Thursday, July 31, 2014

Let those who are without sin buy the first debt

Debt has become a strange thing these last few decades. While the concept of debt is as old as social relations themselves, the new conception of debt isn't. And it is as new as it is strange.

It used to be a rather straightforward thing. Someone gave you a sum of money, and until you returned it (and a little extra for the hassle), you were in debt. For the longest time, this was the gist of it. A relation where one part owed the other some amount of money. With the implicit social understanding that this amount should be returned sooner rather than later.

A two-party system, if you will.

Then it expanded into a three-party system. As capitalism became a thing, and as regular people were expected to buy ever more expensive things, a system arose for the facilitation of purchases where the buyer couldn't actually afford the thing sold. Which might sound strange, until you remember that houses are both expensive and rather useless if no one actually lives in them.

Thus, home mortgaging arose.

Now, people had bought houses since the dawn of buying and houses. What happened (mostly in the US, but also elsewhere) was that the notion of owning your home became a propaganda hit. Everyone should own their place of residence, the proclamation went, and this sparked a great surge in market demand. The demand was, in fact, greater than the amount of people who could actually afford to buy.

Which, to be sure, is good if you want to sell the one singular house. But everyone wanted to buy one, and soon the supply of people who had enough money to buy one outright diminished. And it takes a long time to earn such amounts of money with honest work. Longer than anyone - buyers and sellers both - had the patience to wait. Especially the sellers - unsold homes are the opposite of profitable.

Thus, the three party debt system.

The one part is the buyer. The other is the seller. The third a bank. The bank lends the amount of money required to buy the house to the buyer, who then buys the house. The seller gets the money, and the buyer is indebted. Not to the seller, but to the bank.

The advantage of this is that it speeds up the buying/selling process. Profits happen faster for those who sell, and housing happens faster for those who buy. The latter will, of course, have to pay off this debt over time, but they will at least have somewhere to live during the process.

This does two things. First, it speeds up the rate of consumption. Buy now, pay later! - whatever the bought thing might be, and how long "later" might be.

Second, it transforms debt from a social to a legal relation. It's still debt, but it's also something stranger than it used to be. You still have to pay it, but you're not paying it to someone. You're paying it to something. Mostly a bank, but it might be hard to tell at times.

Being (re)paid a sum of money each month is a stable way to make a profit. Stable, but slow, and predictable. And being predictably slow is something you do not want to be these days. So banks got their institutional thinking caps on and started to ponder - how can we speed up the moneymaking process, and thus avoid being predictable, slow and boring?

At some point, the notion of selling the debts emerged. There might, after all, be someone else out there who wanted slow predictable, and if they could be persuaded to buy these debts from us, why not? We might not get as much money, but we'll get more money to use now, and more money now means faster profits - which is the same thing as more profits.

Thus, there are mortgages for sale. Buy now, payments later!

No longer do we see the three-party system we've grown used to, but rather a confusing polypoly party system where it can actually be quite tricky to find out just who you're actually paying your debt to. It might be the bank you once went to to get a loan, but it might also be someone or something else entirely.

Again, it's not a social relation. It's a legal relation. Which enables you, with a bit of bureaucratic legwork, to do something very strange: to buy your own debt.

There might be some implicit social understanding that frowns upon this maneuver. Something about the inherent value of paying one's debts. But, and this might sound strange:

Why not?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The power of two

Jews are cool.

Israel is not cool.

These two statements are, in the minds of some people, mutually exclusive. The one is the other, and vice versa - as inseparable as can be.

Thing is, though, they are separable. And it is important to separate them.

The recent and historical atrocities committed by the state of Israel can be understood by recent and historical atrocities committed by other states. They follow the same patterns, no matter who happens to be in charge; there is a systemic slide into barbarity inherent in states as such.

If you look at the history of Europe, you'll see it action over and over and over again. Sometimes against jews. Sometimes against each other. Mostly against defenseless innocents who happened to be in the wrong place.

Statehood does that to people. Decides who's in the right and wrong places. And removes those who are in the wrong.

So. There's jews all over the world. They are cool.

The state of Israel is in one place. It is uncool.

Now there's two thoughts to think at the same time.

Silences never end

After writing about digital archives and the importance of sharing things in order to better keep (preserve) them, I suddenly remembered all the backup CDs I have in this place.

Yes, compact discs. From the days of Windows 98 and modems, and the Y2K bug. In order to avoid the imminent collapse (and/or the threat of having to download things again - an expensive proposition when paid by the minute), I backed things up. On compactly stacked discs. And promptly forgot all about them.

Until I remembered them. Which I did every once in a while, in a fit of nostalgia. Most recently, last night.

As with so many other things, I made it into a social event. The world needed to know what I thought during the "insert disc 5 of 17" process, and thus tweets happened about it. En masse.

While I went on doing my thing, two other things happened. The one was the nth happening of the Superb Owl, in all its incomprehensible oversizedness.

I ignored that.

The other thing was the desperate cries for help from the people of Syria, where the military unleashed every weapon of war they had. Literally.

That was harder to ignore.

How can one do archiving while reports of people dying are screaming at you, in real time? All the time?

How can one do anything at all, for that matter?

That is the dark side of the statement "the whole world is watching". You are a part of it. And there's a lot going on in it, impossible to ignore and more so to unfeel. Specially when it happens at you.

There are voices who won't voice anything after tonight. Friends lost.

At the same time, life. Things still needs to be done, schedules followed. While the world contains more sorrow than anyone can fathom, it is somehow also too small to contain time for grief.

So I keep going. Disc 6 of 17. Tweeting. Doing all those things that needs to be done, and that won't be done unless I do them.

That is the one thing one can do. Keep going.

Stay strong.

Originally published February 6, 2012

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Remember unthank

It is nice to be thanked. It is even nicer to be thanked. Especially when it is deserved, and even more so when it is unexpected.

Therefore, it would be nice of you to make it a point to thank those in your vicinity. To thank those who do the emotional lifting. Those who picks up the slack when you don't. Whose default mode is to do everything everyone else don't. Who, in ordinary and crisis situations alike, are the ones to keep tempers and group cohesion both from crashing into the dust-free floor.

It takes a lot of effort and energy to keep a situation where nothing happens going. And most of it happens in the dark, unthanked underbelly of the everyday bore- and choredom.

So. Do make it a point to seek out those who effort, and thank them.

It's the little things.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Over my dead cold propaganda

One of the biggest lures of the left/right divide is that there's a very contemporary historical war to relate it to. A huge, epic war between two clearly defined actors, each embodying a particular side.

The cold war.

It isn't hard to understand why. On the one side we have the US, the staunch defenders of capitalism and liberty. On the other side we have Soviet, the staunch defenders of communism and the proletariat. Between these two sides, war. You don't need to exercise great mental agility to see this as a war between right and left.

The biggest problem with seeing the world in the light of twentieth century propaganda is that things get murky. Especially when what actually happened is a much more complicated than a good vs evil narrative, and even more so when the belligerents over time grew to resemble each other more and more.

Such is the nature of things, whenever a coin wars with itself over which side is heads or tails.

The cold war was, to a large extent, modernity's war against itself.

Modernity is, to put it simply, the way the modern world has tended to develop. It has developed towards greater centralization, more standardization, an ever increasing bureaucratization, brutal increases in exploitative productivity, and on the whole towards greater and larger systems in general. A development that might seem abstract, but which becomes that much clearer when the present is compared with the past.

Not long ago, migration wasn't a complicated issue. There weren't any central authorities keeping track of who was a citizen and who wasn't, and if you ventured far enough away, you could generally outrun the reach of any authority worth running from. If you could get your physical body to some place and survive there, you lived there now. No matter if it was a village or continent away. If you could get there, you could move there. All you needed to do was to stay put. If the locals could be bothered to accept or tolerate you as a person, that is.

These days, it's a different story. You need to pay rent even if you're not physically close to your place of residence, and should you not pay, the debt will hunt you down wherever you go. It will even accumulate for as long as the contract lasts. And wherever you go, you're gonna have to give an account for where you've come from. In the form of a passport. Those who check your documentation will then look up your name in their systems, and ask your home country for confirmation that you really are who you say you are. If your passport picture and your bureaucratic alter ego looks somewhat similar, you'll eventually be let through the checkpoint by a salaried clerk who's one and only mission is to see that the rules are followed. Nothing personal.

The difference between these two scenarios is, in short, modernity. With all the centralization, standardization, bureaucratization and streamlining that goes with it.

Both the US and Soviet adopted these developments. Not least in the building and maintaining of enormous military machines. You can't, after all, just give people guns and tell them to be ready for battle. You need a system of bureaucracy and logistics to keep things running. Bureaucrats need to administrate such things like salaries, procurements, real estate, warehousing, distribution channels, construction projects, local municipal legal concerns - the list is longer than the Berlin wall. Neither soldiers, orders or ammunition gets to the front on their own, and you need a robust social and physical infrastructure in place to keep them getting to the front according to schedule.

Over time, these systems became more complicated and specialized. More and more tasks were delegated to people possessing specific skill sets, and this bureaucratized into academic requirements. Administering supply chains required one kind of specialized education. repairing tank engines required another, building bridges that could withstand military activity required another.

There is a pattern to this. Centralization, bureaucratization, standardization. The systems are getting larger, more complex.

The US and Soviet were indeed different. But fundamentally, they were two possible outcomes of the same process. Two sides of the same coin. Which, to be sure, is more visible today than ever, with the NSA going all in on becoming the most centralized and specialized organization in history. Just about everyone has a file in their archives. Modernity won the cold war.

It is, to be sure, tempting to see the right/left divide in the context of the cold war. Simple images are easy to understand, and that's why they're used so frequently as propaganda tools.

Both the right and the left relate themselves to modernity. The difference between them is what they intend to do with it.

The right are all about making the systems as efficient as possible, in order to reap their benefits. Adapt education to labor markets, make the labor market more efficient at maximizing exploitation of resources, remove barriers to the flow of capital - make it so that nothing stands between potential and actual efficiency, and use the excess profits that is generated from this to make things happen.

The left is all about resisting modernity. Not dismantle it, mind, but using it for things that are not inherently efficient. Or to soften the negative side effects that comes from the more brutal sides of modernity. Work safety and health regulations, for instance, might make workplaces less profitable, but they also makes it that much more likely that workers survive being efficiently exploited. As below, so above: the general gist is to make the systems work for the people, not the other way around.

This is, to be sure, harder to make propaganda out of. Both the right and the left want to use the benefits of a centralized, bureaucratized state apparatus to achieve their political goals. The difference being in how they want to use it. One way or the other - both ways are modernity. Modernity wins this round as well.

Which makes the Cold War framework that much more appealing. The right can keep on asking the brutally irrelevant question "do you really want to return to the Soviet days, leftie?", while the left can point to the fact that those days are over and that learning has happened since then. Neither confronting the question of why we need to become even more efficient at exploiting people, and why we are exploiting them at all.

History might have moved on, but why let a good propaganda narrative go to waste?

Originally published July 12, 2014

[A translator's note: right/left means different things in different national contexts. In case of confusion, the 'right' here roughly corresponds to the liberal tradition following John Locke and his ilk, whilst the 'left' roughly corresponds to socialism after Marx, and/or the Scandinavian models.]

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Freeriding the dark train of anxiety

When I was younger, I used to travel. A lot. Not to anywhere exotic or far away, but to places nearby. Stockholm, Gothenburg, most of the larger cities in the south of Sweden. On occasion to Oslo and Finland, just because they were there.

Thing is, I didn't go to all these places to do anything specific. I went there for the most everyday things. To visit friends, to pick up books at libraries, to breathe the air of someplace that is not home. On occasion, even to help out with everyday chores - because why not?

You might be wondering - just how much is a lot? Once a month? Twice?

That might be considered a lot. I went twice or thrice a week. Because why not? What are friends for, after all? And why buy a particular book when it's easier and faster to pick it up at some local library?

You might also be wondering - just how much did all this galavanting and skedaddling cost?

Nothing. Or, given the scope of things, the next best thing.

At this point, you just might be wondering what sort of privileged past I'm hailing from. What is up with all this going hither and dither for next to nothing? Who paid for all of that?

Here's the deal: no one did. I went anyway. Because why not?

There are many names for this practice. Free-riding, fare dodging, fraud. Depending on circumstances, you'd want to use different terms for it. But the general gist of it is this: getting from here to there on public transit without going through the hassle and hustle of having the proper ticket to ride.

Not the one singular time. Not two times. Three times. A week.

I still remember the first time doing it. I was to meet a friend in a city not far from where I lived, and got to the train station without quite enough time to buy a ticket. The choice was this: either get on the train without buying one, or buy one and miss the train during the time it'd take to complete the purchase. So I thought: hey, better to get there than to not get there. They'll probably let me buy one on board anyway.

I got on board. Sans proper travel documents.

As circumstances would have it, this particular train was slightly overcrowded. Not quite over capacity, but still more people than there really ought to be. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. On the one hand, I had to stand, as there were no seats available. On the other hand, we were quite a few bystanders. I found a standable spot and claimed it as mine, as a body occupying space does.

I heard the conductor approach in the distance. Quietly, I braced myself for the question that is also a demand: tickets please.

Only, the question never came. The conductor did, but only to then pass my by, not bothering to validate my anxiety. Or tickethaving. People around me got asked, showed their various travel documents, bought tickets, all the things that go into the consumer finance of modern train travel. Me? I just stood there, trying to keep my emotions in check (and, I hoped, invisible), until the moment had passed.

Somehow, I apparently looked travel weary enough to not warrant further inspection.

The next station came and went, and the next. The overcrowding situation didn't improve, as those who got off seemed to be replaced by newcomers who were faster on their feet than me. Aside from being mildly inconvenienced by standing around, I didn't mind, though. The experience was new enough to block any such sensations, and I was haunted by an anxiety that came to me in the form of thoughts like "what if I get caught?".

I didn't get caught, but I thought about it the whole way.

It was pretty much the same story on the return trip. Slight overcrowding, standing, looking as if I was bored with standing, not being asked, anxiety running through me the whole way. But, and this is key, at a slightly less rampant pace as the first time. The first time is always the hardest; the second time you have the luxury of looking back at the first time.

The third time is the charm. Not to mention the thirteenth.

As my galavanting became more and more of an everyday occurrence, I aged. I enrolled at the local university, gained new friends, did all the things that goes with being a young Scandinavian without any particular plan or direction. And as a part of this - to this day I'm not sure if my friends or the university played the bigger role - I started to read certain authors. One, in particular, is more critical than the others:


If you've read Foucault, you'll most likely have picked up on the word 'anxiety' above. It is one of the key things he writes about in his works. And, more specifically, the sources of it. One of these sources is the fear of not passing inspection, of whatever kind you might imagine. Ticket inspection is one particular kind of this. Passing tests (such as those encountered in schools) is another. Looking good yet another. Job interviews. Across many particular examples, the general principle boils down to this:

The fear of being looked upon by someone else, and to be found wanting.

It will come as no surprise that being on a train, ticketless, is very translatable to this line of thinking. There are those who are to be inspected (passengers) and those who are to do the inspecting (the conductors). The rules of the inspecting are easy to understand - you either have a ticket, or you don't. Getting a ticket is a predictable action - you can generally figure out how to buy them if you need to.

In short, the rules are simple, and you know what to do to follow them. To pass inspection.

Even when you do follow all the rules, though, there is still room for anxiety. Something could go wrong - you could accidentally buy the wrong ticket, there might be some sort of misunderstanding, a situation might arise where the rules and you don't agree with each other. And when that happens, it is usually on your head.

The fear is built in to the system. Even if the rules are easy to understand, there is always that underlying element of fear. What if I don't pass this time? What if something goes wrong?

As I gestured at earlier, this isn't just something that happens on trains. It happens everywhere, at all times. Whenever we feel that there's some standard that we have to live up to, and that there might be some risk of us not doing it - there be anxiety. There be the fear that we will be exposed as the frauds that we are, not good enough to pass muster. Not good enough to be a true member of the social order.

Be it in small or large circumstances.

Knowing this - doing it in practice - is one of the things that has shaped me the most as a human being. There will, in any given situation, be anxiety, but there will always be the option to not give a fuck about it. Following the rules is no guarantee for safety, breaking them is not an automatic failure. Life happens in this state of uncertainty, and knowing this helps.

It will not, by any means, abolish anxiety. But it will make it that much more livable.

The most important part of this generalized understanding of anxiety is that it is not a thing that happens to you and you alone. Everyone has to pass inspection, and everyone has to face the risk of failing. Everyone. You're not alone.

This is a foundation of solidarity.

As the years went by, I expanded my criminal activities to other transport systems. Not because I needed it, but because it could be done. The general principle was the same: all I needed to do was to fit in just enough to avoid suspicion, and thus inspection. Keep up appearances and carry on as if you belong, and in most cases you'll get along. Looking the part is at times better than being the real deal.

Thing is, though. It is taxing. Emotionally. Humans are not built to not belong, and merely keeping up appearances leaves you tired to your invisible bones. You don't ever relax, and the anxiety never really goes away. Especially if you actively seek these situations out.

I did a lot of that.

Eventually two things happened. The one thing is that I lost the urge to skedaddle and galavant. Been there, done that and so forth. The other thing is that I got the local Pirate Party to pay me to go places, which overall reduced my need to do my thing. If only to replace one form of inspection with another, writ larger.

Surveillance society is a thing, you know.

The reason for me writing this is not to glorify my younger days. The reason is to bring these experiences to you in a form that doesn't require you to muddle through Foucault or get yourself on a train without a ticket. (Both risky propositions, to be sure.) To give you something to point to, in order to be able to say: fuck, it's just not me. Everyone's doing it, trying to measure up for (real or imaginary) inspections, going through the required motions. No matter how ridiculous or ridiculously hard these motions might be.

Anxiety follows from this. It's not a thing that happen to you, specifically; it's what happens to humans, in general, put in the situation you're in.

Don't beat yourself up over it.

(If you've read this far, you'll probably be pleased to know that there is a part 2. Do freeride over to it.)