The Political Dimension of Breakdown

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Source: The Hipcrime Vocab

This article claims that scientists have discovered an energy-efficient way to make biofuels. This brings up an often-overlooked point that there is nothing we can do under our current techno-industrial regime that requires fossil fuels. Anything we can do currently with fossil fuels we can theoretically do without them – power cars, generate electricity, make plastics, and so forth. There are substitutes – for example, ethanol and biodiesel in place of gas, corn for plastics, solar panels for electricity, and the like. We simply cannot do them on the scale we do now, because we would be limited by the earth’s solar budget. Fossil fuels were essentially “free” energy in so far as the EROI was so high because the sunlight that had created them occurred over the course of millions of years a long time ago. But to say that the techno-industrial system will cease to function with decreasing quality fossil fuels or net energy is simply not correct. It will simply decrease in scale. But that’s a different problem.

That’s also why the price issue never made sense to me. The argument is that the lower EROI of unconventional oil will cause the price of fuel to rise and the industrial economy to crash. So oil gets more expensive. So? Lots of things get more expensive, and the economy adapts. Oil was probably a lot cheaper fifty years ago than today. Well, we had an exploitative capitalist economy then, and we have one now. Nothing’s really changed. When something gets more expensive, it simply means that less people have access to it. Yes, the economy contracts, but so what? If it contracts slowly enough, no one will notice thanks to creeping normalcy.

Two recent stories about Detroit should illustrate this point. One is that thousands of people have been cut off from running water for delinquent bills. What has not been shut off, however, is water to the golf courses, businesses and sports fields, even though their bills are also delinquent:

Welcome to Detroit’s water war – in which upward of 150,000 customers, late on bills that have increased 119 percent in the last decade, are now threatened with shut-offs. Local activists estimate this could impact nearly half of Detroit’s mostly poor and black population – between 200,000 and 300,000 people.

“There are people who can’t cook, can’t clean, people coming off surgery who can’t wash. This is an affront to human dignity,” Charity said in an interview with Kate Levy. To make matters worse, children risk being taken by welfare authorities from any home without running water.

Denying water to thousands, as a sweltering summer approaches, might be bad enough in itself. But these shut-offs are no mere exercise in cost-recovery.

The official rationale for the water shut-downs – the Detroit Water Department’s need to recoup millions – collapses on inspection. Detroit’s high-end golf club, the Red Wing’s hockey arena, the Ford football stadium, and more than half of the city’s commercial and industrial users are also owing – a sum totalling $30 million. But no contractors have showed up on their doorstep.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/true-north/2014/jun/25/detroits-water-war-a-tap-shut-off-that-could-impact-300000-people

Second, this story points out that while services and pensions are slashed for working people, billionaires are still enjoying taxpayer-funded subsidies:

As U.S. states and cities grapple with budget and pension shortfalls, many are betting big on an unproven formula: Slash public employee pension benefits and public services while diverting the savings into lucrative subsidies for professional sports teams.

Detroit on Monday made itself the most prominent example of this trend. Officials in the financially devastated city announced that current and future municipal retirees had blessed a plan that will slash their pension benefits. On the same day, the billionaire owners of the Detroit Red Wings, the Ilitch family, unveiled details of an already approved taxpayer-financed stadium for the professional hockey team.

http://www.ibtimes.com/detroit-other-cash-strapped-us-cities-states-slashing-pension-benefits-while-subsidizing-1635660

There’s some idea that things will fall apart for everyone. They won’t. Things will keep chugging along for the rich and powerful in their air-conditioned sports luxury boxes and their golf courses and their gated communities; it’s just the people on the outside who won’t have access to jobs, adequate shelter, health care, decent food, or running water. Industrial society, however, will keep chugging along, even with $200.00 a barrel oil, because the pain and suffering can just be pushed down to those lower on the socioeconomic totem pole. We’ve already seen this with jobs – the workforce participation rate is down to what it was in the late 1970’s and this is rationalized as “the new normal.” No doubt not having access to healthcare and running water will be also rationalized as “the new normal” at some point in the not-to-distant future. There are still plentiful high-paying jobs for those with the “right” skills, and those skills mainly consist of having the right parents or knowing (or sucking up to) the right people. And if you’re not on the inside, it will be rationalized as “your own fault.”

People overlook the political dimension of collapse. Too often peak oil was used as an excuse for doing nothing. “What’s the use when it will all collapse anyway?” the argument went. “The economy will collapse and we’ll all be even anyway,” they thought. The slate will be wiped clean. The dollar will collapse and we’ll all be on an even footing once again trading with gold nuggets or something.

But the stories from Detroit show that even in a collapse situation, the elites will keep resources – water, oil, money, etc. – flowing to themselves even as they deprive them from the rest of us. Politics will appropriate the remaining resources, however scarce, and keep them flowing to the elites. Technology and industry may be deprived from us, but it will not be deprived from them, because there will always be some way to power industrial civilization within the earth’s solar budget for a certain ever-shrinking segment of the population. In that sense, collapse will never happen. For a certain segment of people, though, it has happened already. Just ask Detroit.

If we use collapse as some sort of excuse to not fight back politically, we will be left without, but rest assured, the elites will not. Not only will it not happen, but we will be as lambs to the slaughter.

BONUS: Who Bled Detroit Dry? (Vice):

The Water and Sewage Department has claimed some residents could pony up if they really wanted to but were simply mooching off the city.

This was a view shared by the surly cabdriver who gave me a lift into town from the airport. The city is “going to shit” he said before making the sinking sound of a bomb landing with his lips. The citizens of Detroit are, by and large, slovenly idiots—the kind of people who keep going back to the convenient store for cans of beer instead of buying the whole six-pack, he explained. The cabby had lived in the city for 35 years after immigrating from Iraq, but, he told me, these days “Detroit is worse than Baghdad.”

And certain statistics back him up. Baghdad actually has both a lower unemployment rate and a lower murder rate than Detroit.

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9 Responses to The Political Dimension of Breakdown

  1. Nolan says:

    “water is a human right”. So what they are saying is thousands of people need to build and maintain a water infrastructure for free and not get paid while they should be able to just stay at home, turn on the faucet, enjoy free water and not have to pay for any of the labor/material costs that brings the water to their homes? Is that seriously the way they think things should work?

    • I think it’d be preferable to a mass shut-off of water (except for the wealthy) causing people to migrate or die. Because immediate access to fresh water is as essential for life as air, we need to be mindful about how it’s distributed and how distribution systems are funded. In theory, something as basic as access to water is what society should be funding through sales and income taxes. As cities like Detroit weaken, they’re increasingly vulnerable to water privitization schemes such as the one Bechtel attempted to implement in Bolivia in 2000. When water rates started increasing as much as 35%, only mass public outrage made them back down.

      • Nolan says:

        Think of it this way, if people don’t pay their water bill, their won’t be any money to maintain the system and then no one will have running water. It’s amazing people can’t figure this out. I also find it ironic that the same people who are obsessed with inequality demand inequality. After all, this is perfect equality, pay your bill or get it shut off, The libs can’t handle the very thing they ask for. They should just be honest, they don’t want equality, they want to be treated better than others. I totally support free access to the shoreline and for people to use as much water as they please, but these fat, lazy bastards won’t walk(or drive) to the largest freshwater source in the world to save their life, pathetic. Imagine the dismay of those poor Africans living in the desert if they read about this “problem”. Again, access to water should not mean forcing others to pay for it, It doesn’t make sense both philosophically and practically. Socialist Detroit drove the wealthy away from the city because they were sick and tired of supporting everyone else. Liberals in Detroit are reaping exactly what they sowed there. btw, because high union wages served as the de facto minimum wage in Detroit, this is a perfect example of what minimum wages can do to a society. Careful what you ask for liberals, you may just get it, like Detroit.

        • Nolan says:

          And as far a as using sales and income taxes to pay for a water system, Detroit doesn’t have the money. They don’t have money for cops, firefighters, teachers, etc., much less construction workers to support expensive water distribution systems. So they don’t have the money, get it? they DO NOT have the money. Using taxpayer dollars to fund it IS NOT AN OPTION, THE MONEY IS NOT THERE.THEY ARE ALREADY BANKRUPT! Does it really make a difference if they raise taxes to pay for a water system or charge people a bill?No, it doesn’t, either way, it has to be paid for. They can’t afford higher taxes, if they could, they would be paying their water bills. The rich will only tolerate supporting others so much before they get the F out of Dodge, literally, lol. They need to pay their water bills to keep it running, this is reality

        • No one said anything about raising taxes, but since we’re coerced to pay taxes whether we like it or not, why not examine what taxes are actually paying for and why? And in case we need a reminder of why Detroit is bankrupt: https://desultoryheroics.com/2013/09/22/american-apartheid-starts-in-detroit/

          • Nolan says:

            Ok, too many links to read. Basically, this article claims Detroit’s bankruptcy is due to it’s bank debt? That’s nonsense. It’s like saying their broke because their broke. This article has such twisted and convoluted logic.Then this article throws in the word apartheid to get peoples emotions running wild, what a low brow tactic, and clear as glass. This article says nothing about what taxes were spent on, and remember, bank loans represent government spending beyond tax revenue. No one on the left was complaining when the Detroit government was taking out these loans to fund social programs, you only hear it when they have to pay it back, hmm.

          • It’s not too convoluted. Detroit is bankrupt because they were looted by bankers working in collusion with paid off politicians. Apartheid may be an emotion-laden term but it’s unfortunately an accurate descriptor of the situation.

          • Nolan says:

            And I’m really sorry for the inconsiderate language, my apologies. I was really emotional thinking about our accelerating speed and momentum into socialism, and how Detroit really is a harbinger of whats to come to the rest of the US,

          • We may disagree on root causes of problems but at least we agree on the point that what’s happening in Detroit will likely spread across the US, just as it has occurred in other parts of the world before Detroit.

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