Market Overview

Our Kafkaesque World: The Market, Mayhem, and Mankind

"Alas," said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into."

"You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.
~Franz Kafka, A Little Fable


In the early 20th century, the author Franz Kafka specialized in stories that portended dire circumstances in a cold, dark, and gray universe. Owing to Kafka's writings, the word "Kafkaesque" has come to signify disorienting, alienating situations that suggest surreal distortion and impending doom, often with the shadowy overhanging cloud of unreliable and capricious power and authority.

It would appear that our world is becoming more Kafkaesque every day. I recently noted how in light of the 2012 bull market, one cannot help but notice the black swans circling all around us. And while the world waits for those black swans to land, a Kafkaesque Zeitgeist in American society and the rest of the world is emerging.

I. Decline of privacy and property rights? Global economic collapse?

One of the top three headlines on Zero Hedge Tuesday morning warned that Big Brother is everywhere. The article, written by Wolf Richter, discussed how developing technology is intruding into personal data. In light of the National Security Agency's building a massive data center in Utah to "intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world's communications", one cannot help but feel a Kafkaesque chill in the air.

The decline in privacy and private property rights is only one piece of this global puzzle. Yahoo! News' Eric Pfeiffer reported on April 4, 2012 how Australian physicist Graham Turner believes that MIT researchers' 1972 projections for "global economic collapse" and "precipitous population" by 2030 remain on track. Ominously, "[m]ost of the computer scenarios found population and economic growth continuing at a steady rate until about 2030." Thus, "without 'drastic measures for environmental protection,' the scenarios predict the likelihood of a population and economic crash." A Malthusian catastrophe. Even so, "the study said 'unlimited economic growth' is still possible if world governments enact policies and invest in green technologies that help limit the expansion of our ecological footprint." According to Turner, "There is a very clear warning bell being rung here. We are not on a sustainable trajectory."

Even aside from issues related to the environment or overpopulation, some may sense impending doom on the horizon in the near future with respect to the global economy. A Zero Hedge post from April 4, 2012 warned that "there's no painless way out" when it comes to "the mountain of debt" in the US and an eventual global economic collapse. An interesting video from the post discussed how US accumulation of debt while the government attempts to pay off that debt with fiat currency portends a coming collapse of the global economy. In this way, Uncle Sam is caught in a dilemma between taxing and spending; to resolve this, Uncle Sam resorts to using the printing press.

As the process continues, inflation gives way to a loss of confidence in the US economy, leading into stagflation where prices rise while unemployment remains high -- the government is then caught between taxing, spending, and printing in order to stave off disaster. From the video: "Whether it's in two months or two years, the day will come when Uncle Sam can no longer pay his bills." The video suggests that this will lead to a global economic collapse: "It's never happened before, so nobody really knows how bad it will be, how long it will last, or even how we'll eventually get out of it. The house of cards has already been built. There's no painless way to dismantle it now. All we can do is to educate each other about what's actually going on and to prepare for what may be very extraordinary circumstances."

Charles Hugh Smith has compared our current global economic situation to that of the Titanic. Smith: "We are like passengers on the Titanic ten minutes after its fatal encounter with the iceberg: the idea that the ship will sink is beyond belief." In light of the Fed and Treasury's being seen as "unsinkable", our "reliance on debt and financialization has already doomed" our financial system "whether we are willing to believe it or not." Smith discussed that given our disbelief and self-interest, "it seems risky to clamber into an open lifeboat and drift away into the freezing night, while the supposed gain (saving our life) is questionable", i.e., "climbing into a small lifeboat would place our life far more at risk than staying on board the mighty ship." That being said, Smith concluded that our financial system is like the Titanic, but "we have some time left before the ultimate fate is visible to all... How much time we have left is unknown, but the bow of the ship will be visibly settling into the icy water within a year or two -- and perhaps much sooner."

While using the analogy of the Titanic to describe the global financial system may be appealing, it remains uncertain whether there are any lifeboats to jump into at all. Ours is a global system after all. One might say that ours is a "ship of fools".

II. In search of lifeboats and lifelines while trapped on a Kafkaesque world

The analogy of the Titanic to the global economy raises substantial questions regarding the course of not only human economy, but also the human journey in general. This discussion leads into something that I consider one of the most important topics that humanity should be addressing in the near future: moving humanity forward into outer space.

Obviously, given the domestic economic situation, space travel and space colonization are some of the last things citizens might be thinking of with respect to the national budget. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was chastised on the national stage for such comments. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney went so far as to say that he would fire Gingrich for his moon proposal.

That being said, Stephen Hawking, perhaps one of the greatest minds on the planet right now, has previously said that "mankind must move to outer space within a century" or face extinction. Hawking commented that in light of the threats of war, resource depletion, and overpopulation, "our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth but to spread out into space." Hawking: "We have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years. But if we want to continue beyond the next hundred years, our future is in space." While Hawking's warning was dire as we live in an age with nuclear weapons and international terrorism, he maintained that he is an optimist: "If we can avoid disaster for the next two centuries, our species should be safe, as we spread into space." If.

Though this topic is on the back burner of global issues given various other problems like geopolitical warfare, overpopulation, the environment, and water scarcity, I believe the issue of space colonization ought to be a recurring common theme with respect to technological advancement and economic growth. If one of the world's most intelligent minds has said that we have about a century to develop such technology in order to avoid destruction, then perhaps we may want to take heed. If our future is in space and if the survival of humanity is at stake, then we may want to be forward-looking.

III. Thinking outside the box in search of resolution and reconciliation

The topics of space colonization and ours being a Kafkaesque world bring to mind an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled "The Royale". In the episode, three crewmembers of the Enterprise get trapped on a planet in quite Kafkaesque circumstances. They find themselves in a strange hotel on a barren planet. As the story develops, the crewmembers discover that the hotel is based on a novel entitled "Hotel Royale". Though the hotel was initially perceived by the crewmembers as a trap, they discovered that the hotel was designed by an advanced race of extraterrestrials in order to protect a lone 21st century astronaut that had drifted out into space and was lost and helpless.

Though the three crewmembers' Kafkaesque circumstances at first seemed to be mysteriously malicious, the crew learned that the hotel was set up by the rescuing aliens from the novel "Hotel Royale" that was found in the astronaut's ship -- as a form of beneficent mercy. The extraterrestrials figured that the novel in the astronaut's ship was humans' ideal form of existence. What is interesting about the episode is that although the three crewmembers were trapped in what appeared to be hopeless, dire circumstances that portended doom, they figured out a way to escape the trap by thinking outside the box...by playing a role that fit for them in the context of their circumstances.

In this way, even if ours is a Kafkaesque world, there is still room to be optimistic. Perhaps we have to learn to think outside the box in order to find pragmatic solutions to our global economic conundrum. Akin to "The Royale", as I have previously commented, one cannot help but feel that ours is a historically convenient set of circumstances. Akin to "The Royale", it is as if humanity finds itself in an epic storyline -- working towards a climactic finish. It's as if humanity is playing out some foreordained epic. To put things into perspective, even in light of Karl Marx's historical materialistic progression, I do not think that Marx would have foreseen global capitalism coming to such an historical cliff amidst advanced technology and accompanying global catastrophes in the realms of water scarcity, overpopulation, and climate change. Marx saw a coming end to capitalism, but I don't think he viewed such an end as being akin to Biblical Armageddon. From this perspective, it is as if humanity is playing out some sort of Kafkaesque, apocalyptic storyline. Let us hope that (unlike some of Kafka's stories) the story has a happy ending.

Thus, humanity finds itself in uncharted territory. And maybe there are factors behind the scenes suggesting that there is hope for humanity in the future. There could be some sort of beneficent metamorphosis in store. Even if our current circumstances portend a global economic collapse and worldwide upheaval in the coming decades, maybe all we need to do is change our direction...and take a leap of faith into the future.

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