Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Gray Light of Morning

I try to wear my archdruid’s hat lightly in these essays, but every so often I field questions that touch directly on the issues of ultimate meaning that our culture, however clumsily, classifies as “religious.” Two comments in response to the post here two weeks ago raised such issues, in a way that’s relevant enough to this series of posts and important enough to the broader project of this blog to demand a response.

One of them—tip of the aforementioned archdruid’s hat to Repent—asked, “As a Druid, what are your thoughts about divine purpose, reincarnation, and our purpose in the eyes of God? What do you think future ‘ecotechnic’ societies have yet to achieve that will be worthwhile to pursue, that our descendants should suffer through the dark age towards?” The other—tip of the hat to Yupped—asked, “What do you do if you see the big picture of what’s happening around you? How did those early adopters of decline in other collapsing societies maintain their sanity when they knew what was coming? I don’t think I have the mind or the temperament to tell myself stories about the transcendent meaning of suffering in an age of social collapse.”

Those are serious questions, and questions like them are being raised more and more often these days, on this blog and in a great many other places as well. People are beginning to come to grips with the fact that they can no longer count on faith in limitless technological progress to give them an easy answer to the enduring questions of human existence.  As they do that, they’re also having to confront those questions all over again, and finding out in the process that the solution that modern industrial civilization claimed to offer for those same questions was never actually a solution at all.

Psychologists have a concept they call “provisional living.” That’s the insistence, so often heard from people whose lives are stuck on a dysfunctional merry-go-round of self-inflicted crisis, that everything they don’t like about their lives will change just as soon as something else happens: as soon as they lose twenty pounds, get a divorce, quit their lousy job, or what have you. Of course the weight never goes away, the divorce papers never get filed, and so on, because the point of the exercise is to allow daydreams of an imaginary life in which they get everything they think they want take the place of the hard work and hard choices inseparable from personal change in the real world. What provisional living offers the individual neurotic, in turn, faith in the inevitability and beneficence of progress offers industrial society as a whole—or, more precisely, faith in progress used to offer that, back when the promises made in its name didn’t yet look quite so threadbare as they do today.

There was always a massive political subtext in those promises.  The poor were encouraged to believe that technological progress will someday generate so much wealth that their children and grandchildren will be rich; the sick and dying, to dream about a future where medical progress will make every disease curable; the oppressed, to hope for a day when social progress will grant everyone the fair treatment they can’t reliably get here and now, and so on. Meanwhile, and crucially, members of the privileged classes who became uncomfortable the mismatch between industrial civilization’s glittering rhetoric and its tawdry reality were encouraged to see that mismatch as a passing phase that will be swept away by progress at some undefined point in the future, and thus to limit their efforts to change the system to the sort of well-meaning gestures that don’t seriously inconvenience the status quo.

As real as the political subtext was, it’s a mistake to see the myth of progress purely as a matter of propaganda. During the heyday of industrialism, that myth was devoutly believed by a great many people, at all points along the social spectrum, many of whom saw it as the best chance they had for positive change. Faith in progress was a social fact of vast importance, one that shaped the lives of individuals, communities, and nations. The hope of upward mobility that inspired the poor to tolerate the often grueling conditions of their lives, the dream of better living through technology that kept the middle classes laboring at the treadmill, the visions of human destiny that channeled creative minds into the service of  existing institutions—these were real and powerful forces in their day, and drew on high hopes and noble ideals as well as less exalted motives.

The problem that we face now is precisely that those hopes and dreams and visions have passed their pull date. With each passing year, more people have noticed the widening gap between the future we were supposed to get and the one that’s actually been delivered to our doorstep; with each passing year, the voices raised in defense of the old rhetoric of perpetual progress get more defensive, and the once-sparkling imagery they offer for our contemplation looks more and more shopworn. One by one, we are waking up in a cold and unfamiliar place, and the gray light of morning does not bring us good news.

It would be hard enough to face the difficult future ahead of us if we came to the present moment out of an era of sober realism and close attention to the hard facts of the human condition. It’s far harder to find ourselves where we are when that forces us to own up to the hard fact that we’ve been lying to ourselves for three hundred years. Disillusionment is a bitter pill at the best of times.  When the illusion that’s just been shattered has been telling us that the future is obliged to conform to our fondest fantasies, whatever those happen to be, it’s no wonder that it’s as unwelcome as it is.

Bitter though the pill may be, though, it’s got to be choked down, and like the bitter medicines of an earlier day, it has a tonic effect. Come to terms with the fact that faith in progress was always destined to be disappointed, that the law of diminishing returns and the hard limits of thermodynamics made the dream of endless guaranteed betterment a delusion—an appealing delusion, but a delusion all the same—and after the shock wears off, you’ll find yourself standing on common ground shared with the rest of your species, asking questions that they asked and answered in their time.

Most of the people who have ever lived, it bears remembering, had no expectation that the future would be any better than the world that they saw around them. The majority of them assumed as a matter of course that the future would be much like the present, while quite a few of them believed instead that it would be worse.  Down through the generations, they faced the normal human condition of poverty, sickness, toil, grief, injustice, and the inevitability of their own deaths, and still found life sufficiently worth living to meet the challenges of making a living, raising families, and facing each day as it came.

That’s normal for our species.  Buying into a fantasy that insists that the universe is under an obligation to fulfill your daydreams is not. Get past that fantasy, and past the shock of disillusionment that follows its departure, and it’s not actually that difficult to make sense of a world that doesn’t progress and shows no interest in remaking itself to fit an overdeveloped sense of human entitlement. The downside is that you have to give up any attempt to smuggle the same fantasy back into your mind under some other name or form, and when some such belief system has been central to the worldview of your culture for the last three centuries or so, it’s always tempting to find some way to retrieve the fantasy. Still, falling in with that temptation  just lands you back where you were, waiting for a future the universe is serenely unwilling to provide.

It’s probably worth noting that you also have to give up the equal and opposite fantasy that claims that the universe is under an obligation to fulfill a different set of daydreams, the kind that involves the annihilation of everything you don’t like in the universe, whether or not that includes yourself. That’s simply another way of playing the game of provisional living: “I don’t have to do anything because X is supposed to happen (and it won’t)” amounts in practice to the same thing as “I won’t do anything until X happens (and it won’t)”—that is to say, it’s just one more comfortable evasion of responsibility.

There are more constructive ways to deal with the decidedly mixed bag that human existence hands us. If I may risk a significant oversimplification, there are broadly speaking three ways that work. It so happens that the ancient Greeks, who grappled just as incisively with these issues as they did with so much else, evolved three schools of philosophy, each of which took one of these three ways as its central theme. They weren’t the only ones to do that in a thoughtful fashion; those of my readers who know their way around the history of ideas will be able to name any number of examples from other societies and other ages.  I propose to use Greek examples here simply because they’re the schools with which I’m most familiar. As Charles Fort said, one traces a circle beginning anywhere.

The first of the three approaches I have in mind starts with the realization that for most of us, all things considered, being alive beats the stuffing out of the alternative. While life contains plenty of sources of misery, it also contains no shortage of delights, even when today’s absurdly complex technostructure isn’t there to provide them; furthermore, the mind that pays close attention to its own experiences will soon notice that a fairly large percentage of its miseries are self-inflicted, born of pointless worrying about future troubles or vain brooding over past regrets. Unlearn those habits, stop insisting that life is horrible because it isn’t perfect, and it’s generally not too hard to learn to enjoy the very real pleasures that life has to offer and to tolerate its less pleasant features with reasonable grace.

That’s the approach taught by Epicurus, the founder of the Epicurean school of philosophy in ancient Greece. It’s also the foundation of what William James called the healthy-minded way of thinking, the sort of calm realism you so often see in people who’ve been through hard times and come out the other side in one piece. Just now, it’s a very difficult philosophy for many people in the world’s industrial nations to take up, precisely because most of us haven’t been through hard times; we’ve been through an age of extravagance and excess, and like most people in that position, we’re finding the letdown at the party’s end far more difficult to deal with than any actual suffering we might be facing. Get past that common reaction, and the Epicurean way has much to offer.

If it has a weakness, it’s that attending to the good things in life can be very hard work when those good things are in short supply. That’s when the second approach comes into its own. It starts from the  realization that whether life is good or not, here we are, and we each have to choose how we’re going to respond to that stark fact. The same unlearning that shows the Epicurean to avoid self-inflicted misery is a first step, a clearing of the decks that makes room for the decisions that matter, but once this is taken care of, the next step is to face up to the fact that there are plenty of things in the world that could and should be changed, if only someone were willing to get up off the sofa and make the effort required. The second approach thus becomes a philosophy of action, and when action requires risking one’s life—and in really hard times, it very often does—those who embrace the second approach very often find themselves saying, “Well, what of it? I’m going to die sooner or later anyway.”

That’s the approach taught by Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy in ancient Greece. It’s among the most common ways of thought in dark ages, sometimes worked out as a philosophy, sometimes expressed in pure action: the ethos of the Spartans and the samurai. That way of thinking about life is taken to its logical extreme in the literature of the pagan Teutonic peoples: you will die, says the Elder Edda, the world will die, even the gods will die, and none of that matters. All that matters is doing the right thing, because it’s the right thing, and because you’ve learned to embrace the certainty of your death and so don’t have to worry about anything but doing the right thing. 

Now of course the same choice can express itself in less stark forms. Every one of my readers who’s had the experience of doing something inconvenient or unpleasant just because it’s the right thing to do has some sense of how that works, and why.  In a civilization on the downward arc, there are many inconvenient or unpleasant things that very badly need to be done, and choosing one of them and doing it is a remarkably effective response to the feelings of meaninglessness and helplessness that afflict so many people just now.  Those who argue that you don’t know whether or not your actions will have any results in the long run are missing the point, because from the perspective I’ve just sketched out, the consequences don’t matter either.  Fiat iustitia, ruat caelum, as the Roman Stoics liked to say:  let justice be done, even if it brings the sky crashing down. 

So those, broadly speaking, are the first two ways that people have dealt constructively with the human condition: in simplest terms, either learn to live with what life brings you, or decide to do something about it. The first choice may seem a little simplistic and the second one may seem a little stark, but both work—that is, both are psychologically healthy responses that often yield good results, which is more than can be said for habits of thought that require the universe to either cater to our fantasies of entitlement or destroy itself to satisfy our pique. Both also mesh fairly well with the habitual material-mindedness of contemporary culture, the assumption that the only things that really matter are those you can hit with a stick, which is common to most civilizations toward the end of their history.

The third option I have in mind also works, but it doesn’t mesh at all with the assumption just noted. Current confusions about the alternatives to that assumption run deep enough that some care will be needed in explaining just what I mean.

The third option starts with the sense that the world as we normally perceive it is not quite real—not illusory, strictly speaking, but derivative. It depends on something else, something that stands outside the world of our ordinary experience and differs from that world not just in detail but in kind.  Since this “something else” is apart from the things we normally use language to describe, it’s remarkably difficult to define or describe in any straightforward way, though something of its nature can be shared with other people through the more roundabout means of metaphor and symbol. Elusive as it is, it can’t simply be ignored, because it shapes the world of our ordinary experience, not according to some human agenda but according to a pattern of its own.

I’d encourage my readers to notice with some care what’s not being said here. The reality that stands behind the world of our ordinary experience is not subject to human manipulation; it isn’t answerable to our fantasies or to our fears.  The viewpoint I’m suggesting is just about as far as you can get from the fashionable notion that human beings create their own reality—which, by the way, is just one more way our overdeveloped sense of entitlement shapes our habits of thinking.  As objects of our own and other’s perceptions, we belong to the world of the not quite real. Under certain circumstances, though, human beings can move into modes of nonordinary perception in which the presence of the underlying reality stops being a theory and becomes an experience, and when this happens a great many of the puzzles and perplexities of human existence suddenly start making sense.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that in ancient Greek culture, the philosophical movement that came to embody this approach to the world took its name from a man named Aristocles, whose very broad shoulders gave him the nickname Plato. That’s ironic because Plato was a transitional figure; behind him stood a long line of Orphic and Pythagorean mystics, whose insights he tried to put into rational form, not always successfully; after him came an even longer line of thinkers, the Neoplatonists, who completed the job he started and worked out a coherent philosophy that relates the world of reality to the world of appearance through the lens of human consciousness.

The Platonist answer isn’t limited to Platonism, of course, any more than the Stoic or Epicurean answer is found only in those two Greek philosophical schools. Implicitly or explicitly, it’s present in most religious traditions that grapple with philosophical issues and manage not to fall prey to the easy answers of apocalyptic fantasy. In the language of mainstream Western religion, we can say that there’s a divine reality, and then there’s a created world and created beings—for example, the author and readers of this blog—which depend for their existence on the divine reality, however this is described. Still, that’s far from the only language in which this way of thinking about the world can be framed.

The Epicurean and Stoic approaches to face an imperfect and challenging world, as already discussed, take that world as it is, and propose ways to deal with it. That’s a wholly reasonable approach from within the sort of worldview that those traditions generally embrace. The Platonic approach, by contrast, proposes that the imperfect and challenging world we encounter is only part of the picture, and that certain disciplines of consciousness allow us to take the rest of the picture into account, not as a policy of blind trust, but as an object of personal experience.  As already suggested, it’s difficult to communicate in ordinary language just what that experience has to say about the reality behind such phrases as “divine purpose,” which is why those who pursue such experiences tend to focus on teaching other people how to do it, and let them make their own discoveries as they do the work.

Knowing the rest of the picture, for that matter, doesn’t make the imperfections and challenges go away.  There are many situations in which either an Epicurean or a Stoic tactic is the best bet even from within a Platonic view of the cosmos—it’s a matter of historical fact that much of the best of the Epicurean and Stoic traditions were absorbed into the classical Neoplatonic synthesis for exactly this reason. The difference is simply that to glimpse something of the whole picture, and to pursue those disciplines that bring such glimpses within reach, provide a perspective that makes sense of the texture of everyday experience as it is, without expecting it to act out human fears and fantasies. That approach isn’t for everyone, but it’s an option, and it’s the one that I tend to trust.

And with that, I’ll set aside my archdruid’s hat again and return to the ordinary business of chronicling the decline and fall of industrial civilization.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Smile For The Aliens

Last week’s post, with its uncompromising portrayal of what descent into a dark age looks like, fielded the usual quota of voices insisting that it’s different this time. It’s a familiar chorus, and I confess to a certain wry amusement in watching so many changes get rung on what, after all, is ultimately a non sequitur. Grant that it’s different this time: so?  It’s different every time, and it always has been, yet those differences have never stopped history’s remarkably diverse stable of civilizations from plodding down the self-same track toward their common destiny.

It may also have occurred to my readers, and it has certainly occurred to me, that the legions of bloggers and pundits who base their reasonings on the claim that history has nothing to teach us don’t have to face a constant barrage of comments insisting that it’s the same this time. “It’s different this time” isn’t simply one opinion among others, after all; it’s one of the basic articles of faith of the contemporary industrial world, and questioning it reliably elicits screams of outrage even from those who like to tell themselves that they’ve rejected the conventional wisdom of the present day.

Yet that raises another question, one that’s going to bear down with increasing force in the years ahead of us: just how will people cope when some of their most cherished beliefs have to face a cage match with reality, and come out second best?

Such issues are rather on my mind just at the moment. Regular readers may recall that a while back I published a book, The UFO Phenomenon, which managed the not inconsiderable feat of offending both sides of the UFO controversy. It did so by the simple expedient of setting aside the folk mythology that’s been heaped up with equal enthusiasm by true believers in extraterrestrial visitation and true believers in today’s fashionable pseudoskeptical debunkery. After getting past that and a few other sources of confusion, I concluded that the most likely explanation for the phenomenon was that US military and intelligence agencies invented it out of whole cloth after the Second World War, as protective camouflage for an assortment of then-secret aerospace technologies.

That wasn’t the conclusion I expected to reach when I began work on the project; I had several other hypotheses in mind, all of which had to be considerably modified as the research proceeded. It was just too hard not to notice the way that the typical UFO sightings reported in any given decade so closely mimicked whatever the US was testing in secret at any given time—silvery dots or spheres in the late 1940s, when high-altitude balloons were the latest thing in aerial reconnaissance; points or tiny blobs of light high in the air in the 1950s, when the U-2 was still top secret; a phantasmagoria of flying lights and things dropping from the sky in the 1960s, when the SR-71 and the first spy satellites entered service; black triangles in the 1980s, when the first stealth aircraft were being tested, and so on. An assortment of further evidence pointing the same way, not to mention the significant parallels between the UFO phenomenon and those inflatable tanks and nonexistent battalions that tricked the Germans into missing the real preparations for D-Day, were further icing on a saucer-shaped cake.

To call that an unpopular suggestion is to understate the case considerably, though I’m pleased to say it didn’t greatly hurt sales of the book.  In the years since The UFO Phenomenon saw print, though, there’s been a steady stream of declassified documents from US intelligence agencies admitting that, yes, a lot of so-called UFOs were perfectly identifiable if you happened to know what classified projects the US government had in the air just then. It turns out, for example, that roughly half the UFO sightings reported to the Air Force’s Project Blue Book between 1952 and 1969 were CIA spyplanes; the officers in charge of Blue Book used to call the CIA when sightings came in, and issue bogus “explanations” to provide cover for what was, at the time, a top secret intelligence project. I have no reason to think that the publication of The UFO Phenomenon had anything to do with the release of all this data, but it was certainly a welcome confirmation of my analysis.

The most recent bit of confirmation hit the media a few weeks back. Connoisseurs of UFO history know that the Scandinavian countries went through a series of major “flaps”—periods in which many UFO sightings occured in a short time—in the 1950s and 1960s. The latest round of declassified data confirmed that these were sightings of US spyplanes snooping on the Soviet Union. The disclosures didn’t happen to mention whether CIA assets also spread lurid accounts of flying saucer sightings and alien visitations to help muddy the waters. My hypothesis is that that’s what was going on all the way through the history of the UFO phenomenon: fake stories and, where necessary, faked sightings kept public attention fixated on a manufactured mythology of flying saucers from outer space, so that the signal of what was actually happening never made it through the noise.

Many of my readers will already have guessed how the two sides of the UFO controversy responded to the disclosures just mentioned:  by and large, they haven’t responded to them at all. Believers in the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs are still insisting at the top of their lungs that some day very soon, the US government will be forced to ‘fess up to the reality of alien visitation—yes, I field emails from such people regularly. Believers in the null hypothesis, the claim that all UFO sightings result from hoaxes, illusions, or misidentification of ordinary phenomena, are still rehashing the same old arguments when they haven’t gone off to play at being skeptical about something else. That’s understandable, as both sides have ended up with substantial amounts of egg on their face.

Mind you, the believers in the extraterrestrial hypothesis were right about a great many more things than their rivals, and they deserve credit for that. They were right, for example, that people really were seeing unusual things in the skies; they were right that there was a coverup orchestrated by the US government, and that the Air Force was handing out explanations that it knew to be fake; they were even right in guessing that the Groom Lake airfield in Nevada, the legendary “Area 51,” was somehow central to the mystery—that was the main US spyplane testing and training base straight through the decades when the UFO mystery was at its peak. The one thing they got wrong was the real origin of the UFO phenomenon, but for them, unfortunately, that was the one thing that mattered.

The believers in the null hypothesis don’t have much reason to cheer, even though they turned out to be right about that one point. The disclosures have shown with uncomfortable clarity that a good many of the explanations offered by UFO skeptics were actually nonsense, just as their opponents had been pointing out all along. In 1981, for example, Philip Klass, James Oberg, and Robert Sheaffer claimed that they’d identified all the cases  that Project Blue Book labeled as “unknown.” As it happens, they did nothing of the kind; what they actually did was offer untested ad hoc hypotheses to explain away the unknowns, which is not exactly the same thing. It hardly needs to be said that CIA spyplanes played no part in those explanations, and if the “unknown” cases contained the same proportion of spyplanes as the whole collection, as seems likely, roughly half their explanations are wrong—a point that doesn’t exactly do much to inspire confidence in other claims made on behalf of the debunking crusade.

So it’s not surprising that neither side in the controversy has had the least interest in letting all this new data get in the way of keeping up the old argument. The usual human reaction to cognitive dissonance is to exclude the information that’s causing the dissonance, and that’s precisely what both sides, by and large, have done. As the dissonance builds, to be sure, people on the fringes of both scenes will quiely take their leave, new recruits will become few and far between, and eventually surviving communities of believers and debunkers alike will settle into a common pattern familiar to any of my readers familiar with Spiritualist churches, Marxist parties, or the flotsam left behind by the receding tide of other once-influential movements in American society: little circles of true believers fixated on the disputes of an earlier day, hermetically sealed against the disdain and disinterest of the wider society.

They have the freedom to do that, because the presence or absence of alien saucers in Earth’s skies simply doesn’t have that much of an impact on everyday life. Like Spiritualists or Marxists, believers in alien contact and their debunking foes by and large can avoid paying more than the most cursory attention to the failure of their respective crusades. The believers can take comfort in the fact that even in the presence of overwhelming evidence, it’s notoriously hard to prove a negative; the debunkers can take comfort in the fact that, however embarrassing their logical lapses and rhetorical excesses, at least they were right about the origins of the phenomenon.

That freedom isn’t always available to those on the losing side of history. It’s not that hard to keep the faith if you aren’t having your nose rubbed in the reality of your defeat on a daily basis, but it’s quite another matter to cope with the ongoing, overwhelming disconfirmation of beliefs on which you’ve staked your pride, your values, and your sense of meaning and purpose in life. What would life be like these days for the vocal UFO debunkers of recent decades, say, if the flying saucers had turned out to be alien spacecraft after all, the mass saucer landing on the White House lawn so often and so vainly predicted had finally gotten around to happening, and Philip Klass and his fellow believers in the null hypothesis had to field polite requests on a daily basis to have their four-dimensional holopictures taken by giggling, gray-skinned tourists from Zeta Reticuli?

For a living example of the same process at work, consider the implosion of the New Age scene that’s well under way just now.  In the years before the 2008 crash, as my readers will doubtless remember, tens of thousands of people plunged into real estate speculation with copies of Rhonda Byrne’s meretricious The Secret or similar works of New Age pseudophilosophy clutched in their sweaty hands, convinced that they knew how to make the universe make them rich. I knew a fair number of them—Ashland, Oregon, where I lived at the time, had a large and lucrative New Age scene—and so I had a ringside seat as their pride went before the real estate market’s fall. That was a huge blow to the New Age movement, and it was followed in short order by the self-inflicted humiliation of the grand nonevent of December 21, 2012.

Those of my readers who don’t happen to follow trends in the publishing industry may be interested to know that sales of New Age books peaked in 2007 and have been plunging since then; so has the take from New Age seminars, conferences, and a galaxy of other products hawked under the same label. There hadn’t been any shortage of disconfirmations in the previous history of the New Age scene, to be sure, but these two seem to have been just that little bit more than most of the movement’s adherents can gloss over. No doubt the New Age movement will spawn its share of little circles of true believers—the New Thought movement, which was basically the New Age’s previous incarnation, did exactly that when it imploded at the end of the 1920s, and many of those little circles ended up contributing to the rise of the New Age decades later—but as a major cultural phenomenon, it’s circling the drain.

One of the central themes of this blog, in turn, is that an embarrassment on much this same scale waits for all those who’ve staked their pride, their values, and their sense of meaning and purpose in life on the belief that it’s different this time, that our society somehow got an exemption from the common fate of civilizations. If industrial society ends up following the familiar arc of decline and fall into yet another dark age, if all the proud talk about man’s glorious destiny among the stars turns out to be empty wind, if we don’t even get the consolation prize of a downfall cataclysmic enough to drag the rest of the planet down with us—what then?

I’ve come to think that’s what lies behind the steady drumbeat of emails and comments I field week after week insisting that it’s different this time, that it has to be different this time, and clutching at the most remarkable assortment of straws in an attempt to get me to agree with them that it’s different this time. That increasingly frantic chorus has many sources, but much of it is, I believe, a response to a simple fact:  most of the promises made by authoritative voices in contemporary industrial society about the future we’re supposed to get have turned out to be dead wrong.

Given the number of people who like to insist that every technological wet dream will eventually be fulfilled, it’s worth taking the time to notice just how poorly earlier rounds of promises have measured up to the inflexible yardstick of reality.  Of all the gaudy and glittering technological breakthroughs that have been promised with so much confidence over the last half dozen decades or so, from cities on the Moon and nuclear power too cheap to meter straight through to120-year lifespans and cures for cancer and the common cold, how many have actually panned out?  Precious few.  Meanwhile most measures of American public health are slipping further into Third World territory with every year that passes, our national infrastructure is sinking into a morass of malign neglect, and the rising curve of prosperity that was supposed to give every American acces to middle class amenities has vanished in a haze of financial fraud, economic sclerosis, and official statistics so blatantly faked that only the media pretends to believe them any more.

For many Americans these days, furthermore, those broken promises have precise personal equivalents. A great many of the people who were told by New Age authors that they could get rich easily and painlessly by visualizing abundance while investing in dubious real estate ventures found out the hard way that believing those promises amounted to being handed a one-way nonstop ticket to poverty. A great many of the people who were told by equally respected voices that they would attain financial security by mortgaging their futures for the benefit of a rapacious and corrupt academic industry and its allies in the banking sphere are finding out the same thing about the reassuring and seemingly authoritative claims that they took at face value.  For that matter, I wonder how many American voters feel they benefited noticeably from the hope and change that they were promised by the sock puppet they helped put into the White House in 2008 and 2012.

The promises that framed the housing bubble, the student loan bubble, and the breathtaking cynicism of Obama’s campaign, after all, drew on the same logic and the same assumptions that guided all that grand and vaporous talk about the inevitability of cities on the Moon and commuting by jetpack. They all assumed that history is a one-way street that leads from worse to better, to more, bigger, louder, gaudier, and insisted that of course things would turn out that way. Things haven’t turned out that way, they aren’t turning out that way, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that things aren’t going to turn out that way any time this side of the twelfth of Never. I’ve noted here several times now that if you want to predict the future, paying attention to the reality of ongoing decline pretty reliably gives you better results than trusting that the decline won’t continue in its current course.

 The difficulty with that realization, of course, is precisely that so many people have staked their pride, their values, and their sense of meaning and purpose in life on one or another version of the logic I’ve just sketched out. Admitting that the world is under no compulsion to change in the direction they think it’s supposed to change, that it’s currently changing in a direction that most people find acutely unwelcome, and that there are good reasons to think the much-ballyhooed gains of the recent past were the temporary products of the reckless overuse of irreplaceable energy resources, requires the surrender of a deeply and passionately held vision of time and human possibility. Worse, it lands those who do so in a situation uncomfortably close to the crestfallen former UFO debunkers I joked about earlier in this post, having to cope on an everyday basis with a world full of flying saucers and tourists from the stars.

Beneath the farcical dimensions of that image lies a sobering reality. Human beings can’t live for long without some source of values and some sense of meaning in their lives.  That’s why people respond to cognitive dissonance affecting their most cherished values by shoving away the unwelcome data so forcefully, even in the teeth of the evidence. Resistance to cognitive dissonance has its limits, though, and when people have their existing sources of meaning and value swept away by a sufficiently powerful flood of contradictions, they will seek new sources of meaning and value wherever they can find them—no matter how absurd, dysfunctional, or demonic those new meanings and values might look to an unsympathetic observer.  The mass suicide of the members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult in 1997 offers one measure of just how far astray those quests for new sources of meaning can go; so, on a much larger scale, does the metastatic nightmare of Nazi Germany.

I wrote in an earlier post this month about the implosion of the sense of political legitimacy that’s quietly sawing the props out from underneath the US federal government, and convincing more and more Americans that the people who claim to represent and govern them are a pack of liars and thieves.  So broad and deep a loss of legitimacy is political dynamite, and normally results within no very long a time frame in the collapse of the government in question. There are no guarantees, though, that whatever system replaces a delegitimzed government will be any better.

That same principle applies with equal force to the collapse of the fundamental beliefs of a civilization. In next week’s post, with this in mind, I plan on talking about potential sources of meaning, purpose and value in a world on its way into a global dark age.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Bright Were The Halls Then

Arnold Toynbee, whose magisterial writings on history have been a recurring source of inspiration for this blog, has pointed out an intriguing difference between the way civilizations rise and the way they fall. On the way up, he noted, each civilization tends to diverge not merely from its neighbors but from all other civilizations throughout history.  Its political and religious institutions, its arts and architecture, and all the other details of its daily life take on distinctive forms, so that as it nears maturity, even the briefest glance at one of its creations is often enough to identify its source.

 Once the peak is past and the long road down begins, though, that pattern of divergence shifts into reverse, slowly at first, and then with increasing speed. A curious sort of homogenization takes place: distinctive features are lost, and common patterns emerge in their place.  That doesn’t happen all at once, and different cultural forms lose their distinctive outlines at different rates, but the further down the trajectory of decline and fall a civilization proceeds, the more it resembles every other civilization in decline. By the time that trajectory bottoms out, the resemblance is all but total; compare one postcollapse society to another—the societies of post-Roman Europe, let’s say, with those of post-Mycenean Greece—and it can be hard to believe that dark age societies so similar could have emerged out of the wreckage of civilizations so different.

It’s interesting to speculate about why this reversion to the mean should be so regular a theme in the twilight and afermath of so many civilizations. Still, the recurring patterns of decline and fall have another implication—or, if you will, another application. I’ve noted here and elsewhere that modern industrial society, especially but not only here in North America, is showing all the usual symptoms of a civilization on its way toward history’s compost bin. If we’ve started along the familiar track of decline and fall—and I think a very good case can be made for that hypothesis—it should be possible to map the standard features of the way down onto the details of our current situation, and come up with a fairly accurate sense of the shape of the future ahead of us.

All the caveats raised in last week’s Archdruid Report post deserve repetition here, of course. The part of history that can be guessed in advance is a matter of broad trends and overall patterns, not the sort of specific incidents that make up so much of history as it happens.  Exactly how the pressures bearing down on late industrial America will work out in the day-by-day realities of politics, economics, and society will be determined by the usual interplay of individual choices and pure dumb luck. That said, the broad trends and overall patterns are worth tracking in their own right, and some things that look as though they ought to belong to the realm of the unpredictable—for example, the political and military dynamics of border regions, or the relations among the imperial society’s political class, its increasingly disenfranchised lower classes, and the peoples outside its borders—follow predictable patterns in case after case in history, and show every sign of doing the same thing this time around too.

What I’m suggesting, in fact, is that in a very real sense, it’s possible to map out the history of North America over the next five centuries or so in advance. That’s a sweeping claim, and I’m well aware that the immediate response of at least some of my readers will be to reject the possibility out of hand. I’d like to encourage those who have this reaction to try to keep an open mind. In the posts to come, I plan on illustrating every significant point I make with historical examples from the twilight years of other civilizations, as well as evidence from the current example insofar as that’s available yet.  Thus it should be possible for my readers to follow the argument as it unfolds and see how it hangs together.

Now of course all this presupposes that the lessons of the past actually have some relevance to our future. I’m aware that that’s a controversial proposal these days, but to my mind the controversy says more about the popular idiocies of our time than it does about the facts on the ground. I’ve discussed in previous posts how people in today’s America have taken to using thoughtstoppers such as "but it’s different this time!" to protect themselves from learning anything from history—a habit that no doubt does wonders for their peace of mind today, though it pretty much guarantees them a face-first collision with a brick wall of misery and failure not much further down time’s road. Those who insist on clinging to that habit are not going to find the next year or so of posts here to their taste.

They won’t be the only ones. Among the resources I plan on using to trace out the history of the next five centuries is the current state of the art in the environmental sciences, and that includes the very substantial body of evidence and research on anthropogenic climate change. I’m aware that some people consider that controversial, and of course some very rich corporate interests have invested a lot of money into convincing people that it’s controversial, but I’ve read extensively on all sides of the subject, and the arguments against taking anthropogenic climate change seriously strike me as specious. I don’t propose to debate the matter here, either—there are plenty of forums for that. While I propose to leaven current model-based estimates on climate change and sea level rise with the evidence from paleoclimatology, those who insist that there’s nothing at all the matter with treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer for greenhouse gases are not going to be happy with the posts ahead.

I also propose to discuss industrial civilization’s decline and fall without trying to sugarcoat the harsher dimensions of that process, and that’s going to ruffle yet another set of feathers. Regular readers will recall a post earlier this year discussing the desperate attempts to insist that it won’t be that bad, really it won’t, that were starting to show up in the flurry of criticism each of these weekly essays reliably fields.  That’s even more common now than it was then; nowadays, in fact, whenever one of my posts uses words such as "decline" or "dark age," I can count on being taken to task by critics who insist earnestly that such language is too negative, that of course we’re facing a shift to a different kind of society but I shouldn’t describe it in such disempowering terms, and so on through the whole vocabulary of the obligatory optimism that’s so fashionable among the privileged these days.

I’m pretty sure, as noted in the blog post just cited, that this marks the beginning of a shift by the peak oil community as a whole out of the second of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous five stages, the stage of anger, into the third stage of bargaining. That’s welcome, in that it brings us closer to the point at which people have finished dealing with their own psychological issues and can get to work coping with the predicament of our time, but it’s still as much an evasion of that predicament as denial and anger were. The fall of a civilization is not a pleasant prospect—and that’s what we’re talking about, of course: the decline and fall of industrial civilization, the long passage through a dark age, and the first stirrings of the successor societies that will build on our ruins. That’s how the life cycle of a civilization ends, and it’s the way that ours is ending right now.

What that means in practice is that most of the familiar assumptions people in the industrial world like to make about the future will be stood on their heads in the decades and centuries ahead. Most of the rhetoric being splashed about these days in support of this or that or the other Great Turning that will save us from the consequences of our own actions assumes, as a matter of course, that a majority of people in the United States—or, heaven help us, in the whole industrial world—can and will come together around some broadly accepted set of values and some agreed-upon plan of action to rescue industrial civilization from the rising spiral of crises that surrounds it. My readers may have noticed that things seem to be moving in the opposite direction, and history suggests that they’re quite correct.

Among the standard phenomena of decline and fall, in fact, is the shattering of the collective consensus that gives a growing society the capacity to act together to accomplish much of anything at all.  The schism between the political class and the rest of the population—you can certainly call these "the 1%" and "the 99%" if you wish—is simply the most visible of the fissures that spread through every declining civilization, breaking it into a crazy quilt of dissident fragments pursuing competing ideals and agendas. That process has a predictable endpoint, too:  as the increasingly grotesque misbehavior of the political class loses it whatever respect and loyalty it once received from the rest of society, and the masses abandon their trust in the political institutions of their society, charismatic leaders from outside the political class fill the vacuum, violence becomes the normal arbiter of power, and the rule of law becomes a polite fiction when it isn’t simply abandoned altogether.

The economic sphere of a society in decline undergoes a parallel fragmentation for different reasons. In ages of economic expansion, the labor of the working classes yields enough profit to cover the costs of a more or less complex superstructure, whether that superstructure consists of the pharaohs and priesthoods of ancient Egypt or the bureaucrats and investment bankers of late industrial America. As expansion gives way to contraction, the production of goods and services no longer yields the profit ot once did, but the members of the political class, whose power and wealth depend on the superstructure, are predictably unwilling to lose their privileged status and have the power to keep themselves fed at everyone else’s expense. The reliable result is a squeeze on productive economic activity that drives a declining civilization into one convulsive financial crisis after another, and ends by shredding its capacity to produce even the most necessary goods and services .

In response, people begin dropping out of the economic mainstream altogether, because scrabbling for subsistence on the economic fringes is less futile than trying to get by in a system increasingly rigged against them. Rising taxes, declining government services, and systematic privatization of public goods by the rich compete to alienate more and more people from the established order, and the debasement of the money system in an attempt to make up for faltering tax revenues drives more and more economic activity into forms of exchange that don’t involve money at all.  As the monetary system fails, in turn, economies of scale become impossible to exploit; the economy fragments and simplifies until bare economic subsistence on local resources, occasionally supplemented by plunder, becomes the sole surviving form of economic activity

Taken together, these patterns of political fragmentation and economic unraveling send the political class of a failing civilization on a feet-first journey through the exit doors of history.  The only skills its members have, by and large, are those needed to manipulate the complex political and economic levers of their society, and their power depends entirely on the active loyalty of their subordinates, all the way down the chain of command, and the passive obedience of the rest of society.  The collapse of political institutions strips the political class of any claim to legitimacy, the breakdown of the economic system limits its ability to buy the loyalty of those that it can no longer inspire, the breakdown of the levers of control strips its members of the only actual power they’ve got, and that’s when they find themselves having to compete for followers with the charismatic leaders rising just then from the lower echelons of society. The endgame, far more often than not, comes when the political class tries to hire the rising leaders of the disenfranchised as a source of muscle to control the rest of the populace, and finds out the hard way that it’s the people who carry the weapons, not the ones who think they’re giving the orders, who actually exercise power.

The implosion of the political class has implications that go well beyond a simple change in personnel at the upper levels of society. The political and social fragmentation mentioned earlier applies just as forcefully to the less tangible dimensions of human life—its ideas and ideals, its beliefs and values and cultural practices. As a civilization tips over into decline, its educational and cultural institutions, its arts, literature, sciences, philosophies and religions all become identified with its political class; this isn’t an accident, as the political class generally goes out of its way to exploit all these things for the sake of its own faltering authority and influence. To those outside the political class, in turn, the high culture of the civilization becomes alien and hateful, and when the political class goes down, the cultural resources that it harnessed to its service go down with it.

Sometimes, some of those resources get salvaged by subcultures for their own purposes, as Christian monks and nuns salvaged portions of classical Greek and Roman philosophy and science for the greater glory of God. That’s not guaranteed, though, and even when it does happen, the salvage crew picks and chooses for its own reasons—the survival of classical Greek astronomy in the early medieval West, for example, happened simply because the Church needed to know how to calculate the date of Easter. Where no such motive exists, losses can be total: of the immense corpus of Roman music, the only thing that survives is a fragment of one tune that takes about 25 seconds to play, and there are historical examples in which even the simple trick of literacy got lost during the implosion of a civilization, and had to be imported centuries later from somewhere else.

All these transformations impact the human ecology of a falling civilization—that is, the basic relationships with the natural world on which every human society depends for day to day survival. Most civilizations know perfectly well what has to be done to keep topsoil in place, irrigation water flowing, harvests coming in, and all the other details of human interaction with the environment on a stable footing. The problem is always how to meet the required costs as economic growth ends, contraction sets in, and the ability of central governments to enforce their edicts begins to unravel. The habit of feeding the superstructure at the expense of everything else impacts the environment just as forcefully as it does the working classes:  just as wages drop to starvation levels and keep falling, funding for necessary investments in infrastructure, fallow periods needed for crop rotation, and the other inputs that keep an agricultural system going in a sustainable manner all get cut. 

As a result, topsoil washes away, agricultural hinterlands degrade into deserts or swamps, vital infrastructure collapses from malign neglect, and the ability of the land to support human life starts on the cascading descent that characterizes the end stage of decline—and so, in turn, does population, because human numbers in the last analysis are a dependent variable, not an independent one. Populations don’t grow or shrink because people just up and decide one day to have more or fewer babies; they’re constrained by ecological limits. In an expanding civilization, as its wealth and resource base increases, the population expands as well, since people can afford to have more children, and since more of the children born each year have access to the nutrition and basic health care that let them survive to breeding age themselves.  When growth gives way to decline, population typically keeps rising for another generation or so due to sheer demographic momentum, and then begins to fall.

The consequences can be traced in the history of every collapsing civilization.  As the rural economy implodes due to agricultural failure on top of the more general economic decline, a growing fraction of the population concentrates in urban slum districts, and as public health measures collapse, these turn into incubators for infectious disease. Epidemics are thus a common feature in the history of declining civilizations, and of course war and famine are also significant factors, but an even larger toll is taken by the constant upward pressure exerted on death rates by poverty, malnutrition, crowding, and stress. As deaths outnumber births, population goes into a decline that can easily continue for centuries. It’s far from uncommon for the population of an area in the wake of a civilization to equal less than 10% of the figure it reached at the precollapse peak.

Factor these patterns together, follow them out over the usual one to three centuries of spiralling decline, and you have the standard picture of a dark age society: a mostly deserted countryside of small and scattered villages where subsistence farmers, illiterate and impoverished, struggle to coax fertility back into the depleted topsoil. Their goverments consist of the personal rule of local warlords, who take a share of each year’s harvest in exchange for protection from raiders and rough justice administered in the shade of any convenient tree. Their literature consists of poems, lovingly memorized and chanted to the sound of a simple stringed instrument, recalling the great deeds of the charismatic leaders of a vanished age, and these same poems also contain everything they know about their history. Their health care consists of herbs, a little rough surgery, and incantations cannily used to exploit the placebo effect. Their science—well, I’ll let you imagine that for yourself.

And the legacy of the past? Here’s some of what an anonymous poet in one dark age had to say about the previous civilization:

Bright were the halls then, many the bath-houses,
High the gables, loud the joyful clamor,
Many the meadhalls full of delights
Until mighty Fate overthrew it all.
Wide was the slaughter, the plague-time came,
Death took away all those brave men.
Broken their ramparts, fallen their halls,
The city decayed; those who built it
Fell to the earth. Thus these courts crumble,
And roof-tiles fall from this arch of stone.

Fans of Anglo-Saxon poetry will recognize that as a passage from "The Ruin." If the processes of history follow their normal pattern, they will be chanting poems like this about the ruins of our cities four or five centuries from now. How we’ll get there, and what is likely to happen en route, will be the subject of most of the posts here for the next year or so.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

In a Handful of Dust

All things considered, it’s a good time to think about how much we can know about the future in advance. A hundred years ago last Saturday, as all my European readers know and a few of my American readers might have heard, a young Bosnian man named Gavrilo Prinzip lunged out of a crowd in Sarajevo and emptied a pistol into the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, who were touring that corner of the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian empire they were expected to inherit in due time. Over the summer months that followed, as a direct result of those gunshots, most of the nations of Europe went to war with one another, and the shockwaves set in motion by that war brought a global order centuries old crashing down.

In one sense, none of this was a surprise. Perceptive observers of the European scene had been aware for decades of the likelihood of a head-on crash between the rising power of Germany and the aging and increasingly fragile British Empire. The decade and a half before war actually broke out had seen an increasingly frantic scramble for military alliances that united longtime rivals Britain and France in a political marriage of convenience with the Russian Empire, in the hope of containing Germany’s growing economic and military might. Every major power poured much of its wealth into armaments, sparking an arms race so rapid that the most powerful warship on the planet in 1906, Britain’s mighty HMS Dreadnought, was hopelessly obsolete when war broke out eight years later.

Inquiring minds could read learned treatises by Halford Mackinder and many other scholars, explaining why conflict between Britain and Germany was inevitable; they could also take in serious fictional treatments of the subject such as George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking and Saki’s When William Came, or comic versions such as P.G. Wodehouse’s The Swoop!. Though most military thinkers remained stuck in the Napoleonic mode of conflict chronicled in the pages of Karl von Clausewitz’ On War, those observers of the military scene who paid attention to the events of the American Civil War’s closing campaigns might even have been able to sense something of the trench warfare that would dominate the coming war on the western front.

It’s only fair to remember that a great many prophecies in circulation at that same time turned out to be utterly mistaken. Most of them, however, had a theme in common that regular readers of this blog will find quite familiar: the claim that because of some loudly ballyhooed factor or other, it really was different this time. Thus, for example, plenty of pundits insisted in the popular media that economic globalization had made the world’s economies so interdependent that war between the major powers was no longer possible. Equally, there was no shortage of claims that this or that or the other major technological advance had either rendered war impossible, or guaranteed that a war between the great powers would be over in weeks. Then as now, those who knew their history knew that any claim about the future that begins “It’s different this time” is almost certain to be wrong.

All things considered, it was not exactly difficult in the late spring of 1914, for those who were willing to do so, to peer into the future and see the shadow of a major war between Britain and Germany rising up to meet them. There were, in fact, many people who did just that. To go further and guess how it would happen, though, was quite another matter.  Some people came remarkably close; Bismarck, who was one of the keenest political minds of his time, is said to have commented wearily that the next great European war would probably be set off by some idiotic event in the Balkans.  Still, not even Bismarck could have anticipated the cascade of misjudgments and unintended consequences that sent this particular crisis spinning out of control in a way that half a dozen previous crises had not done.

What’s more, the events that followed the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 quickly flung themselves off the tracks intended for them by the various political leaders and high commands, and carved out a trajectory of their own that nobody anywhere seems to have anticipated. That the Anglo-French alliance would squander its considerable military and economic superiority by refusing to abandon a bad strategy no matter how utterly it failed or how much it cost; that Russia’s immense armies would prove so feeble under pressure; that Germany would combine military genius and political stupidity in so stunningly self-defeating a fashion; that the United States would turn out to be the wild card in the game, coming down decisively on the Allied side just when the war had begun to turn in Germany’s favor—none of that was predicted, or could have been predicted, by anyone.

Nor were the consequences of the war any easier to foresee. On that bright summer day in 1914 when Gavrilo Prinzip burst from the crowd with a pistol in his hand, who could have anticipated the Soviet Union, the Great Depression, the blitzkreig, or the Holocaust? Who would have guessed that the victor in the great struggle between Britain and Germany would turn out to be the United States?  The awareness that Britain and Germany were racing toward a head-on collision did not provide any certain knowledge about how the resulting crash would turn out, or what its consequences would be; all that could be known for sure was that an impact was imminent and the comfortable certainties of the prewar world would not survive the shock.

That dichotomy, between broad patterns that are knowable in advance and specific details that aren’t, is very common in history. It’s possible, for example, that an impartial observer who assessed the state of the Roman Empire in 400 or so could have predicted the collapse of Roman power outside the Eastern Mediterranean littoral. As far as I know, no one did so—the ideological basis of Roman society made the empire’s implosion just as unthinkable then as the end of progress is today—but the possibility was arguably there. Even if an observer had been able to anticipate the overall shape of the Roman and post-Roman future, though, that anticipation wouldn’t have reached as far as the specifics of the collapse, and let’s not even talk about whether our observer might have guessed that the last Emperor of Rome in the west would turn out to be the son of Attila the Hun’s secretary, as in fact he was.

Such reflections are on my mind rather more than usual just now, for reasons that will probably come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog. For a variety of reasons, a few of which I’ll summarize in the paragraphs ahead, I think it’s very possible that the United States and the industrial world in general are near the brink of a convusive era of crisis at least as severe as the one that began in the summer of 1914. It seems very likely to me that in the years immediately ahead, a great many of the comfortable certainties of the last half century or so are going to be thrown overboard once and for all, as waves of drastic political, economic, military, social, and ecological change slam into societies that, despite decades of cogent warnings, have done precisely nothing to prepare for them.

I want to review here some of the reasons why I expect an era of crisis to arrive sooner rather than later. One of the most important of those reasons is the twilight of the late (and soon to be loudly lamented) fracking bubble. I’ve noted in previous posts here that the main product of the current fracking industry is neither oil nor gas, but the same sort of dubiously priced financial paper we all got to know and love in the aftermath of last decade’s real estate bubble. These days, the rickety fabric of American finance depends for its survival on a steady flow of hallucinatory wealth, since the production of mere goods and services no longer produces enough profit to support the Brobdingnagian superstructure of the financial industry and its swarm of attendant businesses. These days, too, an increasingly brittle global political order depends for its survival on the pretense that the United States is still the superpower it was decades ago, and all those strident and silly claims that the US is about to morph into a "Saudi America" flush with oil wealth are simply useful evasions that allow the day of reckoning, with its inevitable reshuffling of political and economic status, to be put off a little longer.

Unfortunately for all those involved, the geological realities on which the fracking bubble depends are not showing any particular willingness to cooperate. The downgrading of the Monterey Shale not long ago was just the latest piece of writing on the wall: one more sign that we’re scraping the bottom of the oil barrel under the delusion that this proves the barrel is still full. The fact that most of the companies in the fracking industry are paying their bills by running up debt, since their expenses are considerably greater than their earnings, is another sign of trouble that ought to be very familiar to those of us who witnessed the housing bubble’s go through its cycle of boom and bust.

Bubbles are like empires; if you watch one rise, you can be sure that it’s going to fall. What you don’t know, and can’t know, is when and how. That’s a trap that catches plenty of otherwise savvy investors. They see a bubble get under way, recognize it as a bubble, put money into it under the fond illusion that they can anticipate the bust and pull their money out right before the bottom drops out...and then, like everyone else, they get caught flatfooted by the end of the bubble and lose their shirts. That’s one of the great and usually unlearned lessons of finance: when a bubble gets going, it’s the pseudo-smart money that piles into it—the really smart money heads for the hills.

So it’s anyone’s guess when exactly the fracking bubble is going to pop, and even more uncertain how much damage it’s going to do to what remains of the US economy. A good midrange guess might be that it’ll have roughly the same impact that the popping of the housing bubble had in 2008 and 2009, but it could be well to either side of that estimate. Crucially, though, the damage that it does will be landing on an economy that has never really recovered from the 2008-2009 housing crash, in which actual joblessness (as distinct from heavily manipulated unemployment figures) is at historic levels and a very large number of people are scrambling for survival. At this point, another sharp downturn would make things much worse for a great many millions whose prospects aren’t that good to begin with, and that has implications that cross the border from economics into politics.

Meanwhile, the political scene in the United States is primed for an explosion. One of my regular readers—tip of the archdruid’s hat to Andy Brown—is a research anthropologist who recently spent ten weeks traveling around the United States asking people about their opinions and feelings concerning government. What he found was that, straight across geographical, political, and economic dividing lines, everyone he interviewed described the US government as the corrupt sock puppet of wealthy interests. He noted that he couldn’t recall ever encountering so broad a consensus on any political subject, much less one as explosive as this. 

Recent surveys bear him out. Only 7% of Americans feel any significant confidence in Congress.  Corresponding figures for the presidency and the Supreme Court are 29% and 30% respectively; fewer than a third of Americans, that is, place much trust in the political institutions whose birth we’ll be celebrating in a few days. This marks a tectonic shift of immense importance.  Not that many decades ago, substantial majorities of Americans believed in the essential goodness of the institutions that governed their country. Even those who condemned the individuals running those institutions—and of course that’s always been one of our national sports—routinely phrased those condemnations in terms reflecting a basic faith in the institutions themselves, and in the American experiment as a whole.

Those days are evidently over. The collapse of legitimacy currently under way in the United States is a familiar sight to students of history, who can point to dozens of comparable examples; each of these was followed, after no very long delay, by the collapse of the system of government whose legitimacy in the eyes of its people had gone missing in action. Those of my readers who are curious about such things might find it educational to read a good history of the French or the Russian revolutions, the collapse of the Weimar Republic or the Soviet Union, or any of the other implosions of political authority that have littered the last few centuries with rubble: when a system loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people it claims to lead, the end of that system is on its way.

The mechanics behind the collapse are worth a glance as well. Whether or not political power derives from the consent of the governed, as American political theory insists, it’s unarguably true that political power depends from moment to moment on the consent of the people who do the day-to-day work of governing:  the soldiers, police officers, bureaucrats and clerks whose job is is to see to it that orders from the leadership get carried out. Their obedience is the linchpin on which the survival of a regime rests, and it’s usually also the fault line along which regimes shatter, because these low-ranking and poorly paid functionaries aren’t members of the elite. They’re ordinary working joes and janes, subject to the same cultural pressures as their neighbors, and they generally stop believing in the system they serve about the same time as their neighbors do. That doesn’t stop them from serving it, but it does very reliably make them unwilling to lay down their lives in its defense, and if a viable alternative emerges, they’re rarely slow to jump ship.

Here in America, as a result of the processes just surveyed, we’ve got a society facing a well-known pattern of terminal crisis, with a gridlocked political system that’s lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people it governs, coupled with a baroque and dysfunctional economic system lurching toward another cyclical collapse under the weight of its own hopelessly inefficient management of wealth. This is not a recipe for a comfortable future. The situation has become dire enough that some of the wealthiest beneficiaries of the system—usually the last people to notice what’s happening, until the mob armed with torches and pitchforks shows up at their mansion’s front door—have belatedly noticed that robbing the rest of society blind is not a habit with a long shelf life, and have begun to suggest that if the rich don’t fancy the thought of dangling from lampposts, they might want to consider a change in approach. 

In its own way, this recognition is a promising sign. Similar realizations some seventy years ago put Franklin Roosevelt in the White House and spared the United States the hard choice between civil war and authoritarian rule that so many other countries were facing just then.  Unless a great many more members of our kleptocratic upper class experience the same sort of wake-up call in a hurry, though, the result this time is likely to be far too little and much too late.

Here again, though, a recognition that some kind of crash is coming doesn’t amount to foreknowledge of when it’s going to hit, how it’s going to play out, or what the results will be. If the implosion of the fracking bubble leads to one more round of bailouts for the rich and cutbacks for the poor, we could see the inner cities explode as they did in the long hot summers of the 1960s, setting off the insurgency that was so narrowly avoided in those years, and plunging the nation into a long nightmare of roadside bombs, guerrilla raids, government reprisals, and random drone strikes. If a talented demagogue shows up in the right place and time, we might instead see the rise of a neofascist movement that would feed on the abandoned center of American politics and replace the rusted scraps of America’s democratic institutions with a shiny new dictatorship.

If the federal government’s gridlock stiffens any further toward rigor mortis, for that matter, we could see the states force a constitutional convention that could completely rewrite the terms of our national life, or simply dissolve the Union and allow new regional nations to take shape.  Alternatively, if a great many factors break the right way, and enough people in and out of the corridors of power take the realities of our predicament seriously and unexpectedly grow some gonads—either kind, take your pick—we might just be able to stumble through the crisis years into an era of national retrenchment and reassessment, in which many of the bad habits picked up during America’s century of empire get chucked in history’s compost bin, and some of the ideals that helped inspire this country get a little more attention for a while. That may not be a likely outcome, but I think it’s still barely possible.

All we can do is wait and see what happens, or try to take action in the clear awareness that we can’t know what effects our actions will have. Thinking about that predicament, I find myself remembering lines from the bleak and brilliant poetic testament of the generation that came of age in the aftermath of those gunshots in Sarajevo, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising up to meet you:
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

It’s a crisp metaphor for the challenges of our time, as it was of those in the time about which Eliot wrote. For that matter, the quest to see something other than our own shadows projected forward on the future or backward onto the past has a broader significance for the project of this blog. With next week’s post, I plan on taking that quest a step further. The handful of dust I intend to offer my readers for their contemplation is the broader trajectory of which the impending crisis of the United States is one detail: the descent of industrial civilization over the next few centuries into a deindustrial dark age.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Broken Thread of Culture

There are times when the deindustrial future seems to whisper in the night like a wind blowing through the trees, sending the easy certainties of the present spinning like dead leaves. I had one of those moments recently, courtesy of a news story from 1997 that a reader forwarded me, about the spread of secret stories among homeless children in Florida’s Dade County.  These aren’t your ordinary children’s stories: they’re myths in the making, a bricolage of images from popular religion and folklore torn from their original contexts and pressed into the service of a harsh new vision of reality.

God, according to Dade County’s homeless children, is missing in action; demons stormed Heaven a while back and God hasn’t been seen since. The mother of Christ murdered her son and morphed into the terrifying Bloody Mary, a nightmare being who weeps blood from eyeless sockets and seeks out children to kill them.  Opposing her is a mysterious spirit from the ocean who takes the form of a blue-skinned woman, and who can protect children who know her secret name. The angels, though driven out of Heaven, haven’t given up; they carry on their fight against the demons from a hidden camp in the jungle somewhere outside Miami, guarded by friendly alligators who devour hostile intruders. The spirits of children who die in Dade County’s pervasive gang warfare can go to the camp and join the war against the demons, so long as someone who knows the stories puts a leaf on their graves.

This isn’t the sort of worldview you’d expect from people living in a prosperous, scientifically literate industrial society, but then the children in Dade County’s homeless shelters don’t fit that description in any meaningful sense. They live in conditions indistinguishable from the worst end of the Third World; their lives are defined by poverty, hunger, substance abuse, shattered families, constant uncertainty, and lethal violence dispensed at random. If, as Bruce Sterling suggested, the future is already here, just not evenly distributed yet, they’re the involuntary early adopters of a future very few people want to think about just now, but many of us will experience in the decades ahead, and most of humanity will face in the centuries that follow: a future we may as well call by the time-honored label "dark age."

That label actually dates from before the period most often assigned it these days. Marcus Terentius Varro, who was considered the most erudite Roman scholar of his time, divided up the history known to him into three ages—an age of history, for which there were written records; before that, an age of fable, from which oral traditions survived; and before that, a dark age, about which no one knew anything at all. It’s a simple division but a surprisingly useful one; even in those dark ages where literacy survived as a living tradition, records tend to be extremely sparse and unhelpful, and when records pick up again they tend to be thickly frosted with fable and legend for a good long while thereafter. In a dark age, the thread of collective memory and cultural continuity snaps, the ends are lost, and a new thread must be spun from whatever raw materials happen to be on hand.

There are many other ways to talk about dark ages, and we’ll get to those in later posts, but I want to focus on this aspect for the moment. Before the Greco-Roman world Varro knew, an earlier age of complex, literate civilizations had flourished and then fallen, and the dark age that followed was so severe that in many regions—Greece was one of them—even the trick of written language was lost, and had to be imported from elsewhere centuries afterwards. The dark age following Varro’s time wasn’t quite that extreme, but it was close enough; literacy became a rare attainment, and vast amounts of scientific, technical, and cultural knowledge were lost. To my mind, that discontinuity demands more attention than it’s usually been given.  What is it that snaps the thread that connects past to present, and allows the accumulated knowledge of an entire civilization to fall into oblivion?

A recurring historical process lies behind that failure of transmission, and it’s one that can be seen at work in those homeless children of Dade County, whispering strange stories to one another in the night.

Arnold Toynbee, whose monumental work A Study of History has been a major inspiration to this blog’s project, proposed that civilizations on the way to history’s compost heap always fail in the same general way. The most important factor that makes a rising civilization work, he suggested, is mimesis—the universal human habit by which people imitate the behavior and attitudes of those they admire. As long as the political class of a civilization can inspire admiration and affection from those below it, the civilization thrives, because the shared sense of values and purpose generated by mimesis keeps the pressures of competing class interests from tearing it apart.

Civilizations fail, in turn, because their political classes lose the ability to inspire mimesis, and this happens in turn because members of the elite become so fixated on maintaining their own power and privilege that they stop doing an adequate job of addressing the problems facing their society.  As those problems spin further and further out of control, the political class loses the ability to inspire and settles instead for the ability to dominate. Outside the political class and its hangers-on, in turn, more and more of the population becomes what Toynbee calls an internal proletariat, an increasingly sullen underclass that still provides the political class with its cannon fodder and labor force but no longer sees anything to admire or emulate in those who order it around.

It can be an unsettling experience to read American newspapers or wide-circulation magazines from before 1960 or so with eyes sharpened by Toynbee’s analysis.  Most newspapers included a feature known as the society pages, which chronicled the social and business activities of the well-to-do, and those were read, with a sort of fascinated envy, very far down the social pyramid. Established figures of the political and business world were treated with a degree of effusive respect you won’t find in today’s media, and even those who hoped to shoulder aside this politician or that businessman rarely dreamed of anything more radical than filling the same positions themselves. Nowadays? Watching politicians, businesspeople, and celebrities get dragged down by some wretched scandal or other is this nation’s most popular spectator sport.

That’s what happens when mimesis breaks down. The failure to inspire has disastrous consequences for the political class—when the only things left that motivate people to seek political office are cravings for power or money, you’ve pretty much guaranteed that the only leaders you’ll get are the sort of incompetent hacks who dominate today’s political scene—but I want to concentrate for a moment on the effects on the other end of the spectrum. The failure of the political class to inspire mimesis in the rest of society doesn’t mean that mimesis goes away. The habit of imitation is as universal among humans as it is among other social primates. The question becomes this:  what will inspire mimesis among the internal proletariat? What will they use as the templates for their choices and their lives?

That’s a crucial question, because it’s not just social cohesion that depends on mimesis.  The survival of the collective knowledge of a society—the thread connecting past with present I mentioned earlier—also depends on the innate habit of imitation. In most human societies, children learn most of what they need to know about the world by imitating parents, older siblings, and the like, and in the process the skills and knowledge base of the society is passed on to each new generation. Complex societies like ours do the same thing in a less straightforward way, but the principle is still the same. Back in the day, what motivated so many young people to fiddle with chemistry sets? More often than not, mimesis—the desire to be just like a real scientist, making real discoveries—and that was reasonable in the days when a significant fraction of those young people could expect to grow up to be real scientists.

That still happens, but it’s less and less common these days, and for those who belong to the rapidly expanding underclass of American society—the homeless children in Dade County I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, for example—the sort of mimesis that might lead to a career in science isn’t even an option. A great many of those children won’t live to reach adulthood, and they know it; those who do manage to dodge the stray bullets and the impact of collapsing public health, by and large, will spend their days in the crumbling, crowded warehouse facilities that substitute for schools in this country’s poorer neighborhoods, where maybe half of each graduating high school class comes out functionally illiterate; their chances of getting a decent job of any kind weren’t good even before the global economy started unraveling, and let’s not even talk about those chances now.

When imitating the examples offered by the privileged becomes a dead end, in other words, people find other examples to imitate. That’s one of the core factors, I’m convinced, behind the collapse of the reputation of the sciences in contemporary American society, which is so often bemoaned by scientists and science educators.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson, say, may rhapsodize about the glories of science, but what exactly do those glories have to offer children huddling in an abandoned house in some down-at-heels Miami suburb, whose main concerns are finding ways to get enough to eat and stay out of the way of the latest turf war between the local drug gangs?

Now of course there’s been a standard kneejerk answer to such questions for the last century or so. That answer was that science and technology would eventually create such abundance that everyone in the world would be able to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle and its attendant opportunities.  That same claim can still be heard nowadays, though it’s grown shrill of late after repeated disconfirmation. In point of fact, for the lower 80% of Americans by income, the zenith of prosperity was reached in the third quarter of the 20th century, and it’s all been downhill from there. This isn’t an accident; what the rhetoric of progress through science misses is that the advance of science may have been a necessary condition for the boomtimes of the industrial age, but it was never a sufficient condition in itself.

The other half of the equation was the resource base on which industrial civilization depended. Three centuries ago, as industrialism got under way, it could draw on vast amounts of cheap, concentrated energy in the form of fossil fuels, which had been stored up in the Earth’s crust over the previous half billion years or so. It could draw on equally huge stocks of raw materials of various kinds, and it could also make use of a biosphere whose capacity to absorb pollutants and other environmental insults hadn’t yet been overloaded to the breaking point by human activity. None of those conditions still obtain, and the popular insistence that the economic abundance of the recent past must inevitably be maintained in the absence of the material conditions that made it possible—well, let’s just say that makes a tolerably good example of faith-based thinking.

Thus Tyson is on one side of the schism Toynbee traced out, and the homeless children of Dade County and their peers and soon-to-be-peers elsewhere in America and the world are on the other. He may denounce superstition and praise reason and science until the cows come home, but again, what possible relevance does that have for those children? His promises are for the privileged, not for them; whatever benefits further advances in technology might still have to offer will go to the dwindling circle of those who can still afford such things, not to the poor and desperate.  Of course that simply points out another way of talking about Toynbee’s schism:  Tyson thinks he lives in a progressing society, while the homeless children of Dade County know that they live in a collapsing one.

As the numbers shift toward the far side of that dividing line, and more and more Americans find themselves struggling to cope with a new and unwelcome existence in which talk about progress and prosperity amounts to a bad joke, the failure of mimesis—as in the fallen civilizations of the past—will become a massive social force. If the usual patterns play themselves out, there will be a phase when the  leaders of successful drug gangs, the barbarian warbands of our decline and fall, will attract the same rock-star charisma that clung to Attila, Alaric, Genseric and their peers. The first traces of that process are already visible; just as young Romans in the fourth century adopted the clothes and manners of Visigoths, it’s not unusual to see the children of white families in the suburban upper middle class copying the clothing and culture of inner city gang members.

Eventually, to judge by past examples, this particular mimesis is likely to extend a great deal further than it has so far. It’s when the internal proletariat turns on the failed dominant minority and makes common cause with what Toynbee calls the external proletariat—the people who live just beyond the borders of the falling civilization, who have been shut out from its benefits but burdened with many of its costs, and who will eventually tear the corpse of the civilization to bloody shreds—that civilizations make the harsh transition from decline to fall. That transition hasn’t arrived yet for our civilization, and exactly when it will arrive is by no means a simple question, but the first whispers of its approach are already audible for those who know what to listen for and are willing to hear.

The age of charismatic warlords, though, is an epoch of transition rather than an enduring reality.  The most colorful figures of that age, remade by the workings of the popular imagination, become the focus of folk memories and epic poetry in the ages that follow; Theodoric the Ostrogoth becomes Dietrich von Bern and the war leader Artorius becomes the courtly King Arthur, taking their place alongside Gilgamesh, Arjuna, Achilles, Yoshitsune, and their many equivalents. In their new form as heroes of romance, they have a significant role to play as objects of mimesis, but it tends to be restricted to specific classes, and finds a place within broader patterns of mimesis that draw from other sources.

And those other sources?  What evidence we have—for the early stages of their emergence are rarely well documented—suggests that they begin as strange stories whispered in the night, stories that deliberately devalue the most basic images and assumptions of a dying civilization to find meaning in a world those images and assumptions no longer explain.

Two millennia ago, for example, the classical Greco-Roman world imagined itself seated comfortably at the summit of history.  Religious people in that culture gloried in gods that had reduced primal chaos to permanent order and exercised a calm rulership over the cosmos; those who rejected traditional religion in favor of rationalism—and there was no shortage of those, any more than there is today; it’s a common stage in the life of every civilization—rewrote the same story in secular terms, invoking various philosophical principles of order to fill the role of the gods of Olympus; political thinkers defined history in the same terms, with the Roman Empire standing in for Jupiter Optimus Maximus. It was a very comforting way of thinking about the world, if you happened to be a member of the gradually narrowing circle of those who benefited from the existing order of society.

To thos who formed the nucleus of the Roman Empire’s internal proletariat, though, to slaves and the urban poor, that way of thinking communicated no meaning and offered no hope. The scraps of evidence that survived the fall of the Roman world suggest that a great many different stories got whispered in the darkness, but those stories increasingly came to center around a single narrative—a story in which the God who created everything came down to walk the earth as a man, was condemned by a Roman court as a common criminal, and was nailed to a cross and left hanging there to die.

That’s not the sort of worldview you’d expect from people living in a prosperous, philosophically literate classical society, but then the internal proletariat of the Roman world increasingly didn’t fit that description. They were the involuntary early adopters of the post-Roman future, and they needed stories that would give meaning to lives defined by poverty, brutal injustice, uncertainty, and violence. That’s what they found in Christianity, which denied the most basic assumptions of Greco-Roman culture in order to give value to the lived experience of those for whom the Roman world offered least.

This is what the internal proletariat of every collapsing civilization finds in whatever stories become central to the faith of the dark age to come.  It’s what Egyptians in the last years of the Old Kingdom found by abandoning the official Horus-cult in favor of the worship of Osiris, who walked the earth as a man and suffered a brutal death; it’s what many Indians in the twilight of the Guptas and many Chinese in the aftermath of the Han dynasty found by rejecting their traditional faiths in favor of reverence for the Buddha, who walked away from a royal lifestyle to live by his begging bowl and search for a way to leave the miseries of existence behind forever.  Those and the many more examples like them inspired mimesis among those for whom the official beliefs of their civilizations had become a closed book, and became the core around which new societies emerged.

The stories being whispered from one homeless Dade County child to another probably aren’t the stories that will serve that same function as our civilization follows the familiar trajectory of decline and fall. That’s my guess, at least, though of course I could be wrong. What those whispers in the night seem to be telling me is that the trajectory in question is unfolding in the usual way—that those who benefit least from modern industrial civilization are already finding meaning and hope in narratives that deliberately reject our culture’s traditional faiths and overturn the most fundamental presuppositions of our age. As more and more people find themselves in similar straits, in turn, what are whispers in the night just now will take on greater and greater volume, until they drown out the stories that most people take on faith today.