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Two Cheers for “The Story of Stuff”

If you haven’t watched Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff,” I suggest you do. These videos include detailed examinations of the waste economy, subsidized inefficiency and planned obsolescence.

A recent installment, “The Story of Broke,” itemizes wasteful government spending on things like the military and enormous subsidies to prop up the well-named “dinosaur economy.” But this is only a preface for Leonard’s argument that the government really isn’t broke: If it stopped wasting money on bad stuff, it would have more than enough for “building a better future.”

Her laundry list of good things the government should spend money on includes energy efficiency projects, retrofitting homes, subsidies to alternative energy and green technology, and millions of college scholarships. But her vision of a “better future” reflects the internal contradictions of progressivism.

On one hand, we have the mid-20th century, conventional liberal vision of government intervention to build giant blockbuster infrastructure projects, spur creation of new industries, and “create jobs.”

On the other, we have the green, “small is beautiful” sensibility which emerged in the hippie era, of eliminating waste and mass consumerism.

The two just don’t go together.

When Rachel Maddow stands in front of a giant hydroelectric dam, or talks about the Interstate Highway System, as examples of doing “great things,” she channels the mid-20th century managerialist liberalism that made Galbraith’s heart go pitty-pat. That vision really isn’t compatible with the “green” and “small is beautiful” stuff that progressives also talk about.

You simply can’t have a capital-intensive economy based on large-scale, centralized infrastructures, unless you can guarantee a revenue stream to service all those overhead costs.  Which brings us to the Galbraith’s dark side: Creating social mechanisms to guarantee the output of industry will be absorbed so that the wheels of industry don’t get clogged up with unsold inventory. It was precisely that imperative that gave us subsidized waste, sprawl, the car culture, and all the rest of it in the first place.

The “progressive” capitalism model of Gates and Warren Buffett is a greenwashed version of Leonard’s dinosaur economy. There’s an inherent contradiction in her dismissal of that archaic economy, while calling for government policies to provide “good jobs.”

Expansionist government activity to utilize industrial capacity and keep everyone working full-time is the old 20th century model. But it requires an ever-diminishing amount of capital and labor to produce a given standard of living. If we eliminate the portion of industrial capacity and labor that goes to waste production, we wind up with lots of abandoned mass-production factories, and lots of people working fifteen hour weeks and buying stuff from relocalized garage factories close to where they live. And that’s not the sort of thing Gates and Buffett like, because they can’t make money off it.

Another problem is Leonard’s prescription: “Who has the real power? We do.”

Really? Barack Obama is the most progressive Democrat in at least two generations. He garnered the largest Democratic majority since LBJ defeated Goldwater, entering office with an apparent mandate from the financial collapse. Congressional Democrats picked up a super-majority. If “we” didn’t have the power to do these things with this once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the political stars, it’s safe to say it will never happen.

A government powerful enough to “build a better future” will almost certainly — on the principle that power is drawn to power — use that power benefit the few, the rich and the powerful. A continent-sized representative government, by its nature, is not amenable to control by a majority of millions of people. That’s why we had all those “dinosaur economy” subsidies in the first place.

If we want to build a better future, contesting the corporate oligarchy’s control of the government is probably not the best way to go about it. Fortunately, there are millions of people out there who really are building a better future, and they’re doing it by treating big business and big government both as obstacles to be routed around.

They’re building a new society within the decaying old society of dinosaur capitalism and its pet government, ready to replace it with something better when it collapses under its own weight.

They include Wikileaks, the file-sharing and free-culture movements, and Occupy Wall Street.

They include Linux developers, micromanufacturers in projects like Open Source Ecology and Hackerspaces, permaculturists, and community-supported agriculture.

They include the builders of encrypted currencies, barter systems, encrypted routers, and darknets.

And they’re not waiting for a government to give them permission.

Kevin Carson is a research associate at the Center for a Stateless Society. his written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online.

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Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

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