Sat, 02 Oct 2004

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fall of the towers

Just finished Samuel Delany's book "Fall of the Towers." The title caught me for obvious reasons, although the book was written well in the '60's, during the social turmoil of that era. Interestingly, despite being written 40 years ago, it is astoundingly relevant to today. The story is about an Empire that has found that it no longer has any space to expand, causing economic turmoil. The tanking economy is making jobs scarce, and unemployment causes an increase in crime. The society depicted takes to locking up their criminals in mines, but even that isn't enough to stem the tide of discontentment and decay, so they decide to go to war, against an enemy that may not really exist. At least, there is no real "other," the political and financial intrigues in the Empire come together that certain events look like attacks by an outside enemy. When they discover that there really is no enemy, they nonetheless keep up the pretense of war, the people in power refusing to admit to themselves the disaster they have wrought. It still isn't enough to control the malcontent by sending them off to war. And in the end, the made-up war gets out of control, and backfires on the Empire, and eventually, the Empire crumbles.

Through the lens of my completely informal understanding of poli sci and ethnic studies, it seems like an allegory of Marxism. Capitalism will eat itself. But somehow this text makes me come upon this conclusion: Communism isn't the end-stage of economic development. It is the beginning stage. And it still does come after capitalism. But once capitalism destroys itself, we have no choice but to start over again. With the population thinned by the inevitable destructive forces unleashed by the destruction of capitalism, while the land may be wracked and ruined and probably radioactive, most likely, the resource to person ratio will be increased. In a society where everything is abundant except for labor, it doesn't make sense to create a capitalist system. The infrastructure has to be rebuilt first, and every hand will be needed to do that. Since there is no (relative) scarcity in a post-apocalyptic world, it is difficult to accumulate what would be a meaningful amount of wealth. But as the population grows, and resources get scarcer, market forces come into play, and supply and demand inevitably create classes of haves and have-nots.

In history, it makes a lot of sense. When the English colonized the East Coast, their relatively small population was met with an abundance of resources. They had no choice but to band together to build the infrastructure, because without infrastructure you are vulnerable to the environment: starvation, drought, cold, etc. In the early days of the Republic, the economy of the time is often described as a "moral economy," a sort of intermediate phase between communism and capitalism. While wealth could be created, the group's social cohesiveness still keeps market forces in check, and entrepeneurs made sure to trade only things that the colonists could use, and made sure not to gouge them for it. In other words, it was a planned economy, really, although the "moral" part underscores the Calvinistic undertones.

So, contrary to the common Western concept of linear progress, economic systems are cyclic. Everything changes and evolves, and sometimes we are forced to start all over again.

11:40:45 2 Oct 2004 > /books > permalink > 6 comments