Somewhere along the line, I became a habitual reader of James Howard Kunstler’s blog, Clusterfuck Nation. I even sporadically read and, god help me, participate in the comments section. Since my area of common interest and agreement with Kunstler largely begins and ends with his views on urbanism and the bad effects of the automobile, I continually surprise myself every time I check in, since he largely moved on to other subjects quite some time ago (basically, since Duncan Crary stopped helping out with his podcast). Nonetheless, I persist.
Another reason I surprise myself is that I’m already on record as identifying the prevailing mood at CFN as mandatory nihilism. Why, you might ask, would someone come back again and again to imbibe that product? Yet this attitude is not only characteristic of the political right but growing rapidly, as the YouTuber Three Arrows observed last week. From him, I learned that the Germans have anticipated me by coining the word Zweckpessimismus, meaning intentional or studied pessimism. Kunstler’s world view, and that of the bulk of his readership it seems (at least the ones motivated to comment on his blog), now lies pinned under glass. Maybe he ought to consider rebranding.
Anyway, I don’t post to this blog nearly often enough, but I’ve also resisted using it in the way I’ve been tempted: as a handy backscratcher whenever I get the itch to rebut or criticize Kunstler’s latest. I’m finally bowing to the inevitable. Maybe it’ll motivate me to do some more useful writing on other topics.
Today’s Kunstler missive addresses an issue of the moment: the increasingly panicked response of the Democratic Party establishment to the obvious strength, and increasingly likely success, of Bernie Sanders’ campaign to be their nominee for president. As for Sanders’ policy priorities, Kunstler predictably dismisses them as promises of free* stuff that can never be delivered on for various reasons, but especially because of limits to economic growth.
On the latter score, Kunstler has facts and reason on his side, because the end of the fossil fuel era and the need for energy transition are no longer science fiction. They’re upon us, as is the ecological crisis we’ve been completely well aware of since no later than the publication of Silent Spring. Capitalist realist that he is, Kunstler takes the austerity position — that there is no alternative to silent acceptance of reduced expectations — absolutely for granted. Our friendly social critic — who has expended no small amount of breath and ink describing the economy as a series of swindles — will have no truck with the idea of redressing those swindles among individuals, or the consequences they have imposed on the wider society. It goes without saying that redistribution of wealth and resources, whereby average people may retain a modicum of dignity and health, is both bad and wrong, not to mention doomed to failure. We’ve seen plutonomy become plutocracy, which became oligarchy; and this will become fascism (he calls it unspecified ‘trouble’), which will end in a new post-industrial, post-consumerist agrarian feudalism. This is Kunstler’s vision, and he lacks patience to debate even any mitigations wherever I’ve seen him have the opportunity. At best, he dismisses any alternative as an attempt to sustain the unsustainable.
Kunstler styles himself as a social critic, yet he rejects social goods, unless they’re attractive buildings or ‘nourishing’ architecture of a kind that — this is telling phraseology — informs people of who they are and what their place is in the scheme of things. As might also be expected of a capitalist-realist of the Zero Hedge variety, Kunstler continues to rail against the great demon inflation. This, mind you, comes after a 40-year period in which inflation has been crushed so effectively that even the great financial crisis of 2007-08 could not budge the needle (google the economist Mark Blyth alongside “creditor’s paradise” if you want to follow that thread).
In a similar vein, Kunstler is a true devotee of money mysticism and the cult of gold. There is nothing more useful to plutocrats and oligarchs than mystification about money. The question of what money is is dead simple: it’s virtual value. That’s it — nothing less, nothing more. The value of money is based on the expectation that a token of some sort can eventually be redeemed for something tangible such as food, clothing or shelter. (Or medical care.) The engine that keeps money in circulation, thereby assuring that there will always be demand for the tokens, is taxation and the ability of the state to coerce payment in its accepted currency. To a plutocrat, it is critically necessary that the operation of money be excluded from the realm of politics. The hyperinflation scare is only the shrillest and least subtle way that people, especially politicians, are discouraged from even beginning to treat money’s role in society as a tool — one that can be used for multiple purposes, including the purpose of improving the lives of everyday people. That, and righting the savage imbalance of power between the wealthy and everyone else that was achieved largely by sweeping the operations of money under the rug in the first place.
One of Kunstler’s favourite slogans is ‘the virtual is not a substitute for the real’. This is apt enough when talking about the way social media acts as a virtual substitute for companionship, or passive consumption of media provides a substitute for real engagement and a real stake in how the society is run. But I’ve never seen Kunstler come to grips with the implications of his own slogan for his views about money, i.e. the virtualization of value. Nor does he take seriously the possibilities that people see in democratic socialism, or any other kind of politics that refuses to accept the endless accumulation of wealth by the few as fatalistically as he does. It’s not that Kunstler is quiet about oligarchy; it’s just that he assumes, indeed insists upon, impotence on any level but the personal (edit: and the local). Hoard gold and get ready for the trouble that’s coming, he says, over and over endlessly. In the end, that’s all his social criticism is good for.
When it comes to the question of “how America will pay for all the free* stuff Bernie proffers”, the answer is glaringly clear: by devoting real resources to the task. I say again, real resources — things of unarguable value such as hours of work, tonnes of building materials, and joules of energy — not merely virtual (i.e. throwing money around, whether it’s denominated in gold, fiat dollars, or promises from your fairy godmother, until it inflates beyond all meaning). Money, demystified and put to work for the purpose on a realistic basis, can and should be part of allocating those resources and achieving those goals. Reorienting public priorities toward these ends, instead of enabling and then defending endless wealth accumulation and oligarchy, is the task — and that means challenging power, including and especially money power, as it is and where it sits. The fact that we are hitting real resource constraints and that exponential growth is ending makes this more critical, not less. It was bad enough that an opulent minority was able to capture the economic surplus while it was still growing; for them to continue doing so when growth stops, or even rolls back, is intolerable. The payoff will be that when the shit hits the fan, we may actually come out the other side retaining some of the material gains of the Industrial Revolution for the good of everyone, instead of collapsing by default back into medieval inequality, only this time on a vastly impoverished planet.
* NB: Eliding the words ‘Free at the point of use‘ is the standard lie and misrepresentation that Kunstler happily cooperates with. Have you ever heard some fool ranting, say, that lighting at night is not ‘free’ and never can be? Certainly not, and if they did so as vociferously as people rail against single-payer medicine, you’d escort them to a rubber room. Yet streetlamps and lighthouses exist — because the need for them was identified, we made provisions for them using what resources were at hand, everyone got on with their lives, and nobody siphoned off vast, unearned, dynastic fortunes in the process.