Money is emotional. And oddly enough, it is through bicycles that I have come closest to really understanding what this means for our society.

There is something about a bicycle shop that trigger’s people “good/smart consumer” button, and they go into full used-car dealership mode. They kick tires and do the bicycle equivalent of slamming doors (they bounce up and down on the front shock of the mountain bikes). They insist on comparing bicycles and the cost of bicycles to cars. “Look how much this bike is! (usually a bike that costs $2500 and up) That’s a car!” Or alternatively, “You could almost buy a car for that much!”. They snicker and think about how some people are suckers. They want me to list technical details that mean nothing to them; there is a basic assumption that more is better (except for the price). Why bicycles trigger this response and not TVs, cars, furniture, McMansions, etc is beyond me.

Okay. Bike and cars are not analogous. $15,000 will get you the best bike on the market and it will be a technical achievement and a work of art. $500 gets a road machine that will be great for you, your community and the planet. It will last forever. It needs no fuel and compared to cars, extremely little maintenance. Bikes are incredibly strong and light and offer the hope a utopian future where Mankind, Planet Earth, and technology work together in perfect harmony. Cars are none of those things. Nobody goes into a car dealership, looks at a $70,000 car, or a $90,000 car and thinks “I can almost buy an airplane for that much!”

The worst are the people who ask about the cost of a replacement part – say a new tire and inner tube (~ $45), then, upon being told the price say “I can almost buy a new bike for that much!”

You see there are department store bikes which sell for between $60 and $300. And even though these bikes are of such low quality as to be criminally dangerous, people are hypnotised by the price tag. One of the biggest issues bike shops face today is the sticker shock generated by customers who assume that $150 for a bike is a reasonable price to pay.

But it gets weirder. Here’s an example that happened to me personally just the other day. A man dropped off two Mongooses – notoriously crappy Wal-Mart bikes for a basic tune up. Working on these bikes is like digging a whole in sand: no matter how much you dig, the sand falls back into the whole. So it goes with repairing these bikes: it’s nearly useless. No amount of tuning can chance the fact that the bikes are systematically built to be cheap and only work long enough for the customer to buy them. It’s hard for a bike mechanic to escape the conclusion that the person who bought a Mongoose doesn’t care about biking, and doesn’t understand a bike’s quality or value.

And so it’s very hard to do a good job on them. The man who owned the bikes came to pick them up and examined them with a critical eye with amazing attention  to detail. And so he quickly found many flaws. I’m willing to admit my mistakes in tuning this bicycle, but I can’t help but wondering: where was this man’s critical examining eye when he bought the bikes from Wal-Mart? Why do we hold bike shops to high standards, and let Wal-Mart get away with everything? It’s hypocritical to buy a Wal-Mart bike and then take it to a bike shop and expect perfection.

It’s the price tag. It’s hypnotic. And for people who don’t bike but want the occasional fun, and the image of successful middle-class-ness that a family bike ride brings…the price is right. Finally, it’s about instant gratification. Many times have I explained the difference between a $500 Trek and a $150 Mongoose and every time I am struck by the inability of my arguments to penetrate the mental mists created by the far more tangible dollar amount.

I even get philosophical. “It’s not a bike,” I say. “It’s exactly the least cheapest possible assembly of thing to get you to think that this is a bicycle. I argue that it is designed to be sold on its price and nothing else. You’re buying the image of a bike, not the actuality of a bicycle. People don’t listen. I argue that the advantages of a quality bike pay for themselves many times over (considering that you will inevitably have to buy many new Wal-Mart bikes or at the least, replacement parts for the Wal-Mart bikes). People don’t listen; people don’t want to listen. They just want that price.

So here’s the big crime here. Aside from an example of how our society is complicit in destroying small businesses (we say we want them, but we really don’t). It’s that the Wal-Mart’s of the world have managed to make us all complicit in their scheme. Wal-Mart spreads the true costs to us all. And that is their secret. Wal-Mart pays large bike conglomerate to design the cheapest possible series of bikes; made by cheap low quality labor and then shipped to the US where it is again assembled by cheap low quality labor. Americans caught up in the Rat Race and keeping up with Jonses then buy the image of owning bikes from Wal-Mart, who makes the profit. Then, the true cost of the Wal-Mart operation is borne by bike shops (in this example) because we have to do our best to make this fake bikes into real bikes because people think they are getting real bikes from Wal-Mart.

And they do this for every single product. We buy because we want the image. But we can’t afford it. The world can’t afford it.

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The Discoverers

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As seen in a used bookshop near you.

For a trilogy of books that I have seen literally everywhere, not a whole lot is mentioned about Daniel J. Boorstin. The price was right, so I decided to give it a try.

I was not disappointed. It’s a charming, informative read.

Boorstin walks us through the emergence of scientific thought. And at first…it’s glorious. You bathe in the dignity and spirit of mankind and it’s potential to invent and understand the Universe. He starts with the calendar, and leads into the invention of the  clock. Then, he goes subject by subject. Evolution. Astrophysics and relativity. History. It’s breathtaking and sweeping, and full of elegant little personal anecdotes that succeed quite well in bringing the history alive. You are guaranteed to learn many things by reading this book. I’m even planning on reading, at some point in the future, the other two books in the series.

Here’s my problem.

Boorstin subscribes to the Modernist fantasy of Progress, in the most painfully Eurocentric way. Humanity’s scientific and technological progress is the property of Western Civilisation. The argument that runs along the lines of “well, all the inventions and scientific progress took place in Europe” doesn’t quite cut it because he leaves out the all the negatives this technology and scientific progress has created. His depiction of foreign civilisations – Islam and China primarily – detect them respectively as religiously hidebound and culturally/governmentally hidebound and therefore completely incapable of making a scientific leap. Boorstin does not appreciate how the technological and industrial revolution was the product of chance and geography; he prefers to lay it squarely on the shoulders of culture.

He doesn’t realise that scientific progress has a mixed record and that there are many other value systems out there.

A good read, but dated historically and philosophically.

Trumpism

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I’ve spent my entire life causally ignoring Donald Trump. I found it quite easy; there is no depth and no meaning to his personality. A rich blowhard, insulated from reality by lots and lots of money. A reality TV star. An actor who plays himself in every single role and never, ever gets tired of it. It’s hard to take a casino magnate seriously as a businessman, especially since all the money comes from Daddy.

So here is what I find so interesting about Trump: it’s his appeal. I’m calling it “Trumpism”. I consider Trump a joke; a punchline. So why do so many people take him seriously? Why is he suddenly an actual contender to be the next President of the United States? Everybody agrees that “this changes everything” and this is “something new in American politics” and everybody makes jokes about the Hair…but what does it mean? What does this represent and foreshadow?

Okay. So bear with me here. Trump and Trumpism represents an American fascism. I know that – and I agree with – the commonly held opinion that the second that someone is called a Nazi or a fascist or a Hitlerite that the argument is automatically hyperbole. Called being nazis is such an old, tired rhetorical tactic as to be absolutely meaningless. But in this case, a confluence of factors make this comparison exceptionally valid.

So let me be clear right up front. By “American fascism” I am referring to the cross section of the American population that would vote for Trump and where he draws his financial and other backing from. I am referring to his rhetorically techniques and his base appeal. I am also drawing a parallel between Weimar Germany in the early ’30s, and modern day America, both economically and socially.

I don’t mean to say that Trump is a Nazi; or that he is going to enact Nazi policies or a genocide. None of that.

I’m saying that he represents the same forces in American society that, equivalently in 1930’s Germany, backed Hitler. Trump’s tactics and style: the bullying comments, the flamboyant gestures and impossible demands and perspectives; his promise of a “return to greatness” and his intense focus on scapegoats all recall the politics of fascism. Instead of comparing Trump to Hitler, a more apt comparison would be to Mussolini. I’m saying that an elected Trump would represent a similar disintegration of society on parallel with the totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

Perhaps a definition of fascism would be helpful here. It’s extreme militaristic nationalism that bases itself on mystical notions of  corporatism (corporatism being any sort of intense organisation). Fascism always pretends to be old or traditional, but it is something quite alien to “traditional ways”. It’s a special relationship between the big power groups – the military, religious authorities and big business – with the alienated (and I know this is a bad over-generalisation) lower middle classes. But “extreme militaristic nationalism” doesn’t really capture the essence of fascism. What it’s really about is the triumph of political mysticism and rhetoric over civil society. For example, in 1930’s German, the military and big business was under threat by Weimar’s liberal democratic constitution. The only way forward when loans from America were no longer forth coming was either the dismantling the profit of the big industries, and the decline of the institutional power of the military or the end of the Weimar constitution.

Hitler’s assumption of power represents the destruction of German civil society. Any arguments along the lines of: “Oh, well, yes, Hitler was a bit shouty and evil and all that, but, you can’t deny that in the late 30’s, he had full employment. He really turned the German economy around.” Its total nonsense because WWII was inevitable – and the total destruction of German was inevitable – because of the nature of Fascism. The destruction of civil society (the rule of law, the supremacy of facts and statistics as tools of argument, basic human decencies, and mutual respect between citizens) and the assumption of all power by a handful of institutions or individuals is disguised by rhetoric and the menace of violence. This is what gives fascism it’s fantastic flights of unreality; it’s total departure from facts.

There is a scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where, after taking all kinds of drugs, pills, and alcohol, the two heroes find themselves in a hellish, nightmarish circus themed casino. Thompson observes that “this is what it would be like if the Nazi’s had won the War. This is the Fifth Reich.” I know it’s a weird reference, but to me it rings true. Fascism has this obscene, violent quality that attains a level of true evil and madness.

And this is where Donald Trump comes in.

Remember, fascism is the theatrical cover for the destruction of civil society/the rule of law in favour of a few powerful institutions motivated by power and profit. How to you get citizens vote for abandoning their citizenship?

Anger, fear, a satisfying implication of violence, and messianism.

It all depends on the larger socio-economic situation. In both 1930’s Germany and contemporary America, you have rich countries with large and prosperous middle classes that are getting poorer. This is dangerous. Far more so than people that have always been poor, nothing is more dangerous than people with stalled expectations or even declining circumstances. And this is what is happening now. Tensions build. People seek answers and solutions, but of course this is very messy and ideological. Keep in mind that this is a slow moving thing that people rarely think consciously about.

Pressure to redistribute wealth, weather through taxes, welfare, or various laws threaten the rich and powerful. But more than that, the idea of redistributing wealth feels new. In a way, it’s counterintuitive; it effectively proposes to overhaul (this directly implies disruption) the socio-economic system. And no matter what the actual truth of the situation is (i.e., that creating a just redistribution of wealth will make for a healthier, more egalitarian society) the very nature of the proposition ensures that many people will oppose it simply on the emotional grounds that “nothing needs to be changed”. These people are far more inclined to think in terms of blockages and crashes or impediments. A scapegoat. This is human nature. The rich and powerful must stop these changes to society at any cost. And when they succeeded in the modern period of technology, the result is fascism.

There is a lot of subterranean psychology going on here.

it appeals to those with the power, the money and the glory and those who have a very little (but not nothing and not modest amounts). The basic appeal is a sort of imaginative identification with the rich and powerful; the glory of the Nation (whatever nation it might be) reflects on the individual. By glorifying the nation, the man with very little glorifies himself. This is the secret behind nationalism and militarism: it is a clever foil for egoism of the basest kind. And for the person who has nothing and is miserable (and keep in mind that in today’s society of 40+ hour work week and the general alienation of the Precarious Economy that pretty much everyone is miserable) it’s this egotistical militarism is all they have.

Far from resenting Trump his inherited wealth, the Trumpist sees himself in Trump. He actively feels that he could be Trump. America is probably the only country in the world where we resent people who resent rich people. No other country (aside from England perhaps) shares the assumption that rich people have done something to deserve being rich both in a moral and an economic/innovative sense. Desperate Americans – the lower middle class especially – see Trump’s wealth as a hold over from bigger, more glorious times. Trump’s business leadership allowed him to slip pass the Scylla and Charybdis of Political Correctness and creeping Big Government Regulation to be a good ole American billionaire, Ayn Rand style. Of course, he’s done nothing of the sort, and the only reason we know of Trump at all is because he plays a billionaire on TV, in the same way that John Wayne is considered a real cowboy.

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Part of the appeal is Trump’s bullying, anti-political politics. His un-political correctness. The Trumpist goes about in public saying ridiculous things about Mexicans or poor people and is greeting with an awkward silence or a changing of the subject. The Trumpist, far from realising that maybe he has just said something invincibly ignorant and logically flawed, instead assumes that his interlocutor has been brain washed by the “liberal media.” Trump seems to have to courage to say the nonsense that the Trumpist thinks in his head out loud and not be humbled or made fun of. Trump’s success then is deeply linked to the psychology of the dying American middle class, and the anger and fear that this has generated.

He’s our Id.

Trump is a buffoon. A lout. But there is always a draw here. Jeremy Clarkson comes to mind for me. He’s hilarious; the problem is that a truly sad amount of people take him seriously.

The Great Game

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The Russians are on the move. They have their sights set on world conquest. It might take time, but the Russian Bear is patient. Very patient. Their agents are everywhere, even now mapping and spying and plotting. Something has to be done.

Sound familiar?

Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game recounts the epic (and arguably ongoing) competition between England and Russia over control and influence in Central Asia. Taking place roughly in the Victorian era, from Napoleon’s time to WWI, The Great Game was imperial jockeying at it’s most picturesque.

By the late 1700s, Indian was effectively ruled by Great Britain through the East India Company, the original multinational too-big-too-fail corporation. India was the great jewel in the imperial British crown; but it came with it’s own problems. India is remote from England and it’s population is many times larger. India, historically speaking, might be one of the most “conquered” places in the world. The result is that the British had to work overtime to protect their colony, either from internal rebellion or from outside invasion. The world’s great maritime empire collided head on with the world’s great land empire over the “roof of the world”.

Hopkirk tells a good story. He knows what readers want. You will enjoy reading this book. It’s one part history, one part exploration, and one part spy drama. Hopkirk gives just enough background to follow and make sense of the actions and actor he is depicting, but little more. This makes for quick and easy reading, but little depth. His depiction of British politics is pretty good, but by and by, most of the actions seem to take place in a vacuum. I can’t quite tell if he is assuming the reader already knows, or doesn’t care.

The biggest weakness of this book is this lack of detailed background information. How did these legendary Silk Road cities in Central asia come to be? What was the culture like? What are the cities like now? How did the Russian public see the Great Game? Further, Hopkirk comes to no conclusions; he simply ends his narrative at WWI. No lesson is learned, no insight gained.

What I found most interesting was the massive parallels with our own Cold War. Really: it’s uncanny.

It might be more accurate to say that the Great Game was the incubator for the perspective and rhetoric of the Cold War. Russia is autocratic and bent, somewhat mysteriously, on world domination. Their tactics are spies and “grandmother’s steps”; a euphemism for patient opportunism, but with little tolerance for risk. It’s also the birth of geostrategy, a macro way of seeing the world that simply quantifies square milage, populations, resources, etc, and makes no mention of culture, or any other perspective. The largest country, in this way of thinking, inevitably comes to rule the world.

Most informative is the role of British politics. Successive governments of the Tories (conservatives) and Liberal governments see-saw back and forth across the decades. The Tories supported “forward” policies; active agents, gunboat diplomacy, and invasion, most notably of Afghanistan (three times) and Tibet. The Liberals favoured “masterly inactivity” which, as you might already suspect, was label as appeasement of the enemy by conservatives.

The domestic political cycle of fear, invasion, disaster/overreach, withdraw, hibernation, then fear again is clearly at work. Successive waves of Russophobia mix with exhaustion of foreign intervention and its massive financial and human costs. It’s empire at work.

By advice is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the colourful characters and locals of Victorian India and Central Asia drift by.