Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Forest & The Trees

- I went into the cafe to look for the old lady you told me about,* the retired interior decorator who has no place to live, spending nights on the street as best she can.
- Did you see her? She's there every night until closing.
- I saw a long blue great coat sitting up at the back behind a table, and hovering above it a wide brimmed felt hat tilted down to vertical. I suppose there was a body and head somewhere there.
- She'd fallen asleep.
- I'm surprised she isn't thrown out.
- She's a customer, she's tolerated. No personal distinctions are supposed to be made in the prevailing culture of 'only the marketplace' where everything other than activities pertaining to buying and selling are excluded. I've been reading about how, seeing the forest exclusively a source of building material and kindling, Germans in the 18th Century began clearing away everything but a single species of tree that most efficiently produced those profit making materials, clearing away in the process insects, fungi, mammals, birds, ground cover that enriched the soil. Great profits were made from the engineered forest, until the once rich soil, feeding the trees but no longer being replaced, was entirely depleted, and the trees started dying. Our exclusively market valuing society has been depending upon for its efficient operation a store of rich human qualities, depleting them year after year, but clearing away the ways of life that once allowed them to be replenished, with the result that the marketplace society is marching towards totalitarianism. The anthropologist James Scott offers this summary:
1. The legibility of a society provides the capacity for large scale social engineering.
2. High modernist ideology [everything efficiently organized] provides the desire.
3. The authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire.
4. An incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.
- By 'legibility' he means a single criteria of human life that becomes the focus of attention.
- Yes. Scott continues:
The market is itself an instituted, formal system of coordination, despite the elbow room that it provides to its participants, and it is therefore similarly dependent on a larger system of social relations which its own calculus does not acknowledge and which it can neither create nor maintain. Here I have in mind not only the obvious elements of contract and property law, as well as the state’s coercive power to enforce them, but antecedent patterns and norms of social trust, community, and cooperation, without which market exchange is inconceivable. Finally, and most important, the economy is 'a subsystem of a finite and nongrowing ecosystem,' whose carrying capacity and interactions it must respect as a condition of its persistence.**
The old woman and me are to the cafe's business like the pests that swarm through the cleared out single species forest floor. As poisons and predators are introduced to control the pests, the cafe posted yesterday new earlier closing hours to chase her (and me) away.
- You two are chased away under cover of efficiency like the approaching American totalitarianism is undermining civility under cover of protecting the marketplace.
- Sometimes I can't stand the sight of her, her unprotesting acceptance of the unacceptable life she is living. I tell her she's the craziest person in L.A., wandering the streets at night with no place to go when she has a house to go back to and her retirement income...
- Which is not enough to rent even a room in LA.
- That's right. Her home, shared with a friend, waiting for her she's continuing even now to pay for. She can't stand being there she says because it's completely isolated, is 'out in the wilderness'. She plans to stay in L.A. until she's dealt with the swelling of her legs caused by never resting horizontal, and until she's refreshed her voice that is croaking from breathing the night air, and she lands a well paying interior decorating job like she had prior to retirement. I tell her she's a good example of the monoculture the anthropologist writes about, the single species of tree forest, the human society that is focused exclusively on the marketplace. If she can't enslave herself once more to the insanely hoarding rich, rearranging their furniture for them, she's decided that nothing she could do with herself in the wilderness is worth anything; no reading, no movie viewing, taking walks, gardening. Instead here she is, every night for the sake of achieving a return to ideological conformity to the market she's offering herself up to be murdered by one of the thousands of drugged out or schizophrenic who wander the streets of the city.
- What does she say?
- That no one has ever in her life talked so bad to her. I tell her I do it with the hope somehow I might get through to her, but anyway, it's funny: she feels the damage to her self image but within seconds revival of her self possession is achieved. It's like shooting down zombies in a video game that immediately jump again to be a target.
- And what does she say to that?
- She laughs.
- Smart crazy lady.
- Interesting, isn't it, the way we Americans do our best to keep ourselves somewhat sane as the market expands to totality and the soil of our once good nature is daily being depleted? It's a sad, ugly sight, the single species forest kept going with ad hoc measures that in turn require their own compensatory measures, citizens of the marketplace allowed to entertain themselves with any self-introduced personal identity, supporting the market with tolerance of everyone taking the place of the cleared away kindnesses.
_______________________
* The Third Way
** Seeing Like A State, James Scott, 1999