Within a day or so of the previous post, which treated our economic meltdown as something of a bagatelle in amongst various Borgesian mindwarpery, I felt as though I’d got my clock cleaned as I read a piece entitled Tips for New Paupers by John Dolan. Reading it made me feel as though I’d been kicked in the stomach by a cow, and I went on feeling that way for the next few days. It’s not as though I would even characterise my previous thoughts as flippant or derisive in their tone. Rather, they were motivated by trying to understand precisely why I felt so alienated by much of the media’s coverage of the crisis and how even though I was a participant-witness of ‘the meltdown’, I failed to feel part of any constituent whole to whom this was happening. Being unemployed, relatively transient, and without money, savings, or debts to speak of, this didn’t feel as though it was something that I was involved with, perhaps because much of what is taking place continues to reside in the realm of abstract money and has yet to fully filter down to the somatic economy (although unemployment, prices, and home repossessions climb gradually). Still, after reading the aforementioned piece any attempts towards the whimsical were knocked out of me sharpish.

The article is presented as an advice-piece written by someone (apparently a relatively peripatetic writer, editor, and academic) who has been recently been through a period of time in severe financial hardship; a year or so onwards, now things have become somewhat better for him, he reflects and tries to use the experience as a means of offering some counsel, as we all might be staring at a not dissimilar life-changing horror-time in the months ahead. At the most superficial level, my strong reaction to the piece was caused by the realisation that things could indeed get a great deal worse, and that acting as though I live in some ethereal big rock-candy mountain realm just because I don’t have a mortgage to default, a pension-plan that’s getting hosed, or a job to get shitcanned from, is some serious wishful thinking. He first describes  “genteel” grad-student-type poverty (a place I’ve lived in [with the exception of a single six month period] continually for the past thirteen years), where you’re pretty perpetually cold through the winter, you eat mainly vegetables and pulses, and (most damagingly of all) you live on an edge of fear about how you’re going to manage and what you’ll be doing for food and heat in twelve month’s time. To anyone who has been a student of any kind, or even young at all, this is all pretty familiar stuff, but he’s concerned with the step down from that, into something altogether more serious and dangerous. This is where it gets so much worse for him, and where it can get worse for a lot of people (which is his point), and which, inevitably, includes me. Yeah, maybe we won’t all be the Joads, packing up every single small thing we have and moving great distances just to find work, but what made me sit up was realising that the step from the shabby “genteel” situation, to the dead-fuck-broke and seriously wondering about heat and food is a surprisingly small one.

In this respect, the article prompted me to recollect Jack London’s¹ The People of the Abyss²; not that I’m for a moment equating those desperate and bleak lives that London chronicles with any of our own more trifling worries — it’s simply that this tiny, imperceptible distance one travels to find oneself at a completely different level of poverty reminded me of the precariousness of the situation the book describes in the East End in 1902. In the book, London (incognito and in mufti) visits the slums in the East End, in order to try to produce a piece of reportage portraying the wretched lives of the working poor in London, a kind of ethnography of those who were being forsaken by capitalism and modernity.

In what is a fairly harrowing book, there has always been one particular point that London stressed which I’ve found especially haunting: the precariousness of life. This is a recurrent theme but one to which London specifically turns for Chapter 21 (and from whence comes the title of the post). He described “the ragged edge of poverty”, upon which the vast majority of people live (both in the East End and beyond), whereby poverty is either already upon them or only at a single remove; for this latter group existence is such a matter of day-to-day survival that they inevitably have insufficient resources to stave off total ruin if more than a few days go by without income from work. Thus, it will only take a single unforeseen occurrence (injury, illness, bad luck, accident, or even unexpected economic downturn) to shatter an entire family and bring them all into the kind of abject workhouse pauperism that it can be impossible to escape from at all. Obviously it wasn’t the comparison of the actual states of poverty described in Dolan’s article that brought London’s book to mind: the people of the abyss are in far greater peril and misery than we of the developed world will ever see, no matter how sharp our current downturn is. Rather it was the image of teetering on the precipice which brought it to mind, particularly because (and this is why I wandered around for a while in a daze after reading the piece) it reminded me of me. Lately I have felt so very much as though I have stepped off a cliff without ever realising there was a cliff up ahead, or even noticing that I no longer trod on firm ground: only once I actually fell did I realise what happened. For the people of 1902 Whitechapel, of course, the difference is that the precariousness is of incredibly pitiless savagery, and that the faltering misstep or unexpected moment of bad fortune will not suck them any deeper into poverty  (for they can fall no further) but will in fact leave them dead. I am still alive, but somehow have become unglued from an existence, and this is where Dolan’s article punched me out, I guess. Sometimes we end up where we do for good reasons, and more importantly, reasons that can be accurately retraced and understood as rational judgements with cause-and-effect; in other cases, you know you went wrong, but each incremental step of misjudgement never by itself adds up to a why. Even worse, sometimes each small step was, in and of itself, a right one (and sometimes the only right one), but added together in a narrative, they prove to be an inescapably logical trail of error. To crown it all, as Dolan so unflinchingly recounts, once you are in this state, you will frequently fail to identify and accept help when and if it presents itself.

“You change completely, more than you realize, to the point that even if you get a break you can’t grab it….I was too deeply, permanently spooked by our condition. I was just plain wrong….I was the wrong volume, the wrong temperature”.

Whether it’s being skull-fucked by depression for too long (meds never worked for me, unlike Dolan), too long living at that gray land where self-medication is beginning to shade into alcoholism, to full of uncertainty of self-worth, too deeply and perpetually ashamed. Maybe all of them. Maybe the reason that I even started the blog was to try to work some of this shit out. Sometimes you end up where you end up and you have no fucking clue how, and the line that you somehow somplace sometime crossed was one you didn’t notice, and every damn thing has come unhooked.

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¹ I have a vast amount of love for London’s writing. Making a count for this post, I reckoned that I’d read about eight of his books and a volume of the best of his short stories. The last couple that I got ahold of (The Sea-Wolf and John Barleycorn) I started with some trepidation, fearing that the writing wouldn’t be as good as the others of his I’d already read. Sometimes I get this fear: loving a writer and starting off reading through most of their best-regarded work, and then perhaps being a little afraid to read farther into their wider body of writing, in case some of their more peripheral or minor stuff isn’t as hot and will somehow taint their original high standing. Whether or not this is a deeply stupid thing to worry about in general, in the case of London specifically I had nothing to fear: the former gripped like a wet rope, and the latter — whilst a little self-deluding — was a compelling description of what alcoholism feels like. I also realised that London is probably one of two writers that I have been reading for the longest. That is to say, I read Call of the Wild when I was pretty young, and I continued to read his work in my teenage years and all through my twenties, always keen to read ‘new’ books rather than re-reading ones I’d already been through. The other writer is J. Meade Faulkner: Moonfleet was probably my favourite novel as a kid, and recently I picked up a copy of The Lost Stradivarius, which was pretty good, and had an excellent introduction by Tom Paulin.

² The People of the Abyss I came to after The Iron Heel (the latter recommended to me by a friend who was more excited by Leon Trotsky’s piece that acted as the introduction); they both led me on into some  astonishing contemporaneous works with similar socio-political concerns. One shared the hard-edged first-person sense of lives being lived with scarce hope and even scarcer money at the outer limits of early twentieth-century capitalism (The Children of the Dead End by Patrick McGill); another added furious demands for real political change to the overall image of a swathe of the population being brutalised by capitalist industry (The Jungle by Upton Sinclair); one in particular mutated the idea of a group of people with no way out into an astounding anarchistic fable describing the relentless brutality of the system (The Death Ship by B. Traven).

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Watching the ceaseless coverage of our global fiscal eschaton is somewhat disconcerting; the remorseless jeremiads against the markets/banks/John Q. Fatcat-Banker and the overall tone of impending megamoneypocalypse sit uneasily with my personal passivity. It’s like watching silently on your earth-bound monitor as grainy footage taken from inside the capsule shows the shaved monkeys somebody somewhere shot into space seventy-two hours earlier are slowly asphyxiating. Having almost nothing in assets of any kind, it is difficult to find a level of engagement beyond the abstract, and as the pretty numbers all shift into reds and minuses, I feel like an unhappy spectator, watching from the sidelines who fails to understand the horror of the crisis or the profound despair of those vanquished by Market Forces. There’s no smugness, for sure: I know this is real, and it’s serious, and it will doubtless impact on all of us somewhere along the line. It’s simply that I don’t have a dog in this fight (and as such, I felt an affinity with two recent posts by excellent bloggers), and so whilst I can feel pity, it’s empathy that is absent, and this results in almost complete disengagement.

And so, it came as some surprise when a recent newspaper Op-Ed piece about the economic crisis almost blew my head clean off my body as I was reading it. It begins by exploring the mysteries of global high finance, and the way in which transactions and their results have become so complicated and their articulations so esoteric, that explanations for why things happen are beginning to transcend normative statements of cause-and-effect. As such, it sits well alongside another recent insightful piece on the ‘faith-based’ economy by Arjun Appadurai, because subjective-seeming issues of belief and confidence begin to override the impact of apparently objective occurrences. And here’s where it gets weirder, because for the author — a guy named Richard Dooling — we are in danger of seeing those systems we initially created to monitor and calculate the multiplicites of the market’s rhizomatics actually take the fuck over. Accumulated capital has become so abstract and translocated that it has transcended our ability to understand it fully and much control must be ceded to a variety of technological apparatus in order to maintain some kind of equilibrium. This abstract marketplace then finds expression in ways that strike those not inside the machine as absurd or illogical, but our reality has become subordinate to the machine’s reality, and in order for the entire system not to come crashing down, we cannot turn the machine off.  As I read further into the article (and here’s what caused the cranial asplosion), all I could think of was Tlön. We never needed a battalion of modest demiurgi secretly compiling the encyclopedia of a counterfeit world based on idealist imaginings; instead, it has been left to the financial logicians to create their subsequent and proximate macrocosmos, to which reality has immediately begun to yield with some relief. Thus, maybe disengagement is the inevitable answer to this, and the best thing is to pay no attention and go on revising my uncertain Quevedian translation of The Wealth of Nations (which I do not intend to publish). Or write my very first blog post.