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Schwarze Null

“Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The Serpent that announces, "The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning," is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that "productivity" and "earnings" keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity — most of the World, animal, vegetable, and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it's only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which must sooner or later crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life.” (Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, p412)
A little before Christmas I was doing some sit-ups to the motivational sound-track of The World Tonight, and they got to talking about the Eurozone crisis and the impact thereon of a strongly inculcated disdain for debt at a national and individual level in Germany.

In fact, Germany's fiercely frugal fiscal policies have worked to remarkable effect, with the announcement of a perfectly balanced budget by 2015. For the first time in decades, they would not need to take on more debt. (Imagine my grim fascination to discover that this striking achievement has been designated a name that sounds straight out of Pynchon: the black zero, or Schwarze Null...)

However, this 'success' is not very widely celebrated outside Germany. Economists say that their rigid austerity is slowing down economic recovery in the Eurozone as a whole. Part of the criticism covered by the program was to do with inadequate government spending: under-investment in industry and infrastructure, with manufacturing faltering and railways, bridges, and autobahns falling into disrepair. To an ill-informed naive like myself, half-distracted anyway by my own calisthenic pursuits, this seemed a fair argument.

But what made me rather uncomfortable (aside from that determined "one last set" when I was feeling about ready to go and have a sit down and a glass of wine) was the program's coverage of individual spending, and the discussion around Germany's obligation to do more to stimulate consumer demand. Shoppers at a fancy Christmas market in Leipzig were questioned about their own attitudes to debt, and it quickly became clear that the national abhorrence for spending beyond one's means was mirrored in the sample. The phrase "cultural identity" was coined at least once. One man proudly stated that he had never had a credit card, citing his parents' post-war attitude and example as formative in his aversion to borrowing. Everyone asked seemed, well, very at peace with their personal non-extravagance; their emphasis on contentment and responsibility, their cheerfully unyielding indifference to marketing and consumerism -- personally, I found it thoroughly refreshing.

Thoroughly BAD though, of course, for The Economy. How irresponsible of the people of Germany -- who, with their low unemployment rates and low debts, are excellently placed to compensate for the weaker EU member states. Now's the time to get out there and spend spend spend! -- things they don't want, things they don't need, things they can't really afford ... things which, in their gross over-production, are destroying the environment and exhausting finite natural reserves faster than you can say 'buy one, get one free' ... it's their civic duty, after all, just as it is ours. We all must Do Our Bit To Rescue The Economy.

Sooo ... I get that this is how The Economy works, in practice, in its current form anyway. It necessarily relies on growth and spending to 'keep it healthy', and finding workable alternatives is way more complicated than just saying "oh, that's not very nice ... I think it should be more like X" and then blaming politicians for failing to magic away all obstacles to X. But still, the whole thing's absurdly, depressingly hideous. I mean, in theory "markets were made for man, not man for markets": money, and commerce, and economic policies ... the only meaningful point of these man-made constructions is surely to facilitate the fair and sensible production and distribution of the resources that we all need to live healthy and fulfilled lives with a minimum of fuss and harm in the process. In reality, the whole thing looks rather too scarily close to Pynchon's description above: a System to which we're utterly enslaved, which is endlessly devouring, destroying human lives and the resources of the world, comprising and creating nothing whatsoever of real worth.

There's something about his language that brings to mind the 'apocalyptic' literature of the Bible, as exampled (among other places) in the Book of Revelation. It is a way of writing which offers insight into the hidden spiritual power dynamics behind the observable circumstances of the human world, via "vivid metaphors which enable the writer to say, and hopefully the reader to understand [...], the significance, within God’s dimension of reality, of events that happen within our dimension, within the world of space, time and matter" (N.T. Wright, Apocalypse Now?, 1999 [1])
Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. (Revelation 13:11-17)
The symbolism of Revelation is ripe for exegetical speculations about precisely which earthly institution(s) or person(s) John might be alluding to in his description of the two beasts. I'm sure as many have read Communism into such passages as have read Capitalism. I was going to list some of the large number of other (strikingly contrasting) ideologies, individuals, collectives and nations at one time or another gleefully accused or fearfully suspected in connection with John's warnings. But actually, I don't really want to go there. The Internet is brimming with opinions on the matter, for those feeling curious and brave enough to Google [2]. And there seems to be, from some quarters at least, a sad tendency towards (mis)using the enigmatic language to justify and escalate all sorts of grievances; it's not a conversation I am eager or equipped to enter into. Besides, my (admittedly under-informed) instinct would be that to treat such literature as some sort of code to be cracked is probably to miss a substantial part of its purpose: taken in its 'raw' form -- non-specific, poetic -- it illuminates elements active in the spiritual dimension whenever power is used to oppress, manipulate and deceive on a human scale. And that can happen (we've seen it) through all sorts of social structures and -- religious, philosophical, political.

So, I'm very much not about to offer up a new economic ideology based on my (extremely flakey) understanding of apocalyptic literature. (Again, if you're foolhardily curious enough you know where to look ... *gulp*). Pynchon's 'System' scares me ... The Book of Revelation scares me even more ... But also, read as a whole (and in the context of the rest of the Bible, my understanding of Jesus, and my (hopefully growing) relationship with God) Revelation reassures me that God is awesomely sovereign over all the dark and frightening powers at work in the world (e.g. Chapter 19:1-5); that those power structures are temporal, to be eventually demolished (e.g. Chapter 17:8, Chapter 19:19-20); and that there will be -- hard as it is to imagine, or to bring about by human endeavour -- an eventual permanent renewal of the creation that we now see (in Pynchon's words) being "laid waste" (e.g. Chapter 21).

Only God, in His transforming, loving, oftentimes frightening-in-a-different-way power, can accomplish this ... but that's not to say we are to be passive in the process. Revelation urges us to actively, fervently resist the powers of darkness -- "Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus." (Revelation 14:12). We are to depart from 'Babylon', "lest you take part in her sins" (cf. Revelation 18:4). But what does that mean? -- we're still using metaphorical language here -- what does it look like to 'come out from Babylon'? It's a subject on which I have frequently found Wright's writing especially helpful: the challenge of living in the reality of God's Kingdom in the midst of the brokenness of this not-yet renewed world...
The proper way of interpreting the great biblical hope is to see the present work of healing and liberation, the accomplishment of salvation at every level, as the bridge between what happened in Jesus and what will happen at the end. Deeds that truly embody justice, mercy, hope and freedom in the present are signposts pointing back to Jesus’ resurrection, the ground of hope, and on to God’s future, to the final presence of Jesus, the fulfillment of hope. The task, for those grasped by this vision, is so to act in the present that only apocalyptic language will do justice to the reality that is unfolding before us. (N.T. Wright, Apocalypse Now?, 1999)

[1] Check out the rest of the essay; it's pretty helpful and, like most of Wright's writing, an interesting and enjoyable read. It seems to have been written as part of a series dealing with the various expectations and fears associated with the approaching turn of the millennium.

[2] In fact, you can bet that at least one person out there will have flagged Google among the candidates. And the Internet itself for that matter.