Ruin and Freedom

Local-Servers

If Proudhon’s philosophy of progress can be summed up in just a few words, it would be this: things grow and things decay, and things grow again elsewhere. State decay, community decay, cultural decay, economic decay so on and so forth – this is the necessary movement for state growth, community growth cultural growth, economic growth, etc. etc. It will, however, never run backwards: what has inevitability decayed is barred from returning in its original form. Anticipating Deleuze and Guattari’s stunning observation (one brought into alignment the with non-linear movements of complex systems by Manuel DeLanda) that deterritorialization within an assemblage implies reterritorialization elsewhere – and vice-versa – by centuries, Proudhon delivers an understanding of progress fully stripped of the assumptions packed into it by modernity at its most hubristic.

One of the common critiques of U/ACC is that it doesn’t deal sufficiently with the question of collapse, that its assumptions align with the most Promethean of moderns in that it envisions, on the ‘other side’ of technoeconomic take-off, unending wealth, prosperity, and orgiastic delirium. Nothing could be further from the truth (except perhaps the last one, though the delirium in mind is hardly that of bourgeois decadence). Sites of techno-economic intensity will doubtlessly be characterized by self-reinforcing growth, which – until it hits the transcendental wall of hard singularity – will bleed through society in the form of higher standards of living, health, and happiness. But things decay, and grow elsewhere. The interior cost of this techno-economic feedback will be the consolidation of the human agent into the gears of the urban machine, but the exterior costs will be something completely different: ruin.

Jane Jacob’s argument concerning the relationship between urban development and rural zones, detailed in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, helps draw out the implications of this. For Jacobs, the focus of macro-economic analysis should be shifted from the scale of the nation-state to the city-unit, noting that the economic health of the city is not only a barometer of the nation’s economy, but actually takes lead in driving economic development. This takes place because the city tends to development into a self-reinforcing entity, bringing industry inwards toward itself in a manner which effectively transforms the urban zone into an immense vacuum that sucks constant and variable capital from the rural.

Combine this with the globalization of post-Fordist supply chains and the evolution of capital from its striated form to the smooth, it becomes clear which direction the progress of decay and growth is heading, at least in the current time. The rural – as well as various obsoleted urban zones killed by the thrasher of creative destruction – becomes dotted with what has been described as “sacrifice zones”. Driving across the United States and you’ll see more of these than you can count. Extrapolate how these conditions will look in ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years and the creeping ruin looms greater and greater. Collapse is actualized in these places, and does not contradict the fiery circuit of growth elsewhere. Or, to put it even more bluntly, collapse is the cost of unstoppable techno-economic acceleration. To paraphrase an old Trotskyite proverb: the system might be combined, but its development is completely and totally uneven.

Deep in the caves, Schwund pokes and prods Jacob’s theory of urban path dependency for weaknesses to exploit: “this sort of is due to centralized production modes, people move to the city because that’s where the jobs are and vice versa, but if I can sit in the desert writing code for killbots that get produced not in some factory but anywhere my company sets up a 3d printer, and I get everything I need droned to my doorstep by amazon there’s little reason to go anywhere.”

With shades of Kevin Carson, Schwund shines a light on another dimension of collapse: that ruin and a particular kind of freedom need not be antithetical. Out beyond the shimmering borders of the internally-individuating urban zone – and maybe serving a foreshadow of that zone’s own fate under the blade of capital – the sucked-dry bones of yesterday’s world may very well become a space teeming, swarming with strange things, a vast and broken laboratory incubating mutants of its own kind. Consider the following vision of the coming “drop-out economy”, one of the weirder (and more exciting, if a little overly optimistic) things to be written by an American conservative political commentator:

Imagine a future in which millions of families live off the grid, powering their homes and vehicles with dirt-cheap portable fuel cells. As industrial agriculture sputters under the strain of the spiraling costs of water, gasoline and fertilizer, networks of farmers using sophisticated techniques that combine cutting-edge green technologies with ancient Mayan know-how build an alternative food-distribution system. Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias.

Rather than warehouse their children in factory schools invented to instill obedience in the future mill workers of America, bourgeois rebels will educate their kids in virtual schools tailored to different learning styles. Whereas only 1.5 million children were homeschooled in 2007, we can expect the number to explode in future years as distance education blows past the traditional variety in cost and quality. The cultural battle lines of our time, with red America pitted against blue, will be scrambled as Buddhist vegan militia members and evangelical anarchist squatters trade tips on how to build self-sufficient vertical farms from scrap-heap materials. To avoid the tax man, dozens if not hundreds of strongly encrypted digital currencies and barter schemes will crop up, leaving an underresourced IRS to play whack-a-mole with savvy libertarian “hacktivists.”

Work and life will be remixed, as old-style jobs, with long commutes and long hours spent staring at blinking computer screens, vanish thanks to ever increasing productivity levels. New jobs that we can scarcely imagine will take their place, only they’ll tend to be home-based, thus restoring life to bedroom suburbs that today are ghost towns from 9 to 5. Private homes will increasingly give way to cohousing communities, in which singles and nuclear families will build makeshift kinship networks in shared kitchens and common areas and on neighborhood-watch duty. Gated communities will grow larger and more elaborate, effectively seceding from their municipalities and pursuing their own visions of the good life. Whether this future sounds like a nightmare or a dream come true, it’s coming.

At the far horizon from this short-term vision is the time-tangling of modernity catching up with itself and plummeting to its apex: paleo-agorism and the cyborg nomad. “if it’s true as Land says, that reaction is never regressive enough and modernity is never advanced enough, what you get, at the point where circuit closes, at doom, is nomad cyborgs. a hunter-gatherer band formed by the most fiercely selected elements of technology.”

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