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Sitting on the faultline

Stefano Puddu
Received his Degree in Education from Cagliari, Stefano has taken part in both the Green and peace movements in Sardinia; currently he is one of the driving forces in Catalonia behind the movement in favour of degrowth
Stefano Puddu

Stefano Puddu

The arrival of an earthquake generally tends to be a difficult event to comprehend for those who ignore the existence of plate tectonics. The tremors on the surface don't always provide us with a clear indication of the profound energies from which they originate. Thus, the social demonstrations which arose in 2011 at different locations around the globe hint at a complex reasoning behind the symptoms –the grievances, the "discourse", the occupation of public squares—and the general metabolism, the state of the system's health, with its premises and rules of order. You have to be bold to venture a diagnosis without being a doctor, but disease is a fact of life and, human beings that we are, it is in our interest to make an effort to comprehend it.

In general, we have before our eyes the first samples of the potential destabilisation of a model that was capable of generating some highly coveted promises –democracy, economic wellbeing, social protection…– but which, nevertheless, is demonstrating that it is incapable of fulfilling. The "end of the story" today takes on unforeseen meanings and reveals to us the powerlessness of a system that can no longer maintain its goals nor meet the expectations it created, due to the lack of awareness of the conditions that make it possible.

As we are aware, over the past fifty-sixty years, a minority of the inhabitants of this planet have seen themselves implicated in the legitimization process of a lifestyle based on excesses, on the illusion of abundance carried to unimaginable extremes. The primary basis for this occurrence came from an extraordinary availability of energy, linked to an ever-increasing use of fossil fuels, a non-renewable and finite capital. This injection of abundant and cheap energy powered the famous growth that, in a little over two generations, transformed in a startling and irreversible manner, our social structure, values, customs and knowledge on which life as we know it is based; we have been catapulted into a liquid, globalized, service based, hypercomplex, hyperconnected, hyperconsumer postmodernity; the same wave of abundance fuelled a hypertrophic democracy with privileges and complicities which took root everywhere and spread to all parts. The feeling of titanic power associated with this growth generated the sensation of absolute freedom, a lack of any limits which has become the mantra of our culture; without bearing in mind nevertheless the dependence arising from this energetic contribution, the obligation and even slavery generated by constant growth, and less still the ecological nightmare that all of this would trigger, from climate change onwards.

Globalisation came into being as a result of the transport revolution, thanks to cheap oil but the decisive factor was the digital revolution, capable of transforming production and communication technologies alike in the space of a few decades. At the same time, the triumph of number coding was to determine, on the one hand a dynamic of overproduction and, on the other hand, dematerialisation. We have been inundated with an avalanche of mass produced goods at ridiculous prices, with an ever-decreasing contribution of human work, meanwhile unreal elements and immaterial factors become ever-more decisive elements of our lives.

However, the change in the last half century that has brought about the greatest impact was that of the financial revolution, the sector that took the greatest advantage of the potential of the ICT. Once the gold standard was abandoned, the dematerialisation of money and the potential of network technologies multiplied the power of capital to stunning extremes. In a world of computer screens, the difference between reality and simulation is, in the first place a question of belief. Administrating money means managing confidence and, aided by the media –incredibly powerful tools of persuasion—, the financial powers have been very adept at doing this.

Oil and screens change, the geography of power, which no longer corresponds to the map of nations and therefore transcends the institutions which govern them, in other words, politics. That is why we are where we are. For several decades the economy has dominated the world and, within this economy, finance. However, this fact has brought about a terrible and three-fold subversion: 1) of the democratic compact; 2) of economic rationality; 3) of ecological compatibility. In other words, of the pillars our world is founded upon.

Let's take it one step at a time.

1) We find ourselves faced with the de facto marginalisation of politics. The transfer of sovereignty to economic-financial spheres is constant and can no longer be concealed. Political decisions respond with ever-increasing frequency to the necessity of reimbursing capital to which they are in debt: legislation governing budgetary balancing includes a clause of compulsory compliance concerning the restitution of the debt, together with the corresponding interest, and public welfare is administered with what's left over. The connection between political leaders and financial oligarchies is so close that we are now accustomed to seeing them cross over from one sector to the other with the utmost of indifference. The great financial fortunes still remain tax exempt, while the tax system widens its tax revenue nets over the person in the street. Public authorities lack the resources necessary to provide the services taxpayers and voters demand, and the agreement that forms the basis for representativeness is no longer worth the paper it is written on. Under these circumstances, democracy has become a form of televised entertainment, still dominant today. Luckily, some years ago the window that is the Internet appeared.

2) The greatest threat to our global society today is the metastasis of financial capital. This is the poisoned fruit of neoliberal deregulation which has been undertaken with the absolute political complicity of governments and parliaments the world over, without any discernible difference between the left and right. As a consequence of this, accounting entries have increased in volume and speed at which they circulate in a scandalous manner, outweighing up to ten times (or more) the overall value of the world's real wealth. Speculative hyperactivity has established a situation of monetary unreality of biblical proportions, a gigantic debt bubble which is now entering a phase of implosion that is impossible to avert. The world does not possess the resources required to cover up this black hole. "Creative finance" has fuelled terrible confusion between savings and debt, they have asserted the primacy of the interest rate of money on the creation of value through work, to such a point as to degrade the principle of economic rationality to its lowest level yet, that being rapacity: to earn the most money with the least effort in the shortest time possible.

3) The most serious consequence of this state of affairs is the extreme alienation which has become part of our civilisation. We have lost all real and specific notion of our degree of dependence on the planet's major trophic cycles. Ecological overburdening and overexploitation, from the viewpoint of the survival of the species, is much more serious and defining than the financial debt, nevertheless it is almost irrelevant when it comes to the decision making process. In nature, all excess is toxic and a civilization founded on excess can hope for no fate other than overdose, its collapse from intoxication.

To sum up, the current state of the world is the result of abuse of trust of historic proportions. Billions of people have come to believe in the promises of happiness, comfort, wealth, health, beauty, culture and democracy that the system offered everyone. Just like in the tale of Pinocchio, we were bewitched by the fantastic idea of money that multiplied by itself and they have made us slaves to this pipe-dream. The result is a sum of economic insolvency, political discrediting and ecological unsustainability, which are, in short, diverse manifestations of the same discredit which we can say is systemic; in 2011, this "technical bankruptcy" became patent for large masses of citizens in different countries who wished to express their outrage and will to change. The entire world is beginning to see it: not only are the giant's feet of clay, but it intends to continue raising the building by taking the materials from the foundations. This bodes for a spectacular fall, but those on the upper floors already have the chopper fuelled and ready for the evacuation. Therein lies the difference between the 1% who have created catastrophe for civilisation and the remaining 99% who are trapped inside and who will pay the consequences.

People have more than enough to do just keeping their personal and family lives going in these grim times. The figures for debt levels, unemployment and economic suffering each month are those of a post-war period. The weapons of mass destruction this time were financial, speculative. We weren't even aware that we aware under attack, that they were dynamiting democratic life, bombing our lives and the lives of those that today are children and young people, or have yet to be born. Capitalism is right at the epicentre of a seismic fault that has just begun to tremble. If the outrage fails to generate ideas for real and substantial change that are valid for the vast majority, we are looking at a very rough future indeed.