Meat Futures

So far, this blog is off to a great start, with some interesting themes emerging.  Bryan has introduced a variety of themes and methodologies.  I have to do some reading on the Dephi method and the process of extrapolation, scenario modeling, environmental scanning, etc.  And these Bruce Sterling videos look well worth the hour or so it would take to watch, provided I ever have another hour to sit and watch something.

Meanwhile, I am trying to shoehorn (or suss out) my interest in inserting more social distortion into the mix.  In this, I like John Robb’s tack of trying to talk about what these potential futures mean for individuals and small groups (mostly, it seems he thinks the best idea is to create stronger local communities to help sustain the change.)  I also like that he seems keen to point out the more chaotic potential of what Ortega y Gassett called The Revolt of the Masses.  In a response to one of Robb’s posts, which I posted on my other blog, I discussed the distinction between “meat” and “tech” in relation to many futures extrapolations I’ve heard.  I’d like to explore this as a distinction, maybe even a tag for future posts.

In the case in question, the topic (which both Robb and I have continued discussing, though not with one anther) was of the domestic use of drones by US law enforcement.  Robb predicted that there would be widespread use of drones by large cities such that something like Occupy Wall Street would be relatively impossible.  He made this prediction based on current trends, extrapolating like the best futurists from intelligently sourced research.  While my point was likely more long-winded than it needed to be, my basic argument was that this extrapolation was largely made from the perspective of the powerful and the technology was allowed to lead the trend.  New drone technology would lead to an imbalance between the sides such that the people on the ground – citizen protesters – would be more subject to the structure of power.  This scenario may very well come to pass, but part of Robb’s point was to alert people to this possibility in order to help them avoid it.  The social emphasis, I argued, should be more pronounced in these scenarios.

To make this distinction, I borrowed William Gibson’s description of the real, corporeal bodies of otherwise cyber-involved hackers as “meat.”  For Gibson’s protagonist, this meat is a sign of weakness – he begins the story with a permanently damaged nervous system which makes it impossible for him to jack into the internet.  In my mind, the meat of futures is not just people’s bodies – though there is that as well – but of the strength of people’s bodies and minds when they collectively join together, whether in planned and coordinated ways or in truly chaotic response to stimuli.  In many ways, this meat should be the key for all planners and futurists, but most of the time, people appear as pliable and predictable as the little avatars in a Sims game.  I understand the need to control for variables, but this seems to be the most important variable of all.

I say this, in part, because the meat variable seems to be newly revived.  Whether it is truly the awakening of the sleeping giant of the left, as Adbusters recently termed it, or it is just the latest iteration of what Karl Polanyi called the Double Movement, it seems clear that citizens around the world are quickly recognizing, to quote the Old Man, “they have nothing to lose but their chains.”  Here Polanyi was much more state oriented in his view of what even a collapse would look like.  For society to demand protection from something like the state, they have to have faith in the legitimacy of that state.

What we are seeing now is the build up to the legitimacy crisis (if it hasn’t already occurred) around political and economic institutions of every kind – elections, legislatures, courts, police, universities, banks, media. This will lead to outbursts as well as an everyday generalization of an acceptable form of what E.P. Thompson and his historian colleagues once termed “social crime:”  namely, things that are technically illegal, but which the local community deems moral and ethical based on the material circumstances.

This idea is already in the air.  Last week, the Deterritorial Support Group released a report, in the fashion of so many think tanks and futures groups called “Ten Growth Markets for Crisis,” almost all of which involve violating a law or social norm of some kind.  #9, for instance, is what they call Autoreductionism or “#proletarianshopping” which they describe as “the collective determination of commodity prices enforced by community solidarity.” An example of this would be,

Large groups of people arriving at their commuter station in the morning, forcing themselves through the turnstile; an organised troop of families fitting out their kids with winter coats, then demanding to see the manager for negotiations; a national campaign of underpayment on gas and electricity bills; in all instances normal people saying ‘we will pay what we can afford for the essentials of our life’– paying the ‘political price’ for goods and services. Why shouldn’t collective demand become a significant factor in establishing value?; if supermarkets can fix a cartel of suppliers, why can’t working class people fix a cartel of consumers? Why go shopping when you can go proletarian shopping?

In some cases, this is already happening. In Greece, for instance, activists are now illegally reconnecting people to water and electricity after they have been disconnected for non-payment. They do this because they now see the law (and the state) itself as illegitimate.  This is nothing new in the Planet of Slums, whether those slums are in nominally North or South, but it will become more prevalent in previously law abiding, middle class areas of the global north.  As austerity tightens the screws, the violence of the state will be more prevalently on display as the only way to retain the tenuous hold of the law.  As Malcolm Harris, one of the more radical thought leaders on #OWS recently put it, “the smart money is on entropy.”  Shortly after posting his blog on the topic, he passed along this story about the FDNY stepping in to defend the NYPD from rioters who were attacking the police. (It’s worth noting that the police were intervening to help a teen who was being threatened by the mob that then turned on the police.)

Over the weekend, I was listening to Doug Henwood’s interview with Frances Fox Piven and two things struck me about their discussion.  First was that Piven, a longtime community organizer and scholar of social movements, found it difficult to explain the rise of the Occupy movement.  Piven was singled out a few months ago by Glenn Beck as one of the movement’s major thought leaders, but both she and Henwood found this rather preposterous.  In her opinion it was rather mysterious.  Pointing to agitators was easy: there are always agitators, she said.  There have been organizations and leaders and leaderless movements for decades.  Their development and change is important to understand, but it is still rather difficult to predict when there will be an outburst of this kind – where the idea spreads with such speed and breadth.  She was very impressed and hopeful about the prospects of the movement – the second thing I noticed about both this and other conversations in general around Occupy.  It has significantly shifted many of the discussions in the country, though it seems to be having little effect on the legislative and executive initiatives at the federal level.  In other words, this is something and it will likely not go away, if only as an organizing meme.

Piven warned against defeatism (or, from the perspective of elites, becoming too comfortable) reminding listeners that the Civil Rights movement also moved in stops and starts, flaring up from time to time until its pressure became too much to contain.  Whether the comparison is accurate, it is important to remember that the Civil Rights movement (along with the Anti-War movement) were not isolated, national events.  Like the seeds of this occupy movement, it was international in its inspiration.  During the Arab Spring, the Wisconsin statehouse was occupied and solidarity flowed both ways.

Robb, in his post on the Citibank memo on the Eurocrisis, indirectly notes its lacunae about the increased social instability this will cause.  This is hardly surprising from the company that brought us the Plutonomy Files, but it is just as important to remember that there is no necessary relation between this instability and any particular ideology.  Here I agree with Polanyi that the energies this creates open the door for various forms of fascism to step into the fray – from the more benevolent dictatorship of FDR to the nasty German iteration (both of which, contrary to Robb’s dismissal of electoral politics, were originally secured by the ballot box).

It is also making me rethink my opposition to one of the more economic determinist arguments of the late (and Late) Andre Gunder Frank.  In his book ReOrient, among other things, he discusses the political impact of global recessions.  I’m paraphrasing but the general drift of his argument was that the ideas behind the American and French Revolutions were not all that important to creating the movements for change in those countries.  Instead, these revolutions were largely an unplanned, uncoordinated outburst to worsening global economic circumstances. When I originally read this I found it laughable – humanist that I am I remain enticed by the enlightenment ideas behind those movements.  But when you look around the world at the burgeoning storms of social distortion, there is something to say for the argument that, whatever the ideas rattling around in that grey matter at the top, meat will  eventually respond to economic and political hardship, often in unpredictable ways.

As we develop our futures planning initiative, I hope to develop this dimension of our research more (which is not to say that my partner in [social] crime isn’t already with me on this.)

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