May 2009

Financial crisis as symptom

Regular readers will know by now that I have some pretty definite views about the nature of capitalism and the society we have built from it. Views that are still quite a bit outside the mainstream (although it probably bears mentioning that the mainstream has begun its long, inexorable drift in my direction).

A few months ago I had a couple of meetings with an advisor / strategist for a very large financial institution. The credit crunch had just kicked off and mass panic was ensuing. At least, on the news it was. I myself never once saw anyone actively freaking out… not even the financial institution guy, and he was exactly the sort of person who was supposed to be screaming “Sell! Sell! For the love of God, Sell!” down the phone at some poor bugger in the midst of a heart-attack.

But instead he was taking leisurely lunches-slash-dinner-and-drinks with people like me in expensive Dublin restaurants. All in the interests of “canvassing alternative opinions”. Specifically, he was interested in my take on resource depletion / peak oil and what role — if any — it was playing in the current economic downturn.

I told him I had two responses. The first was that there was little or no link between the two. Simple, straight-forward and in the world of five-year futures and seven-year long-terms, undoubtedly true. Don’t get me wrong, there’s speculation to be done on the role that high oil prices may have played in accelerating the collapse, or upon the negative influence that continuing high prices will undoubtedly have upon the various infrastructure projects that governments have proposed as economic bail-outs. But the fact remains that this particular financial kerfuffle would be happening even if peak oil were not underway at this very moment (as I believe it is).

My second response was, I told him, a good deal more abstract. And it demanded a certain effort on his part. He’d read my thesis though, so was no stranger to the kind of effort I was talking about.

This more abstract response involved viewing the global financial system as one part of a wider ecology of systems. Of recognising economics as the imperfect model of reality that it is. And of getting his head around strange notions like the idea that phenomena as disparate as cancer, psychosis and unsustainability might actually be manifestations of a common tendency within complex systems. That they are, in a sense, the same phenomena. A disease of The Complex System, so to speak. And you can only begin to see this, and realise its significance, when you start viewing the world in terms of the network of interconnecting complex systems — the ecology of mind — that it is.

Pretty much the moment you’ve got your perception atuned to the ecology of mind idea, it becomes staggeringly obvious that the current financial collapse is properly viewed as a symptom of this systemic unsustainability / collective psychosis. It’s “an episode”. A dramatic one no doubt, and maybe it’s even the one that’ll deal the knock-out blow… the one where we whack our collective head against the metaphorical sink on that final plunge to the floor. But if it’s not, then it’s still a symptom of the sickness that will eventually kill western civilisation. The world of five-year futures and seven-year long-terms ignores that fact at its peril.

Posted in: Opinion