Here’s a brain-teaser for you. How does a recent PBS documentary about America’s “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s combine with a just-published book by one of the nation’s best-known venture capitalists to shed light in an unprecedented and powerful way on the government shutdown and the struggle over the debt-limit?
The late 2012 documentary film feature by Ken Burns entitled “The Dust Bowl” lays out in agonizing and videographically sharp detail how the historic calamity of the Great Depression as well as the economic policies that inflamed it could never be separated from the ecological disaster accompanying it.
Daniel Alpert’s just-released The Age of Oversupply: Overcoming the Greatest Challenge to the Global Economy (Penguin: 2013) offers through penetrating economic analysis an eerily engaging argument that the same kind of thinking and collective decisions that drove the West to disaster in the Thirties has now been inadvertently revived at a planetary level – and of course with long-term, fateful consequences.
The acrimonious and stalemated political fight in Washington whether we should be spending more or less, whether deficits matter, or whether we should tax more to pay for our financial obligations, and so on, masks an unspoken premise, if the sorts of discerning diagnoses mentioned above have any bearing on what we truly confront nowadays.
The premise is that we are trying to solve profoundly global problems with outdated national tools and strategies, which like the policies of the 1930s end up exacerbating a situation we grievously fail to comprehend, chiefly because we rely on paradigms that once worked well, and now under changed conditions work to opposite effect.
Both Burns and Alpert suggest in their own way that the key to our current, colossal misapprehension of things lies in our inattention to the significance of the classical Greek word oikos, from which get the words “ecology” and “economic” together with “ecumenical.”
In ancient Athens the oikos was basically the estate of the extended family, signifying the private sphere of life as opposed to the public space. The term for the latter was polis, whence derives the concept of the “political”. During Hellenistic times, and in the initial centuries of Christianity, oikos came to imply a spiritual sense of an “extended family” of all persons, regardless of whether they had political status, an inflection on which the early church built its own anti-imperial identity.
Ecological, “economic”, and ecumenical mindsets reflect the inherent interdependence of human beings, given relationships that remain prior to the formal structures of governance and authority. These formal structures themselves are held up by what Jacques Derrida has called the “force of law. Where the polis fails, the oikos takes up the slack. During Roman times, and even after the fall of Rome itself, the church functioned as oikos in the absence of an effective political framework.
The Dust Bowl , an ecological calamity, resulted from the economic dysfunction which set in after the stock market crash in the autumn of 1929, which in turn was driven by the failure of political authorities to intervene and regulate the exchange of commodities. Although the onset of drought on the Great Plains during the early Thirties exacerbated the situation, it was what the documentary dubs “The Great Plow-up” of agricultural land across the region, arising from farmers’ obsession with making up for falling prices by planting and harvesting even more wheat, that was primarily responsible for the “black blizzards” of dust that darkened the skies routinely from the Rockies to the Great Lakes.
The Dustbowl was the environmental flip side of a crisis of overproduction as well as an overabundance of capital, which marked the Great Depression. The oikos that “housed” both the delicate balance between humanity and nature and the systems of exchange comprising the “free market” was utterly swept away in a desperate stampede for self-preservation amid a glut of unusable resources.
Alpert argues that we are again facing similar conditions, though now at a global level. The fall of Communism and the rapid unwinding of socialist command economies, such as China, with populations in the billions, brought about a biblical flood of capital and cheap labor, which has distorted markets and barred solutions by conventional means throughout the developed world.
Neither austerity nor unmanaged deficit spending (that is, deficits that do not lead to employment of labor and capital) on the part of national governments is working in this set of circumstances, if we read Alpert correctly. They are economically comparable to The Great Plow-up, because they alternately destroy consumer purchasing-power and infrastructure, or overtax the debt-carrying capacity of the developed nations.
The real problem lies in the distortion of global trade balances, investment flows, and the technological means of production, which the “age of oversupply” has wrought upon us. From currency wars to protectionist strategies encouraging crony capitalism and the over-accumulation of undeployed cash assets in the hands of the new, planetary superrich and single corporations, global economy is teetering on the edge of a dangerous disequilibrium that threatens to bring it crashing down.
There is no regional or national solution, according to Alpert. Any real solution requires a global re-ordering of the political relationships among nation-states in such a way that a new oikoumene can emerge. But Alpert’s prescriptions are, unfortunately, typical of the sort of neo-liberal, strictly “pragmatist” (his words), secular political approach that has dug even deeper the trench into which the developed world is falling. “I am convinced”, he writes toward the end of the book, “that the majority of responsible policy makers … as well as the common citizens of our industrialized democracies, can be made to understand that the challenge facing us is largely outside the framework of the philosophical and economic disputes that divide us. “ (p. 252).
The quest for a new, global oikoumene in which “eco-“ thinking at a deeper social level comes back to the fore cannot be achieved simply by “policy”, or “political” means in the ordinary sense of the term. As Immanuel Kant, the first modern philosopher to sketch the outlines for such an oikoumene in his essay “Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Purpose” (1784), understood, the binding force of such a universal community is not the force of law, but a moral and religious one.
Thus in practice we need the force of a global, political theology to begin to reshape the inclinations and perceptions of a world where the current, fractured, oikos, or human household, is in complete shambles. Jesus’ well-known proclamation that “if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25, NIV) applies to all houses, including the oikos that is our global economy.
The political standoff in Washington is just one, tragic symptom of profound divisions that are rendering our global house uninhabitable. It is time we cast aside the politics of resentment, self-justification, and blame and begin an honest search for identifying the visible spiritual sutures whereby our fragmented oikos can be put back together.