capitalist crises, news induced ADD, and making sense of the world

I’m reading Bateson reading Margaret Mead:

Dr. Mead’s contribution consists in this—that she, fortified by comparative study of other cultures, has been able to transcend the habits of thought current in her own culture and has been able to say virtually this: “Before we apply social science to our own national affairs, we must re-examine and change our habits of thought on the subject of means and ends. We have learnt, in our cultural setting, to classify behavior into `means’ and `ends’ and if we go on defining ends as separate from means and apply the social sciences as crudely instrumental means, using the recipes of science to manipulate people, we shall arrive at a totalitarian rather than a democratic system of life.” The solution which she offers is that we look for the “direction,” and “values” implicit in the means, rather than looking ahead to a blueprinted goal and thinking of this goal as justifying or not justifying manipulative means. We have to find the value of a planned act implicit in and simultaneous with the act itself, not separate from it in the sense that the act would derive its value from reference to a future end or goal. Dr. Mead’s paper is, in fact, not a direct preachment about ends and means; she does not say that ends either do or do not justify the means. She is talking not directly about ends and means, but about the way we tend to think about ways and means, and about the dangers inherent in our habit of thought.


And on to thoughts inspired by the ever relevant Steps to an Ecology of Mind.

Roughly nine months ago, Shenzhen news media reported on the quicksand building incident (楼陷陷事件) and then a month later on the Foxcomm Suicides (富士康跳楼事件). Character by character, 楼陷陷 means “building trap trap,” however I’ve translated as “quicksand buildings” because the term referred to buildings that were literally sinking into reclaimed land in Houhai, Qianhai, and the Baoan Center District. At the time, both incidents received much Shenzhen press, although Foxcomm ultimately eclisped quicksand, both in Chinese and English. Indeed, I haven’t noticed any English press on the quicksand building incident and would appreciate links and/or references.

There are many possible explanations for the focus on Foxcomm rather than quicksand. One, Foxcomm stories had recognizable human actors – Terry Guo (郭台铭), Steve Jobs, and the young workers who committed suicide. In contrast, quicksand reports focused on real estate developments, swathes of land, government regulations, and corporate greed – all interesting topics, but not as narratively compelling as stories about people. Two, the quicksand stories talked about the problem as a failure of technology. Yes, greed meant taking shortcuts, but – the logic went – if we built (or rather filled) according to scientific principals, none of this would have happened. Thus, quicksand resulted in calls for stricter regulations. Three, which follows from two, it was easier for those of us living in and off Shenzhen to accept that an individual (whether an industry leader or a migrant worker) “got it wrong,” than it was to consider how deeply misguided the entire enterprise might be. On this reading, if we could have uncovered a quicksand entrepreneur of the stature of either Terry Guo or Steve Jobs, then the quicksand story might have had more of an audience.

I’m more interested, however, in why these stories have vanished from the news despite the fact that the conditions which led to these incidents remain unchanged. In other words, why didn’t quicksand and suicide lead to reflection, and then on to some kind of change in our behavior? Simple answer: quicksand and Foxcomm have been forgotten because we remain caught up in habitual forms of cause and effect analysis (bad corporate actions + questionable government oversight = business as usual therefore we need to find morally upright businessmen and politicians and on to the next story, which is actually the same story about the need for morally upright businessmen and politicians because the system keeps coughing up corpses, wasteland, and political collapse du jour).

More complicated answer: we have constructed a system that prevents us from taking the time to reflect on the meaning and value of our lives. This inability to make time for reflection takes a myriad of forms, but it seems to me that we have institutionalized the human capacity for distraction. In Shenzhen, we see the institutionalization of distraction as intensified production and consumption. At the individual level we have forced overtime and 60 hour workweeks as “normal” and at the level of political-economy, ongoing intensification of the production and reinvestment of capital. High levels of consumption and fad-buying fuel institutionalized distraction, which we also see it on the internet, where we click from story to story as easily as our minds flit from memory to stomach grumblings to desire for hamburger now. And here’s the point: we do have people taking the time to understand what’s happening. Giovanni Arrighi reading Marx, for example, provides a wonderful definition of capitalist crisis:

The tendency towards crisis is indissolubly linked to the existence of capitalism itself. It is a result of the contradiction between the goal of capitalist accumulation (the valorization of capital and the appropriation of surplus-value by capital) and the means by which this goal is pursued (growth in social productivity and the development of the social character of production). Social productivity is increased continuously by mechanization and the division and reorganization of labour, not in order to satisfy the needs of the producers, but in order to increase the proportion of the social product which accrues to capital instead of being passed on to the producers. This process has a contradictory effect on society’s ability to consume and produce. Whilst production (whose growth depends principally on the proportion of the social product which goes to the capitalists and is transformed into means of production) tends to increase, consumption (whose growth depends principally on the proportion of the social product which goes to the workers and which is transformed into means of consumption) tends to contract.

And yet, we keep capitalizing on opportunities, which means we’re probably reading Marx like we read blogs and gaokao crib notes and sports magazines in the bathroom, until we pause and realize that it really is distraction all the way down. We already know this. Indeed, we’ve known it for a long, long time. Thus for me, this is the question: How do we construct a society that will enable us to cut through distraction and live those moral lives that our experience and newspaper stories call for? In other words, how do we make time to recognize and unlearn destructive habits of mind and simultaneously to cultivate ecologically sound thinking?

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