Apparently you can’t be empathetic, or help the homeless, without a GoPro

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless

people to capture “extreme living”

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless people to capture "extreme living"

GoPro cameras are branded as recording devices for extreme sports, but a San Francisco-based entrepreneur had a different idea of what to do with the camera: Strap it to a homeless man and capture “extreme living.”

The project is called Homeless GoPro, and it involves learning the first-person perspective of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. The website explains:

“With a donated HERO3+ Silver Edition from GoPro and a small team of committed volunteers in San Francisco, Homeless GoPro explores how a camera normally associated with extreme sports and other ’hardcore’ activities can showcase courage, challenge, and humanity of a different sort - extreme living.”

The intentions of the founder, Kevin Adler, seem altruistic. His uncle was homeless for 30 years, and after visiting his gravesite he decided to start the organization and help others who are homeless.

The first volunteer to film his life is a man named Adam, who has been homeless for 30 years, six of those in San Francisco. There are several edited videos of him on the organization’s site.

In one of the videos, titled “Needs,” Adam says, “I notice every day that people are losing their compassion and empathy — not just for homeless people — but for society in general. I feel like technology has changed so much — where people are emailing and don’t talk face to face anymore.”

Without knowing it Adam has critiqued the the entire project, which is attempting to use technology (a GoPro) to garner empathy and compassion. It is a sad reminder that humanity can ignore the homeless population in person on a day-to-day basis, and needs a video to build empathy. Viewers may feel a twinge of guilt as they sit removed from the situation, watching a screen.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Human Services‘ biennial count there were 6,436 homeless people living in San Francisco (county and city). “Of the 6,436 homeless counted,” a press release stated, “more than half (3,401) were on the streets without shelter, the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.” The homeless population is subject to hunger, illness, violence, extreme weather conditions, fear and other physical and emotional ailments.

Empathy — and the experience of “walking a mile in somebody’s shoes” — are important elements of social change, and these documentary-style videos do give Adam a medium and platform to be a voice for the homeless population. (One hopes that the organization also helped Adam in other ways — shelter, food, a place to stay on his birthday — and isn’t just using him as a human tool in its project.) But something about the project still seems off.

It is in part because of the product placement. GoPro donated a $300 camera for the cause, which sounds great until you remember that it is a billion-dollar company owned by billionaire Nick Woodman. If GoPro wants to do something to help the Bay Area homeless population there are better ways to go about it than donate a camera.

As ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle put it, “Stop thinking we can innovate our way out of one of civilization’s oldest ailments. Poverty, homelessness, and inequality are bigger than any app …”

What We Lose When We Rip the Heart Out of Arts Education

It’s National Poetry Month, but if the Common Core has its way,
our children will hardly know what poetry is.

Photo Credit: Aaron Amat via

“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” —Paul Proteus to his wife Anita in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano

“So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” is, essentially, a grammatical sentence in the English language. While the syntax is somewhat out of the norm, the diction is accessible to small children—the hardest word likely being “depends.” But “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is much more than a sentence; it is a poem:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

A relatively simple sentence shaped into purposeful lines and stanzas becomes poetry. And like Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” it sparks in me a profoundly important response each time I read these poems:I wish I had written that. It is the same awe and wonder I felt as a shy, self-conscious teenager when I bought, collected and read comic books, marveling at the artwork I wished I had drawn.

Will we wake one morning soon to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

That question, especially during National Poetry Month, haunts me more every day, notably because of the double-impending doom augured by the Common Core: the rise of nonfiction (and the concurrent erasing of poetry and fiction) from the ELA curriculum and the mantra-of-the-moment, “close reading” (the sheep’s clothing for that familiar old wolf New Criticism):

We have come to a moment in the history of the U.S. when we no longer even pretend to care about art. And poetry is the most human of the arts—the very human effort to make order out of chaos, meaning out of the meaningless: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”).


The course was speech, taught by Mr. Brannon. I was a freshman at a junior college just 15-20 miles from my home. Despite the college’s close proximity to my home, my father insisted I live on campus. But that class and those first two years of college were more than living on campus; they were the essential beginning of my life.

In one of the earliest classes, Mr. Brannon read aloud and gave us a copy of “[in Just-]“ by e. e. cummings. I imagine that moment was, for me, what many people describe as a religious experience. That was more than 30 years ago, but I own two precious books that followed from that day in class: cummings’ Complete Poems and Selected Poems. Several years later, Emily Dickinson‘s Complete Poemswould join my commitment to reading every poem by those poets who made me respond over and over, I wish I had written that.

But my introduction to cummings was more than just finding the poetry I wanted to read; it was when I realized I was a poet. Now, when the words “j was young&happy” come to me, I know there is work to do—I recognize the gift of poetry.


As a high school English teacher, I divided my academic year into quarters by genre/form: nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels/plays. The poetry quarter, when announced to students, initially received moans and even direct complaints: “I hate poetry.” That always broke my heart. Life and school had already taken something very precious from these young people:

children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew…
                              (“[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” e.e. cummings

I began to teach poetry in conjunction with popular songs. Although my students in rural South Carolina were overwhelmingly country music fans, I focused my nine weeks of poetry on the songs of alternative group R.E.M. At first, that too elicited moans from students in those early days of exploring poetry (see that unit on the blog “There’s time to teach”).

Concurrently, throughout my high school teaching career, students would gather in my room during our long mid-morning break and lunch (much to the chagrin of administration). And almost always, we played music, even closing the door so two of my students could dance and sing and laugh along with the Violent Femmes.

Many of those students are in their 30s and 40s, but it is common for them to contact me—often on Facebook—and recall fondly R.E.M. and our poetry unit. Those days meant something to them that lingers, that matters in ways that cannot be measured. It was an oasis of happiness in their lives at school.


e.e. cummings begins “since feeling is first,” and then adds:

my blood approves,
and kisses are better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter….

Each year when my students and I examined this poem, we would discuss that cummings—in Andrew Marvell fashion—offers an argument that is profoundly unlike what parents, teachers, preachers, and politicians claim.

I often paired this poem with Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” focusing on:

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

Especially for teenagers, this question, this tension between heart and mind, mattered. Just as it recurs in the words of poets and musicians over decades, centuries. Poetry, as with all art, is the expressed heart—that quest to rise above our corporeal humanness:

               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
                                           (Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)


I have loved a few people intensely—so deeply that my love, I believe, resides permanently in my bones. One such love is my daughter, and she now carries the next human who will add to that ache of being fully human—loving another beyond words.

And that is poetry.

Poetry is not identifying iambic pentameter on a poetry test or discussing the nuances of enjambment in an analysis of a Dickinson poem.

Poems are not fodder for close reading.

Poetry is the ineluctable “Oh my heart” that comes from living fully in the moment, the moment that draws us to words as well as inspires us toward words.

We read a poem, we listen to a song, and our hearts rise out of our eyes as tears.

That is poetry.

Like the picture books of our childhood, poetry must be a part of our learning, essential to our school days—each poem an oasis of happiness that “machines will never be able to measure.”


Will we wake one morning to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

Maybe the doomsayers are wrong. Maybe poetry will not be erased from our classrooms. School with less poetry is school with less heart. School with no poetry is school with no heart.

Both are tragic mistakes, because if school needs anything, it is more heart. And poetry? Oh my heart.

This piece originally appeared on the Becoming Radical blog.

New study finds US to be ruled by oligarchic elite

by Jerome Roos on April 17, 2014

Post image for New study finds US to be ruled by oligarchic elite

Political scientists show that average American has “near-zero” influence on policy outcomes, but their groundbreaking study is not without problems.


It’s not every day that an academic article in the arcane world of American political science makes headlines around the world, but then again, these aren’t normal days either. On Wednesday, various mainstream media outlets — including even the conservative British daily The Telegraph — ran a series of articles with essentially the same title: “Study finds that US is an oligarchy.” Or, as the Washington Post summed up: “Rich people rule!” The paper, according to the review in the Post, “should reshape how we think about American democracy.”

The conclusion sounds like it could have come straight out of a general assembly or drum circle at Zuccotti Park, but the authors of the paper in question — two Professors of Politics at Princeton and Northwestern University — aren’t quite of the radical dreadlocked variety. No, like Piketty’s book, this article is real “science”. It’s even got numbers in it! Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University took a dataset of 1,779 policy issues, ran a bunch of regressions, and basically found that the United States is not a democracy after all:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

The findings, of course, are both very interesting and very obvious. What Gilens and Page claim to have empirically demonstrated is that policy outcomes by and large favor the interests of business and the wealthiest segment of the population, while the preferences of the vast majority of Americans are of little to no consequence for policy outcomes. As the authors show, this new data backs up the conclusions of a number of long-forgotten studies from the 1950s and 1960s — not least the landmark contributions by C.W. Mills and Ralph Miliband — that tried to debunk the assertion of mainstream pluralist scholars that no single interest group dominates US policymaking.

But while Gilens and Page’s study will undoubtedly be considered a milestone in the study of business power, there’s also a risk in focusing too narrowly on the elites and their interest groups themselves; namely the risk of losing sight of the broader set of social relations and institutional arrangements in which they are embedded. What I am referring to, of course, is the dreaded C-word: capitalism — a term that appears only once in the main body of Gilens and Page’s text, in a superficial reference to The Communist Manifesto, whose claims are quickly dismissed as empirically untestable. How can you talk about oligarchy and economic elites without talking about capitalism?

What’s missing from the analysis is therefore precisely what was missing from C.W. Mills’ and Miliband’s studies: an account of the nature of the capitalist state as such. By branding the US political system an “oligarchy”, the authors conveniently sidestep an even thornier question: what if oligarchy, as opposed to democracy, is actually the natural political form in capitalist society? What if the capitalist state is by its very definition an oligarchic form of domination? If that’s the case, the authors have merely proved the obvious: that the United States is a thoroughly capitalist society. Congratulations for figuring that one out! They should have just called a spade a spade.

That, of course, wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows. But it’s worth noting that this was precisely the critique that Nicos Poulantzas leveled at Ralph Miliband in the New Left Review in the early 1970s — and it doesn’t take an Althusserian structuralist to see that he had a point. Miliband’s study of capitalist elites, Poulantzas showed, was very useful for debunking pluralist illusions about the democratic nature of US politics, but by focusing narrowly on elite preferences and the “instrumental” use of political and economic resources to influence policy, Miliband’s empiricism ceded way too much methodological ground to “bourgeois” political science. By trying to painstakingly prove the existence of a causal relationship between instrumental elite behavior and policy outcomes, Miliband ended up missing the bigger picture: the class-bias inherent in the capitalist state itself, irrespective of who occupies it.

These methodological and theoretical limitations have consequences that extend far beyond the academic debate: at the end of the day, these are political questions. The way we perceive business power and define the capitalist state will inevitably have serious implications for our political strategies. The danger with empirical studies that narrowly emphasize the role of elites at the expense of the deeper structural sources of capitalist power is that they will end up reinforcing the illusion that simply replacing the elites and “taking money out of politics” would be sufficient to restore democracy to its past glory. That, of course, would be profoundly misleading. If we are serious about unseating the oligarchs from power, let’s make sure not to get carried away by the numbers and not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Jerome Roos is a PhD candidate in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.

The commons lies at the heart of a major cultural and social shift now underway.

The New Economic Events Giving Lie to the Fiction That

We Are All Selfish, Rational Materialists

Photo Credit: AllanGregg; Screenshot /

Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, “The Zero Marginal Cost Society,” brings welcome new attention to the commons just as it begins to explode in countless new directions. His book focuses on one of the most significant vectors of commons-based innovation — the Internet and digital technologies — and documents how the incremental costs of nearly everything is rapidly diminishing, often to zero. Rifkin explored the sweeping implications of this trend in an excerpt from his book and points to the “eclipse of capitalism” in the decades ahead.

But it’s worth noting that the commons is not just an Internet phenomenon or a matter of economics. The commons lies at the heart of a major cultural and social shift now underway. People’s attitudes about corporate property rights and neoliberal capitalism are changing as cooperative endeavors — on digital networks and elsewhere — become more feasible and attractive. This can be seen in the proliferation of hackerspaces and Fablabs, in the growth of alternative currencies, in many land trusts and cooperatives and in seed-sharing collectives and countless natural resource commons.

Beneath the radar screen of mainstream politics, which remains largely clueless about such cultural trends on the edge, a new breed of commoners is building the vision of a very different kind of society, project by project. This new universe of social activity is being built on the foundation of a very different ethics and social logic than that of homo economicus — the economist’s fiction that we are all selfish, utility-maximizing, rational materialists.

Durable projects based on social cooperation are producing enormous amounts of wealth; it’s just that this wealth is not generally not monetized or traded. It’s socially or ecologically embedded wealth that is managed by self-styled commoners themselves. Typically, such commoners act more as stewards of their common wealth than as owners who treat it as private capital. Commoners realize that a life defined by impersonal transactions is not as rich or satisfying as one defined by abiding relationships. The larger trends toward zero-marginal-cost production make it perfectly logical for people to seek out commons-based alternatives.

You can find these alternatives popping up all over: in the 10,000-plus open access scientific journals whose research is freely shareable to anyone and in community gardens that produce both fresh vegetables and neighborliness. In hundreds of “timebanks” that let people meet basic needs through time-barters, and in highly productive, ecologically minded commons-based agriculture.

Economists tend to ignore such wealth because it generally doesn’t involve market activity. No cash is exchanged, no legal contracts signed and no measureable Gross Domestic Product is generated. But the wealth of the commons is not accumulated like capital; its vitality comes from being circulated. As I describe in my new book, “Think Like a Commoner,” the story of our time is the rise of the commons as a new way to emancipate oneself from predatory markets and to collaborate with peers to protect and expand one’s shared wealth. This is a story that is being played out in countless digital arenas, as Rifkin documents, but also in such diverse contexts as cities, farming, museums, theaters and indigenous communities.

One reason that so many commons arise and flourish is because they help their participants meet important basic needs in fair, responsive and socially satisfying ways. That’s quite attractive to those who are otherwise held captive by conventional, predatory markets. Big agriculture is more concerned with efficiency and profit than ecological stewardship. Large transnationals are more interested in rip-and-run resource extraction (mining, fracking, timber) than in the protection of sacred lands and time-honored ways of life. “Copyright industries” like Hollywood and record labels want to treat all of culture as tightly controlled “product,” not as something that is freely shared and built upon.

Nowadays the commons has a special appeal for people of the global South who are often victimized by the “enclosures” inflicted by neoliberal investment and trade policies. Enclosures are the act of privatizing and commodifying previously shared resources. For example, millions of acres of land in Africa, Asia and Latin America are currently being seized by investors in a massive international land grab. Hedge funds and even the government of South Korea, Saudi Arabia and China are enacting an eerie replay of the English enclosure movement. Commoners who have worked the land for generations as a customary right are being forced to migrate to cities in search of work, where they often end up as paupers and sweatshop employees: a modern-day replay of Charles Dickens’ novels.

By the lights of modern economic theory, it’s all for the best because it promotes “development” (i.e., consumerism and other market dependencies). But many commoners are now fighting the dispossession and dependencies that enclosures entail by struggling to retain some measure of dignity and self-determination through their commons. The International Land Alliance estimates that 2 billion people around the world depend upon subsistence commons of forests, fisheries, arable land, water and wild game to meet their everyday needs.

Strangely, the leading introductory economics textbooks in the U.S. virtually ignore the commons except for the obligatory warning about the “tragedy of the commons.” They prefer not to recognize that the commons represents an entirely viable but different paradigm of “development” – one that can transcend the unsustainable consumerism, cultural disintegration and economic growth of our time. As the late Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom showed, commons are an entirely sustainable, ecologically friendly model of resource management, contrary to the “tragedy” parable.

Commoners are not all alike. They have many profound differences in their governance systems, management practices and cultural values. And commons are not without their conflicts, struggles and failures. That said, most commoners tend to share fundamental commitments to participation, openness, inclusiveness, social equity, ecological respect and human rights.

The politics of the commons movement can be confounding to conventional observers because political goals are not the paramount priority; protection of the commons is. Commoners tend to be more focused on “prepolitical” social activity and relationships, which is why commons are embraced by such a wide variety of people. As German commons advocate Silke Helfrich notes in The Wealth of the Commons, “Commons draw from the best of all political ideologies.” Conservatives like the tendency of commons to promote responsibility. Liberals are pleased with the focus on equality and basic social entitlement. Libertarians like the emphasis on individual initiative. And leftists like the idea of limiting the scope of the Market.

It is important to realize that the commons is not a discussion about objects, but a discussion about who we are and how we treat each other. What decisions are being made about our resources? Does economic activity satisfy basic human needs and honor human rights and dignity? These kind of discussions are not often heard in in conventional business and policy circles, alas.

To conventional minds, the idea of the commons as a paradigm of social governance appears either utopian or communistic, or at the very least, impractical. But a diverse, eclectic universe of commons around the world demonstrates otherwise. It is the neoliberal project of ever-expanding consumption on a global scale that is the utopian, totalistic dream. It manifestly cannot fulfill its mythological vision of human progress through ubiquitous market activity and greater heaps of private consumption, if only because it demands more from Nature than it can possibly deliver – while inflicting too much social inequity and disruption as well.

Fortunately, the Internet and indigenous peoples, the re-localization movement and hackers, community foresters and fishing cooperatives and many, many others, are showing that the commons can be an effective vehicle for social and political emancipation. Jeremy Rifkin’s astute analysis of this powerful trend will help open up a much-needed discussion in the stodgy precincts of conventional economics.

David A. Bollier is an author, activist, blogger and independent scholar with a primary focus on “the commons” as a new paradigm for economics, politics, and culture. He is the founding editor of (2002-2010), co-founder and principal of the international consulting project Commons Strategy Group, and co-director of the Commons Law Project. Bollier is the author of numerous books, including “Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons.”

Capitalism simply isn’t working and here are the reasons why

Economist Thomas Piketty’s message is bleak:
the gap between rich and poor threatens to destroy us


Thomas Piketty has mined 200 years of data to support his theory that capitalism does not work. Photograph: Ed Alcock for the Observer

Suddenly, there is a new economist making waves – and he is not on the right. At the conference of the Institute of New Economic Thinking in Toronto last week, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century got at least one mention at every session I attended. You have to go back to the 1970s and Milton Friedman for a single economist to have had such an impact.

Like Friedman, Piketty is a man for the times. For 1970s anxieties about inflation substitute today’s concerns about the emergence of the plutocratic rich and their impact on economy and society. Piketty is in no doubt, as he indicates in an interview in today’s Observer New Review, that the current level of rising wealth inequality, set to grow still further, now imperils the very future of capitalism. He has proved it.

It is a startling thesis and one extraordinarily unwelcome to those who think capitalism and inequality need each other. Capitalism requires inequality of wealth, runs this right-of-centre argument, to stimulate risk-taking and effort; governments trying to stem it with taxes on wealth, capital, inheritance and property kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Thus Messrs Cameron and Osborne faithfully champion lower inheritance taxes, refuse to reshape the council tax and boast about the business-friendly low capital gains and corporation tax regime.

Piketty deploys 200 years of data to prove them wrong. Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.

The process is made worse by inheritance and, in the US and UK, by the rise of extravagantly paid “super managers”. High executive pay has nothing to do with real merit, writes Piketty – it is much lower, for example, in mainland Europe and Japan. Rather, it has become an Anglo-Saxon social norm permitted by the ideology of “meritocratic extremism”, in essence, self-serving greed to keep up with the other rich. This is an important element in Piketty’s thinking: rising inequality of wealth is not immutable. Societies can indulge it or they can challenge it.

Inequality of wealth in Europe and US is broadly twice the inequality of income – the top 10% have between 60% and 70% of all wealth but merely 25% to 35% of all income. But this concentration of wealth is already at pre-First World War levels, and heading back to those of the late 19th century, when the luck of who might expect to inherit what was the dominant element in economic and social life. There is an iterative interaction between wealth and income: ultimately, great wealth adds unearned rentier income to earned income, further ratcheting up the inequality process.

The extravagances and incredible social tensions of Edwardian England, belle epoque France and robber baron America seemed for ever left behind, but Piketty shows how the period between 1910 and 1950, when that inequality was reduced, was aberrant. It took war and depression to arrest the inequality dynamic, along with the need to introduce high taxes on high incomes, especially unearned incomes, to sustain social peace. Now the ineluctable process of blind capital multiplying faster in fewer hands is under way again and on a global scale. The consequences, writes Piketty, are “potentially terrifying”.

For a start, almost no new entrepreneurs, except one or two spectacular Silicon Valley start-ups, can ever make sufficient new money to challenge the incredibly powerful concentrations of existing wealth. In this sense, the “past devours the future”. It is telling that the Duke of Westminster and the Earl of Cadogan are two of the richest men in Britain. This is entirely by virtue of the fields in Mayfair and Chelsea their families owned centuries ago and the unwillingness to clamp down on the loopholes that allow the family estates to grow.

Anyone with the capacity to own in an era when the returns exceed those of wages and output will quickly become disproportionately and progressively richer. The incentive is to be a rentier rather than a risk-taker: witness the explosion of buy-to-let. Our companies and our rich don’t need to back frontier innovation or even invest to produce: they just need to harvest their returns and tax breaks, tax shelters and compound interest will do the rest.

Capitalist dynamism is undermined, but other forces join to wreck the system. Piketty notes that the rich are effective at protecting their wealth from taxation and that progressively the proportion of the total tax burden shouldered by those on middle incomes has risen. In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population.

As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them. Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services. Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part: not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time. Our collective sense of justice is outraged.

The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war. Piketty fears a repeat. His critics argue that with higher living standards resentment of the ultra-rich may no longer be as great – and his data is under intense scrutiny for mistakes. So far it has all held up.

Nor does it seem likely that human beings’ inherent sense of justice has been suspended. Of course the reaction plays out differently in different eras: I suspect some of the energy behind Scottish nationalism is the desire to build a country where toxic wealth inequalities are less indulged than in England.

The solutions – a top income tax rate of up to 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax – are currently inconceivable.

But as Piketty says, the task of economists is to make them more conceivable. Capital certainly does that.

Where is the protest? A reply to Graeber and Lapavitsas

by Jerome Roos on April 9, 2014

Post image for Where is the protest? A reply to Graeber and Lapavitsas

Yes, we’re nice people, and yes we have been sapped of our energy. But the main reasons we’re not protesting are deeper and must be targeted directly.

Photo by Dimitris Michalakis. Video by Yiannis Biliris.

Last week, two commentaries appeared in The Guardian — one by David Graeber and the other by Costas Lapavitsas and Alex Politaki — basically asking the same question: given that we’re under such relentless assault by the rich and powerful, why are people not rioting in the streets? What happened to the indignation? The screws of austerity are only being tightened. So where are the protests? The two pieces provide two very different answers to the question, and while each contains a moment of truth, both ultimately remain unsatisfactory.

Before turning to the articles, however, we should note that things are not as bad as it would seem from a cursory glance at the headlines. Back in 2010-’11, popular protest was a novelty and it was all over the mainstream media. Today, resistance is widespread, but we no longer see it reported in the news. To give just the most obvious example: two weeks ago, Madrid experienced one of its biggest demonstrations since the start of the crisis, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets. Despite the enormous turnout and the violent clashes that broke out towards the end of the march, the Spanish and international media chose to systematically ignore the event.

Do we care too much?

That said, it’s true that the protests have generally subsided in frequency and intensity since 2011. Why so? In his article, anthropologist David Graeber argues that the working class simply “cares too much.” In his words: “working-class people [are] much less self-obsessed [than the rich]. They care more about their friends, families and communities. In aggregate, at least, they’re just fundamentally nicer.” In a way, Graeber is right to highlight this moral chasm. Recent research has yielded a plethora of scientific evidence that the rich — and their “rational” acolytes in economics departments — are indeed much more selfish than common folk. Here in Athens, communal solidarity and mutual aid is singularly responsible for maintaining the social fabric in the face of this destructive selfishness of bankers and politicians.

But can we really infer from this somewhat moralistic observation that the fundamental niceness of working people — combined with the displacement of their sense of solidarity into abstract concepts like national identity — provides a “partial answer” to the mystery of the empty street? That conclusion strikes me as slightly misplaced. After all, as Graeber himself can attest, there were plenty of ordinary people out there in the streets in 2011, building up protest camps on the basis of solidarity. Why are we no longer out there today? Have we suddenly become so much more caring towards the rich and so much less solidary with one another? What changed? It seems to me that we should be focusing not so much on the moral virtues of workers but rather on the social causes of the ephemeral and ineffective nature of contemporary protest per se.

An economic double whammy?

Here, the article by political economist Costas Lapavitsas and journalist Alex Politaki — which focuses more specifically on European youth protest, although their question is basically the same as Graeber’s — provides a slightly more dynamic explanation. According to Lapavitsas and Politaki, “the answer seems to be that the European youth has been battered by a ‘double whammy’ of problematic access to education and rising unemployment.” This, in turn, has “sapped the rebellious energy of the young, forcing them to seek greater financial help from parents for housing and daily life.” As a result, “the young have been largely absent from politics, social movements and even from the spontaneous social networks that have dealt with the worst of the catastrophe.”

At first sight, this argument seems to have some explanatory merit. Upon closer inspection, however, it clearly contradicts itself. Back in 2010-’11, everyone — including Lapavitsas — cited rising unemployment as a major factor behind the protests. Now the same people are citing rising unemployment as a reason for the lack of protests? That explanation hardly seems to hold water. In 2012, Lapavistas wrote that “this situation is manifestly untenable. It brings unemployment … and spreads hopelessness across Europe. As the eurozone moves deeper into recession in 2013, social and economic tensions will ratchet up across the continent.” Except, they didn’t. As the eurozone moved deeper into recession, the streets all but emptied out. You cannot retroactively account for that fact with the same economistic reasoning you once deployed to predict the opposite outcome, unless you explicitly posit the existence of some kind of threshold at which economic hardship starts to actively discourage popular protest — but Lapavitsas does not do that.

Precarity, anxiety, futility

So, apart from the most immediate factor inhibiting protest (i.e., violent state repression), why are we no longer out there in the streets? I would suggest that, if we look a bit deeper and move beyond mere surface manifestations, we can identify at least three interrelated factors — all long-term developments coming to the fore today — underlying the relatively ephemeral character of contemporary protest:

  1. The total dis-aggregration and atomization of the social fabric as a result of the rise of indebtedness and the precarious nature of work under financialized capitalism, along with the emergence of supposedly “revolutionary” social media and communication technologies, which may be very useful tools for coordinating protest but which render us increasingly incapable of holding together broad popular coalitions. The social atomicity of late capitalism inhibits the development of a sense of solidarity and makes it much harder to self-organize in the workplace and build  strong and lasting autonomous movements from the grassroots up.
  2. The pervasive sense of anxiety wrought by the neoliberal mantra of permanent productivity and constant connectivity, which keeps people isolated and perpetually preoccupied with the exigencies of the present moment and thereby preempts strategic thinking and long-term grassroots organizing. Closely connected to the rise of indebtedness and precarity, anxiety becomes the dominant affect under financialized capitalism. While anxiety is easily transformed into brief outbursts of anger, its paralyzing effects also form a psychological barrier to investment and involvement in inter-personal relationships and long-term social projects.
  3. The overwhelming sense of futility that people experience in the face of an invisible and seemingly untouchable enemy — finance capital — that we simply cannot directly confront in the streets, nor meaningfully challenge in parliament or government. In the wake of the evident failure of recent mobilizations to produce any immediate change at the level of political outcomes or economic policy, people are understandably disappointed by the perceived pointlessness of street protest. Futility — the conviction that “there is no alternative” to capitalist control — thus becomes the most important weapon in the ideological arsenal of the neoliberal imaginary.

In a future article, I will try to dissect these three factors in greater detail and provide an overview of what I see as the main challenges that the movements face in rekindling the radical imagination. Here, however, I just want to highlight one critical point: neither Graeber’s moralistic narrative (counterposing the fundamental niceness of working people to the selfishness of the capitalists), nor Lapavitsas and Politaki’s economistic reading (explaining the decline in protest through the lack of access to jobs and higher education) provides us very much in the way of an analytical-strategic framework to help revamp the resistance in this phase of relative demobilization. What we desperately need right now is a serious debate within the movements on how to break down the neoliberal control mechanisms of precarity, anxiety and futility — and how to adapt our protest tactics and organizing strategies accordingly.

If we are serious about moving beyond the revolutionary moment of 2011 and building a radically democratic anti-capitalist movement that can actually endure and change the material constitution of society, we will first of all need to find ways to disarm the structural and ideological mechanisms of capitalist control. While I do not pretend to have any easy answers on how to do this — David Graeber’s grassroots organizing in Occupy and his direct involvement in the Strike Debt campaign is much more instructive in this respect — it seems to me that recognizing the systemic importance of precarity, anxiety and futility is a crucial first step in the process of revamping the resistance. Only by directly targeting the structural, ideological and psychological mechanisms that sustain the rule of capital can we begin to recover a sense of social solidarity and craft lasting and meaningful alternatives to financial dictatorship.

Jerome Roos is a PhD candidate in International Political Economy at the European University Institute and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.

Why Atheists Like Dawkins and Hitchens Are Dead Wrong

Acolytes of Dawkins & Hitchens pretend that ignorant evangelicals represent all of religion. Here’s what they miss.

Photo Credit: ollyy/

I’m supposed to hate science. Or so I’m told.

I spent my childhood with my nose firmly placed between the pages of books on reptiles, dinosaurs, marine life and mammals. When I wasn’t busy wondering if I wanted to be more like Barbara Walters or Nancy Drew, I was busy digging holes in my parents’ backyard hoping to find lost bones of some great prehistoric mystery. I spent hours sifting through rocks that could possibly connect me to the past or, maybe, a hidden crystalline adventure inside. Potatoes were both  apart of a delicious dinner and batteries for those ‘I got this’ moments; magnets repelling one another were a sorcery I needed to, somehow, defeat. The greatest teachers I ever had were Miss Frizzle and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

I also spent my childhood reciting verses from the Qur’an and a long prayer for everyone — in my family and the world — every night before going to bed. I spoke to my late grandfather, asking him to save me a spot in heaven. I went to the mosque and stepped on the shoes resting outside a prayer hall filled with worshippers. I tried fasting so I could be cool like my parents; played with prayer beads and always begged my mother to tell me more stories from the lives of the Abrahamic prophets.

With age, my wonder with religion and science did not cease. Both were, to me, extraordinary portals into the life around me that left me constantly bewildered, breathless and amazed.

Science would come to dominate my adolescent and early teenage years: papier mache cigarettes highlighting the most dangerous carcinogens, science fair projects on the virtues of chocolate consumption during menstruation; lamb lung and eye dissections, color coded notes, litmus tests on pretty papers, and disturbingly thorough study guides for five-question quizzes. My faith, too, remained operational in my day-to-day life: longer conversations with my late grandfather and all 30 Ramadan fasts, albeit with begrudging pre-dawn prayers. I attended Qur’anic recitation classes where I could not, for the life of me, recite anything that was not in English. I still read and listened to the stories of the prophets, with perhaps a greater sense of historical wonder and on occasion I would perform some of the daily prayers. Unsupervised access to the internet also led to the inevitable debates in Yahoo chat rooms about how Islam did not subjugate me as a woman. At the age of 16, I was busting out Quranic verses and references from the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad to shut up internet dwellers like Crusade563 and PopSmurf1967.

It never once occurred to me during those years, and later, that there could be any sort of a conflict between my faith and science; to me both were part of the same things: This universe and my existence within it.

And yet, here we are today being told that the two are irreconcilable; that religion begets an anti-science crusade and science pushes anti-religion valor. When did this become the only conversation on religion and science that we’re allowed to have?

This current discourse that pits faith and science against one another like Nero’s lions versus Christians — inappropriate analogy intended — borrows directly from the conflation of all religious traditions with the history and experience of Euro-American Christianity, specifically of the evangelical variety.

In my own religious tradition, Islam, there is a vibrant history of religion and science not just co-existing but informing one another intimately. Astrophysicistschemistsbiologistsalchemistssurgeonspsychologistsgeographerslogiciansmathematicians– amongst so many others – would often function as theologians, saints, spiritual masters, jurists and poets as much as they would as scientists. Indeed, a quick survey of some of the most well known Muslim intellectuals of the past 1,400 years illustrates their masterful polymathy, their ability to reach across fields of expertise without blinking at any supposed “dissonance.” And, of course, this is not something exclusive to Islam; across the religious terrain we can find countless polymaths who delved into the worlds of God and science.

Despite the history of the intellectual output of, well, the whole rest of the world, contemporary discussions in this country on the relationship between science and religion take religion to consist solely, again, of Euro-American Evangelical Christianity.  Thus “religious perspectives on human origins” are not really all that encompassing. Muslims, for instance, do not believe in Christian creationism and, actually, have differences on the nature of human origin. The Muslim creationism movement, headed by Turkish author and creationist activist Adnan Oktar (known popularly by the pseudonym Harun Yahya), is actually relatively recent and borrows much from Christian creationism – including even directly copied passages and arguments from anti-evolution Christian literature.

The absence of a centralized religious clergy and authority in Sunni Islam allows for individual and scholarly theological negotiation – meaning that there is not, necessarily, a “right” answer embedded in Divine Truth to social and political questions. Some of the most influential and fundamental Islamic legal texts are filled with arguments and counter-arguments which all come from the same source (divine revelation), just different approaches to it.

In other words: There’s plenty of wiggle room and then some. On anything that is not established as theological Truth (e.g. God’s existence, the finality of Prophethood, pillars and articles of faith), there is ample room for examination, debate and disagreement, because it does not undercut the fabric of faith itself.

Muslims, generally, accept evolution as a fundamental part of the natural process; they differ, however, on human evolution – specifically the idea that humans and apes share an ancestor in common.  In the 13th century, Shi’i Persian polymath Nasir al-din al-Tusi discussed biological evolution in his book “Akhlaq-i-Nasri” (Nasirean Ethics). While al-Tusi’s theory of evolution differs from the one put forward by Charles Darwin 600 years later and the theory of evolution that we have today, he argued that the elemental source of all living things was one. From this single elemental source came four attributes of nature: water, air, soil and fire – all of which would evolve into different living species through hereditary variability. Hierarchy would emerge through differences in learning how to adapt and survive. Al-Tusi’s discussion on biological evolution and the relationship of synchronicity between animate and inanimate (how they emerge from the same source and work in tandem with one another) objects is stunning in its observational precision as well as its fusion with theistic considerations. Yet it is, at best, unacknowledged today in the Euro-centric conversation on religion and science. Why?

My point here in this conversation about religion and science’s falsely created incommensurability isn’t about the existence of God – I would like to think that ultimately there is space for belief and disbelief. I would like to also believe, however, that the conversation on belief and disbelief can move beyond the Dawkinsean vitriol that disguises bigotry as a self-righteous claim to the sanctity of science; a claim that makes science the proudly held property of the Euro-American civilization and experience.

Hoisted into popular culture by the Holy Trinity of Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris, New Atheism mirrors the very religious zealotry it claims is at the root of so much moral, political and social decay. In particular, these authors and their posse of followers have – as Nathan Lean characterized it in this publication back in March of last year – taken a particular penchant for “flirting with Islamophobia.” Instead of engaging with Islamic theology, New Atheists – the most prominent figurehead being Richard Dawkins – are more interested in ridiculing Muslims and Islam by employing the use of the same tired, racist talking points and images that situate Muslims in need of ‘enlightenment’ – or, salvation.

The Evangelical Christian Right is a formidable force to be reckoned with in American national politics; there are legitimate fears by believing, non-believing and non-caring Americans that the course of the nation, from women’s rights to education, can and will be significantly set back because of the whims of loud and large group of citizens who refuse to acknowledge certain facts and changing realities and want the lives of all citizens to be subservient to their own will. This segment of the world’s religious topography, however, does not represent Religion or, in particular, Religion’s relationship with science.

Religion is a vast historical experience between human communities, its individual parts, the environment and something Sacred that acts as that elemental glue between everything. Science and religion are not incommensurable – and it’s time we stop treating them like they are.


Sana Saeed is a writer on politics with an interest in minority politics, media critique and religion in the public sphere. Follow her on Twitter@SanaSaeed.

In each other we trust: coining alternatives to capitalism

by Jerome Roos on March 31, 2014

Post image for In each other we trust: coining alternatives to capitalism

Beyond God and state, it’s money that rules. Can we still imagine alternatives? And what role will recent innovations like Bitcoin play in the struggle?

One doesn’t need to subscribe to Gilles Deleuze’s somewhat obscurantist post-structuralism to recognize that the French philosopher made at least two extremely prescient observations. First, his hypothesis in the early 1990s that Foucault’s disciplinary society, with its schools, prisons and mental asylums, had ceased to be the paradigmatic mode of governmentality under neoliberalism and was instead giving way to a nascent “state of control.” And second, his related observation that in this emerging control society the money-form assumes renewed centrality within the reproduction of capitalist power relations. “Beyond the state,” Deleuze wrote, “it’s money that rules, money that communicates, and what we need these days isn’t a critique of Marxism, but a modern theory of money as good as Marx’s that goes on from where he left off.”

Interestingly, Deleuze tied these two observations together with the chains of debt, which he considered to be the “universal condition” of capitalist control. In his widely-cited Postscript of 1992, he wrote that “man is no longer man confined, but man in debt.” I was reminded of these prescient words when I attended the fascinating MoneyLab conference in Amsterdam last weekend. Organized by the Institute of Network Cultures, the event brought together a smattering of intellectual superstars like Saskia Sassen and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, alongside a diverse and international group of scholars, artists, activists, hackers and heterodox economists, including past ROAR contributors Max Haiven and Brett Scott. The central aim of the groundbreaking interdisciplinary gathering was to explore “experiments with revenue models, payment systems and currencies against the backdrop of ongoing global economic decline.”

With panel discussions on “the monetization of everything”, “dismantling global finance”, “beyond Bitcoin”, “a critique of crowdfunding” and “designing alternatives”, the organizers of the conference set the tone right: in a world dominated by finance, a thoroughly indebted world in which money has effectively assumed the function of a universal signifier under which all aspects of social and natural life are rapidly becoming subsumed, we desperately need to start exploring radical alternatives to the capitalist money-form — not because alternative currencies are somehow a panacea, but because the state and the banks clearly aren’t going to do it for us. Despite major technological advances made in recent years, right-libertarian innovations like Bitcoin just won’t cut it. And so there is an urgent need to dissect, discuss and discover new ways of valuing work, time, nature, community and the fruits of our collective labor.

In addition to strengthening the emerging international network of scholars, hackers and activists working on a critique of finance and the development of alternative currencies, payment systems and revenue models, perhaps the most important thing about the MoneyLab conference was that it happened at all. In fact, just half a decade ago, very few people were seriously talking about money. Today, there appears to be a veritable surge in awareness (at least among intellectual and activist circles, but increasingly among the general population as well) of the nature and importance of money, and the critical role that alternative currencies and mutual credit systems could play in subverting the state-finance nexus and liberating ourselves from capitalist control.

Thanks in large part to Occupy’s critique of global finance, the publication of David Graeber’s influential Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a resurgent interest in a non-dogmatic re-reading of Marx, and the tireless (albeit not very revolutionary) advocacy of heterodox monetary reform groups like Positive Money and the New Economics Foundation, the money question finally appears to have been liberated from the suffocating scene of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, right-libertarian gold bugs and anarcho-capitalist “currency cranks” to which it had hitherto largely remained confined. At last, an international project is starting to take shape to research and experiment with concrete alternatives, laying the groundwork for a world in which the means of production are held in common and both the form and creation of money are subject to direct-democratic control by newly empowered communities of users.

While it would be impossible to fit the many relevant topics discussed at the conference into a single post, I want to shine a light here on what I considered to be some of the most important points raised by participants, along with some additional thoughts they helped inspire (I apologize in advance for missing out on countless other interesting observations). In the coming weeks and months we will hopefully be revisiting the money question on ROAR in greater detail. As always, we welcome contributions on the subject (contact us here).


1. Money is debt

One broad point of consensus among participants in the MoneyLab conference was their adherence to a heterodox theory of money creation that has been referred to as the “credit theory of money.” Spearheaded in the early 20th century by British economist Alfred Mitchell-Innes and more recently popularized by anthropologist David Graeber and heterodox think tanks like Positive Money, the credit theory of money can be said to revolve around two main assertions. First, money’s historical origins lie not in its function as a medium of exchange, smoothing out the inefficiencies of barter (as Adam Smith and even Karl Marx had asserted), but rather in its function as a unit of account for various social obligations. Money, in other words, originated in debt — or, perhaps more appropriately, in the debtor-creditor relation. Money should therefore not be seen as a thing, an object or commodity, but as a social relation. In fact, it is a power relation between unequals, one that forever pitches debtors against creditors. In The Making of the Indebted Man, Maurizio Lazzarato even goes so far as to claim that the debtor-creditor relation is the fundamental class relation, and capital the “universal creditor”.

2. Private banks create money

The second assertion of credit theorists of money — echoed by many participants at the MoneyLab conference and recently confirmed by a widely-discussed paper by the Bank of England — is that every time a bank extends a loan to a customer it actually creates money in the process. The sheer simplicity of this statement often invites incredulity. Surely private banks can’t just create money from scratch? Isn’t money created by central banks, acting on behalf of the state? The answer is yes: central banks do create money, but the money they create is either credit extended to private banks or cash — and cash nowadays only constitutes a very small percentage of the total money supply. In the US and the UK, paper money and coins constitute roughly 3% of the largest monetary aggregate (in the eurozone the amount is closer to 10%). The remaining amount is “virtual” credit-money that exists only as numbers on a screen. Most of this money came into existence through a basic accounting trick in which a bank simply credited a customer’s account and created the deposit in the process.

Mainstream skeptics often argue that this money is still technically created by central banks by extending credit to private banks which then “multiply” their deposits upwards to generate additional money. In this classical Keynesian theory of money creation, vehemently defended by Paul Krugman, central banks still control the total money supply. Recent evidence has challenged this view, however, and the Bank of England (BoE) paper — while not denying that central banks still play an important role — unambiguously states that “Money creation in practice differs from some popular misconceptions — banks do not act simply as intermediaries, lending out deposits that savers place with them, and nor do they ‘multiply up’ central bank money to create new loans and deposits.” It is rather the other way around: private banks take the initiative by extending credit and only look to attract additional deposits after the fact. As the BoE puts it: “Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.”

3. Finance is not just about money

The above account clearly illustrates that finance is not just about money — or at least not about money as a thing. Banks are not simply intermediaries that match savings and investments and efficiently redistribute capital through the economy in search of the highest yields. While finance has allowed for the monetization of everything, Saskia Sassen correctly insisted in her talk that, “if you reduce finance to money, you are missing the key aspect of the plot.” Sassen rather defines finance as a capability; and not necessarily a benign capability at that. Finance is the capability of selling something you don’t have; or going back to what we said before, creating money and allocating credit without actually possessing it prior to extending the loan. This endows finance with vast structural power and enormously destructive potential: just think of the 44% of Greek households that now live below the poverty line, or the 9 million American families and the nearly half a million Spanish homeowners who have been evicted from their homes since the financial crisis began in 2008. As Sassen put it, modern finance, with its debt instruments, over-the-counter derivatives and endless innovations, is all about “enormous complexities producing simple brutality.”

4. It’s time to start “hacking” money

From this, it is clear that, to liberate ourselves from debt bondage, truly democratize society and create political and fiscal space for radically emancipatory alternatives, the public-private duopoly of money creation — what David Harvey has referred to as the state-finance nexus — urgently needs to be dismantled. The idea that this can somehow be done without taking on capitalism is a dangerous illusion. There is no such thing as a “real” productive economy that somehow exists in isolation from the “virtual” financial economy. Contemporary capitalism is thoroughly financialized in nearly every respect. To take on finance is to take on capitalism; and to take on capitalism is to take on the capitalist state. At present, we clearly do not have the tools, nor the strength, to fundamentally challenge this state-finance nexus, let alone destroy it and replace it with something else. But some of the more privileged among us do have the opportunity to start subverting global finance in playful and creative new ways.

This was the subject of Brett Scott’s talk about “hacking the future of money,” in which the South African activist argued that we need to apply a hacker ethic to the way we interact with finance: beginning by disassembling small parts, studying their internal functioning and their relationship to other parts, and then trying to tweak core components in order to explore the outcomes of such interventions. What would happen, for instance, if we took interest out of the equation? What would happen if we moved towards full reserve banking? What would happen if our currency included an automatic demurrage fee (a tax on hoarding money) that could be redistributed in the form of a basic income? Needless to say, “hacking” finance in these small ways will not be enough to undermine its structural power as such; but “opening up” money and tweaking its core components will be an essential first step in deepening our understanding of its inner workings and finding ways to subvert its destructive potential (and even wield its creative capabilities) with revolutionary intent.

5. Money is one of the keys to autonomy

Alternative currencies, while certainly not a panacea, can play an important role in building autonomy from both finance and the state. Of course complete autonomy is impossible as long as the hegemonic mode of production and the dominant money-form remain thoroughly capitalist, but that shouldn’t stop us from starting to make cracks in the facade of financial domination by developing concrete alternatives in the here-and-now. Countless experiments are already taking place around the world to develop worker-run cooperatives, autonomous healthcare clinics, solidarity economies, and so on. But as David Harvey has rightly observed, these laudable projects will ultimately be short-lived if they continue to depend on capital and/or the state for their economic survival.

One of the fundamental contradictions that autonomous and cooperative forms of production tend to run into is that they usually require some form of investment to get started and keep going. As long as worker-run cooperatives are required to turn to private banks to finance themselves, they will be subjected to the same structural exigencies as ordinary firms: they will need to achieve a surplus (i.e., generate profit) in order to be able to repay their loans plus interest, and therefore are forced to either reproduce capitalist forms of competitive market behavior or face the consequences and go out of business (the recent bankruptcy of some Mondragón cooperatives in the Basque Country is a case in point). Here, alternative currencies and mutual credit could play an important role in severing the dependence of worker-run cooperatives on private finance and the cycle of capital accumulation more generally, thereby recovering a sense of collective agency and productive autonomy.

6. Money is bound up with trust

Since money is ultimately a social relation rooted in a common understanding and a mutual recognition of our obligations towards one another, successful currencies fundamentally depend upon trust. Not coincidentally, this is also the Latin root of the word credit: credere, to believe and to trust. In this sense, the credit crisis of 2008 — of which we continue to feel the ramifications today — is properly a crisis of trust: mistrust about the ability of borrowers to repay their loans, mistrust about the real value on the balance sheets of financial institutions, mistrust about the willingness of bankers to stick to their side of the bargain, mistrust about the intentions of the state with respect to our pensions, public services, life savings, etc. This observation is not intended to “psychologize” capitalism (clearly the roots of the crisis are systemic), but rather to expose a fundamental paradox that lies at the heart of its financialized form.

After all, is it not a defining feature of Wall Street’s mafia culture that we should trust no one? Fidite nemini seems to reign supreme as the competitive capitalist’s dogma of distrust. Did not Ayn Rand espouse the virtues of egoism and denounce the evils of altruism precisely because man was supposed to trust in himself, and himself alone? In today’s hyper-individualistic society, our trust in humanity and one another is rapidly becoming displaced into a childish sense of trust in the two avatars of neoliberal governmentality: credit-money and the security state. Look at a $20 bill or flip a coin and you will find the inscription: “In God we trust.” But what God? Giorgio Agamben was entirely right when he recently remarked that “God did not die; he was transformed into money.” Isn’t it precisely because we are so uprooted from any meaningful sense of community, so deeply suspicious of the people and the world around us, that we are still willing to display unquestioning devotion to an abstract higher being that we don’t even fully understand — in this case Mammon, the deity of avarice? Money, then, is both what ties us together and what tears us apart. As the young Marx put it:

If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation? It is the coin that really separates as well as the real binding agent — the chemical power of society.

Of course, the displacement of trust and faith into the money-form is nothing new. When credit-money and fractional reserve banking first emerged in proto-capitalist 15th century Florence, withering away the community of believers that sustained the power of the Church, the reactionary Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola famously organized a “bonfire of the vanities” to protest the evil encroachment of money upon the love of God. For much the same reason, Dante reserved a special place for the miser in the fourth ring of hell, while the usurer would be forced to walk on burning earth under a rain of fire until the end of time. Thanks to capitalism, the Church lost its monopoly on “virtue”, and money rapidly became the master signifier of value. The displacement of human faith from God into money clearly reaches its apotheosis in the symbiotic development of modern finance and the nation state. As Marx observed, sovereign debt (and private trust in the willingness of government to honor this debt) played a central role in that process. “Public credit,” he wrote, “becomes the credo of capital. And with the rise of national debt-making, want of faith in the national debt takes the place of the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which may not be forgiven.”

7. Alternative currencies face a question of scale

The somewhat more abstract discussion above directly feeds into the next point, which was another important observation made by a number of crypto-currency critics at MoneyLab, including Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. One of the main challenges that alternative currencies face is the question of scale — which in turn has some very important implications for the question of trust. On the one hand, we have a proliferation of local currencies, some already quite deeply rooted in their communities, where ordinary people seek to re-appropriate and re-embed money within a different matrix of common values in order to facilitate the satisfaction of important social needs and desires. These local currencies sometimes hark back towards a somewhat romantic notion of territoriality that seeks to re-ground human relations within the material life-world of really-existing human beings, thereby counterpoising a tangible sense of human sociality to the virtual and abstract realm of credit default swaps and complex derivative contracts that characterize modern finance. One thing these local currencies have in common is that they are all principally based on trust.

It is clear, however, that local currencies will never be able to challenge — let alone replace — globalized finance capital as such. At most, local currencies will develop into significant complementary currencies that can be added to a wide-ranging mix of monetary instruments. If we are to devise some kind of alternative to global capitalism, however, we will have to start thinking either on a much larger territorial scale (i.e., globally) or transcend territoriality altogether by developing non-local currencies (whereby non-locality refers to a concept in quantum physics according to which two objects, separated in space and with no perceivable intermediary between them, can nonetheless stand in direct contact with one another). The latter is the realm of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin: a peer-to-peer digital currency that can put a Kenyan farmer in direct contact with her customers, and an American college student or Wall Street banker in direct contact with their drug dealer, without any intermediation by a bank or state. The peer-to-peer technology behind Bitcoin is quite revolutionary in this respect. What we are witnessing is a very exciting proof of concept: we can actually create money without the need for states or banks!

8. Cryptography (alone) won’t set us free

But, as Bifo importantly stressed in his talk, the principle of automation that lies behind crypto-currencies like Bitcoin hides a great risk: by explicitly rejecting the need for trust among the community of users as a fundamental feature of its technological design (a distributed public ledger called the “blockchain”), Bitcoin threatens to remove the last residues of our social bonds from the money-form, thus transforming it into the ultimate agent of separation. Precisely because it is decentralized and non-local, Bitcoin cannot operate on the basis of a trust principle as local currencies do. Instead, it is designed on the basis of the same Randian principle that animates bankster culture: fidite nemeni, trust no one! Now that we have been so thoroughly abandoned by God, finance and the state, an anonymous army of cyber-libertarians proposes a new icon to worship: cryptography. And so our faith becomes displaced into the sophisticated source code behind the new forms of digital money.

Money, then, becomes automated. Once programmed and set free, the currency is supposed to live a life of its own. Of course critics can “fork off” from the source code and create their own alternatives, but the principle remains the same: anonymous cryptography replaces trust as the measure of our sociality, thus removing the last-remaining bit of humanity from the equation. Bitcoin therefore does not solve capitalism’s crisis of trust; it merely radicalizes it by insisting that nothing and no one can be trusted — only code. One member on the Bitcoin Talk Forum instructed his fellow enthusiasts thus: “Don’t trust the exchanges, don’t trust online wallet services, don’t trust your anti-virus software, and don’t trust anybody online.” While he was entirely right, it should be clear that this deepened sense of social paranoia is nothing but capitalist schizophrenia on steroids. There is absolutely nothing liberatory about the automation of distrust. A society in which people have completely ceased to trust one another is simply the perfection of Ayn Rand’s egoist dystopia — a nightmarish manifestation of a hyper-individualistic worldview gone haywire.

As my friend Rutger Kaput, a philosopher at Oxford University, pointed out to me after the conference, in times of universal deceit, simply trusting in one another actually becomes a revolutionary act. To be sure, romantic longing for the local communities of old will not derail the inexorable slide into financial dictatorship. But a world without trust is not a world worth living in. As Quinn DuPont convincingly argued in his talk, cryptography may have an important role to play in the struggle against the control state. But if we start fetishizing it, believing it can somehow replace trust as the glue of our social bonds, we will only end up deepening our sense of alienation from our fellow human beings. After all, without trust, what is to become of our sense of common purpose? The fundamental contradiction that Marx observed, between money as the ultimate social bond and the universal agent of separation, will only be further amplified. Bifo was therefore right to argue that, in the automation of distrust through cryptography, neoliberalism finally finds its avatar — its perfected manifestation.

9. Bitcoin is NOT a revolutionary currency

To this, we must add the observation — rightly repeated at MoneyLab — that, aside from the moral problems that come with its amoral technological design, there is also a crucial issue with Bitcoin’s monetary design, which is essentially conservative in nature. In fact, Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious Bitcoin founder, was clearly influenced by orthodox monetary theories and right-libertarian economic ideas, not least those of arch-neoliberal Friedrich Hayek, who was already calling for the “denationalization of money” back in the 1970s. Most importantly, Bitcoin is effectively designed to function like gold: it is created exogenously, through a complex algorithmic process of “mining”, and circulates as a commodity. New coins come into existence at a predetermined rate and with a set cap on the total money supply. This means that, when the amount of users and transactions within the Bitcoin system begin to expand, the money supply won’t be able to keep pace — eventually producing deflation. The fact that Bitcoin are infinitely divisible shows that Nakamoto was acutely aware of this fact and deliberately coded deflation into the system. (Deflation is a decrease in the general price level of goods and services, and was the scourge of the gold standard that destroyed millions of lives during the Great Depression.)

But while ordinary workers suffer from deflation, which aggravates unemployment and puts downward pressure on salaries, it’s actually a boon for the wealthy. After all, if you hold a large amount of savings, the purchasing power of your money appreciates with every day that the general price level falls. This means that deflation incentivizes hoarding by materially rewarding the accumulation of money. With deflation, the rich get richer by doing absolutely nothing. Rather than throwing their money into circulation, as the worker would do when buying her basic necessities or as the “productive” capitalist would do when procuring machinery, raw material and labor power, the hoarder will hold on to his gold or Bitcoins as long as possible. Deflationary monetary regimes like Bitcoin and the gold standard therefore feed into an ever greater concentration of wealth and power. No surprise, then, that Bitcoin features its very own ultra-wealthy elite. As of July 12, 2011, 97% of Bitcoin accounts contained less than 10 bitcoins, while just 78 entities were hoarding over 10,000 each. Stanislas Jourdan asked the right question in response to this data: how would such a highly concentrated and deflationary form of money ever help the Greeks?

10. Crowdfunding is NOT the “anarchist welfare state”

Hearing some of the speakers at MoneyLab, another danger I think we need to beware of is the romanticization of crowdfunding as a revolutionary revenue model that will somehow set artists and other creatives free from the stifling necessity of grant-applications and private gifts and loans. One speaker, a self-declared “crowdfunding consultant”, kept talking about “crowdfunding your dreams,” while another referred to Kickstarter as “the anarchist welfare state”. The danger here is that we end up idealizing necessities and mistaking them for solutions. In the age of austerity, where grants and subsidies are increasingly being cut and the money that’s still allocated tends to become more and more concentrated in projects with greater perceived market value and name recognition, crowdfunding is often the only option left for creative projects that — despite possibly being valuable — simply do not possess any obvious exchange value, and hence cannot compete for scarce subsidies or investments.

Another risk is that, by narrowly emphasizing the crowdfunding success stories, we end up reproducing certain ideological mechanisms that sustain the hegemonic definition of success as an entrepreneurial virtue — obscuring the exploitation intervening in the process. Is the idealized vision of “crowdfunding your dreams” not a brilliant way of reinventing the American Dream for the emerging creative class? A quick glance at the IndieGoGo website reveals the sad reality behind crowdfunding: on the front page, we are presented with numerous successful projects, unwittingly generating a creeping expectation among prospective crowdfunders that “if they can do it, we can do it too.” However, scroll a little further into the different campaign categories and you will see numerous projects that will never even come close to making their target. Insofar as these projects generate any revenue at all, they are effectively raising money for the platform and perk fulfillment agencies. At rock bottom, those who do not possess marketing skills and access to large and wealthy networks are marginalized anew. The “anarchist welfare state”, then, is not really all that egalitarian — and the surplus it generates ultimately ends up in the private pockets of the platform owners.

Besides, it turns out that the “crowd” in crowdfunding often doesn’t really exist. The vast majority of Kickstarter’s revenue comes not from the “big hits” (which merely help draw attention to their brand, serving as a sort of marketing ploy) but from the massive amount of smaller projects. These small projects, in turn, depend crucially on family and friends to reach their set targets. What this means is that the so-called “anarchist welfare state” is in fact community support transformed into a source of profit for the crowdfunding platforms. The mutual aid of your family and friends ends up being conscripted into the process of capital accumulation. Crowdfunding, in a word, exploits a necessity (for creatives to find new ways of raising funds in the age of austerity) in order to enclose a common solution (mutual aid) and turn it into a commodity. Where the traditional welfare state retreats, the community steps in, and a private company subsequently manages to wring profit from our altruism.

11. It’s crucial not to fetishize money!

The observations above therefore seem to point in the same direction: while coining alternatives to the capitalist money-form will be key to building autonomy from the state-finance nexus and regaining control over our lives, there is a grave risk that our professed solutions end up being conscripted into the logic of the present monetary and financial system and turned into yet another source of speculation, appropriation and accumulation. It is therefore absolutely crucial not to fetishize alternative currencies and revenue models. Building autonomy and challenging the state-finance nexus requires a multidimensional struggle that targets all levels of capitalist social relations. If we fail to reclaim the means of production, bring democracy into the workplace, organize ourselves at the national and global level, develop new models of decision-making, rebuild trust in our communities and beyond, find ways to defend ourselves from state repression, etc., alternative currencies will ultimately be little more than an impotent expression of an admirable but ultimately harmless desire for social change. Our long-term political project is to break the power of capital and radically democratize society from below. If we lose sight of this broader horizon in which the quest for monetary alternatives is ultimately embedded, we are doomed to fail.

12. The real challenge is to redefine value

While in the coming years the money question is likely to assume central importance in the emerging anti-capitalist movement, we should also be extremely careful not to fall into the messiah syndrome that sometimes characterizes recent “converts” to the cause. Upon first realizing that money is created by private banks, and that interest-bearing debt continuously feeds the need for economic expansion at the heart of the capitalist system, many people have a eureka moment — I’ve figured it out! Money is the root of all evil! Let’s create an alternative currency and change the world! — that temporarily blinds them to the other fundamental contradictions of the system (a theme taken on by David Harvey in his forthcoming book). It cannot be emphasized enough that money is just an element (a core element to be sure, but just an element) in a process of valuation and a mode of production and accumulation that is extremely complex and that cannot simply be reduced to its constituent parts. For one, a crucial challenge — one that forever lurks behind money’s superficial forms — is the one raised by Max Haiven in his presentation and his new book, Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: we now need to start collectively re-imagining and materially re-defining not only what value actually is, but also what it is that we value.

Here, at last, we reach the terrain of politics: How can we arrive at common decisions on what is to be valued? Do we value personal bonds or do we value anonymity? Do we value community or do we value individuality? Is there a way to bridge these apparent opposites or dissolve their inherent contradictions, or will they forever be in conflict? What do we value about ourselves? What do we value about others? What do we value in nature, in work, in leisure? And how can we embed these values — both moral and economic — in the very money-form? Ultimately, if we are talking about creating a radically different society, the question of value will have to somehow be detached from money. Exchange value is one thing; use value, as Marx pointed out, is quite another (not even mentioning the cultural, aesthetic and ecological importance of non-use value). Would it be possible to organize society on the basis of use (and non-use) value, rather than exchange values? What would such a society look like? How do we get there? Would we even be able to trust in each other’s good intentions and our sense of common purpose as we squabble and fight over the possible answers?

At this point, nobody knows — but at least we have finally started asking the right questions. In a thoroughly monetized world in which human beings have ceased to count for anything, that, at least, has got to count for something.

Jerome Roos studied International Political Economy at Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics and is currently a PhD candidate at the European University Institute. He is the founding editor of ROAR Magazine.

Mood Science and the Evolutionary Origins of Depression

The Unaddressed Business of Filling Our Souls


What language and symbolism have to do with mood and how light exposure and sleep shape our mental health.

“Depression is a disorder of the ‘I,’ failing in your own eyes relative to your goals,” legendary psychologist Martin Seligman observed in his essential treatise on learned optimism. But such a definition of depression, while true, appears somehow insufficient, overlooking the multitude of excruciating physical and psychological realities of the disease beyond the sense of personal failure. Perhaps William Styron came closer in his haunting memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, where he wrote of “depression’s dark wood,” “its inexplicable agony,” and the grueling struggle of those afflicted by it who spend their lives trying to trudge “upward and outward out of hell’s black depths.” And yet for all their insight into its manifestations, both the poets and the psychologists have tussled rather futilely to understand depression’s complex causes and, perhaps most importantly in terms both scientific and humanistic, its cures.

That’s precisely what psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg sets out to do in The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic (public library) — an ambitious, rigorously researched, and illuminating journey into the abyss of the soul and back out, emerging with insights both practical and conceptual, personal and universal, that shed light on one of the least understood, most pervasive, and most crippling pandemics humanity has ever grappled with. (A sobering note to the hyperbole-wary: At any given point, 22% of the population exhibit at least one symptom of depression and the World Health Organization projects that by 2030, depression will have led to more worldwide disability and lives lost than any other affliction, including cancer, stroke, heart disease, accidents, and even war.)

Rottenberg takes a radical approach to depression based not a disease model of the mind but on the evolutionary science of mood — a proposition that flies in the face of our cultural assumptions that have rendered the very subject of depression a taboo. He puts this bind in perspective:

Because depression is so unpleasant and so impairing, it may be difficult to imagine that there might be another way of thinking about it; something this bad must be a disease. Yet the defect model causes problems of its own. Some sufferers avoid getting help because they are leery of being branded as defective. Others get help and come to believe what they are repeatedly told in our system of mental health: that they are deficient.


People still feel inclined to whisper when they talk about depression. Depression has no “Race for the Cure”; this condition rarely spawns dance marathons, car washes, or golf tournaments. Consequently, the lacerating pain of depression remains uncomfortably private.



Illustration by artist Bobby Baker from ‘Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me.’ Click image for details.


Rather than subscribing to this broken deficiency model of depression, Rottenberg argues that affective science — the empirical study of mood — lies at the heart of understanding the condition. Defining moods as “internal signals that motivate behavior and move it in the right direction,” he argues that our bodies are “a collection of adaptations, evolutionary legacies that have helped us survive and reproduce in the face of uncertainty and risk” and paints the backdrop of understanding depression:

The mood system … is the great integrator. It takes in information about the external and internal worlds and summarizes what is favorable or unfavorable in terms of accomplishing key goals related to survival and reproduction.


Once a goal is embarked upon, the mood system monitors progress toward its attainment. It will redouble effort when minor obstacles arise. If progress stops entirely because of an insuperable obstacle, the mood system puts the brakes on effort.

Under this model, mood has an evolutionary function as a mediator of survival strategies. Rottenberg cites a number of experiments, which have indicated that negative mood incites one’s psychoemotional arsenal when a task becomes too challenging. For instance, when study participants are deliberately put in a negative mood and asked to perform a difficult task, their blood pressure spikes — a sign that the body is being mobilized for extra alertness and effort. But if the task is made insurmountably difficult, so much so that success stops being possible, the spike no longer occurs and the mood system dials down the effort. In that sense, mood — the seedbed of depression — isn’t an arbitrary state that washes over us in a whim, but a sieve that separates the goals worth pursuing from those guaranteed to end in disappointment.

Rottenberg argues that our relationship to the mood system is shaped by the way we talk about it and is mired in toxic cultural constructs that bleed into our language:

One of the amazing things about the mood system is how much of it operates outside of conscious awareness. Moods, like most adaptations, developed in species that had neither language nor culture. Yet words are the first things that come to mind when most people think about moods. We are “mad,” we are “sad,” we are “glad.” So infatuated are we with language that both laypeople and scientists find it tempting to equate the language we use to describe mood with mood itself.

This is a big mistake. We need to shed this languagecentric view of mood, even if it threatens our pride to accept that we share a fundamental element of our mental toolkit with rabbits and roadrunners. Holding to a myth of human uniqueness puts us in an untenable position. For one thing, it would mean that we deny mood to those humans who have not yet acquired mood language (babies) or have lost mood language (Alzheimer’s patients). Toddlers, goats, and chimps all lack the words to describe the internal signals that track their efforts to find a mate, food, or a new ally; their moods can shape behavior without being named. Language is not required for moods. All that is needed is some capability for wakeful alertness and conscious perception, including the perception of pain and pleasure, which is certainly present in all mammals.

Still, Rottenberg cautions, “what we say about our feelings is only one window on mood” — we need, instead, to examine a variety of evidence in the mind, brain, and behavior to paint a dimensional picture of mood and depression. In fact, part of the puzzle lies in the crucial difference between feelings, or emotions, and moods — emotions are more instantaneous and short-lived responses compared to moods, which take longer to germinate and longer to wither out. Moods, Rottenberg explains, “are an overall summary of the various cues around us [and usually] are harder to sort out.” Our deeper reliance on moods rather than feelings is one of the things that make us human and different from other species, a difference empowered by our use of language and symbolism:

Our heavy reliance on symbolic representation also makes the precipitants of low mood more idiosyncratic in our species than in others. We become sad because Bambi’s mother dies, because there are starving people a continent away, because of a factory closing, because of a World Series defeat in extra innings. Though there is a core theme of loss that cuts across species, humans’ capacity for language enables a larger number of objects to enter, and alter, the mood system.



Illustration by artist Bobby Baker from ‘Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me.’ Click image for details.


And yet for all our emotional sophistication, we remain strikingly blind to many of the real triggers and causes of moods, instead falling back on our penchant for psychological storytelling. Rottenberg ties this back to depression:

Despite our deep yearning to explicate moods, the average person cannot see many of the most important influences on mood. As the great integrator, the mood system is acted on by many potential objects, and many of the forces that act on mood are hidden from conscious awareness (such as stress hormones or the state of our immune system). Left to our own devices, the stories we tell ourselves about our moods often end up being just that. Stories.


We must understand the ultimate sources of depression if we are ever to get it under control. To do so, we need to step back and replace the defunct defect model with a completely different approach. The mood science approach will be both historical and integrative: historical because we cannot understand why depressed mood is so prevalent until we understand why we have the capacity for low mood in the first place, and integrative because a host of different forces (many hidden) simultaneously act on people to impel them into the kinds of low moods that breed serious depression.

But before we are tempted to file away low moods as an affliction to be treated, Rottenberg offers a necessary neutrality disclaimer, pointing out that both high and low moods have their advantages and disadvantages:

We are born with the capacity for both high and low moods because each has, on average, presented more fitness benefits than costs. Just as being warm blooded can be a liability, high moods are increasingly understood as having a “dark side,” sometimes enabling rash, impulsive, and even destructive behavior. Likewise the capacity for low mood is accompanied by a bundle of benefits and costs. Seen this way, depression follows our adaptation for low mood like a shadow — it’s an inevitable outcome of a natural process, neither wholly good nor entirely bad.

So what might be the evolutionary advantages of low moods? Several theories exists. One proposes that low moods help dampen agitation in confrontation, thus de-escalating conflicts — when a loser yields rather than fighting to the death, he or she is able to survive rather than perish. Another paints low mood as a “stop mechanism” that, just like the task studies suggested, prevent the person from exerting effort towards a goal that is either unattainable or dangerous. A different theory conceptualizes low mood as a tool for making better decisions, putting us in more contemplative mindsets better suited for analyzing our environment and solving particularly hard problems.

In fact, the latter is something repeatedly confirmed by experiments, most notably in the pioneering work of psychologists Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy, who termed this role of low mood depressive realism. Their work has inspired multiple other experiments, including this 2007 study:

Australian psychologist Joseph Forgas found that a brief mood induction changed how well people were able to argue. Compared to subjects in a positive mood, subjects who were put in a negative mood (by watching a ten-minute film about death from cancer) produced more effective persuasive messages on a standardized topic such as raising student fees or aboriginal land rights. Follow-up analyses found that the key reason the sadder people were more persuasive was that their arguments were richer in concrete detail [suggesting that] sad mood, at least of the garden variety, makes people more deliberate, skeptical, and careful in how they process information from their environment.

These positive uses of negative moods may seem at first counterintuitive, but Rottenberg reminds us that “multiple utilities are the hallmark of an adaptation.” He puts things in perspective:

One way to appreciate why these states have enduring value is to ponder what would happen if we had no capacity for them. Just as animals with no capacity for anxiety were gobbled up by predators long ago, without the capacity for sadness, we and other animals would probably commit rash acts and repeat costly mistakes.

In support of this conception, Rottenberg cites a wonderfully poetic passage by Lee Stringer from his essay “Fading to Gray,” found in the altogether fantastic 2001 volume Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression:

Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.

(What gorgeous language, “the unaddressed business of filling our souls” — rather than an affliction, isn’t that the ever-flowing lifeblood of human existence?)



Cover illustration for P.M. Hubbard’s ‘Picture of Millie’ by Edward Gorey. Click image for details.


Still, Rottenberg is careful to point out that severe depression, far from being evolutionarily beneficial, is absolutely crippling, marked by “distorted thinking that appears to be the polar opposite of depressive realism.” In fact, what is perhaps most perplexing about the condition is that scientists don’t yet have a litmus test for when low mood tips over from beneficial to perilous, no point on the mood spectrum that clearly delineates the normal from the diseased. Rottenberg proposes that mood science is the key to honoring the nuance of that spectrum. He differentiates between milder periods of low mood, which he terms shallow depression, and periods wherein the low mood is both long-lasting and severe, which he calls deep depression, and writes:

Shallow depression is adaptive, whereas deep depression is a maladaptive disease.

The strongest evidence for this spectrum model, rather than a binary division between wellness and disease, comes from the fact that shallow and deep depression share a set of risk factors, suggesting that mood, which varies along a continuum of intensity, is the common denominator. Rottenberg puts it elegantly:

Ignoring this would be like a weather forecaster using separate models to predict warm days and very hot days rather than considering general factors that predict temperature.

So what, exactly, seeds low mood? Rottenberg points to three distinct but interconnected triggers: explainability, evolutionary significance, and timing. He writes:

Modern psychological theories postulate that we recover more quickly from a bad event if we can readily explain it. We would expect, then, that events that generate mixed feelings and/or confusing thoughts would be a powerful impetus toward persistent low mood.


Events that present irresolvable dilemmas on themes that have evolutionary significance — like mate choice — are fertile seeds for low mood.

When the bad things happen also matters. Extensive research demonstrates that early life traumas, such as physical or sexual abuse, lay the groundwork for a slow creep of depression and anxiety.

He cites the example of a middle-aged woman suffering from lifelong “low-grade depression” and anxiety, who grew up with an alcoholic father in a household that vetoed any discussion of feelings. When a neighbor molested her at the age of thirteen, she kept the trauma to herself, believing that her mother would blame her and her father would explode in a rage. Rottenberg explains how these early experiences provide the psychoemotional backdrop for our adult lives:

Jan’s chronic feelings of anxiety and sadness are natural, the product of an intact mood system. In a world in which a child’s primary attachment figures — parents — are emotionally unavailable and unable to help when a trusted neighbor turns into an attacker, the mood system is ever forward looking. It assumes that, if the worst has already happened, it can and will happen again. Best to be prepared. Anxious moods scanning for danger (especially in relationships) and sad moods analyzing what was lost and why serve as the last lines of defense against further ruin.



Illustration by Edward Gorey from ‘Donald and the…’ Click image for details.


Triggers notwithstanding, Rottenberg points out that individual temperament is an essential component in people’s mood responses to the same events. He cites a study conducted after the 9/11 attacks which found that a month later Lower Manhattan residents who had been there on September 11 experienced wildly different degrees of depressive symptoms, ranging from crippling major depression to hardly any symptoms compared to their respective state on September 10.

This variation, once more, can be traced back to early childhood. Rottenberg cites the work of psychologist Jerome Kagan who has spent decades studying infants and found that temperament can be detected as early as in nine-month-olds, who exhibit “reasonably consistent and strong fear reactions to a variety of potentially threatening situations.” These early differences in temperament, Rottenberg argues, are likely to be heavily influenced by genes.

And yet, just like the mood spectrum, temperament isn’t a black-and-white game but an evolutionarily wise strategy:

Experiments by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson also demonstrate that there is no “single best temperament.” In one condition, Wilson dropped metal traps into a pond containing pumpkinseed sunfish. A subset of the fish showed boldness and interest in investigating a novel object. This was a really bad move, as they were immediately caught, and had Dr. Wilson been a real predator, it would have meant the end of their genes. Another group of fish were wary and stayed back from the traps; they were not caught. This situation favored the wary fish.

In a subsequent condition, all the fish were scooped up, brought into a new environment, and then carefully observed. Here the previously wary fish had great difficulty adapting to novelty. They were slower than their bold compatriots to begin feeding, taking five more days to start eating. In this situation the survival of the bold fish was favored.

Noting that the single most indicative depression-prone personality trait is neuroticism, Rottenberg adds:

Like depression itself, temperaments that seed depression are neither wholly good nor wholly bad.

Pointing to two distinct sets of influences on mood — forces that make us vulnerable to long periods of shallow depression and ones that deepen existing shallow depression — Rottenberg makes a poignant observation about our culture’s growing fetishism of happiness:

Our expectations about happiness have changed dramatically, and as they rise, ironically, are making low moods harder to bear than ever before.



Illustration by Edward Gorey from ‘The Green Beads.’ Click image for details.


In fact, a number of our modern fixations have taken a toll on our vulnerability to depression, including our cult of productivity, which accelerated after the invention of artificial light. But while routines may be the key to creative discipline, they may also put us at hazard for depression:

Mood is about the mundane. Day-to-day routines — how we spend our time, how we care for our bodies and minds — continually shape our moods and can have a strong influence on whether low mood persists. Routines that build up physical and mental resources can raise mood. Other routines, woven into the fabric of modern life, are grossly misaligned with evolutionary imperatives and have the potential to seed low mood. Many of our most familiar routines seem almost perversely designed to wreak havoc on the mood system.

We already know that REM sleep is intimately linked with depression and that insufficient exposure to natural light is perilous to our well-being. Rottenberg sheds light on the scale and intensity of the problem:

One mundane influence on mood is daily light exposure. After all, mood evolved in the context of a rotating earth, with its recurrent twenty-four-hour cycle of light and dark phases. Our species is diurnal, and the best chance of finding sustenance and other rewards was in the light phase (think about the challenge of identifying edible berries or stalking a mammoth). Consequently, we are configured to be more alert during the day than at night. Consistent with the link between light and mood, some clinically serious low mood is triggered by the seasonal change of shorter daylight hours. The onset of seasonal affective disorder, a subtype of mood disorder, is usually in winter.

Our newfound reliance on indoor light has effectively turned most people into cave dwellers. Artificial light is much fainter and provides fewer mood benefits than sunlight. When small devices that measure light exposure and duration were attached to adults in San Diego, one of the sunniest cities in the United States, it was discovered that the average person received only fifty-eight minutes of sunlight a day. What’s more, those San Diegans who received less light exposure during their daily routines reported more symptoms of depression.

(My reliance on this light-therapy device, which has gotten me through many dreary New York winters, suddenly seems less trivial and less of a placebo effect.)



Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from ‘The River.’ Click image for details.


As a champion of sleep, I especially appreciate the sobering evidence Rottenberg cites from a number of sleep studies:

Mood is lower after even one night of sleep deprivation. Moreover, brief experimental sleep restriction induces bodily changes that mimic some aspects of depression. It’s important to ponder the consequences of sleep deprivation now happening on a mass scale: more than 40 percent of Americans between the ages of thirteen and sixty-four say they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep on weeknights, and a third of young adults probably have long periods of at least partial sleep deprivation on an ongoing basis. Over the last century average nightly sleep duration has fallen. In 1910 Americans slept an average of approximately nine hours; that average had dropped to seven hours by 2002.

Part of the answer to the riddle of low mood, then, lies in contemporary routines that increasingly feature less light, less rest, and more activities that are out of kilter with the body’s natural rhythm.

In the rest of The Depths, Rottenberg, who has battled depression himself for much of his life, goes on to explore how the multiple seeds of the condition cross-pollinate each other, why other species may hold the key to understanding human depression, and what we can do, both as a culture and as individuals, to loosen the grip of this unrelenting oppressor. Complement it with this simple and effective exercise to increase your well-being and lower depression from Martin Seligman, founding father of Positive Psychology, then revisit this provocative read on how antidepressants affect identity-formation.

Thanks, Amelia

David Harvey: the crisis of capitalism this time around

by David Harvey on March 24, 2014

Post image for David Harvey: the crisis of capitalism this time around

In this excerpt from his new book, the leading geographer reflects on the ongoing capitalist crisis and the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

Crises are essential to the reproduction of capitalism. It is in the course of crises that the instabilities of capitalism are confronted, reshaped and re-engineered to create a new version of what capitalism is about. Much gets torn down and laid waste to make way for the new. Once-productive landscapes are turned into industrial wastelands, old factories are torn down or converted to new uses, working-class neighbourhoods get gentrified. Elsewhere, small farms and peasant holdings are displaced by large-scale industrialised agriculture or by sleek new factories. Business parks, R&D and wholesale warehousing and distribution centres sprawl across the land in the midst of suburban tract housing, linked together with clover-leafed highways. Central cities compete with how tall and glamorous their office towers and iconic cultural buildings might be, mega-shopping malls galore proliferate in city and suburb alike, some even doubling as airports through which hordes of tourists and business executives ceaselessly pass in a world gone cosmopolitan by default. Golf courses and gated communities pioneered in the USA can now be seen in China, Chile and India, contrasting with sprawling squatter and self-built settlements officially designated as slums, favelas or barrios pobres.

But what is so striking about crises is not so much the wholesale reconfiguration of physical landscapes, but dramatic changes in ways of thought and understanding, of institutions and dominant ideologies, of political allegiances and processes, of political subjectivities, of technologies and organisational forms, of social relations, of the cultural customs and tastes that inform daily life. Crises shake our mental conceptions of the world and of our place in it to the very core. And we, as restless participants and inhabitants of this new emerging world, have to adapt, through coercion of consent, to the new state of things, even as we, by virtue of what we do and how we think and behave, add our two cents’ worth to the messy qualities of this world.

In the midst of a crisis it is hard to see where the exit might be. Crises are not singular events. While they have their obvious triggers, the tectonic shifts they represent take many years to work out. The long-drawn-out crisis that began with the stock market crash of 1929 was not finally resolved until the 1950s, after the world had passed through the Depression of the 1930s and the global war of the 1940s. Likewise, the crisis whose existence was signalled by turbulence in international currency markets in the late 1960s and the events of 1968 on the streets of many cities (from Paris and Chicago to Mexico City and Bangkok) was not resolved until the mid-1980s, having passed through the early 1970s collapse of the Bretton Woods international monetary system set up in 1944, a turbulent decade of labour struggles in the 1970s and the rise and consolidation of the politics of neoliberalisation under Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, Pinochet and, ultimately, Deng in China.

With the benefit of hindsight it is not hard to spot abundant signs of problems to come well before a crisis explodes into full view. The surging inequalities in monetary wealth and incomes of the 1920s and the property market asset bubble that popped in 1928 in the USA presaged the collapse of 1929, for example. Indeed, the manner of exit from one crisis contains within itself the seeds of crises to come. The debt-saturated and increasingly deregulated global financialisation that began in the 1980s as a way to solve conflicts with labour by facilitating geographical mobility and dispersal produced its denouement in the fall of the investment bank of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008.

It is, at the time of writing, more than five years since that event, which triggered the cascading financial collapses that followed. If the past is any guide, it would be churlish to expect at this point any clear indications of what a revivified capitalism — if such is possible — might look like. But there should by now be competing diagnoses of what is wrong and a proliferation of proposals for putting things right. What is astonishing is the paucity of new thinking or policies. The world is broadly polarised between a continuation (as in Europe and the United States) if not a deepening of neoliberal, supply-side and monetarist remedies that emphasise austerity as the proper medicine to cure our ills; and the revival of some version, usually watered down, of a Keynesian demand-side and debt-financed expansion (as in China) that ignores Keynes’s emphasis upon the redistribution of income to the lower classes as one of its key components. No matter which policy is being followed, the result is to favour the billionaires club that now constitutes an increasingly powerful plutocracy both within countries and (like Rupert Murdoch) upon the world stage. Everywhere, the rich are getting richer by the minute. The top 100 billionaires in the world (from China, Russia, India, Mexico and Indonesia as well as from the traditional centres of wealth in North America and Europe) added $240 billion to their coffers in 2012 alone (enough, calculates Oxfam, to end world poverty overnight). By contrast, the well-being of the masses at best stagnates or more likely undergoes an accelerating if not catastrophic (as in Greece and Spain) degradation.

The one big institutional difference this time around seems to be the role of the central banks, with the Federal Reserve of the United States playing a leading if not domineering role on the world stage. But ever since the inception of central banks (back in 1964 in the British case), their role has been to protect and bail out the bankers and not to take care of the well-being of the people. The fact that the United States could statistically exit the crisis in the summer of 2009 and that stock markets almost everywhere could recover their losses has had everything to do with the policies of the Federal Reserve. Does this portend a global capitalism managed under the dictatorship of the world’s central bankers whose foremost charge is to protect the power of the banks and the plutocrats? If so, then that seems to offer very little prospect for a solution to current problems of stagnant economies and falling living standards for the mass of the world’s population.

There is also much chatter about the prospects for a technological fix to the current economic malaise. While the bundling of new technologies and organisational forms has always played an important role in facilitating an exit from crises, it has never played a determinate one. The hopeful focus these days is on a ‘knowledge-based’ capitalism (with biomedical and genetic engineering and artificial intelligence at the forefront). But innovation is always a double-edged sword. The 1980s, after all, gave us deindustrialisation through automation such that the likes of General Motors (which employed well-paid unionised labour in the 1960s) have now been supplanted by the likes of Walmart (with its vast non-unionised low-wage labour force) as the largest private employers in the United States. If the current burst of innovation points in any direction at all, it is towards decreasing employment opportunities for labour and the increasing significance of rents extracted from intellectual property rights for capital. But if everyone tries to live off rents and nobody invests in making anything, then plainly capitalism is headed towards a crisis of an entirely different sort.

It is not only the capitalist elites and their intellectual and academic acolytes who seem incapable of making any radical break with their past or defining a viable exit from the grumbling crisis of low growth, stagnation, high unemployment and the loss of state sovereignty to the power of bondholders. The forces of the traditional left (political parties and trade unions) are plainly incapable of mounting any solid opposition to the power of capital. They have been beaten down by thirty years of ideological and political assault from the right, while democratic socialism has been discredited. The stigmatised collapse of actually existing communism and the ‘death of Marxism’ after 1989 made matters worse. What remains of the radical left now operates largely outside of any institutional or organised oppositional channels, in the hope that small-scale actions and local activism can ultimately add up to some kind of satisfactory macro alternative. This left, which strangely echoes a libertarian and even neoliberal ethic of anti-statism, is nurtured intellectually by thinkers such as Michel Foucault and all those who have reassembled postmodern fragmentations under the banner of a largely incomprehensible post-structuralism that favours identity politics and eschews class analysis. Autonomist, anarchist and localist perspectives are everywhere in evidence. But to the degree that this left seeks to change the world without taking power, so an increasingly consolidated plutocratic capitalist class remains unchallenged in its ability to dominate the world without constraint. This new ruling class is aided by a security and surveillance state that is by no means loath to use its police powers to quell all forms of dissent in the name of anti-terrorism.

It is in this context that I have written Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. The mode of approach I have adopted is somewhat unconventional in that it follows Marx’s method but not necessarily his prescriptions and it is to be feared that readers will be deterred by this from assiduously taking up the arguments here laid out. But something different in the way of investigative methods and mental conceptions is plainly needed in these barren intellectual times if we are to escape the current hiatus in economic thinking, policies and politics. After all, the economic engine of capitalism is plainly in much difficulty. It lurches between just spluttering along and threatening to grind to a halt or exploding episodically hither and thither without warning. Signs of danger abound at every turn in the midst of prospects of a plentiful life for everyone somewhere down the road. Nobody seems to have a coherent understanding of how, let alone why, capitalism is so troubled. But it has always been so. World crises have always been, as Marx once put it, ‘the real concentration and forcible adjustment of all the contradictions of bourgeois economy.’ Unravelling those contradictions should reveal a great deal about the economic problems that so ail us. Surely that is worth a serious try.

It also seemed right to sketch in the likely outcomes and possible political consequences that flow from the application of this distinctive mode of thought to an understanding of capitalism’s political economy. These consequences may not seem, at first blush, to be likely, let alone practicable or politically palatable. But it is vital that alternatives be broached, however foreign they may seem, and, if necessary, seized upon if conditions so dictate. In this way a window can be opened on to a whole field of untapped and unconsidered possibilities. We need an open forum — a global assembly, as it were — to consider where capital is, where it might be going and what should be done about it. I hope that this brief book will contribute something to the debate.

This is an excerpt from the prologue of David Harvey’s forthcoming book, ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’, to be published by Profile Books in the UK and Oxford University Press in the US (April 2014).