Friday, October 28, 2011
Queen for a day
The first news coming over the network into my ears this morning was bizarrely atemporal for a day of otherwise apocalyptic headlines: the decision of the 16 nations of the British Commonwealth to change a bunch of 17th century statutes and abolish the rule of male primogeniture. Meaning that, if Wills and Kate have themselves a little princess, and then a petit prince after that, the princess still gets daddy's job when he's done. I guess David Cameron has finally discovered the category of reform that he was born to drive.
While Cameron acts as midwife to England's thousand-year experiment in degenerative eugenics, childless physicist Prime Minister Angela Merkel, product of an extinct state socialist meritocracy, shows she has more cojones than the big bankers of Europe, calling their bluff in after-midnight negotiations and getting them to write off half of their Greek debt to avert default and potential meltdown.
While she and the other fiduciaries of Europe's pensioners struggle to maintain the 1999 future in a deleveraging world, back in the New World the occupation of the abstractions seems to have actually scratched the nerve of general popular discontent with the American distribution of wealth. Whether the movement will produce any real reform in the absence of any coherent political theory for how things should be organized differently remains to be seen, but when you start to think about large quantities of highly educated and chronically unemployed people mixing with demobilized veterans of our endless wars against other abstractions and seasoned with the radical political contingent that has always been around but largely invisible to the media since 1989, the realm of plausible scenarios becomes a lot more interesting. To the Wall Street Station?
Digesting the smorgasbord of my anachronistic morning newspaper and all these disparate threads, I am struck by how much of it is united by a common thread: the pursuit of the liberation from work. The escape from the grinding alienation of life in a capitalist society. For the 1%, by making enough money that you don't need to make any more. For the pensioners, by doing your time dutifully and graduating to an early and lengthy retirement of modest leisure. For the Occupy-ers, perhaps through a more self-expressive and communitarian existence in some alternate system they have been unable to actually articulate.
These all seem to me like variations on a Viagra commercial. The one where the grey but otherwise hot and healthy and implicitly prosperous couple is walking on the beach. Our R-rated, secularized, 21st century version of heaven—the happy variation of life when played by contemporary Capital's rules, the end of alienation we can supposedly obtain by enduring decades of it.
Consider the example of the railroad workers arrested in New York yesterday in a successful disability fraud scheme that would have extracted $1 billion of pension funds to finance the eternal days off of eleven people who "after claiming to be too disabled to stand, sit, walk or climb steps, retired to lives of regular golf, tennis, biking and aerobics." Is that really what we are all stealing to achieve? Simulations of country club leisure?
No wonder the same front page also reported changes in the rules of golf.
Is the real problem that, in a society that is dehabituating itself from the practice of financing today's consumption with the imaginary income of tomorrow, the idea of that world on the other side of the paycheck is no longer tenable? Once that narrative breaks, the whole thing unravels like a Ponzi scheme. After everyone stops complaining about it, what happens then? Maybe it takes a world without a future to teach people how to live an authentic now—maybe even one in which the golf courses are put to other uses.