A Handful of Dust

Well folks, for the first time in seemingly forever, I actually have a little bit of free time. My ancient G5 is busy churning through some video files, the cats are fed, and I find myself with some breathing room on a shockingly cold October day here in Romania.

A lot has been going on – in my personal life as well as all around me in the larger sphere, including Romania and extending into the wider world. Between all the meet and greets I’ve been doing, the film work, slothfully learning the Russian language (ох боже!), the paid assignments and daily life tasks, somehow I’ve managed to keep my ear on the news, sit down and hold lengthier (and weightier) talks with people, read books and yes, most importantly, just take the time to sit and think a bit.

Everywhere around me I see capitalism breaking up and disintegrating, reminding me of the memorable passages in Robinson Crusoe that describe the foundering of the ship that the protagonist had heretofore been traveling on:

I resolved, if possible, to get to the ship; so I pulled off my clothes—for the weather was hot to extremity—and took the water. But when I came to the ship my difficulty was still greater to know how to get on board; for, as she lay aground, and high out of the water, there was nothing within my reach to lay hold of. I swam round her twice, and the second time I spied a small piece of rope, which I wondered I did not see at first, hung down by the fore-chains so low, as that with great difficulty I got hold of it, and by the help of that rope I got up into the forecastle of the ship. Here I found that the ship was bulged, and had a great deal of water in her hold, but that she lay so on the side of a bank of hard sand, or, rather earth, that her stern lay lifted up upon the bank, and her head low, almost to the water.

By this means all her quarter was free, and all that was in that part was dry; for you may be sure my first work was to search, and to see what was spoiled and what was free. And, first, I found that all the ship’s provisions were dry and untouched by the water, and being very well disposed to eat, I went to the bread room and filled my pockets with biscuit, and ate it as I went about other things, for I had no time to lose.

I also found some rum in the great cabin, of which I took a large dram, and which I had, indeed, need enough of to spirit me for what was before me.

As I’ve remarked upon before, I’ve always found it very strange that both inside and outside of Communist regimes, there was a great deal of academic (and political) study of Marxism and the history and origin of various economic models. But concerning capitalism, it always seems more like a pre-ordained religion that is handed down generation to generation, taken in on faith and expressed in glittery movies and bathed in the neon light of a 24-hour non-stop McDonald’s.

Certainly this blog is about Romania, not lengthy discourses on economic theory, but nonetheless in the larger “ship” that we call this country as an existing entity, the waters have been rough of late. Prices have risen across the board and nearly every day I hear someone complain to me about them, remarking that while X is now more expensive, they certainly aren’t seeing any increase of their salaries (or income). Anecdotally, I’ve also started to see an increase in (still further) evasion of costs, whether that’s taxi drivers scheming to transport people off the meter or more store owners refusing to plug in their refrigerators and use them instead as decorated shelving units. About time for a dram or two of good spirits for what lies before us, eh?

Capitalism is certainly a very odd concept and one that would’ve been inconceivable to the medieval forebears of my neighbors today. Its essence is the creation of “value” (read: money) from nothing. That’s it really, when you strip away all of the arcane terminology and obfuscating mathematics and faith-based theories. Some specific entity is given the authority to create value out of nothing. In Romania, this entity is known as the BNR (inscribed lovingly in a bizarrely gothic font on every bank note), while in the United States it is the Federal Reserve, in the UK as the Bank of England, etc., including a few larger bodies such as the BIR and such.

I know a few Dutch people here in Romania and they certainly are proud of their place in history as the de facto inventors of such a scheme, which started just a scant 400 years ago when a handful of traders in Antwerp started betting on futures and puzzled the town burghers when they ended up making money without risking much of their own. Add that to a coffee shop in London, an emperor named Napoleon and the rise of a certainly family from Frankfurt and we have the modern system that we all know and love today.

And from that “capital”, the value strictly created by certain bodies from nothing, the engine of expansion is moved forward on its seemingly infinite quest. Expand, expand, expand and forever and ever, anon, until every rock, every plant, every person and yes every molecule of the planet is captured, owned, marketed, sold, re-sold, leveraged and traded, yea even unto the seventh generation.

It’s a history not many people know about, strangely enough, and yet every time I go to the shining mall in this city, it is packed with people flocking to acquire the high-status symbols of what capitalism represents – to own something nice that was made by the sweat of someone else, thus demonstrating one’s own superiority.

Keeping Romania and Romanians in mind, the other topic on my mind this morning is eusociality, a neo-Greek word coined to explain how it is that ants and other insects (and by extension, humans) manage to live in such large societies. One of the best academic papers on this subject was published last year in Nature (abstract here), co-authored by the Romanian mathematician Corina Tarniţă. Got to love the red fingernails ;)

While Edward Wilson is primarily known for his study of insects (for far more on him – see here), the question remains – how do so many humans manage to live together? I know every time I am at the self-same mall I boggle at the seemingly flawless integration of so many strangers with nary a squabble. Certainly there are Romanians living today who have grown up in villages where they know everyone and for them, to wander around a space with thousands of total strangers would be terrifying.

For those of you who grew up primarily in cities, as I did, or traveled around this vast globe, it is something of a mundane issue to be surrounded by complete strangers, many of whom are not only completely unrelated to you by kin or culture but speak an unintelligible language. Except for the fact that we are all human beings there may not be a single other thing we have in common.

But eusociality, whatever its ultimate definition, defies all explanations, including those of many of the Romanians you saw in Episode 3. If the only “good” people are you and your family and a handful of trusted friends and everyone else is “bad”, how is it possible that we all get along?

I’ve certainly been in enough bar fights to know we don’t always get along. But at the end of the day, it is amazing just how well people do cooperate, even sacrifice their own well-being, not just with family members and trusted friends but with total strangers. It is neither the threat of police and imprisonment nor the siren song of future prosperity that seems to impel this, but instead something in the fundamental nature of humanity itself.

I realize a lot of people take the short view – focus on today, survive today, pay the bills that are due today, drink the beer for today and enjoy yourself now, clothe yourself and crank up the heat and let the future take care of itself. I find no fault in this but yet I cannot help but also cast an eye on the longer view. As capitalism flounders and breaks apart in the surf, what shall happen to the survivors cast upon the beach of whatever future lies in wait? And what, exactly, will it mean to be Romanian, or in Romania, as the center no longer holds?

It’s certainly a question I’ve pondered more than once before and I certainly know it shall be something I continue to think about. As the older faiths, whether in church or capitalism, begin to lose their gravity, what then? And how exactly shall we know ourselves as the old ways begin to no longer make sense?

Again, in that self-same mall, I sat engrossed for over an hour last week, watching an enormous media screen (far too big to be called a television) show an endless clip of young people dressed up in traditional Romanian costumes, singing and dancing, their images shining down silently on the hordes of modern, fashionably-dressed shoppers below. What, then, exactly is this? It’s not a parody. It is not some sort of cynical sarcasm nor is it conversely some sort of savvy calculation of profitable advantage but something in between – a nostalgia for the past in order to temper the increasingly hollow promise of a plastic future.

For those of you who find lengthier posts disturbing, my apologies. We shall return to the videos and cat pictures here shortly :) As Journey sang so eloquently, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning and I really don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.

As a final word, I’ll turn it over to the indomitable T.S. Eliot, a man like myself, who found himself living in two worlds, unsure of his place in each:

Philebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.


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