How bad can get it?

How bad can get it? (16 December 2008) by Humphrey McQueen

The Portuguese Communist and Nobel Prize-winning author, Jose Saramago published Blindness (1995) a novel in which an entire society loses the ability to see. Everything goes white. The blindness starts with a few cases, spreads, and becomes a pandemic. We can suppose that Saramago is thinking about ethical blindness. Nonetheless, for any moral to convince, he has to make us believe in the physical affliction.

A mark of the power of his prose is that while I was reading Blindness, I became afraid to blink because that was one of the moments after which many of the characters lost their sight. Despite this response, by the time I was two-thirds of the way through Saramago’s 300 pages, it dawned on me that he had failed. His picture of a society in which no one could see was mild by comparison with what such a catastrophe would be like. True, there is shit everywhere. Thugs retain their guns and try to rule it over the rest. Dogs devour corpses in the streets. There is no running water, no food supplies, no power, not communications. Were a plague of universal blindness to befall a society, minute-by-minute existence would be several times more intolerable than the one Saramago portrays.

To make any story possible, he had to keep one character able to see, a fact she conceals from almost everyone in the group she protects. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing the end, but it is of a piece with the understatement of the horror, the horror.

Since the global economy went into a tailspin, my mind has returned to Saramago’s novel and to these doubts about its portrayal of terribleness. Just as a creative writer could not represent the awfulness of universal blindness, so who among us can face up to how thorough-going the crisis in the accumulation of capital might become? This failure is widespread here with talk of Australia being the only country likely to avoid recession. At least, mush about riding out on the global downturn on the China boom has disappeared.

Still less are we able to imagine what everyday life would be like during a global depression that deepened throughout a decade. The worst that most of the Left are able to conjure up is fascism.

An Argentinean acquaintance gave me reminder of what happens when the banks close. A government guarantee of deposits is not the same as access to those funds on demand. Shortly after Wall Street began to implode in September, she remarked: “This is why we came to Australia.” She recalled the freezing of assets in her homeland; how no one had seen it coming; no one knew what to do day by day, or minute by minute. She lost most of her possessions in the battle to survive. She also lost faith in her country, and immigrated. That disaster was only in one country.

Now, she knows what to expect if the worst happens. She has put all the money she can muster into accounts from which she can withdraw instantly. At the same time, she is building up a horde of $2-coins and five- and ten-dollar notes: “They need to be small denominations because no one will have change.” And she is stocking up on dry goods.

Anyone who has looked disaster in the face will never forget it. Behaviours that appear bizarre are to people like her no more than the precautionary principle. If the worst does not happen, she can still spend the money and eat her tinned beans.

Measures to help a household through the first weeks of a total collapse are no help in forming collective action. Similarly, wallowing in catastrophes is no way to forge a program. Chanting “capitalism must collapse one day” leaves the Left no better placed to cope with that actuality than are the pundits who cannot accept that the past eighteen months has happened.

The policies needed to deal with 6 percent unemployment will be useless if the deflationary spiral drives that rate to 30 percent reached in the early 1890s and early 1930s. Being able to conceive of the worst is a precondition for devising tactics and a strategy even for the medium term. The analogy of universal blindness is not aimed at scaring ourselves witless. The hope is that gathering the courage to stare the storm in its eye might prevent our being rendered sightless if the system is blown away.
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