The Incorruptibles: A Requiem for Civilization
During my eight-year stint as a Catholic schoolboy, I had occasion to read some of the books and pamphlets that littered the vestibule of the Church. One of them, in particular, captured my childhood imagination. It was a volume that dealt with a class of saints termed the incorruptibles, saints that were apparently so holy that their bodies did not decay after their death. Remarkable, I know, and even more so when it was revealed that some of their corpses give off an odor of sanctity, a floral sort of jitterbug perfume, presumably, rather than the typical bile-gargling retch of bodily decay.
It was the odor of sanctity, I think, that ultimately set the siren a-wail on my bullshit detector. This odor of sanctity sounded suspiciously similar to my cousin's invitation to "smell my butt, it smells like flowers." I wasn't about to fall for that, and certainly neither for the allegedly ambrosial aromatics of cadaverous flatulence. So, while this fascination with the incorruptibles would ultimately disappoint into another in the long litany of Santa Claus moments whence we realized that adults were spreading lies and misinformation amidst our socialization, the concept itself embedded in my mind, and I flashed upon it last week while reading an article on the corruption of our economic institutions.
Corruption, yes, and incorruptible, these words share a common Latin root, corruptio, meaning, "to come apart." In its original meaning, corruption is a biological term referring to decay, or more specifically, to putrefactive decomposition. Corruption is what happens when your body dies, hence, the incorruptibles. The word gained currency, however, and has since been analogized to describe everything from linguistic heresy to moral depravity to criminal profiteering. I'd like to point out, however, that putrefactive decomposition is indeed what we are speaking about when we blithely refer to the corruption of our economic institutions, which is to say, the decay and the death -- the coming apart -- of our economic institutions.
Which is alarming. Economic institutions are not balance sheets and complex financial instruments. An economy is only -- and only ever -- the distribution of goods and services throughout a society. From hunter-gatherers to the soulsick alienation of postindustrial civilization, the distribution of goods and services is as vital to the health of a society as the bloodstream is to the health of a body. As a circulatory system toxifies -- corrupts -- it leads to increasingly regular systemic crises, like the increasing "bad days" of a terminal cancer patient. And this is where we find ourselves. From the oil shocks of the 1970s to the savings & loan crisis of the 1980s, from the dotcom bubble of the 1990s to the mortgage crisis of today, each successive systemic crisis has been larger, more devastating, longer lasting, and closer together. The bad days are crowding, my friends, and like a man in the grip of a heart attack that tries to go out for a jog, our so-called leaders are in denial.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the functional necessity of the distribution of goods and services is food. Any one of us would have a difficult time securing sufficient food for our own individual survival, and it is likely that many of us would long ago have ditched these techno-feudal arrangements had we not been socialized to be so laughably incompetent at providing for our immediate survival. (One study alleges, for example, that the average American teenager can identify over a thousand corporate logos, and fewer than 10 local plants). Instead, we're compelled into participating in obsolete social structures in order to access a distribution system where we can procure simple food. But what if that distribution system is coming apart? What if that distribution system is corrupt?
Monsanto, for instance, once held the patent on the world's bestselling herbicide, glyphosate, known by the cowboy brand name Roundup. Before its patent was set to expire in 2000, Monsanto, not wanting to lose its exclusive control over glyphosate, invested heavily in agricultural biotechnology. If Monsanto were not a corrupt economic institution, we might imagine-along with the celestial chorus of its marketing department-a world wherein biotechnology reduces our civilization's dependence on agricultural chemicals such as glyphosate, improves the nutrition of the world's food, and enhances humanity's stewardship over the Garden Planet. But actually, the primary application of agricultural biotechnology has been to develop "Roundup-Ready" crops, proprietary seeds that not only appropriated the common heritage of 10,000 years of communal seed sharing, but which engineered a resistance to glyphosate. Farmers who buy the seeds, then, are not only contractually forbidden from saving the seeds and/or replanting them, but are also contractually obligated to use only Roundup brand glyphosate, thereby perpetuating Monsanto's control over the world's bestselling herbicide past the expiration of its patent. A clever gambit, perhaps, but this hardly serves the economic function of distributing food; indeed, it actually undermines food security. This is what happens when an economic system is coming apart. This is corruption.
And given more recent events, that's a relatively minor example. Returning to our organismic analogy, if money is akin to the blood corpuscles that nourish our bodily systems, then our so-called leaders recognized the immanence of a catastrophic systemic crisis last year -- a flatline, to be sure -- and like hotshot interns in an ER, immediately began emergency transfusions of trillions of dollars in order to keep the system alive. And it worked whew baby gawdamn as nurses wicked the sweat from the surgeon's desperate brow, for these canonized banks and corporations were too big to fail, we were told, incorruptible, that is, and you can smell the odor of sanctity steaming off all the dead fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
Just as the narcissist in us all pretends that death isn't actually in the cards for us, that our illusions of self and identity somehow except us from the maggots banging their flatware on our bones, so does our civilization -- our temporarily stable pattern of interaction -- imagine itself an incorruptible and eternal reich. But just as when our sickened bodies die the worms come out of us once our living systems no longer keep the parasitic organisms we host in check, so is our civilization decomposing from within as tapeworm banks and pinworm politicians gorge themselves into some superlative of stupidity while a vomitous mass media spews wormrot across the cables and airwaves as oafish commentators chew the communicative cud of this vainglorious spectacle of corruption, like cows in a meadow.
And thereupon, deep within the gentles of that meadow, where clouds billow voluptuous everlasting, where breeze whispers and secrets sing through leaves of grass, where death blossoms and life decays as maggots frenzy across a rot of flesh, where flowers sprout from skulls where eyes once witnessed the sufferings of stars, where moonlit mushrooms crest mounds of shit while time marches men like tocks on a clock, where song strangles into scream as the bang of war echoes back to song, where memories evanesce into eternity and identities vanish into infinity, where the furl of mind fails at last to find anything other than everything as the solitude of divinity grieves across forever like the terror of joy like the audacity of youth sobbing into sorrow, thereupon deep within the compost heap of our corrupt civilization the vitality of newborn social structures at last emerges from the mycelial underground and blossoms into place like mushrooms after rain, and this civilization may be dying, but another civilization is just being born.
Image by Reinante El Pintor de Fuego on Flickr Courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing