week, twice the time off, own your own home (and by that I mean no bank involved), have legally mandated time off with your new baby (for some coutries as much as 3 years!!), a pension that was safe from wall street, be happier (people have actually studied this) and die later.  In short, during economic tough times socialist do better and recover quicker.  True, socialist nations pay more in taxes.  They get much more for their taxes and it is a relative bargain.  For example they have better health care in most instances and pay half as much as Americans do.  They also get better educational quality for free and Americans have to go in debt to put themselves and their children through college.  The end result is that Americans pay out more of their income for these services in total than they would have if they just accepted the higher tax burden but then expected the government to actually serve them.  So all that craziness about Obama being a socialist during the last election…if only.

This system is still a version of capitalism.  It still does have tough times because the market expands until it reaches limits (in the most recent case debt) and then it contracts.  It is still dependent on economic growth and therefore not sustainable.

In our example this is economic power being voluntarily given up to the capitalist with some constraints on that power being placed by the workers.  This reintroduces the concept of the commons.  Education, health, retirement are held in common and there is no shame in taking your part of the commons as long as you made your contribution to the commons when it was your turn.

7.  Anarchy/Anarcho-Syndilcalism

“Anarchy is not chaos, but order without control.” — David Layson

I could not think of a less fortunate name for this system.  To the average English speaker “anarchy” is what you have when you put a bunch of 3 year olds in a room without supervision.  It also sometimes spurs images of extreme violence and terrorism or possibly a motorcycle gang.  (I do not think the image portrayed by the media is an accident, by the way.)  Economically and politically speaking this system could not be further from that picture.

In anarchy (the economic system) the average person becomes the government.  Unlike communism this is not a dictatorship of the proletariat, but rather a democracy of the proletariat. Councils and committees vote on issues, not elected representatives. There is no state ownership or authoritarian domination, but self governing through democratic means. Instead of the power being consolidated in the elite or the state, the power is spread over as many people as possible.  This makes it nearly impossible to control by any one group or person.

Ownership is not a prerequisite of anarchy.  In fact the commons is frequently expanded in this system so that the masses not only own the government in common but any other things that benefit from the dynamic of the commons, like health care, education, fire departments etc.

Anarchy is a fairly new concept and has only been experimented with in a few places, mostly South America.  Historically it has roots in the Paris Commune and Spanish Civil War.

A fairly extensively discussed version of anarchy is Parecon, proposed as an economic system by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel.  The hallmarks of this system are:

    1.  Participatory Democracy–an example of this is seen in my last entry.

2.  Self management of production.  In other words workers own the    factories and run them by counsels in which everyone has a say.

3.  Workers and consumers agree on the amount of consumption and production ahead of time so that there is a balance between these two and overproduction does not occur.  Also it allows people to choose how much they want to work and at what intensity they want to work depending on how much they want to consume.

4.  People work at balanced job complexes.  There is as much interesting and stimulating work as mindless and demeaning work in every profession.  In this way, no one gets to run a multimillion dollar business while someone else gets to be a sanitation worker.  Everyone would have elements of both jobs combined in their jobs.

5. Pay is determined by democratic means and is based on a scale taking into account the duration of work, the intensity of work, the onerousness of the work, the social value of the product of the work and any self sacrifice that the worker had to endure in order to do the work.

Anarcy shares economic power more or less equally and can be maintained sustainably.

Further Reading:

For a related reading list see my blog.

Audio/Visual Selections:

Science Fiction Selection: