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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Zona report

Juri Lotman begins one of his essays with the following anecdote:

“There is a story about an episode in the life of the famous mathematician P. L. Chebyshev. At one of his lectures on the subject of the mathematical aspects of cutting clothes, there appeared an unexpected audience consisting of tailors, fashion-able ladies, and so on. However, the first sentence spoken by the lecturer-"Let us suppose for simplicity's sake that the human body has the form of a sphere"-put them to flight. Only mathematicians who found nothing surprising in this opening remark remained in the hall. The text selected its own audience, creating it in its own image.”

The anecdote mixes in just that little bit of Gogol to make a flying leap forward into Lotman’s subject, which is that selection mechanism. I, however, think that the anecdote fits, equally, what has been happening to us in the economic realm in the Zona era. In 2008, I named the coming depression the Zona because it nicely crossed Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which concerned a mysterious radioactive zone, and the New Guinea Fore term for a condition, zona, characterized by trembling, hallucination, catastrophic weight loss and death. The Fore term means, literally, “ghost wind”. A neurologist, Gajdusek, won the Nobel Prize for tracing the cause of the Zona back to the funeral rights of the Fore, which consisted in part of eating the brain of the dead person. Although the West loves its “stone age” image of natives, in fact, this was a recent rite in the 1950s, when Gajdusek first started visiting the Fore. A fad, in other words, that had worked its way down from the north of the island.

Radioactivity and brain cannibalism –they form nice metaphorical crossroads in which to situation the long crisis of financialized capitalism.

To get back to the anecdote: while Chebyshev’s opening proposition was such that the tailors and seamstresses could simply ignore it and go back to what they are doing, the ‘text selection” that we, helpless populations all, are imprisoned in is not so simple. For, of course, our economists and policymakers are proposing exactly the same kind of radical simplification of the human being: the human being as a walking negative demand curve. Demand curves, of course, resist Shylock’s test of the human:

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not

Tickle, prick and poison your demand curve as much as you want, it will remain, stolidly, smudgily, there on your sheet of paper or your power point presentation. And certainly so far, the negative demand curves have not sought revenge: they’ve swallowed every insult, just as they were taught to, in the hope that health, education, retirement, a little porno, a small vacation, and a new car will still be there in the future, waving at them. As for the kids, well, what are you going to do? They might not make it in the new age of the Heat Earth anyway.

However, the words of the economic prophets from the very beginning have been, on the one hand, that the Zona for the little people had to be increased until they gave up all resistance and we reverted back to the good old days, pre-1929; and on the other hand, that the successful be advantaged as it is written in the scriptures, to he who has, it shall be given. Of course, Jesus’s idea of he who has was a bit different, what with the meek inheriting the earth, instead of Bill Gates and the merry band of billionaires that we watch buying American elections and such. But Jesus was merely another negative demand curve who got what was coming to him by not going retraining his human capital and moving out of the carpenter trade into, say, the exciting world of clerking at a convenience food store.

Speaking of Jesus, it was near his b-day, around Dec.25, 2008, when the Freakonomics blog, that veritable cornucopia of the Bush ideology, which labeled its contrarian instead of predatorian because the latter name is so icky, published a prophecy:

“John Lippert presents an interesting and extremely well-reported article on the financial crisis’s impact on the thinking of Chicago economists. It does a nice job of capturing the multifaceted nature of the institution, with people on all sides of the issues.
I absolutely love the following excerpt, which better captures what it is like to hang around with Chicago economists than just about any quote I have ever seen:
“We should have a recession,” [John] Cochrane said in November, speaking to students and investors in a conference room that looks out on Lake Michigan. “People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.”

Steven Levitt’s love of Cochrane’s sentence is the love that dares us to tell its name. Its name is not freakonomics – it is zonanomics. Levitt’s desire, here, is pretty simple from the psychoanalytic viewpoint, a matter of anal sadism that, in articulating itself, bars itself – the cruelty inflicted on “people who spend their lives pounding nails” is vicariously enjoyed, and the enjoyment is simultaneously denied –rather, we are talking about analytical rigour, here! But it turns out that Cochrane’s spirit has directed the entire policy response, from Obama to Merkel, to the Zona. The liberal version of it tries to double bar the enjoyment of hurting the 99 percent by snuggling up to the old idea that markets do self regulate, and government is an interfering bitch if it meddles in market’s mandate of heaven, but government can nudge a bit – and afterwards, it can cut the social insurance benefits for all, to the sound of trumpets and bond traders peeing in their pants with joy! The Merkel version is simpler: an undisguised hatred of the working class, and a desire to put the boot on their face until they surrender. The latter is more pure Cochrane, but the former basically takes Cochrane’s logic as a given.

Why? Because the crisis of the Zona, the real crisis that we keeps us leaping waterfalls, is that we have an economy that gives insane amounts of money to moneyshufflers, who operate in a system that does absolutely nothing productive. In order to keep that system going, we are going to have to throw more and more negative demand curves on the fire. And that is that.

“…if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge?” Shylock tried that route and didn’t get anywhere with it. Revenge is, after all, another turn of the wheel, another  case of anal sadism, another vicarious enjoyment of cruelty. But wheels do turn, no matter how we try to get off them. This is a total social fact. Cochrane’s logic is doing a good job of destroying Europe; it is bringing down the U.S. And it is creating conditions under which, for the first time since the thirties, the majority of the populations in the capitalist countries will experience capitalism hurting them instead of helping them. That doesn’t  have to go on too long before the cops aren’t enough.

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