A STUDENT of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, once sheepishly asked him whether he could sum up the essence of Zen in a single sentence. “Everything changes,” said Suzuki Roshi without missing a beat, then moved on to another question. Now that everything has changed, the despair of four years ago — not just that Bush had been re-elected but that he would prevail forever in a nation that would forever believe his lies and follow his cult of imperial war and climate-change denial and free-market fundamentalism — has vanished like morning mist.
Everything changes. I myself expected we’d see a nonwhite or nonmale presidency in my lifetime, but not that it’d come so soon, and with it came a profound symbolic shift within the United States, a redefinition of “us” and “them,” as well as a sign to the rest of the world that this country is some kind of hybrid, turbulent bridge between global north and global south, the white and the nonwhite, wealth and poverty, as the poles weirdly united in Barack Obama, whose symbolic currency is immeasurable, whatever his limitations. But electoral politics, even as they unfolded with all the richness of a Shakespearian drama (with the Clintons doing a splendid Lord and Lady Macbeth in the primary season and McCain topping them with his King Lear to Faust meltdown), were hardly the only arena where change prevailed.
Capitalism imploded more dramatically than anyone had imagined, though once it had, its collapse seemed as obvious as inevitable. That is, underregulated free-market capitalism ate itself before our eyes. At the beginning of the Bush era, now passing from the face of the Earth more like a toxic plume than a morning mist, the then-functional FEMA predicted three major catastrophic risks for the United States: a terrorist attack in New York, a hurricane strike on New Orleans, and a major earthquake in San Francisco. In early 2008, some distinguished sources were predicting an economic apocalypse too, including German president and former International Monetary Fund chair Horst Köhler, who declared, “International financial markets have developed into a monster that must be put back in its place.”
When these markets fell apart, so did many of the fundamental premises of the past few decades, which is part of what makes this moment in history so interesting, and so unpredictable. Even trying to grasp it is dizzying, like looking — as Mike Davis put it — into the Grand Canyon and trying to understand its vastness. What exactly collapsed? Not just the financial assumptions of the Bush era, or the Clinton and Bush eras of globalization, or of Reaganomics with its cult of the free market, but something bigger and deeper. It became clear that the American economy had been for almost four decades a desperately ill patient requiring more and more life support to keep it going: get off the gold standard in 1971, then deregulate markets, globalize capital, go for “financialization” — the conversion of more and more aspects of life on Earth into investment opportunities — unto the derivatives and hedges and bundled mortgages that brought it all down.
I have never been able to confirm the adage that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of the characters for disaster and opportunity, but if it isn’t true it ought to be. This unforeseen moment has many possibilities. The death of capitalism, or rather the revelation of its profound diseasedness, is an opportunity it would be ironic to call golden. But check out what Michael Pollan wrote last October: “In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food. . . . Expect to hear the phrases ‘food sovereignty’ and ‘food security’ on the lips of every foreign leader.”
What he’s saying is that the rationale for globalization has unraveled and, in some parts of the world at least, will soon be abandoned. The logic of forcing your local or national economy to stop providing for its own needs and serve instead the global market has been upended. Sadly, as with most calamities, the already poor and hungry will pay and are already paying the greatest price — but we should be careful about being too mournful about this moment in history. The system was designed to produce their poverty and hunger, to grind them down and discard them. When it worked as intended, farmers in India and Korea were committing suicide by the thousand; Mexican farmers were being shoved off their land and essentially dispatched on the long tramp north; Brazil’s soybean bonanza was leading to deforestation, displacement of small farmers, soil degradation, and doing nothing for that nation’s hungry. The same stories could be told about many nations in Africa — and about American small farmers. It was a system designed to destroy the many for the profit of the few, and it had been producing suffering, hunger, and despair all along. Though its collapse may produce yet more suffering, it opens the way to systems and ideologies that could produce far less. Already unsteady as the World Trade Organization and the Free Trade Area of the Americas failed, globalization itself is faltering, as is the rationale that it is good for the majority of us. It never was, and now the evidence has won the argument.
The sudden rise in petroleum prices helped to undermine the logic of shipping everything everywhere, and domestic shippers have already scaled back. Those fuel prices dropped again in part because consumption itself dropped, but they will not drop to where they were a few years ago. Cheapness — in the United States, if not in Europe — was part of what made polluting the atmosphere fun and easy. The whole argument against doing anything about climate change was that the unregulated free market must not be interfered with, except maybe to commodify the right to pollute. Now that the market had to be interfered with in order to save it from its own folly, that argument is gone. So much of what made the United States such a disproportionate polluter and emitter was our obscene wealth, now somewhat reduced; a decline in snowmobile purchases, overseas vacations, new construction, and so forth is very good news for the environment. The madness of postwar affluence is fading, and Americans are beginning to make very different choices about debt, consumption, and other acts of economic overconfidence — though of course desperation remains unevenly distributed in a world that always had enough for everyone. The early tales of the crash concerned capitalists canceling their yachts, not standing in bread lines.
Still, everything changes. And a logic that was tantamount to religion has collapsed, the logic that made it so hard to do anything about everything: poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, corporations run rampant, economic madness. Now that the logic is gone — or so weakened that it can never come back with the force it had in all policy arguments for the past three or four decades — we have an extraordinary opportunity. Not a gift, not a guarantee, but an opportunity to supply a different logic, one of modesty, prudence, long-term vision, solidarity — and pleasure: all the pleasures that were not being brought to us by a system whose highest achievement was represented by endless aisles of shoddy goods made in countless sweatshops on the other side of the world.
The future has never been more uncertain, but that’s not all bad news. This moment could belong to those who want to articulate something that is neither capitalist nor communist but local, durable, humane, imaginative, inclusive, and open to ongoing improvisation, rather than locked in place as a fixed ideology. The moment is ours to seize.