Sunday, December 1, 2013

Of Black Fridays and Red Octobers

Velikaya Oktyabr'skaya sotsialisticheskaya revolyutsiya, commonly referred to as Red October, was the October Uprising or Bolshevik Revolution, the seizure of power within the larger Russian Revolution of 1917. As most of the world knows by now, the Soviet experiment was a failed one. But over the life span of an average human being, the Soviet Union sure gave the other world superpower a run for its money.

The irony behind the blood-rich symbolism found in Soviet history is that the Union was brought down by a red bottom line: the empire essentially went bankrupt.  An Italian friend of mine once commented, as we both watched the literal teardown of the Berlin Wall, it is unfortunate that the Soviets were more concerned with control than with authentic socialist wellbeing. In his opinion, from that milestone moment on, US style capitalism would go unchallenged. The good, the bad, and the Black Thursday.

For those not familiar with the origin of the term, Black Friday refers to retail businesses going from red ink to black ink on their ledgers  in other words, profitable. To go out on a limb, the “Black” in Black Thursday / Black Friday is not where the ugliness lies. At least not until someone steps up as the leading, post-Soviet challenger to the American way of life. Many believe China, another “red state” of sorts, has been trying to fill the Soviet shoes. With its own Great Wall full of symbolic cracks and ready to come down any decade now, China has ironically been busily producing some of the stuff that Black Friday is made of. Not as much as Americans think, less than 10% in all categories, but a sufficiently ominous portion nonetheless.  So instead of aiming its nuclear arsenal at us, China is attacking the leading superpower with… stuffed toys. This would seem like a Disney-esque plot in a world power conflict, if it weren’t for one unfunny complication: merchandise coming from China is manufactured in great part by a labor force that would not be legally allowed to exist in America. We are, after all, “better” than that.

That would seem like enough of a conscience-tugging problem for the US. But wait, there’s more: the US has not merely offshored labor that it does not stomach on its own soil, it continues to rely on hyper consumption as its structural foundation. A consumption-based economy, within reason, is technically sustainable. Cyclical recessions are simply the price to pay. But hyper-consumption, consuming at a rate higher than income, savings or investments, is not sustainable. In hyper mode, it in fact becomes a pyramid scheme – an approach that in great part explains the 1% controversy.

According to a US News Money report, the US middle class peaked in 1969. That’s 45 years ago, in case some of us have lost track. An entire generation was born, graduated from high school, college if they figured out a way to pay for it, started a work career, and found themselves… worse off than their parents in one too-many cases. Of course “worse off” is a relative term, and it shouldn’t just be measured by economics. But a shrinking middle class is not exactly the direction a system that professes to be better than socialism should take. Five republican presidents and three democratic ones have presided since 1969. This is not a partisan issue – it is a systemic breakdown. It is a crack in our very own Wall Street.

I have always been a fairly skeptical person. I don’t believe in most conspiracy theories, and I am put off by agenda-driven exaggerations. Having said that, I recognize I have committed mistakes in judgment, personally, economically, and politically. Yet as we all know, learning from those mistakes is its own reward. With that in mind, it seems to me that every year the average American keeps making the same mistake: Black Friday typically comes at the expense of Red Saturday. There's a fundamental reason the great American middle class is shrinking  it is consuming more than it produces. Wall Street's perennial hunt for Black December may just take the American system to its own version of Red October.

I blogged about the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, my conclusion was that our obsession with Wall Street was not the answer. I do agree that the systemic damage being inflicted by the 1% is outweighing its “trickle-down” contributions. It’s the proverbial “taking more than you give” dysfunction. And yet, obsessing about what fat cats are or are not doing is not where the answer lies. I believed then as I still do today, every time the fat cats put cheese in the mousetraps, we only have ourselves to blame if we keep falling for the same impulse. The American middle class has in fact become addicted to consumption.

A few years ago I made a promise to myself: do not criticize without offering a solution. With that in mind, I am increasingly in search of post-capitalist – not anti-capitalist – movements to support in one way or another. Create one if I have what it takes.

One such example is the “Landfill Harmonic” project, born out of a trash landfill in one of the poorest countries in the world (watch the three-minute preview of the project below, I am confident you will be inspired by it). This project is a wonderful example of how change can happen, not by continuing the blame game against the 1%, but by curing our addiction to what they are selling. This particular project may or may not survive, but that's hardly the point: none of us do in the long run. That's where the beauty of change comes in. Change does not have to always stem from pain and fear. Smart change needs to increasingly come from inspiration.

The Landfill Harmonic Project

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