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Thinking about David Graeber.
First confession, I have not read David Graeber. Maybe I’ve read his ‘blink’ or heard some smart people talk about him, but I think I know what he was on about in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs. You must forgive me if I have fallen from cosmopolite erudition it is because in times of crisis, you cannot leave the necessity of short declarative sentences to those incapable of stringing together longer ones. I think the thrust of his theory is dead on.
Humans are always interested in looking at humans from a human point of view. It is more clear to me than ever that we have been able to monetize attention in the soft, and sometimes postmodern economy of the digitized virtual. You know it as people walking into traffic buried in the virtual matrix simulation playing on their smartphones. If you’re an insider in this virtual world, you are stunned at how much of it substitutes maps for territory and indeed has managed to sell maps of maps. When my kids sat on my couch being entertained by watching me play videogames, I knew something deep was afoot, but when Amazon bought Twitch for $970 million six years ago, the matter was settled. These Omega Man days, Twitch is killing it.
That same year, Ferguson Missouri burned. As I was already deep into creating my Peasant Theory, I was completely comfortable with the phenomenon. Perhaps comfortable isn’t the right word, but I’m not mincing today. Someone asked me how it benefited me to see democratic institutions fail. “Does it allow you to fulfill your survivalist training, the ‘sheepdog’ vision that you have waxed on your blog about over the years? Do you long for a society that is tougher on the idiots? The peasants? The illiterates? Are these opportunities to cull the herd?” My reply:
It doesn't particularly benefit me. It matters where I live and with whom I associate. Just because Ferguson fails doesn't mean Los Angeles fails. Just because Compton fails doesn't mean Koreatown fails. Just because Compton failed yesterday doesn't mean it fails tomorrow. I have the benefit of seeing Ferguson as an isolated whatever. No matter what extremity is revealed there, it doesn't make me believe that the sky is falling. I can accept without hesitation that it is what it is, because nothing exactly like it is happening elsewhere. So fine. Let it be what it is. I don't pretend to be affected when I'm not. I just see what I see.
My preparation is necessary for me because I understand how cheesy the digital world can become and has become in certain areas. It is a kind of cheese that is easily spread and I am particularly loathe of that kind of dishonesty. So I am finding (whilst being honest in the digital realm) alternative ways to express contributions to society, particularly in emergency services. I'm the guy who knows firemen and cops and Boy Scout leaders in his city. I know what they do because I have been trained to do some of their work. I suspect I'll get on with nurses and air traffic controllers next. Quite basically, I am separating myself out of the bullshit job economy. People keep complaining about how hard it is to get 'a job' while so many skills are lacking. These are the jobs and skills that can never be outsourced and never go away. You can call that survivalist training.
I ask everybody with a keyboard and an opinion, "Who is your Leviathan?". Everybody on the internet thinks they can say something, wish something, vote something into being if their meme is virulent enough. I call bullshit on that. I look at what it actually takes to pull levers, cut steel, lay bricks, stop bad guys, put out fires, pour cement, fly planes, set broken bones, grow crops, tend herds. That's a very different business than retweeting, posting, coding, voting, critiquing cultural productions, socializing concepts, raising awareness, supporting causes. Hard physical skills vs soft verbal skills. Whether or not democratic institutions fail, the former are more important than the latter. I spent the first 50 years of my life feeding myself with the latter, and it's important that I get busy with the former. I'm thrilled. Just thrilled to find so much satisfaction in learning the hard physical skills, having sufficiently mastered the soft ones.
It is the corruption of the soft skills that make democratic institutions fail. Dishonesty. And millions of Americans are just helpless suckers because they have no hard skills and expect the soft ones to have integrity automatically. It's a great deception which is part and parcel of the Digital era. And most people do not have the mental discipline to work that soft verbal properly. So we have expanded markets into the territory of bullshit. Once upon a time, it took Stan Lee and a couple of his co-workers all of their imagination to come up with Spiderman comics, and that was pure gold. Now in America you have a billion dollars worth of Spiderman multimedia which is mostly bullshit. Once upon a time you had Paley and Friendly at CBS who made one national news channel worth watching. Now you have 1000 channels and bullshitters like Jon Stewart 'informing' the masses.
When you build a bullshit dike, a hurricane will make it fail and people will drown. When you build a bullshit network, it too will be compromised. Except that people don't drown. The soft bullshit is sustained, like all the meaningless conversations and viral memes around Ferguson which fund millions of dollars of pop-up ads. When all those ideas fail, people will stop thinking they are pundits and experts. They'll realize they don't have the skill, and they'll try something simpler. They'll realize that they can't express themselves in any meaningful way. Hmm. Maybe they'll burn shit down.
I have lived among the effete wordsmiths who cannot function in the physical world. They expect that MLK speeches will turn people's actions, decades after MLK is dead. They cannot deal with violence or physical hard skills - they are poets, priests and politicians. I see millions of common folk helpless to their charms. And those phonies were and probably still are in authority over the democratic institutions of Ferguson.
In the moment of violence, when the bullshit words and institutions built on bullshit words crumble, when the wolves come out, every human being looks to the sheepdog. I'm not under any illusion that the bullshit can continue indefinitely. I know human beings too well. I've watched the blogosphere rise and then disintegrate. Compare the comments here to those at the Huffington Post. You already know. I'm not going to be Digital forever. I don't need society to fail, it fails in tiny parts every day. One tiny part is Ferguson. It's just another lesson I'm ready for.
I still hold out some hope that I might pull some literary coup and do what the Siliconites do, turn bits into dollars and convert those dollars into concrete reinforced buildings on protected real estate. I’ve heard the economic rundown on that trend as well and know what it has done to California - where cops, firemen and nurses can’t afford to live near the gentrified municipalities they serve. But I still do my situps. A happy kettlebell is a moving kettlebell.
I’m not the sort of person who hates the income gap or the wealth gap. After all, civilization must be capitalized. I am the sort of person who would prefer Hammurabi’s imperative. The bridge builder must live under his own bridge. I want to see skin in the game and I might well become as disagreeable as Taleb, because I agree with him so much. It’s not that we have so much wealth, it’s that we have so much tied up in chicanery and subjective folly. I think too often the smart money is dishonest. But if my Peasant Theory is to hold up, it is because it recognizes the fundamental value of self-reliance. What that means in an urban nation is somewhat difficult to see clearly, but it certainly begins with what first responders will tell you. You’ve got to be able to handle your emergencies. If a ten minute response is the difference between life and death, we owe ourselves at least ten minutes of competence. If we could build that up to ten weeks, we’d be a much stronger people.