Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Alternatives to Nihilism, Part Two: Lead Us Away From Here

An irony I’ve had the chance to relish repeatedly, over the five years or so since The Archdruid Report first ventured onto the blogosphere, is the extraordinary grip of convention and conformity on exactly those sectors of American society that take the most pride in their rejection of convention and conformity. It’s reminiscent of the scene from the Monty Python film Life of Brian in which a crowd of adoring followers, told that they are all individuals, chants back in perfect unison, “Yes, we are all individuals!”

It’s easy enough to laugh, but there’s much to be learned from the beliefs that are taken for granted by those who insist they take nothing for granted. The subject of today’s post is one of those, one that’s deeply entangled with the cult of nihilism I dissected in last week’s essay. It’s a credo that’s embraced with equal enthusiasm straight across the political spectrum from left to right, and from the middle of the road out as far toward the fringes as you care to look. There are few better examples of groupthink in contemporary American life, and yet nearly all the people who accept the notions I have in mind are convinced that they’re rebelling against conformity by conforming to a belief system shared by nearly everybody else in the country.

The credo in question? It’s the belief that all the decisions that really matter in the United States today are made by a small elite, insulated from the democratic process, who are pursuing policies that would be rejected by the American people if the latter had the chance to make up their own minds.

Those of my readers who happen to be Democrats may find it educational to sit down sometime with a stalwart Republican, perhaps over a couple of beers, and ask whether this is the case. You can count on getting an earful about the corrupt liberal elite that pulls all the strings in this country. If any of my readers happen to be Republican, and try the same experiment in reverse, they can expect an equal and opposite earful about the corrupt corporate elite that pulls all the strings in this country. Step outside the two main parties and ask the same question, and you’ll get at least thirty-one different flavors of the same claim, topped off, perhaps, by some follower of David Icke insisting that the corrupt elite that pulls all the strings is actually the cabal of evil space lizards that Ickes appears to have lifted from one too many viewings of the otherwise forgettable Eighties science fiction TV series V.

Nearly everyone agrees, in other words, that there’s a corrupt elite pulling the strings, even though no two factions can agree on who it is and what they want. Next to nobody challenges the assumption that democracy is a charade controlled by unseen hands. Still, I’m convinced that it’s high time to question that assumption, and to trace out its links to the cult of nihilism and the profoundly troubled national conscience that have exercised a corrosive influence on this country since the end of the Seventies.

It’s probably necessary to say right off that challenging the credo I’ve outlined here does not require believing in the fairy tale version of democracy too many schools still insist on dishing up to our children, in an apparent attempt to apply Huckleberry Finn’s famous definition of faith – "believing what you know ain’t so" – to the political sphere. In the real world, a democratic society is not a Utopia that guarantees everyone perfect liberty and equality. Rather, it’s simply one way of managing the chore of making collective decisions, in the context of a society that – like all human societies everywhere – distributes wealth, power, rights, and responsibilities unequally among its citizens. I tend to think that democracy deserves our support because, by and large, it produces fewer and less drastic human rights violations and allows somewhat more individual freedom than the alternatives, but those are relative distinctions, not absolutes, and democracy also has a bumper crop of problems of its own that are hardwired into its basic architecture.

For instance, democracies always have severe problems with corruption, because democracy is one of the few systems of government in which the rich aren’t automatically the ones who make collective decisions. In a hereditary aristocracy, say, the people who have the political authority also have most of the national wealth, and thus can afford the disdain for the merely rich that aristocrats so often affect. In a democracy, by contrast, there are always people who have wealth but want influence, and people who have power but want money, and the law of supply and demand takes it from there. Those who claim that the existence of political corruption in America shows that it’s no longer a democracy thus have the matter exactly backwards; it’s precisely because American national, state and local governments are more or less democratic that corruption flourishes here, as it has in nearly every other democracy on record.

There are plenty of other problems endemic to democracies. A glance over the ancient Greek literature on the subject, just for starters, will provide any of my readers who are curious about this with an uncomfortably exact autopsy of the current problems of American politics. Still, the most important problem with democracy is one that’s inseparable from the basic idea of handing decision-making over to the citizens as a whole, because no law of nature requires a majority to be right.

Now it’s central to most versions of the credo of elite rule I mentioned earlier in this post to claim that the majority is so thoroughly manipulated by the corrupt (insert partisan label here) elite pulling all the strings in this country that it can’t make up its own mind about anything that matters, and simply follows the lead of the elite. Democrats, Republicans, believers in evil space lizards, and nearly everyone else pass easily from this claim to the insistence that if the majority was able to think for itself, it would back the Democrats, Republicans, believers in evil space lizards, or whoever else happens to be speaking at the time. This may in itself suggest one of the motives for this very comforting notion, but there may be more going on here than simple sour grapes.

There is, to be sure, plenty of manipulation of the public in America, as in any other democracy, for reasons identical to those behind the prevalence of corruption in democratic systems. At any given time, there may be a couple of dozen organized groups or more trying to push some set of ideas on the public by fair means or foul. What is not often recognized is that the public is not merely a passive participant in this process. Multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns routinely flop because the American public, motivated by its habitual perversity, shrugs and walks away from the most carefully crafted marketing pitch to embrace some fad or fashion nobody on Madison Avenue saw coming. That is to say, manipulation works in both directions; those people who try to bend public opinion to their own ends can succeed only by telling the public what it wants to hear.

The same thing is equally true in politics, as a glance over the history of the last half dozen decades of American political life will show clearly enough. Perhaps the best example of all is the abandonment of the movement toward sustainability in the wake of the Seventies.

That movement was backed by a loose coalition with diverse and often conflicting goals, and it faced strident opposition from a large sector of the public, but it had the support of government officials who were worried about the price of dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and who also felt the perennial need of politicians to appear to be doing something about the crisis du jour, which at that point was the high cost of energy. Some members of both parties opposed the movement, though others on both sides of the aisle backed it; some corporate interests opposed it, while others recognized that alternative energy just might turn out to be the next big thing. The entire movement, however, was based all along on the gamble that the American public would be willing to tighten its belt and plunge into the transition to an ecotechnic society even when the bills started coming due in earnest.

On the other side of the game was a coterie of Republican politicians and strategists who guessed that when push came to shove, the American public would crumple. When a chapter of accidents put their candidate into the White House, they bet the future of their party on that guess, and won. The election that mattered here wasn’t Reagan’s relatively narrow victory in 1980, but his landslide in 1984, when most of the nation registered its approval of a policy shift that spared them the costs of the transition to sustainability. It was after the latter election that the axe came down on funding for appropriate tech, and Woodsy Owl’s iconic "Give a hoot – don’t pollute!" ads vanished from the airwaves.

Notice also what happened as the Eighties unfolded. It wasn’t just the American public that crumpled; the sustainability movement did, too. There were some who stayed the course, who saw that the plunge in energy prices bought by breakneck pumping of the North Slope and North Sea oil fields would turn out to be one of history’s classic short-term fixes, and kept the green flame lit. Still, by and large, most of the people who had been subscribers to Rain and Coevolution Quarterly, and had been nervously trying to work up the courage to accept the restricted lifestyles they knew would be required , talked themselves into believing that the time for that was over. Several commenters on last week’s post have recalled the guilty relief with which they, and so many other people, welcomed the end of gas lines and the return of cheap gasoline; it was a common sentiment at the time.

The price for that failure, though, was not limited to the collapse of a movement that might just have gotten us through the end of the petroleum age without a long and bitter age of contraction. The payoff the Reagan administration offered the American people was the same unearned prosperity that wrecks most democracies in the end. That payoff was cashed in, in turn, by cultivating a degree of fiscal irresponsibility no previous American administration had ever considered: cutting taxes, increasing government payouts, and simply borrowing the difference.

When the aftershocks of the dizzying 1987 stock market crash made the first Bush administration veer slightly in the direction of fiscal prudence, in turn, the mild economic contraction that followed was more than enough to allow Clinton to breeze to victory in 1992 with a platform that amounted to very little more than "I’ll make you richer than he will." That’s been the model of American politics ever since; it’s not accidental that the Republican and Democratic plans to "decrease the deficit" under discussion at this moment both involve big increases in government spending, because bribing the electorate and inflating financial bubbles for their benefit are essential to get or keep office these days.

It’s in this light that the behavior of the two main American political parties over the last thirty years needs to be understood. Since 1984, the Democrats’ strategy has been to denounce the Republicans during each presidential campaign and then, once in office, copy GOP policies letter for letter, with the occasional sop thrown to their erstwhile allies now and then for form’s sake. The hangdog, foot-scuffing spinelessness displayed repeatedly by Democratic politicians in the face of Republican pressure, I’ve come to believe, has its roots here; it’s hard to stand firm against the opposition if you’re covertly imitating all its policies.

The Republicans, for their part, have traveled an even longer road from their roots than the Democrats. Fifty years ago, the GOP was the party of small government, fiscal prudence, local autonomy, and a healthy distrust of foreign military adventures; for that matter, from the founding of the National Parks by Theodore Roosevelt to the sweeping environmental reforms enacted by Nixon, the GOP had at least as good a record on environmental issues as the Democrats. Had a delegate to a 1960 GOP county convention proposed today’s Republican policies, in other words, he would have been thrown out of the hall with enough force to leave a faceprint on the pavement. The near-total betrayal of its historic commitments and ideals by today’s GOP has left deep scars; I suspect that the shrill fury with which so many Republican spokespeople denounce everyone else comes from the deep and unadmitted discomfort they feel at that betrayal, and their own complicity in it.

Finally, the behavior of the Bush and Obama administrations in the wake of the 2008 crash needs to be understood in a very different sense than it’s usually given. Much of the economic history of the last thirty years has been driven by the need for the political establishment to keep giving the American public what it demanded, even when those demands could only be met by a series of increasingly risky high-stakes gambles and dubiously legal expedients. The borrow-and-spend Republicans of the Reagan years relied on the ability of global capital markets to absorb an endless supply of US Treasury debt, but the imbalances set in motion by that decision forced each administration deeper into market manipulations than the last.

The huge financial corporations that played so central a role in the housing bubble, and are equally central to the current attempt to inflate a new bubble, are by all accounts key players in these schemes. Certainly there’s plenty of corruption involved – again, that’s endemic to democracy – and huge and arguably dishonest fortunes are being made, but there’s also the hard fact that the big banks have become crucial organs of US economic policy and will be propped up by any means necessary as long as their usefulness remains. That policy has many goals, to be sure, but maintaining the facade of American prosperity demanded by the electorate, long after every real basis for that prosperity has evaporated, ranks well up among them.

Does all this mean that the electorate is uniquely responsible for what happened in the wake of the Seventies? It’s hard to think of any sense in which that notion could have meaning. An entire nation made a disastrous wrong turn at that time; millions of people, each in his or her own way, contributed to that wrong turn, and very, very few opposed it. At this stage in the game, trying to affix blame to any narrower subset of the nation may be popular but it’s also useless, as it simply feeds the nihilism this series of posts is anatomizing. Clinging to the fashionable belief in the omnipotence of evil elites is the extreme form of that blame game, and even more useless than most of the others. The hard but necessary task before us, instead, is to come to terms with the fact that our nation made a catastrophic mistake thirty years ago, and that most of us who were alive at that time either backed that mistake or acquiesced in it.

Ironically enough, given that this series of posts started with a reference to a bit of Seventies popular music, it was another Seventies band – Styx, in the closing lines of the 1975 hit Suite Madam Blue – that did as good a job as anyone of stating the challenge we as a nation faced at the close of that decade:

America, America, America, America
Red White and Blue
Gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child any more
Red White and Blue
Your future is all but past
So lift up your heart
And make a new start
Lead us away from here

We failed that challenge then. In the final part of this series of posts, we’ll talk about the options for meeting it now.

132 comments:

Charles Frith said...

Well that's disappointing. You parody convention breakers and then pursue the conventions of conformist thought. David Icke has a very serious accusation to make about satanic sex abuse and I've blogged about it here.

www.charlesfrith.com/2011/04/david-icke-matters.html

Furthermore there's no mention of the elite use of Hegelian dialectic to divide and rule through politics. This is as old as the hills and a person who hasn't seen through the artificial left/right divide construct hasn't done enough homework.

This blog is taking a very conventional manner. I intended to leave a comment about zero point energy but I see that will be futile.

John Michael Greer said...

Charles, if I'd sat down and tried to come up with a response as rigidly stereotyped as yours, I don't think I could have done it. Thank you for proving my point!

Richard Larson said...

Still, I refuse to let the directors of BP, Tokyo Electric, or GE off the hook.

I am thinking, by the tenor of this particular blog, you are sensing something of a quick end to the morass. Is the idea of a Long Descent off the table?

Democracy has run its course with no tricks left to keep 'er going?

Ruben said...

At first I assumed Charles was being deeply--opaquely--sarcastic.

His comment about zero point energy was so out in left field that I was sure it was satire. But then I read his blog. It is written in the same voice, and so I started to think he was being real.

But then I found his comment responding to comments about his joke about Michelle Obama surviving 9/11 (didn't really understand what was going on here...?)--which was, "Popular Humour is Pedestrian Humour."

So, while he may be a snob, I think he is joking.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, they're on the hook along with the rest of us. As for the Long Descent, that's still my working model. We're not going to have a quick end to much of anything -- it's a question of how to handle the mess we've got, and will be dealing with for the rest of our lives in one way or another.

Ruben, maybe I missed the humor, then. I field comments like his all the time, and most of them are from people who appear to be utterly serious about evil space lizards, zero point energy, the current 2012 mythology, and so on.

Yupped said...

thanks for a fine post, lots to think about in that one. I havent commented much of late, but still read and enjoy evey week. Too much to do! Still, garden is up, chickens are growing, im tired at the end of the day from physical work. I could have signed up for this life in the late seventies, when i was a teenager, but better late than never i suppose. Obviously, we all wasted a lot of time in the last three decades. And made things much worse. Do you see any silver linings, though, things that better position people and towns to make the inevitable changes now that werent in place thirty years ago?

Don Mason said...

It would be much easier if we could just blame this whole mess on wealthy elite space lizards. They're small in number and easy to identify; and therefore, easy to eradicate their influence.

And obviously, the lizards have played their role.

But ultimately, it's the fault of all of us faulty humans: seven billion creatures who have a cerebral cortex that is mechanically creative but prone to being over-ruled by a reptilian brainstem that does not enjoy "shivering in the dark".

And in a democracy, votes accordingly.

We have our work cut out for us. But now that there is no alternative to alternative tech, it may be a little easier to keep the movement moving this time around.

John Michael Greer said...

Yupped, I don't know of any silver linings, though there ought to be one or two out there. Still, we haven't lost as much as we might have, which is something. Glad to hear the chickens are doing well!

Dan, thank you for getting it. I have some hope for the future, which I'll be discussing next week, and the hard necessity for appropriate tech feeds into that.

Ryan said...

This piece is one of the reasons I return again and again to The Archdruid Report. It made me think and it made me uncomfortable. As involved as I was in the alternative technology movement of the 70's, by 1982 I had "acquiesced", only to return in earnest in the late 90's.

I will probably need to re-read this post several times in order to help to pry some of my ideology out of my brain.

Thank you, JMG!

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

It seems to me that the whole 'control by elites' supposition is just a worn contrivance for avoiding personal responsibility for the sort of engagement in the democratic process that would put the lie to just those sorts of claims. But why is it so prevalent? Is it because we have collectively had our hopes of substantive change so routinely dashed over the past three or four decades, or perhaps is it rather that preferring to avoid such adventure we make certainty of pretense. Sam's Huckleberry may have had it right.

If so, that might explain why instead of managing to produce a national leadership that can construct a meaningful dialog addressing options for dealing effectively with the overwhelmingly obvious predicament we enjoy, we have instead treated ourselves to a continuing (un)reality show of hyper-competitive and baseless solution-hawking. Accommodation to dragons too terrible to dispatch is a concept with no political traction. It may well be that such honesty will really only be possible at a much smaller and more local scale.

GHung said...

Ha! Some of my favorite guitar work in that song; starting about4:O5. Doesn't last long, but what does?

What we have here is an innate special conflict of interest between the needs of the one (individual) and the needs of the collective (community, society, species). Our meteoric developement as a species has concentrated this disfunctionality in ways no other species can mimic: the ability to blame, hold a grudge. Different systems of social organization concentrate this special ability more than others.

The beauty of democracy is that we are free to openly blame whomever we choose: the government; some financial elite; another race... the list is complete. Some folks even blame the aliens..

The one thing we are inept at is blaming ourselves. But then again, it's always somone elses fault ;-)

Note: certain other species of great apes may, in fact, hold grudges, so maybe we can blame them. Are there Republican and Democrat Chimps?

Matthew Heins said...

"In a democracy, ... there are always people who have wealth but want influence, and people who have power but want money, and the law of supply and demand takes it from there."

I'll have a real response later.

But I just want to say that this very, very good.

I feel like writing it on billboards to calm people down.

-Matt

Jeff Z said...

I always appreciate how you cut through the BS, JMG. On the other side of hte peak oil blogosphere, Mr. Kunstler's blog seems to be becoming darker and weirder as he tries to defend his political choices and as the commenters become more bitterly partisan. Really- how much does any of this really matter?
It's hard not to embrace nihilism when there's such a vacuum of original thought and truth-telling in this time and place. I was born in the early 70's and by the time I reached college, cynicism was the common language spoken by everyone- all of my peers would say something ironic in order to say something else- and still do. Take Mr. Frith for example. Is he being genuine, or is his comment a parody of the critical theorists, or a parody of a parody which he somewhat means? Does he even know?

Thanks for being a voice of reason- and in some ways- a wise elder for those of us too young to remember what happened the last time energy became scarce.

Richard said...

I think the view that it's all the elites fault is so pervasive because it's more comforting than the realization that it's the whole culture. When I first learned about peak oil, Mike Ruppert was who I paid the most attention to, and focused a lot of energy on the elites' role in the situation. After several miserably failed predictions of his, including saying that hurricane Rita would bring down America, I started paying less and less attention to Ruppert and those like him. I never did fall for anything as extreme as David Icke though.

I've realized that even those who don't go as far as saying the elites are space lizards still attribute things to them that don't jive with normal human experience. Conspiracies happen all the time, look at how many people are convicted of crimes with conspiracy in the name. Obviously the elites do the same sort of thing, but what so many people (including myself in the past) don't think about is that conspiring gets more difficult the more people who are involved. I was having a conversation recently about someone who first was talking about how evil and greedy the elites were, and then that they were all (or at least a large majority) were working together in a grand behind-the-scenes plan to exploit the people. I responded that while there is plenty of exploitation by elites and there are plenty of greedy, power hungry people in those positions, when have you ever seen anything close to that many people get along smoothly. Considering the elites are people, some of them are friends and do conspire, while others hate each other or are rivals, while some would love to control the world if they could, the world is way to complex for that.

Since I've started firmly taking the position that the American people are still responsible for their decisions, I'm amazed at how many people get to the point of anger when trying to convince me they're not.

As an example, so many people are blaming Wal-mart for destroying local businesses, I'm certainly no fan of wal-mart either, but wal-mart only can do that because people shop there rather than at the local businesses, of course once the other places have closed up it's true that there's nowhere else left to get some things (I'm not even going to go into which of those things are best done without to begin with). However if when a wal-mart moved in, people ignored it, then it would soon close and the local businesses would be unaffected, and if that happened in many places wal-mart wouldn't be so powerful anymore. Wal-mart is a clear example of those in power following the wants of the masses, if wal-mart hadn't com along some other company would be in the same place, but people still always want to blame the elites.

Nathan said...

I agree with what you said about how we have bought into the lifestyle we pursue as a country. Even given how much we are pushed towards it, resistance & alternatives - if there was a real widespread desire for them, instead of just the desire to wear them as revolutionary garb - are very possible. At least possible with less sacrifice in our country than in occupied Poland in the 80's.

However, I don't see why such thoughts are antithetical to seeing the conspiracies among certain groups of the privileged and influential? Yes, 1) these group don't control us, and 2) there is no singular, omnipotent, evil "they" -- but certain members of the aristocracy form shifting alliances to get what they want (the Federal Reserve, Iraq, Libya...). Such coalitions (or conspiracies or whatever) can and have been resisted, yes. But, the centralization of power due to the Oil Age has given people in power of the secondary economy more resources than ever to throw behind their wants.

Isn't that what corruption is? With regards to some things, such as our war with Libya, how would we put enough pressure on the coalition who benefits from it for it to end?

Loveandlight said...

Continuing with the theme of last week's comment, I'll relate what you discuss through the lense of what I personally was doing and experiencing at the time. This post made me feel slightly better about my ill-fated stint as a know-it-all college-campus radical-leftist. Even though I wasn't doing a whole lot more than playing a political form of Halloween dress-up, my pretensions did stem from the fact that I realized that we needed to be doing very different things from what we started doing in 1981, crude and shallow as this realization was.

However, when I was made to realize that the denizens of "PC Co-op Land" weren't really my friends and that Bill and Hillary Clinton (Hope and Change v1.0) were going to be just more of the same, I collapsed into a puddle of despair and self-pity that ultimately shaped me into one of the acquiescers of which you speak. Probably nothing short of a magic letter from my older self sent back in time to my younger self could have made my likely trajectory different, and even that might not have done it.

Robin Datta said...

James Howard Kunstler also notes the culpability of each of us in this herd for choosing an unsustainable lifestyle - and now seeking to sustain the unsustainable, driven at least in part by the psychology of previous investment.

Coming here at the age of 24, I was readily entrained into the prevailing "norms" - although I never did vote for a Republican or a Democrat for any office - not even for dogcatcher.

Adjusting does take a while: one of the first things noticed by immigrants from the Third World is the wanton wastefulness, Perhaps we may see a change to that with the spread of salvage industrialism.

Charles Frith said...

John. I offer you specifics of the conventionality of your thinking and your response is vague calumny.

I can only conclude that words have failed you till your address my criticism.

x said...

The German's have invented a good word to describe the essence of an era - Zeitgheist. Such a concept, imo, doesn't denote the control and direction of events by an elite. Rather Zeitgheist relates to how large swathes of a given population, with the current doyens as mere subsets, having accepted often competing premises about how society should work, react to events - rather than directing them. The competing premises (or inherent tensions) of differing groups don't amend their premises when adverse events occur. They try to find out why the world isn't working according to their premises. They believe they need to change the world rather than amend their premises.

As events throw up ever more inconsistencies in their premises, they search for other groups to blame for queering their live's ideas (ideals). Also, the doyens of a given society become captured by the Zeitgheist they think they're have control over, and may even believe they've created all by themselves.

(I would posit there is one fly in the modern ointment, and that is the media. As they shrink and become concentrated into fewer corporate or private entities, they've largely stopped reporting news and become editorials on news items focusing on their own particular biases. Rather than trying to capture the essence of our era, they elide into stereotypicalising those groups or individuals they blame for for the inconsistences thrown up by events. This process becomes, in a manner, a sub-Zeitgheist of its own that reinforces and communicates adverse evebts, in essence, as uncontrollable and therefore liable to conspiracy by someone, some group, somewhere.)

As a Zeitgheist example, Ireland stopped being a country about 10-15 years ago with a unique culture and society. It was rebranded as Ireland Inc. The doyens of political Ireland became the new business managers. As long as the unregulated free-market premises held true during the housing bubble the ruling Fianna Fail Party ruled the roost. Bankruptcy put an end to that party (in every sense), so we elected new management who sees a queen's visit as an "investment opportunity", and selling the state's profitable infrastructure for peanuts as "sound business". That 10's of 1000's will lose their decent paying jobs with pensions to be replaced by minimum wage workers whilst the new wealthy owners become wealthier leading to more penury and debt accumulation for working folk seems irrelevant to the doyens. [The reasoning: The premises failed, we need to purify the premises and practices. The fall guys: working folk and newly unemployed.] They doyens been truely captured by the prevailing Zeitgheist.

And the opposition, largely left wing, fall back onto tired and failed policies. My strategy is to look for a new party or group that everyone hates - they, more than likely, represent new thinking. (New gadgets we like, new thinking, not so much.)

anon-anon

Avery said...

This is a post almost worthy of Spengler, but it lacks a key point:

Why did the American public's interest turn from planning to the future to wealth?

You've already answered this elsewhere, but I think repeating the answer will tie this together for many people. The decline of the American economy for the average worker began in the 1970s. Americans did not get greedier when they elected Reagan; rather, their own life situation had become noticeably more perilous, with stagflation, industries collapsing, the social safety net not holding up. Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama were all Americans attempting to act to secure their own livelihoods.

It's because of this that you assume (and I agree) that the problems you discuss in this blog cannot be fixed through the political system. When people are in danger of losing their jobs or having to eat two meals a day, they will vote for whoever they think can solve the problem, not the person who promises to cut energy usage 25% so that we can save some oil for people living 200 years from now. The most we can ask from our politicians is to rescue us from the clutches of irrational, fascist dictatorship (a cargo cult that promises a new prosperity but delivers only misery and violence) should one arise in the next 20-50 years.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I think that you are somewhat mistaken, though only somewhat. The reasoning here is straightforward; Some governments are more corrupt than others, link. And there must be reasons for this even if I don't know what they are.

You comment that democracies create a market for money and power seems apt and I don't think that if you were to pull back the curtain from the American democratic process you would see a coterie of scheming horrible little men.

I think you would see a flow chart. There would be diagrams labeled:
"money finds access to power"
"advertizing revenues undermine standards from subscription based journalism"
"sound byte media reduce quality of campaigns"
"campaign finance laws weakened by well financed institutions"
"increased inequality of wealth decreases social capital"

One of us might say "it's brilliant and diabolical" and the other "it's systemic and malignant." One of us might supposed that it was crafted by horrible schemers and the other that it's an inevitable consequence of our historical circumstances but ultimately the question of evolution or intelligent design is mute.

The functional consequence of our present system leads the various elites to make decisions for the larger population based on distorted signals and skewed incentives. It is, for all intents and purposed, identical to a cartoon super villain pulling the strings from behind the curtain.

William Hunter Duncan said...

Yeah, I've been thinking lately, we have exactly the leadership we deserve. That leadership being in a terrible bind, with that new poll suggesting 70% of Americans don't want to raise the debt ceiling. Hmm, political suicide, or plunge the bond market into mayhem?

Four wars now. I feel like we're at the tail end of a vortex. The Empire in denial of both its existence and by necessity its decline.

I'm in my room with my veggie starts and a space heater; no gas in the house and it snowed and hailed today. Frost on the cold frame. Just ate some potatoes from last falls harvest.

www.offthegridmpls.blogspot.com

Phil Knight said...

A minor point of interest regarding David Icke, is that his views may have less to do with watching "V" and more to do with him suffering a near-fatal car crash in the mid-1980's that seems to be mysteriously missing from his biography.

I was a teenager in the UK at the time, and well remember him as a harmless, affable BBC sports presenter. His car crash was pretty big news at the time (I'm sure that old copies of the tabloid newspapers of the time will feature it), and IIRC he spent several months in a coma with severe head injuries.

When he returned to television he was noticeably a different kind of person - less bubbly, more intense - and it was only a few years after this that he started wearing turquoise tracksuits and proclaiming the end of the world etc.

It really is extremely odd that I can't find any reference to this event on the internet, as it means that old David is maintaining a conspiracy of silence of his own.

Do any other UK readers remember this? I can't believe I'm the only person who does.

Tiago said...

So, the North African aristocracies are not corrupt at all and the North European (Scandinavian) democracies are super-corrupt? [What about checking you assumptions against what happens outside of the USA?]

I would argue that the USA is so corrupt because it lacks REAL democracy. 1) the way your campaign finance is organized (the anti democratic way: the more money the more chances to get ellected) and 2) the first part the post system.

Places like The Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, etc. have control over campaign spending and proportional (or near proportional) systems. These are old democracies (some democracies are older than the USA) and are shinning beacons of non-corrupt behaviour.

ward said...

I appreciate this and last week's post on nihilism. As a cynic of the first order (The Disappointed) it is hard to accept that the distortion and corruption inherent in the democratic process is somehow open to all members of the society. While "market forces" do work against well financed market campaigns from time to time, it is hard to ignore the fact that the major media organs are owned and therefore, amplifications of the message of five corporate behemoths.

I will concede that the "smoke filled rooms" of conspiracy theories do not in fact exist, but I can't accept that the corporate interests of profit and power do not tacitly conspire to produce a rigged game. In that the right-wing can point to some "pointy headed liberals" as a secret cabal of "controlling everything," they do so only with the approval and at the behest of the oligarchs. Thus, the "corrupt and irresponsible forces" that emerge behind every democracy are always the same people. As long as money equals speech, those of us digging gardens and not watching the hallucination will be nudged out of the conversation, in this "democracy."

I also agree that this society is on a path to ruin typical of all failed empires (because empire is a failure every times its tried.) But to say it is ONLY because 'merican's desire for sugary treats, fast cars, and cheap thrills (all things easily marketed) is to ignore the "man behind the curtain," pulling the levers. To dismiss the "man behind the curtain" as a convenient excuse that the people conjure up to absolve themselves of their own responsibility is to ignore that they recognize, either consciously or not, that the "man behind the curtain" is the system itself; The Empire of Consumption. They feel trapped by it. They feel powerless. But they like hot showers, damn it! And sweets. And porn. And violence. If I were a corrupt elite with interests to promote, those are the buttons I would push.

That being said, another old song that is relevant to 'merica's problems, I give you, "Girl Friend in a Coma" by The Smiths

"Girlfriend in a coma, I know
I know - it's serious
My, my, my, my, my, my baby, goodbye

"There were times when I could
Have "strangled" her
(But you know, I would hate
Anything to happen to her)
WOULD YOU PLEASE
LET ME SEE HER !

"Do you really think
She'll pull through ?
Do you really think
She'll pull through ?
Pull Through ...
As I whisper my last goodbyes"

Thijs Goverde said...

The link between democracy and corruption seems a bit far-fetched, I'd say. The CPI has many weaknesses, but I don't know of a better tool. Compare the military dictatorship of Myanmar to any of the Scandinavian democracies.
At a first glance, good old 'income disparity' seems a better predictor for corruption than 'political system'.

Otherwise, excellent post as usual. The elites wouldn't be able to rule us if we couldn't be fooled into wanting them to.

Wandering Sage said...

JMG,
Not sure if you can blame all of us for Reagan. A couple of us voted for Carter...

scott said...

If your post is intended to get us to think carefully about our own responsibility for the mess we're in, I'm OK with that. I do agree with some commenters that, in urging this course, you seem to give a free pass to the people who actually made the decisions in government and the private sector with pretty loose logic -- "we" wanted things and "they" carried out our collective will (expressed how, by what mechanism, etc.). I'm all for reconsidering our assumptions about standard of living and energy use, but equating a fairly well-grounded suspicion that the decisions in this country primarily benefit a narrow slice of the population to belief in space lizards is a bit simple. That point aside, I thought the post was thought-provoking, and our common beliefs in this area certainly need challenging.

Mark Hines said...

In July, 1979 President Carter made an address to the nation entitled, "A crisis of confidence"
Not only did he talk about the growing lack of confidence in the federal government to solve anything, he also made the point that energy was getting more expensive and more scarce. Then he did something that took alot of courage that I have not seen any president since even address. He called for all americans to start cutting back on consumption and energy usage, and even made you think that this was a patriotic act and was good for america in the long run.
No matter what failures he had as a president, he showed extaordinary leadership in trying to warn us what was ahead. Even though it was over thirty years ago, we didn't listen. We cannot say we weren't warned. Here is the link to the you tube video containing his speech. Listen and weep for future generations.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCOd-qWZB_g&feature=related

mageprof said...

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard." -- H. L. Mencken

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried." -- Winston Churchill

I'm fond of pithy short sayings, and these two just about sum our present situation up. There's no relief to be had from our common predicament, whether through technology or through politics or through revolution.

So just fly under the radar when you can. Improvise whatever you can in order to get yourself, your family, and your friends through the coming hard times.

Our ancestors -- the ones who survived -- managed to get through equally hard times in their own day. Are we less able than they were? No, we are just as able as they were. Some of us will survive these hard times also. Surely that is enough hope for any person.

Gruff said...

JMG

You are correct that there is no secret group of elites running things. Rather, the puppeteers hide in plain site. To wit: Bush-v-Gore; right in front of our eyes this very important election was handed to the candidate with hundreds of thousands fewer votes. To wit: the Paley Commission; from it society was presented nuclear energy instead of solar or geothermal, the two other choices considered by this overt though obscure commission. Out of the Paley Commission arose Price-Anderson, the product of an "elite" group - the US Congress - though unknown to the vast majority of the citizenry and without which the nuclear power industry could not exist. To wit: the Koch brothers. I could go on.

I spent the 70s installing solar water heaters, the 90s installing PV systems and the 00s building wind turbines of trying to make biodiesel. At each stage, while feeling somewhat relieved knowing I was doing noble work, I always knew that these efforts were futile because bankers, an elite though hardly secret group, had taken over in plain sight. (Not to mention the fact that renewables can't power what exists no matter how hard we wish it to be true.)

What you identify as collective societal capitulation is rather the result of the successful enterprise of the hidden-in-plain-sight elite to dumb down society. Their efforts have been spectacularly successful. To wit: compare the number of readers of this excellent blog to the number of American Idol viewers.

No, there is no hidden cabal. They're right there for all to see, hidden in plain sight

Hal said...

I'm a bit uneasy with this series of posts, so that probably means there's something I need to hear in it. For myself, I gave up striving for the type of consistency necessary for guilt or heroism a long time ago, and see my life through the lens of Chaos theory, in the way some of Gleick's interviewees talk about "oscillating."

I have been at various stations of life's cross an obstructionist, an activist, an acquiescor, an aquisitor, and just poor ol' everyman doing my best with what I had. Graduating high school in 71, it looked inevitable that good changes were coming; all I had to do to be part of it was adopt the outward trappings of the counterculture, disengage from the destructive economy as much as possible, and wait. When that failed to materialize a new age, maybe a little activism to sort of nudge it along. When that failed, a detour into New Age (TM) consciousness biz, in the hopes that Capitalism a la Erhard et al would implement a Hail Mary. The collapse of that dream left the nihilism and irony of the early punk/New Wave scene to at least articulate just how aware I was of how crappy it all was becoming. But, alas, a pose is a poor substitute for a life plan, and eventually I settled down into a somewhat normal life complete with family, career, a little corner of a groovy cohousing version of Leave it to Beaver and most of the trappings of what passes for "normal." Earlier history would suggest that such an ending was unlikely, and indeed it was. No need to belabor the more recent incarnations.

So why have I bored everyone with the Classics Comics version of the bio? I guess to point out how futile is an attempt to assign guilt/responsibility. We are all, as Whitman said, multitudes. I may have consumed less than my quota of Kunstler's Cheese Doodles in this life, but that doesn't mean I don't leave my own wake of packaging and energy consumption. The question is where to go from here.

I find myself living a more and more monastic life on a few acres of some of the richest land in the world in one of the poorest counties in America. Many possibilities of direction from here. Some I might even have a choice about. I am eagerly awaiting the final chapter of this series.

Chris Balow said...

So, I was born a year before the '87 crash, and graduated high school the same year (2005) that oil reached peak production--I suppose I didn't have much say in the matter. I'm tempted to feel bitter about that--considering that I'll be suffering for what happened before I was born--but I gotta say that the pseudo-prosperity of the 90s made it a great time to be a kid.

Or, maybe that makes it worse, considering that I'll be watching the world I knew in my formative years evaporate in front of my eyes.

Dan said...

Why do you seek to improve upon that which is already perfect exactly as it is? It can not be done, and to foolishly try will only cause personal suffering.

Do powerful elites control economies and governments? Of course they do, but that is their cross to bear. I empathize with their suffering, as it must be a terrible burden trying to cling to all their vast accumulations. Castles made of sand, and they are desperately trying to hold back the tide.

Do you see the world as being corrupt and in disarray, or do you see it as being beautiful and in complete harmony? Whichever you choose, that's what it is.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Hmm, interesting. I'm sure we're all individually guilty of perpetrating the status quo to some extent, but I do believe that when a herd mentality (call it the zeitgeist) takes over, our individual capacities to do the 'right thing' become diminished. Ergo, if that Walmart moves into your town just the fact that you avoid going there doesn't mean that 90% of others will ... and bang goes the local greengrocer.

@ Tiago - don't believe that these places are any less corrupt - I live in Denmark, supposedly one of the least corrupt countries in the world, and can attest that it's no less corrupt - just better at making things look shiny and clean.

David Icke - I remember when he was the goalkeeper at Coventry City ... and then he went to Peru on holiday and met an alien ...

Cathy McGuire said...

Part One:
A strong and challenging post! And it’s taken me a long time to craft this response. I have more issues with this post than the last one. Not that I completely disagree with you… the repetition of attempts like this and the resulting shift right back into BAU shows that there is something we’re missing. I’m reading a bio of Edward R. Murrow, and the parallels of his time to today are scary.

I see this as the heart of your post: The hard but necessary task before us, instead, is to come to terms with the fact that our nation made a catastrophic mistake thirty years ago, and that most of us who were alive at that time either backed that mistake or acquiesced in it.

You may be preaching to the choir here, with caveats… I accept that your statement about us acquiescing to the “spend, baby, spend” – it fits me in my 20’s to 40’s…I had a veggie garden and bought from thrift stores always, but I worked for the corporate world and spent too much. But after that point I did shift, and started living my convictions… so for the last decade, I don’t see the problem as being me… or you, for that matter. So your definition of “we” eludes me… Frankly, as an ant, I resent being grouped with the grasshoppers! ;-)

I believe the purpose of looking at responsibility is in order to make correct choices and take better actions. So, it’s good to push back on the meme that the “corrupt elite” is totally responsible for the problem, but neither is it totally “us” (as if there was a homogenous “us”). Yes, there are steps I can take, but only so many. At that point, I still end up getting burned by others’ choices and decisions. So – I am not clear why you are pushing on this point – yes, it’s clear we all made bad choices in the past… how can knowing that fact help us now? Hopefully that is what you cover next time.

nearly all the people who accept the notions I have in mind are convinced that they’re rebelling against conformity by conforming to a belief system shared by nearly everybody else in the country. There is a difference between “a belief system” that has no evidence and a consensus opinion that does have evidence. In your post, it’s very hard to discern how you differentiate that. Is accepting global warming or even the inevitable collapse of our culture “a belief system”? I would say not, because it is evidence-backed. The fact that some people blame “an elite” as an excuse for their own behavior does not necessarily make the elite a fantasy. (Some people use truthful statements as a dishonest cover-up for their behavior; happens every day). When I see those with vast wealth getting away with crimes that would get ordinary people jailed – over and over! – I have to conclude there is a different set of laws for those in power, and that is what I mean when I referred to the elite and their corruption.

Cathy McGuire said...

Part Two:
@William Hunter Duncan we have exactly the leadership we deserve. But I don’t feel like the majority = me… therefore it’s not “we deserve”, it’s “they deserve” in my view. I stepped away from the majority decades ago. I’m still paying for the results of their actions, even as I make my choices as best I can as the choices narrow.

I’m simplifying voluntarily, and there are days that I am hard put to justify it to myself, when my “comfort instincts” tell me I have the ability to just crank up the heat or buy some fast food. But I am taking responsibility for my choices… which is why your posting today grates, JMG. I know you don’t want to do an us/them scenario, but it’s just as wrong to ignore the fact that some of us, you included, are making different choices and are not nearly as currently responsible for this inability to respond to peak oil and climate change as the vast majority of Americans are. At this point, the only thing I can see that will change “the majority” are shortages and other consequences that hit them personally. This “recession” (depression) has shifted some people to more conservation, less debt and less waste, and some have even learned to cook from scratch. As the economic problems deepen, more will see or feel the consequences and perhaps feel guilty for a wasteful lifestyle. Or necessity will remove that wasteful lifestyle. That’s what I think it will take, unfortunately.

My thoughts about “why” the majority can’t or won’t see their part are that it’s not just the instinctive desire for comfort, but the growing complexity of the system that removes or distances the physical consequences from our actions. Also, the vastly speeded-up pace of our lives is a major factor (I believe) in our inability to see the problem, and our inability to find time to deal with it. I am finding that simplifying my life gives me more time to read/review the issues, but my friends have no time to discuss it with me!

I feel more discouraged to hear what I believe you are saying, JMG. Okay, so there is a pervasive popular laziness & denial of responsibility that is destroying (has destroyed) the country’s moral fiber… it seems even less possible to shift a force that large than to vote out a bunch of corrupt politicians or sue a bunch of crooked corporations. From co-housing, I remember one elder saying, ‘What takes one man one hour to do takes ten people ten hours to do”… and he was right! No chance the change can come in time to prevent a fall…

@Richard However if when a wal-mart moved in, people ignored it, then it would soon close and the local businesses would be unaffected, and if that happened in many places wal-mart wouldn't be so powerful anymore. But the point I see here is that there always seems to be a huge mass who are willing to do the morally lazy thing! When in history has it ever been the (as opposed to a small group) who made big changes?? Masses may follow (chaotically) but they don’t lead, as far as I can tell. I have been bitterly disappointed during my early years while waiting for “people” to do the right thing. In my fifties, I’ve stopped hoping for that.

This is probably my most negative post… I see myself as a realist, not a nihilist. The only real change I can create is in my own life, and I hope that it will impact others, too. But I have seen too many years of repeating political patterns to be anything but a sceptic about political change, and a couple decades of grassroots activism has soured me on that, too.

sgage said...

@Wandering Sage,

I voted for Carter, too :-)

I distinctly remember, upon realizing the Ronald Reagan was going to be president, that America had failed. That we had come so close to seeing what had to be done, but chose instead to be seduced by the "morning in America" nonsense.

And here we are.

GeoWend said...

Reading this reminded me of a point brought up in David Korten's
"When Corporations Rule the World"...where he notes that it is not necessarily a "conspiracy", but an social ecology (I am paraphrasing into my own mindset, as I do not have the book in easy reach)

In a nutshell, folks running the corporations and government are all essentially in the same social group, and some things "just make more sense" and those not in that group just are not getting it. (chuckles). There may very well be conspiracies, but there is not likely one giant one, but many animals in the same environment. (once again, my way of parsing things...I see most all of this in terms of organisms and ecologies.)

John Michael Greer said...

Ryan, you're welcome!

Lloyd, my take is that the fantasy of omnipotent elites is so prevalent precisely because so many of us are aware, at one level or another, that we could have done better and didn't. A troubled conscience makes scapegoating an easy out.

GHung, good question. Given that chimps fight the occasional war, it's not all that improbable that their politics are akin to ours.

Matthew, I don't think they'll calm down much.

Jeff, it's my hope that some of these recollections might help your generation skip some of the mistakes mine made.

Richard, the Mall*Wart example is a good one. Not all that long ago, the boycott was a very effective way for communities to express their feelings in cases like that; it's a sign of the times that so many people grouse about Mall*Wart but still shop there. (I've never spent a penny at one, for whatever that's worth.)

Nathan, of course there are conspiracies -- any number of them, as often as not competing with one another. The coterie of Republican strategists I mentioned in my blog could be considered one of them; so could the Neoconservatives, etc., etc. The point I hoped to make is that, as my post said, manipulation works both ways; an assortment of power centers, conspiratorial or otherwise, compete to push the public one way or another, and the public pushes back in various directions of its own.

Loveandlight, I think most of us went through the experience of discovering that people we hoped would be the solution were one more part of the problem. I'll be addressing that in more detail in next week's post.

Robin, I was born here, and the wanton wastefulness -- nice phrase, that -- still makes my jaw drop. That's going to be central to a future post, also.

Charles, a number of us here had been unsure whether a post containing as many absurdities as yours could have been meant seriously, or whether it was an unusually subtle joke. Thanks for ciarifying.

X, it's important to remember that the seitgeist of any age is contested and provisional -- that is, there are always multiple narratives in any society competing for dominance, and different sectors of society hold to one or another narrative as it suits their interests and emotional needs. The sudden shifts in zeitgeist, such as the one at the end of the Seventies I've been discussing, are well worth studying with this in mind.

Avery, that's quite true. I think there was more going on than simply the impact of economic contraction, but that did have a major role to play. As for the prospect of an authoritarian government, well, that's unquestionably one of the risks we run.

Tim, and you could produce just as detailed a flow chart showing, first, how different power centers compete and conflict with one another, and second, how various sectors of the public choose which of the competing narratives they want to believe or, quite often, make up one of their own. The result isn't functionally equivalent to a man pulling strings; if anything, it looks more like a man entangled in strings!

Walter said...

Well, JMG, I would say that if you order someone in Nevada to fire a missile on a predator drone that has a high likelihood of killing an innocent child in Pakistan, then you are evil. If you are insulated from the child you kill, then you are an elite. By my reckoning, Obama and all his people in a position of power - just like every president and all his people in a position of power - constitute an evil elite.

John Michael Greer said...

William, not the tail end of a vortex, the beginning of one. It's going to be a wild ride.

Phil, that's fascinating. It only just occurred to me that turquoise tracksuits are what you get when you stare at one of the red alien jumpsuits from V for a while, then look at a blank white wall and let the complementary color image appear...

Tiago, let's see. You pull a passing comment out of context, twist it around to say something I didn't say, combine it with a complete non sequitur -- North Africa isn't ruled by hereditary aristocracies last I checked -- and use it to beat up on a straw man. That's trolling. If you'd like to make a constructive contribution to this blog, you're going to have to do better than that.

Ward, I've discussed the viewpoint you've offered here at some length already in the post. The fact that there are people, plenty of them, who try to use their wealth and influence to get what they want -- nd sometimes succeed -- doesn't make them omnipotent, or erase the fact that the narrative of elite rule is a convenient evasion of our own responsibility for the future our own actions are shaping.

Thijs, er, stating that democracy has persistent problems with corruption doesn't mean that all other systems lack such problems. Military dictatorships are among the other systems that do. As for northern European democracies, well, see Jason Heppenstall's comment further down.

Sage, you'll notice the phrase "very, very few" in the post, if you reread it.

Scott, as I said to Richard early on in the comments, they're on the hook alongside the rest of us. The point that seems to get lost here is that a great many of the decisions that mattered, and still matter, are being made by individuals in their own lives, and blaming the elite of your choice for their bad decisions is all too often a means of ignoring our own equally bad decisions.

Mark, that speech deserves a great deal of attention here and now.

Mageprof, I'm very fond of the Churchill quote in particular.

Gruff, okay, you've identified your candidate for "corrupt [adjective] elite that pulls all the strings." So? I've already stated my reasons for finding that entire narrative unhelpful and inaccurate.

Hal, excellent. It's exactly the habit of playing the blame game -- trying to point fingers at the bankers, or the corporations, or the liberals, or the conservatives, or the evil space lizards, or whoever, so we don't have to look ourselves in the mirror -- that distracts us from doing what has to be done.

Chris, you're in a profoundly challenging spot. You're quite right; choices made before you were born set you up for a difficult future, in which most of the promises made to you are going to come up empty. Perhaps the hardest thing to do is to face that, accept it, and then get to work on what you can do from here on in -- but that's also the only choice that offers any real hope for the future. More on this next week.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, given that all things are perfect as they are, why did Daruma travel from India to China, and why did Arjuna not lay down his bow and arrows on the field of Kurukshetra?

Jason, the interplay of individual choice and collective consciousness is extraordinarily complex. You'll notice that it didn't make African American people shut up and go to the back of the bus in the 1950s South.

Cathy, good. I'd point out in response that first, the value of seeing our mistake as a collective matter is that it helps pop us out of the blame game that absorbs so much misplaced energy these days, and it also has a lot to teach us about how not to make the same mistakes. Second, that a consensus opinion that can't agree on who the evil elite is, just that there has to be one somewhere, is not a consensus opinion, but rather an act of faith, and the evidence that's presented to back it up actually is better explained by my model of diverse power centers competing against each other to catch the fancy of a public with its own multiple and conflicting agendas.

As for the rest, I'm not proposing a return to failed models of political activism, or denying that a very large number of people in this country, having sold out for material wealth and comfort, won't cling to those as long as they can, no matter what the cost. I'll be making my proposals for going forward from here next week, and what you're doing right now has more relevance to those than you may think.

Sgage, I remember that November with painful clarity, too.

peacegarden said...

This post and the one before it has pulled the rug out from a few of my most cherished beliefs; though I think I can still keep dancing if I want to! Although I have always “bought” the Howard Zinn version of our great nation’s history, I have been turning more and more toward a realization that what truly matters is this:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

~Mary Oliver~

Instead of looking for “them” (insert your favorite bad guys) to blame or blaming ourselves, we can choose to accept what is and move forward in ways that we deem authentic. Instead of wasting time in blame or lamentations, let’s just get out there and plant a tree, insulate our dwellings, learn new skills (the old ones, mostly), and make sure we are present in each precious moment.

Peace

Gail

John Michael Greer said...

GeoWend, that's a more useful way of thinking about it. The next thing to factor in is that, first, there's a great deal of competition within that ecology; second, there are many such ecologies at different levels competing against one another; and third, that each of these ecologies are dependent on a wider system, and rise and fall depending on changes in that wider system. It's not simply a top-down line of control.

Walter, what you've said amounts to saying that, first, people do evil things, and second, that some people have more power than others. I'm not arguing against either of those claims. If the guy sitting in Nevada piloting the drone tells you that he's blameless because he was just following orders, would you agree with him?

Phil Knight said...

Archdruid,

The infamous turquoise tracksuit episode occurred here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nMq6gc1yMg

This was considered to be completely OTT/nuts at the time, so it's interesting how this kind of conspiratorial thinking has become mainstream. Note how ill and grey he looks in the interview though.

It's actually extremely difficult to investigate Icke's past on the internet due to the fact that he has a conspiracy on everything, so that you get a cloud of nonsense whatever search you put in.

Try typing "David Icke Fluffy Bunnies" into Google, and you'll see what I mean.

John Michael Greer said...

Gail, excellent. That's exactly the point -- and that Mary Oliver poem has long been a favorite of mine.

Rich_P said...

Tiago: While I agree that campaign finance laws in the United States are laughable, there are other structural problems with the republic, many of which were introduced less than a century ago.
The adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, for example, disenfranchised the States from the Federal Congress by allowing voters to directly elect senators. (Previously, they were elected by state legislatures.) This amendment dealt a (fatal?) blow to federalism in the United States, though it was certainly aided by the Supreme Court and its expansive interpretation of the commerce clause...

Also consider that the membership of the House of Representatives has held steady at 435 since the 1920s, even though the population of the U.S. has more than doubled since then.

The point is that the federal government's power over our lives has grown enormously over the last century, but the mechanisms of controlling it have weakened. The states have no say in the federal government and the average representative now speaks for ~700,000 Americans. The Federal Reserve (apparently accountable to no one) controls our currency. And on top of it all, Americans have abandoned civic organizations and regularly give their (increasingly worthless) dollars to global corporations which do not care about local communities.

But then again, a powerful federal government capable of dolling out patronage and enforcing its will across an area as expansive and diverse as the United States is only possible in light of cheap energy.

If nothing else, the dysfunctional arrangement of our government is yet another reason why the most useful preparations are best done at an individual or community level.

Twilight said...

In the past there have been times when I was not quite sure where you were coming from on these topics, but you've made it quite clear here and I can certainly agree with this point of view. There are elites and there is corruption, but it has always been so and democracy does not eliminate this, it just changes the form. The level of corruption and influence has waxed and waned over the years, but it always riles me when people pine for some idealized vision of the good old days when the American experiment was pure. Um, when exactly was that? They can influence things significantly from a short time and local perspective, but long term there are bigger forces driving the directions we take – the kinds of things always drive the rise and fall of societies.

In the '70s high energy prices due to scarcity were causing real pain, and there were two competing visions of how to deal with that. One said that through hard work and sacrifice we could push on through to something better, the other said we could just forget about it and go back to our comfortable ways. The people chose the later. Intellectually I never agreed, but in reality I enjoyed the car culture greatly – at least until I could no longer ignore the costs.

There are other examples too. Prior to the establishment of a global empire after WWII and the age of oil kicking into high gear, the nation was under considerable social stress driven by class warfare and the imbalance of wealth distribution. There were large workers organizations and many people very committed to real changes in the structure of power. The elites fought them with anything and everything they could get away with, but it was not clear at all how it would work out and it could have gone very differently than it did. But the war and the riches of empire and oil took the fire out of it – prosperity destroyed the will to pursue that social change.

Matthew Heins said...

JMG,

No, looking at some of the posts here, I guess they wouldn't would they?

It would calm me down, though.

Just thinking about the words "Don't Panic" written in large, friendly letters on the cover of every copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy relaxes me, so maybe its just me.

For what its worth, I have another favorite that I saw in the entry hall of a small Indian Casino in Minnesota. A very large painting depicted the Chief in the typical modern/traditional get up that you see at pow-wows. The Chief stood with one arm outstretched in welcome, framing the bottom of a depiction of the surrounding landscape of lakes and forests. He even had a craggly face, flowing silver-gray hair and a twinkle in his eyes. Floating in the air above the landscape and his welcome gesture were just the words:

"Have Fun"

Taken out of the context of the casino, the painting could have been construed as a nugget of Native Wisdom. But it WAS in a casino! A casino where retired white people blew their pensions and social security checks on hopeless games like slots. That's what gave it its power for me. It was the nicest form of revenge I have ever witnessed.The retirees were enjoying themselves after all. And the Chief seemed to be both sincerely welcoming them to their fun AND winking at all of those who got the joke!

If any of this has relevance to the post, perhaps it is in this:

That the notions of conspiracy and the simplistic, daydream views of what a democracy "should" be are spells that we weave around ourselves (or others weave around us) to be able to deal with a world too complex in reality for our minds to handle.

Maybe folks are freaking out because of some innate sense that most of these influences are coming from outside themselves. Most especially the childhood indoctrination in a rosy view of democracy in action and the notion that the U.S. is one.

Maybe they should weave something of their own, such as "Don't Panic" or "Have Fun"? Something that will give them a bit of mental breathing space to collect themselves?

I've just realized that lecturing an Archdruid on spells might be just a bit silly. ;)

-----------------------------------

I agree with GeoWend that Korten's ecological take is the better one here.

Then, instead of seeing oneself and one's ideas as just a lone citizen dominated by towering Oligarchs, one can see oneself as a proto-possum, grubbing in the dirt for bugs beneath the notice of the colossal dinosaurs stomping by.

Looking forward to Part 3.

-Matt

Dan said...

JMG

Why is it that no two people can ever agree on what Utopia should look like? Many may agree on some generalized version, but start adding specifics, and watch the crowd thin. The reason is simple: selfishness. "I am right, you are wrong".

Utopia is a solitary destination, and should the time come when all peoples find it, then our societies will reflect that change. But that time is not now. We still live in the age of selfishness. But that's ok, even wise men went through periods of bumbling adolescence.

Why did Daruma travel from India to China? Seems kind of silly to me. Students seek the master when they are ready, the master seeks nothing.

Michael Dawson said...

Yes, IMHO, this post really exposes your weak spot, JMG. The problem is institutions and their perpetuation of elite interests. Have you ever read Karl Marx? One of his arguments is that capitalism, due to its competitive organization and single-minded aim, works almost regardless of individuals.

There is no conspiracy. There is an extremely powerful institutional logic that feeds on overclass that dominates the process. The fact that people are deluded requires an explanation. Either it stems from the dominant institutions and their priorities, or it was a mere self-chosen error.

You are ignoring a huge amount of pretty convincing analysis when you come down on the latter side.

But this also explains your disdain for any kind of macro politics.

I say all this with deep respect for your work.

Rob said...

Blame belongs to all that desire something for nothing which includes just about every group and citizen in society.

Given that the primary biological drive is to optimize reproduction which requires optimization of resource consumption, I wonder if there is any viable alternative to the path we are on? Perhaps like mice eating spilled grain in a field we are partaking of the one time fossil fuel bounty.

I've been studying history looking for evidence of any civilization that has voluntarily reduced consumption when there was plenty more available (in the short term) to consume. Haven't found it yet.

Brad K. said...

@ Richard Larson,

"Still, I refuse to let the directors of BP, Tokyo Electric, or GE off the hook. "

Nor should you.

I think the point to be made is not to accept graft and corruption, but merely to understand that it will be with us at all times. We, all citizens, have a responsibility to detect, report, and help disable corruption. Keeping it in check, dismantling the abuses and blatant opportunities helps maintain a balance.

As long as any group of people gather, and take a vote to determine the census of the group - there will be democracy. As long as the most popular figure becomes leader for a fixed period, or until circumstances change, there will be democracy in some form.

Will democracy/capitalism remain the form of government of the US? That might get tricky, if China calls in its debt, or our economy or other security bulwarks crumble too far.

Gary said...

I've always found it interesting that the same people who are sure some tiny elite group pulling government strings is responsible for a particular turn of events, will also complain about the ability of the government to do anything right - bunglingly inefficient! I don't think you can have it both ways.

Nader's call to be a "public citizen" seems like what we are missing now. Understanding what it means to be a citizen in society, the privileges and responsibilities, has been lost in the blame game.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil, thanks for the link and the Google suggestion! I consider the popularity of Icke's ideas to be an extremely troubling sign; the last time we had public figures insisting that a minority of people with connections to wealth weren't even human, but were instead the enemies of the human race, we know what happened.

Rich, well put. The survival of the US over the middle term is very much in question at this point, and the issues you've raised are among the reasons why.

Twilight, exactly. Thank you for getting it.

Matthew, I can always use advice on spells; the fact that I use a lot of them -- in this blog, among other places -- doesn't make me incapable of learning more about them.

Dan, Daruma was a master by all accounts, and he did go from India to China, which suggests that your view is a bit one-sided. He wasn't trying to create Utopia, by the way; he just had a job to do, and did it.

Michael, yes, I've read Marx. I find his work thoroughly unconvincing, and particularly the Manichean caricature of political life he offered as an analysis. As for macropolitics, er, and what has that gained for us on this issue so far?

Rob, I'm mostly interested in those societies that realized they were up against the wall and cut back drastically enough to matter; I figure that's our best model.

Brad, or if enough people here simply become convinced that democracy has failed utterly because it doesn't live up to whatever ideal they have in mind.

Gary, I've noted the same thing -- of course your serious conspiracy theorist will tell you that they're just playing dumb, it's all part of the Sinister Plan(tm). As for public citizens, I'd be happy if we just had more citizens and fewer consumers!

Michael Dawson said...

Disturbing reply, JMG. What is Manichean about Marx's supposed statements about politics? Meanwhile, I wasn't talking about Marx's political recommendations. I was talking about what he's deservedly famous for: His understanding of how the institutions that run our world operate.

Meanwhile, you evade my suggestion, which is that perhaps you are missing a third interpretation.

Are you open to the possibility that there's a major dimension of current reality that you haven't done your homework on? Let's hope so, as I assume one doesn't call oneself an Archdruid without some oath to keep working.

As it is, this particular post makes you sound both naive and arrogant and anti-rational and like a WWF staffer.

Let's hear your history of how we all decided to do the wrong thing independently and democratically. I mean the details. When and and how did we ever have the choice you imply we had?

Mark said...

I’m not of the belief that the rich elite (republicans or democrats) are consciously running the world. I am, however, a firm believer in the phrase “Them that has gets,” or what a system thinker might call, “Success to the successful.” I’m also a believer of “what gets measured gets done.” The two dynamics work together to make the world we have today. Here’s a small example:

“Success to the successful” is a self-reinforcing feedback loop that shows its ugly head everywhere (Ugly that is unless it’s you that “has”). Years ago my son played little league baseball (he was 8 or 9). The coach set the batting order based on how well a player hit in the previous game. Anyone who appreciates 5-inning, little league baseball knows that the early part of the batting order gets more at-bats than the later part. Thus the good hitters got more practice. When I pointed this out to the coach he looked at me like I was a communist.

Meanwhile… Despite all the evidence that shows kids just want to play, most coaches thought it was all about the win. Win/loss was the measure and that’s’ what the coaches tried to get done. Therefore, they put their best batters early in the batting order. See “Success to the successful” above.

Imagine these reinforcing behaviors playing out when money or power is involved and you can see how we got where we are now. There is no one to blame. No one person is the “bad guy,” it’s the system. That same system drives people to shop at Walmart, invent credit default swaps, or do anything they can to prevent a Florida recount.

Unfortunately, few see the system (I’ve heard it called “system blindness”). Instead we see politicians, corporations, greedy investors, or some government program and we blame them.

Every once in a while, someone comes along who sees a system and is in a position to do (or try to do) something about it. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Jimmy Carter and oil, Al Gore and climate change come to mind.

Mark

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, that respect you mentioned in your earlier comment didn't last long, I gather. It probably shouldn't be necessary to point out that the fact that someone disagrees with you doesn't mean that they didn't do their homework, or that personal potshots of the sort you're engaging in here aren't a particularly useful addition to a conversation. Since apparently it's necessary, I'd encourage you to go learn civility somewhere else.

Mark, that's true, but success isn't something that can be measured with a single yardstick, especially in a society as complex as this one. One of the main sources of political conflict, in fact, is precisely that people are rarely successful in more than one field; a financier can be very good at getting rich and very poor at attracting a mass following, while a guy who is good at getting elected may find out the hard way that the guy who's better at leading a military coup has a skill that can trump his. Meanwhile you also get coalitions among those who aren't quite so good at getting rich or getting elected, and want to avoid being steamrollered by those who are, and the dance goes on. It's these patterns, endlessly repeated, that keep the reality of political process far more interesting than the simplistic notions in fashion these days.

Robin Datta said...

why did Daruma travel from India to China, and why did Arjuna not lay down his bow and arrows on the field of Kurukshetra?

Because those were parts of perfection.

bezzi_1 said...

After reading this week's post I am
filled with the sense of culpability.
Greed and entitlement seem to be the bed sheets we as Americans sleep between. This hunger, whether it is sated or not, is what has driven this nation to this dismal point. Capitalism, rather than democracy, should be replaced.

Ruben said...

Being a little drunk to begin the long weekend, I may be unqualified to post...

I say Yes And.

I think elites are more important than which elites. I mean the difference between rich and poor is more important than the difference between rich democrat and rich republican. Or in Canada, between rich conservative and rich liberal. Doesn't seem like a lot of the rich choose to go NDP or Green.

So, while I don't think there is some right wing elite conspiracy, or some left wing elite conspiracy, I don't think it is a coincidence that the rich tend to have political power and the rich tend to get richer.

Now, I don't know where I come down on personal responsibility for electing these scumsuckers. This the is the question Thomas Frank asked in What is the Matter with Kansas?

Through my work I know that change requires an ecosystem of factors. And so all the campaigns in the world can't make people recycle if they simply don't have a blue bin. Similarly, all the whatever in the world may not be enough to overcome the influence of the elites.

For myself, the answer is a larger garden.

Matthew Heins said...

JMG,

Thanks, you really are very nice!

What struck me most about the Mille Lacs band Ojibwe casino entry hall spell that I encountered was that they seemed just worlds more sophisticated in the practice then I was in any way ready for.

To connect sincerely with multiple divergent point-of-views while all the time sort of laughing at it all was what they were doing. And what the Chief seemed to be laughing at most of all was my own astonishment at this accomplishment!

Sort of saying:

"Yes, this is how it works, it is so funny that you are surprised!"

All the time welcoming me in, as if to say:

"I laugh at you, but only because you are my fellow, and I know you will not take offense."

So many contradictory goals, so many benign manipulations. It was truly elegant, and perhaps that is why it sticks with me so after a decade or more.

---------------------------------------

As for Michael and Marx, I have one small thing to say:

I much prefer P. Kropotkin to Marx as my Communist thinker of choice. For -say what you will about the romaticism evident in Anarchist Communism- at least Kropotkin actually bothered to attempt to work out how actual people would be fed/housed/clothed in an actual Social Revolution!

Marx is content with theory, in which actual people's lives are treated with as much disdain -really neglect- as in the "opposing" theories of the Classical Economists.

We all know from history the results of BOTH "oppositional" attitudes.

Give me a pie-in-the-sky "dreamer" like Kropotkin -who at least has the basic empathy to ask himself "Yes, but where shall the people get bread?"- instead of "rationalists" like Marx any day!

But give me a man with a plan for an actual garden over both, no question.

Which reminds me, I think I have a plan for a garden to attend to. ;)

(Here in the Mountains, Spring is still yet-to-be born)

-Matt

Richard Larson said...

"Richard, they're on the hook along with the rest of us".

Oh, I certainly agree, at least, with the rest of us.

However, as the chairman of BP tells us he cares for the little people continues buying defective parts from TransOcean who just move their headquarters to Switzerland that results in a higher tax bill for those of us still paying at the same time the oil flushing out of the Gulf of Mexico is still killing wildlife..., and then lets talk about radiation on the loose since we are on the subject of wildlife...

My hope is the criminals who made these decisions truly are on the hook with the rest of us. Might I surmise these people are why humans build prisons, and sometimes, rarely is true, we hang them by the neck until they are dead.

M Rals said...

JMG, you have an incredible amount of patience for the commenters to your blog. Bravo. Thank you for your criticism of nihilism. It really is an insidious psychological reaction. While reading your post, I thought a couple of times, "Americans are nihilistic because it is just the way they are." How nihilistic of me. I think your point is that we do not have a good excuse not to be living the right way ie low energy, independent, and with traditional principles of hardwork and sacrifice. The path to the right way is there for everyone and the obstacle is more in our minds and social perceptions than in physics. In other words, stop talking about it and start being about it people!

Don't sweat the haters...

John Michael Greer said...

Robin, thank you. It seems to be a peculiar vice of American mystics to forget that if all things are perfect, then journeying from India to China is just as perfect as not journeying from India to China.

Bezzi, I'd suggest the best place to start is in each of our lives, with the decisions we make every day.

Ruben, a larger garden may be a more important answer than you think. It's precisely by changing our own relationship with the social ecosystem that larger changes begin.

Matt, I'm a good deal more partial to EF Schumacher than either, but Marx -- gah. I think it was historian James Billington who said that if religion is the opiate of the people, then Marxism is the amphetamine of the intellectuals.

Richard, no argument there. In the inevitable reaction to an age of extreme political corruption -- the US goes through that cycle maybe twice a century -- the legal system tends to clean up at least some of the mess, and I can think of quite a few people who arguably should be dressed in orange coveralls, and put to work making license plates, for some very extended period of time.

M Rals, thank you. I don't fret about the trolls; the number of people who seem to be getting what are, after all, some very challenging and (for today's Americans) counterintuitive concepts more than makes up for the occasional bit of acting out on the part of those who don't.

Brad K. said...

JMG,

It seems to me that the underlying device for modern nihilism is merchandising, especially to mass markets.

I envision a time in the past when farmer A walks out to the barn, checks the horse, and notices, "Hm. Need shoes re-set on that horse." Farmer A takes said horse to nearest farrier or neighbor or whoever does local blacksmithing. That is, the need occurs, then the 'needy' look for a solution.

Now enter merchandising and marketing - increasing profits by creating a need that didn't previously exist. Not by sneaking into Farmer A's barn and jerking the shoe off the horse. But by communicating to Farmer A that he has a problem, and product B will solve it.

You might send a postcard, email, phone message, or even traveling farrier to Farmer A, and ask "Does your horse need our shoes yet?" Farmer A must then decide if that wouldn't be a good idea (he has to defeat the claim, or call the originator a liar for intimating that Farmer A didn't know enough to keep his horse safely shod, and that the originator's shoes would be better for the horse and for Farmer A than simply re-setting the shoes that have been working well since the last time).

Politicians and marketing concerns all use the "we have the answer to your discomforts, to your enemies, to your ignorance, and to your other problems" approach. Magazine ads and newspaper ads interrupt the narrative of the content that is supposed to be the product. Ads on web sites, and especially on TV and radio programs deliberately and intrusively interrupt.

America's basic form of communication, for those that haven't chosen to spend much of their day *away* from electronic media, is marketing. If your basic identity and default mode of communication is marketing propaganda - how can you not look to some well-communicating originator to solve any enemy, discomfort, impediments to your ambition, or other problems?

I grew up hearing "the proof is in the pudding". Today it seems the expectation is "the best pudding is the one that sells best". That is, the first response to marketing propaganda is assumed to solve the problem, and not the Scientific Method/six step troubleshooting paradigm, where you continue until the problem is fixed, and you verify that the fix you applied actually was the reason that the problem was corrected.

escapefromwisconsin said...

One thing to consider is the role of incentives. As any economist will incessantly remind you - people respond to incentives, and when the corporate powers managed to bring conventional energy sources down to bargain basemenet-level costs, alternative energy was unable to follow suit. Why would anyone install a 50,000 dollar solar array or take public transportaion when gasoline was under 99 cents a gallon? Of course, a farsighted approach would recognize the ephemeral nature of this arrangement and the inevitable backlash, but the average person is just going about their daily life just trying to pay the monthly bills and not thinking about the long-term good of the country. That is the type of thing our political leaders are theoretically paid to do. So you can't really blame the average American for embracing the conventional gas-guzzling lifestyle, given the incentives thye were facing. Its as much a question of economics as politics or sociology.
The backlash against the conservation ethic of the seventies had many facets - cultural counterreaction of the sixties, working class resentment of activist government, resurgent business power. By coincidence, there was a good post by Yves Smith on Naked Capitalism Thursday on a very similat topic, although considering it from the point of view of the why the US government abandoned any concern over the living standrds of average American and only concerned iteself with ways to increase corporate profits. She refers to a book by Hacker and Pierson -Winner Take All Politics, with extensive quotes from a review in the London Review of Books by David Runciman. For example, from Runciman's review:

One of Hacker and Pierson’s complaints about the way we usually regard politics is that we miss what’s really going on by focusing on the show of elections and the competition between parties. This is the theatre of electoral politics…‘This is no doubt why politics as electoral spectacle is so appealing to the media: it’s exciting and it’s simple.

What took place in the 1980s was therefore an extension of the Carter years, not a reversal of them. The process of deregulation and redistribution up the chain accelerated under Reagan, who was broadly sympathetic to these goals. Yet it happened not because he was sympathetic to them, but because his sympathies were allowed free rein in a political environment where the opposition was muted and the expected coalition of interests opposed to the changes never materialised.

The full post is here:
http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/04/musings-on-plutocracy.html

Some good comments here too. W
hile it does not deal with the environmental movement per se, it does illustrate some of the shifts that indirectly affected that movement. You might find it instructional in fleshing out your thesis. I would also recomment Jefferson Cowie's book Staying Alive: The Last Days of the Working Class in America. Looking forward to future entries.

Jason Heppenstall said...

JMG - I have to admit to a bit of puzzlement about these last two posts. What is termed as nihilism sounds to me more like common garden apathy. I do wonder whether sometimes things can be over intellectualised to the point of meaningless - but maybe that's just me. To me it would seem that a few decades of dirt cheap energy combined with our democratic systems, where we ('we' meaning 'enough of the masses') vote in whoever promises us the most material luxury is a simple enough explanation for our predicament.

Cathy McGuire puts it far more eloquently than I.

As far as omnipotent elites go, well, we've had them long enough. We've all met people who claim we're being mainpulated by opus dei/space lizards and the Masons, but really do these represent a majority?

I am, however, fully open to suggestions that the collective conscience can be influenced by assertions of individual will (I'm thinking Gandhi and MLK et al here), so I'll carry on giving the kids in my block of flats a demonstration of my wormery. Who knows, one of them may grow up to be the next Wangari Mathai :-)

Kevin said...

I share Ruben's uncertainty about the proper adjudication of responsibility for creating our dire situation. Deciding who's to blame may not actually affect what we need to do right now, though I sympathize with Cathy's point of view. I feel as though I'm paying the price not only for my own dumb mistakes - significant as those may be - but also bearing the consequences of other people's stupidity as well, which is really annoying.

David Icke's ideas seem to me to constitute a demonological theory of the world that naturally generates an alienation which can only make it more unlikely that people will pull together to solve their collective problems.

Jason Heppenstall's remarks on corruption in democratic polities like (apparently) squeaky-clean Denmark strike me as very illuminating, and conducive to a suitable alteration in my world view.

Sarenth said...

Having watched a few documentaries on the rich, and having talked with people a few brackets above my economic level, I will say this: some of these people know when they're bilking and hurting people, and others are blissfully unaware. The documentary One Percent really opened my eyes to this. The Johnson & Johnson family that inherited the wealth from the company's founder took no responsibility for their practices, or for the top 1%'s share of exploitation. It was almost as if it was too painful for them to feel like the 'bad guy'. The father of the filmmaker made a documentary about Apartheid Africa, and was threatened with being cut off from the family fund for it, and in the same vein, discouraged his son when he was shooting One Percent.

I look at the state of the world and go "Damn, I was born into a period of decline. How am I going to make it?" Again and again, from Peak Oil activists to permaculturists to spiritual activists and anyone willing to speak up, speak out, and do something, is "Take personal responsibility." It's painfully obvious to me, that regardless of party, political affiliation, or religion, most people have turned a blind eye to what models of sustainability are all but screaming at us. The hard question comes for people who are unestablished in either finance or a job/career, who are trying to work our way to being able to at least live on our own. With Peak Oil looming, and with so few of people in college having practical skills (Hey, I can not burn a packet of Ramen now!) I worry about my generation's ability to cope with what is coming. I don't expect everything to fall apart at once, but I wonder at times about the practical skills needed to survive the end of oil and cheap energy.

John Michael Greer said...

Brad, I don't know that I'd agree that marketing is the underlying factor in the contemporary cult of nihilism, but it's certainly a factor.

Escape, granted, that was a major factor.

Jason, the emotional tone over here goes well past simple apathy -- the sort of brittle, jeering quality I mentioned in last week's post is hard to miss. As for how many people believe in space lizards, that isn't the point -- rather, how many people believe that somebody is pulling all the strings, and therefore the future isn't their responsibility?

Kevin, it's very annoying! Unfortunately that's part of the deal when you live in a complex society. The challenge is to be able to accept that, and then see whether you can find ways to use the links that connect you with the mistakes of others to magnify the results of your own positive actions.

Sarenth, excellent. You get today's gold star for cutting straight to the chase. Getting a handle on those practical skills is among the very most important things you can do right now, partly because you can't do much else if you can't provide for your own survival, partly because once you know them, you can pass them on to others.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I don't have much to add to your analysis, other than people shouldn't expect a political solution. It's not happening.

As an interesting side note, I noticed that in US politics there has been quite a lot of difficulty passing budget legislation through recently.

Over here we call that type of legislation "supply legislation" and there's a gentleman's agreement between the two major parties that neither party will block supply in the situation where one party controls the lower house and the other controls the upper house of parliament.

Well that happened here in 1975 with the left leaning Whitlam government and it was resolved fairly quickly when the Queen's representative (the Queen is the head of the government in Australia) sacked the Parliament. The Whitlam government wasn't returned in the pursuing election, despite protests and strong media support.

Just goes to show, you never know where things may go. Just don't expect the politicians to sort things out, they are there to be re-elected. They're essentially fighting for their jobs, which produces a most unpleasant environment.

Regards

Chris

Andrew MacDonald said...

Thanks for the great thinking, and hosting this excellent forum, which I enjoy just as much!

My thought is that we're evolving toward greater self-responsibility within a social and political systems, but few of us have been able / willing to take full responsibility . . yet.

Historically, most people have always given away their power. For example, kings had divine right, but commoners didn't and that was consensus reality. In democracies, our unwillingness to deal with our freedom is matched by folks who'll merrily snatch it from us.

Both those in control and those controlled share the belief that there's not enough and only some of us can win. (This probably originated with tribal needs for survival.) The rich and powerful "elite" are addicted to fancying themselves in control and can't bring themselves to quit; the poor and disenfranchised fancy they're losers. And so the world goes round, but none of it is inherently true. Control fuelled by fossil fuel ups the stakes a lot, and our coming fall is an historical opportunity to "get" that the power is ours, even against all the arguments, even with the WalMart (love that Mall*Wart :-) around the corner. But we run from this freedom, even though it's always ours. I know I often do!

To see the power as really being ours is an advanced human capacity, evolutionarily speaking but inherently possible, and imo, what evolution requires of us now.

Personally I'm excited by what small groups of people can do to create local mini-cultures that help incubate freer next steps.

das monde said...

I had posted a reply to last week’s essay here, but apparently it was too outrageous. So I will attempt to be milder this time. I fully appreciate the issue of nihilism heights, raised by JMG. But this second part only underscores incommensurability of mine and JMG’s understanding or experience.

First of all, I am annoyed by yet another displayed equivalence of “liberal” and “conservative” politics. Even in this example, a distinction between the clear almost guaranteed immunity of corporate cats and common liberals’ caricatures is too blatant for my mind. But the issue is not whether liberals or conservatives are serious about solving sustainability problems, or whether any of them deserve to be righteous. The issue is that this equivalence is exactly a part of that nihilism we are talking about. Ironically, this equivalence was first industrially applied in 2000, during the Bush-Gore campaign. By now I don’t believe that Gore would have done much to change the self-destructive course of the industrial society. But at least he would had put on a show some deviating moves - which would had been somewhat more interesting than the “cut more taxes, drill more oil” bore. With this nihilism, there is no real pressure neither on the politics that gives all green lights towards collapse, nor on the politics that is supposed to oppose that.

As for the denial of elite connivance, it is less funny than Moon landings denials. I grew up in the former Soviet block, where people were supposed to figure out real intentions of the party by cryptical means. Now the Japanese have to understand the Fukushima situation by comparable Eastern hints. And here, even on this blog, we are told not to think about that. The explanation by democratic preferences is just as lazy as by space lizards. Even in 1984, the “landslide” public votes differential was not great - and we won’t start to talk about 2000, 2004. It is obvious now that Obama and the Democrats are not enacting policies that majority of the electorate approves- they just let Foxnews, think tanks explain polls and supposed electorate preferences. In a sense, yeah, the voters choice is now openly pointless. Nihilism has won irreversibly. Plus, we may wonder why all other nations are making the same disastrous choices, from France to China and Japan, from Chile to Poland to Iraq. Are the electorates equally weak, or the same kit of democratic methods applied?

As I tried to argue last week, certain conspiracy awareness actually raises personal responsibility and pushes for probably appropriate adaptation and action. Here is a great recent essay:

An Inconvenient Truth - The Truth Shall Not Set Us Free

And things evolve: human follies and nihilism grow and get coordinated to perfect storms; corporate selfishness does not come up so perfectly cynical at once. Isn’t it strange that the sustainability movement stopped evolving, but egoistic selfishness jumped some leaps in the last decades?

Rita said...

The _UC Davis Magazine_ for Spring cites research suggesting that "at the current pace of research and development, global oil will run out 90 years before replacement technologies are ready." The study was based on stock market expectations and was published online at _Environmental Science and Technology_ by Debbie Niemeier and Nataliya Malyshkina. More evidence, if any was needed, that the cornicopians are out of touch with reality.

Matthew Heins said...

JMG,

Ah, but Schumacher is so EASY to love, with his stubborn refusal to get wrapped up in any ideological "World Revolution" B.S. in his explanations. ;)

To admire Kropotkin is a much more entertaining pursuit since -to get to the meat of his opus "The Conquest of Bread", which, I contend, is an excellent sketch of how a city in collapse could utilize spontaneous, cooperative effort to meet and exceed needs- one must first wade through such -today- amazing assumptions as that a Social Revolution will just HAPPEN for some reason. Indeed that it is inevitable in short course!

To get to the "meat" when it is surfaced by such thick maggots is, perhaps, the practice only of desperate persons. But I truly believe that in Kropotkin's notion of placing necessary and luxury consumption BEFORE production, there is fruitful ground for the next seres of human society.

Economy of effort IS energy efficiency, after all.

As for Schumacher:

Since these posts have involved reflection upon courses chosen in the '70s, I wonder if you have any thoughts regarding the relevance of E.F. Schumacher's -somewhat early- death in the beginning-middle of that decade?

Reading "Small is Beautiful" I have often wondered what the world might have been like -a la John Lennon- if we had had Schumacher amongst us for longer than we did.

-Matt

Jason Heppenstall said...

Okay, I know the kind of nihilism you mean - it's prevalent in Britain too and has reached almost tribal proportions. Flash up a picture of wind turbine and a good number of people will begin frothing at the mouth and start ranting about a 'one world government'.

@Kevin - Shakespeare nailed it when he said 'there's something rotten in the state of Denmark'. Having been the editor of a newspaper here I can concur with him. Then again it all depends on how you define 'corruption'. Try downloading 'Forbrydelsen' (The Killing) for an excellent primer on political corruption - if you don't mind 20 hours of Danish subtitles :-)

sofistek said...

I'm not sure it's correct to say that all human societies are unequal, though it is probably 99.99%. For example, I recall watching a programme (quite a long time ago, admittedly) about the nomadic Bakhtiari people in Iran and there appeared to be no element of inequality there. Also, I've read that hunter-gatherer societies (extremely rare now) don't have inequality because everyone can fend for themselves.

Your notions of democracy being worthy of our support is exactly right but you first have to show that what we call democracies nowadays are actually democracies. I looked in the Oxford English Dictionary and found a few definitions: "a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state , typically through elected representatives", "control of an organization or group by the majority of its members", "the practice or principles of social equality". It's difficult to see how these definitions apply to so-called democratic governments.

I also don't see that the cause of corruption in our politics is democracy. You've stated it but I don't think have given a reason why. Sure, you've effectively stated that humans are humans and greed/desire will lead to corruption but I don't see that democracy, as such, is the only way that such corruption could occur or that such corruption is inevitable with a democracy. Doesn't that depend on how that democracy is enacted? Look at the definitions of democracy, it's hard to tell whether western nations have ever had a true democracy and maybe true democracies are impossible at the national scale.

Abandonment of the move to sustainability, in the 70s? Well, I may have been young in the 70s (late teens to late 20s) but I don't recall a movement towards sustainability, only towards efficiency, conservation and a greater awareness of nature. All that doesn't lead to sustainability unless sustainability is an outright aim. I don't think it ever was. Indeed, I think that if that movement was at all successful, sustainability would still not be on the agenda, because depletion of resources and degradation of the environment wouldn't have progressed as much as it has, thus leading to the illusion that whatever society we'd have moved to could go on forever. It may have been a green movement but I don't think it was a sustainability movement.

I certainly agree, though, that we all (or most of us) acquiesced to the change of direction. I'm really sad that I didn't see what was coming, 30 years ago (not just in the US). Or perhaps I did but didn't want it to be true.

Loveandlight said...

@JMG: Disappointment is the right word. Even though I know my attitude had serious intellectual and emotional flaws back then, I suspect part of the reason I was alienated from PC Co-op Land is that they sensed I was rather more sincere than they were and less concerned with aping the appropriate affectations. Because if there's one sort of person who is bound to run afoul of a bunch of poseurs, it's somebody who might be even a little bit sincere.

@Chris Balow: Like JMG said, you've got a profound challenge ahead of you, but the fact that you're aware of it, while living in a small northern Wisconsin town no less, gives you a much more serious leg up than you may fully realize right now. As I've indicated in my comments, I was such a silly-billy when I was your age, in stark contrast. Hang in there!

Archivist/Cultural Liaison said...

I really am on your side, but i think you are losing the plot plot trying for some middle ground.
Form outside the US as an expat it seems you are letting the extremes set the middles. BTW on the excluded 70's of the previous post, let me throw out Paolo Soleri as someone in that category as someone with some good solutions from that period and beyond that are dismissed as coming from that era, which really his work exist before and after. talk about sustainable, the place is still going without much outside help, who else is doing that?

Brad K. said...

@ Cherokee Organics,

So far, political solutions have seemed to be less than successful, and I doubt that will change a whole bunch until circumstances change a lot.

I suppose that counting on erroneous or badly acting representatives to fail re-election might work part of the time. But for the most part keeping their jobs means playing to the big contributors and hot topics, since most elections follow the big spenders, not what is right and wrong.

The flip side of hoping for political solutions, though, is hoping for a political environment that doesn't conflict with survival. Various political actions, including coups, war, apathy, and restrictive laws can make survival a problem for themselves and for other, affected nations and peoples. Sometimes seemingly benign actions - such as government subsidies for ethanol, diversion of funds that would reduce the risk of drought, and raising taxes that depress business economies - can devastate many.

I have heard our Congress called the School of Unintended Consequences - and has never graduated a class.

Frankly, I remain concerned about what the prospect of what dwindling amounts of oil on the world markets will do to military readiness of nations, and to the current use of international shipments of significant amounts of food as a tool of foreign policy.

My hope for politics is that they become no more obstacle than they have been. I guess I am an optimist.

hawlkeye said...

Thanks, John for hoisting and hosting these crazy sails...

I no longer care if David Icke carries a morsel or a mountain of truth; talking about him has become as annoying a polarizer as discussing Nader, Palin or Trump, my current favorite triumvirate of imbeciles.

Not much good comes from these kinds of vapid distractions.

Yes, many people blame "them" and use it as an excuse for their own inaction. But every time I've learned of some hidden power game (about which your average red, white or blue American remains clueless) I've always said: sheesh, I better figure out how to take care of THAT for myself.

Just saying "there's something very wrong going on over there with hidden control over my life" is not an automatic abdication of personal responsibility. It can often become just the reverse; an incitement to individual action.

In order to actually DO the re-skilling required to adapt with resilience, we must be-friend many folks with whom vast potential disagreements lurk just beneath the surface. Navigating these rocky waters takes a very light touch on the judgement rudder, and requires us to accept our specific neighbors regardless of their kooky beliefs. And vice versa.

Be ye rednecks or rastas, Baptists or Burners, we are going to be feeding each other, and that's a far sight more important than any of our respective notions of heaven or hell.

Our mutual opinions of each others' ignorance must be sublimated so our hearts and hands can get on with mending the fences and cutting the hay.

Abandon snarkiness all who enter here...and a good place to practice is on these impersonal screens. Find the Kindness button and click Send!

Walter said...

JMG - Your capacity for spin is a bit appalling. My pointing out that evil elites do exist in the highest reaches of government does NOT mean I am taking the Nuremburg defense.

I will go now and I won't bother you again, but please note that I am becoming increasingly disappointed in your writings. Consequently, you are dissipating the respect I had for you after reading The Long Descent. I suggest you have a little respect for those of us who have been part of the struggle for almost 50 years.

vera said...

Peacegarden, thank you for sharing that poem. I agree that it is pointless to blame. However, it is not pointless to see who is really responsible for a given situation. If I am responsible for the crashed economy, surely it is in some miniscule amount. Whereas there are people who have large chunks of responsibility for it, and who have hugely profited by it. Isn’t such information important to know? Because each one of us singly, no matter what we do, cannot fix a game of power gone awry.

Thanks for this lively discussion, everyone. Btw, I think Marx was right… capitalism is falling apart of its own inner contradiction. He was just wrong about the time line. I saw a sticker recently… touting “sharism” instead. I like it. :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, I'll be talking about the prospects for a political response -- not a solution; problems have solutions, predicaments don't -- next week. You're certainly right that as things currently stand, that's hardly an option.

Andrew, I'm frankly more interested in what individuals can do, but small groups are certainly the next logical step after that.

Das Monde, it never fails to amaze me how I can say in so many words that there's plenty of manipulation and corruption in American (and of course other) societies, and still have people insist that I'm denying that that exists. Being aware of the existence of corruption and manipulation is important; convincing oneself that the corrupt and manipulative are wholly responsible for the world we're in, and our own choices had nothing to do with it, is an evasion.

As for the 2000 election, er, you might want to look up the 1960 election one of these days; the electoral fraud that put JFK in the White House was far more egregious than anything Dubya managed. Still, I can probably repeat both those points until I'm blue in the face and you still won't hear it.

Rita, many thanks for the link! That's a useful data point.

Matthew, no doubt. Still, we've got the advantage of some very good books he wrote before his death.

Jason, bingo. Note the weird fusion of energy myths and conspiracy theories; we've got that in spades over here.

Sofistek, I'd argue that you've got the question "what is democracy" by the wrong end. Of course it's possible to fantasize about a democracy that lives up to its own propaganda, but such a system is as mythical as free markets and unicorns. My point is that what we've got, warts and all, is the way democracy actually works in practice, and the confusion between democracy as it exists in reality and democracy as we like to imagine it is one of the sources of contemporary American nihilism.

Loveandlight, I've been there, and yes, the uneasiness of the fashionably radical when faced with honest idealism is a real factor.

Archivist, I'm trying to find a middle ground in a nation where everybody wants to find somebody else to blame for their troubles. If that requires abandoning a popular notion of what the plot is for the sake of greater clarity, that's what it requires. As for Soleri, I'm not a huge fan of his, but he certainly had some fascinating ideas and is probably worth a close second look.

Brad, I think it was Stuart Udall who said that American politics has only two modes -- complacency and panic. It's when we shift over to the second of those modes that it might just be possible to get something done, but it's going to require some very specific preparations here and now. More on this next week.

Hawlkeye, an excellent point. I'd say that learning to keep a keen eye out for manipulation and corruption is a crucial skill, and needn't be combined with the notion that those two forces are omnipotent in contemporary politics.

Walter, oh, for heaven's sake. I didn't accuse you of using the Nuremberg defense, but simply of fixating on an overly narrow sense of who to blame. Also, I'm not in the business of trying to be respectable, whether to the cultural mainstream or to existing activist factions; I'm trying to talk about some very challenging and, at least to modern Americans, counterintuitive ideas, and it's pretty much inevitable that people are going to get their egos bruised in that process. If you choose to walk off in a huff, well, that's certainly your choice.

John Michael Greer said...

Vera (offlist), if you'd like to prune the profanity from your comment, I'd be happy to put it through and respond to it. You can certainly find other ways to express your feelings about the people you don't like.

John Michael Greer said...

Vera, paying attention to who's responsible for the current crisis is useful only if it doesn't become an excuse for a blame game that takes the place of personal responses to that crisis. As for Marx, well, it's all the funnier that Communism fell apart from its own internal contradictions before capitalism got around to it -- and I'd say, rather, that it's the internal contradictions of industrial society rather than any of its specific variants that are the major forces just now.

sofistek said...

JMG,

I wasn't fantasizing about democracy, I was saying that, as far as I can tell, it's not possible to call any western so-called democracy a democracy. For example, Bush was elected, for his first term, not only by a minority of those who voted but also by less than those who voted for his main opponent. Currently, the make up of the Senate doesn't represent a mjority vote. In Britain, the current government is the first in my memory (I'm 57) that could be said to represent a majority of voters, though no-one voted for a coalition. In my country, New Zealand, governments are typically coalitions, with the tail often wagging the dog, so that the main party can stay in power. And so on and so on.

It may not be possible to have a society as large as most nations and still have a democracy in the true sense of the word but that doesn't mean it can be argued that democracy is the cause of the inequality and corruption that we see. It's also not possible, in my opinion, to say that democracy will always end up this way because it's not clear to me that there has ever been a true democracy anywhere, to start off with. If you don't start with democracy then I don't see how it can end up anywhere.

I also made comment about what you referred to as a sustainability movement in the 70s. Are you really so sure that the movement was intent on moving to a sustainable society, or was it simply a conservation movement?

vera said...

JMG (offlist) -- I don't recall a profanity... do you mean calling some people sociopaths?

Would you be so kind and send back my post? I did not hang on to it. I promise to go through it with a loupe.

Vera

Mark said...

@JMG, Based on your comment, I think you missed my point. And since I wrote it, that's my fault, not yours. Sorry. Allow me to try again.

People want to blame people (like the rich elites). When they don't have people to blame, they blame gods. (It's even in contract language as "acts of god").

I'm suggesting that it is the systems we live in that are the problem not the people. The people are just doing what the system dictates. How does the system work? That is the $64,000 question. The systems are made up of written and unwritten rules, rewards, punishments, etc. People respond to these rules, rewards, punishments etc. and we get what we've got.

Here is yet another example. In our town, they instituted a $25 fee to throw out an old television. This makes sense right? TVs are hazardous waste and it cost money to dispose of them. The owner should pay for that. Unfortunately, shortly after the fee was imposed, I would notice dead TVs showing up on one of the less traveled dirt roads near my home. The person (or organization) who imposed the fee either didn't think through how people would behave or figured that cleaning up TVs from the side of the road was a good use of taxpayer's dollars.

Most of us are good at seeing the big or obvious consequences, but not so good at seeing the small ones or the connections between cause and effect (the unintended consequences). A systems thinker, on the other hand, attempts to see the all the moving parts and tries to understand how they interact. Once the moving parts are understood, then adjustments to these system are more likely to have their desired effect while minimizing the undesirable or unintended consequences.

Unfortunately, understanding human systems is exceedingly difficult. It often takes years of studying the systems just to learn all the moving parts let alone understand the cause and effect relationship between those moving parts.

So back to the original point - there is no one to blame, it is just the system doing what it does. Fixing the system is the problem. So understand the moving parts and how they work together. Strategically adjust. See what happens. Adjust some more. Rinse and repeat.

-Mark


Footnote 1: There are wonderful (but expensive) tools out there for modeling systems (some of your readers are likely familiar with "iThink" http://www.iseesystems.com/softwares/Business/ithinkSoftware.aspx) System models help in the understanding and are a great way to document a system. But remember what the mathematician George Box said, "All models are lies, some models are useful."

Footnote 2: For those of you tired of Blogger killing your long and well thought out comments, there is a Firefox (Chrome and Safari too) Plug-in call Lazarus that captures (encrypts, and saves) what you type in web forms. http://lazarus.interclue.com/

John Michael Greer said...

Sofistek, what I'm trying to say is that "so-called" democracies are the only democracies there are. What you're calling a true democracy is a fiction; it doesn't exist, never has existed, and in all probability never will exist. It's as imaginary as a unicorn, and it's about as useful to bring it into a conversation about real systems of government as it is to bring unicorns into a discussion of draft animals.

Now of course we could decide to use the word "democracy" for that imaginary beast, and then fumble around with all sorts of pejoratives for the way actual democracies (your "so-called" democracies) work, but that's about as useful as calling horses "unicorns" and then denouncing them because they don't have horns. Why not instead clarify things by recognizing that the word "democracy" represents a system of government where the more important political offices are filled by elections in which most citizens have the right to vote, leave it at that, and look for ways to improve that flawed but functional system, instead of dragging in fantasies about "true" (that is, untrue, because unreal) democracy?

As for your comment about the sustainability movement, as I mentioned in my post, it was a very complex movement involving many different agendas. Some of those, including most of the ones I've cited specifically, were indeed focused on sustainability as a long-term goal, though of course there were others that weren't, and everyone realized that getting to sustainability was a very long road with a lot of intermediate steps.

Vera, I'm sorry to say Blogger doesn't save deleted messages -- and it also doesn't put your email on posts, so I'd have had nowhere to send it! Your comment was a fairly irate criticism of my suggestion that all of us who were around in the wake of the Seventies bear some responsibility for what happened, and no, the word in question was quite a bit more colorful than "psychopath."

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Brad K,

I don't worry too much about military solutions because well, with reduced access to oil, it becomes ever harder to stage a military action. I don't know whether this is a simplification or not.

What I do worry about is food. The large scale agricultural practices in place today mean that we literally eat oil. It takes quite a few years, a lot of manual labour and initially reduced yields to transition to an organic approach to agriculture. Even with organic approaches, you can't send too much produce off site because you are then strip mining the soil and will eventually run short of some nutrients or minerals. You have to balance up the inputs and outputs. I use oil to bring fertility into this place and I understand what this means for the future and "somewhere else". It worries me...

Regards

Chris

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, thanks for the clarification. Still, I think seeing the system as the issue oversimplifies, because people don't just respond passively to the system, and the system itself isn't static. Rather, the behavior of the system and that of the individuals who work within it coevolve in complex ways. It's the inflection points of that process of coevolution that are important here -- the switch, again, from a period when the system provided incentives for saving energy to a period where the system provided incentives for wasting it. What drove that change in system conditions, and what induced millions of people who had been backing the first set of incentives to flipflop and back the second?

vera said...

JMG: thanks for explaining the background of Blogger. I’ll have to start saving stuff before posting. I mistakenly thought it works like wordpress. (Thank you for the Lazarus tip, Mark! :-)

I see that your entire this week’s argument hangs on your contention that what we have is a democracy, an assumption many of us obviously reject. Is a system rightly called a democracy if most adults can vote people into political offices? That’s a pretty thin definition, isn’t it? But even that depends on a lot of things: whether the votes are clean (a dubious proposition in this day of computerized trackless votes), whether the candidates who can afford to run are legitimate or mostly moneyed-interest spokespeople, whether the people in those political offices are in any meaningful way responsive to those who elect them, whether the people in those political offices are indeed the people who govern, or whether those who actually govern are different folks, unelected and unresponsive to popular will, and whether the so called popular will actually makes any difference on how things are done.

I am one of the people who believe that on all of these counts, we do not have democracy. I would say that we have governance by the rich and powerful, and most of them are unelected and come from the ranks of financial, corporate and other elites. Last I checked, such a system was called a plutocracy. I don’t think you can legitimately argue that just because we want to believe we live in a democracy, and this is so far the best we could do here in America, this is a democracy. If it quacks like a plutocracy…

You say, then democracy is a dream and never was. Well, not so. Many Indian tribes had governance by the demos, one way or another. Some New England towns had governance by the town meeting, i.e. the demos, or close to it. And Pennsylvania enacted a rather profoundly democratic constitution in 1776 (remarkable for its time; even blacks could vote). It was eventually undermined and scuttled by the Federalists, whose vision of America was different. I believe that Vermont and Rhode Island too had democratic constitutions. The Constitution of the United States did away with those state-level democracies, and was pushed through via a whole slew of dirty tricks. After that, what we ended up with has been called democracy but isn’t. (And there are, of course, certain foreign system that are quite a bit more democratic than the system we have here in the States.)

In my view, the lie that we live in a democracy has been one of the biggest, most successful con jobs of the last 250 years. A stroke of genius. In the old days, the peasants knew who was responsible for their enserfment. Now we blame ourselves. What a way to stump and pacify the masses!

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, from my perspective Brad is as right to worry about war as you are to worry about food supplies. Oil supplies may be depleting, but they aren't going away all at once, and while they're still available you can bet that (a) nations will do anything they can to get as much as they can, and (b) the world's militaries will get as much of the remaining supply as can be spared, as long as it can be spared, to maximize their ability to grab the rest.

Vera, no, my distinction between real and imaginary democracies is not the keystone of my argument, and I'm baffled that you think it is. From my perspective, you (and a lot of other people) have gotten hung up on the word "democracy" and are treating it as though it's a synonym for "good," instead of simply a label for a certain kind of political system with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Thus you think I'm saying that America is "good," and rejecting that label with some heat, because it conflicts with your conviction that America is "bad." That's not what I'm saying at all.

I'm saying that no matter what label you want to pin on the contemporary Americal political system, if you use arguments based on that label to insist that everything that's wrong is the doing of some minority of people who you don't like, and who you claim have total control over society, you're doing yourself, your society, and the possibility of constructive change a huge disservice. I'd point out by way of evidence that the last three decades has seen your point of view become ever more deeply entrenched in the American left, and that same period has also seen the American left lose every battle it's tried to fight. I suggest that the attitude has helped cause those failures, just as the belief by a lot of people on the left in previous decades that constructive change was possible within the existing order of society was a crucial factor in making change happen -- as in fact it did, on numerous occasions.

Don Mason said...

Re: Sources of Nihilism

Perhaps the source of the current nihilism may date back a decade earlier than the late 1970's election of Reagan.

The 1970's were essentially about dealing with the fallout from the social explosion that was the 1960's.

By the late '60's, a few parts of America were becoming radicalized:
mostly colege campuses like U of C at Berkeley, U of M at Ann Arbor, U
of W at Madison, or (where I was) at U of I at Champaign.

Many radical movements cranked up back then; but perhaps the most radical change was that some of us had stopped being consumers - and we were respected for it.

Voluntary poverty was becoming highly valued, whereas the conspicuous-consumption "frat rats" were beginning to be treated with contempt.

That world existed for only a brief moment. It ended in the summer of 1970, when unarmed students were shot to death at Jackson State and Kent State by National Guard troops who were ordered to put down the demonstrations against the War in Vietnam.

Nixon referred to the students as "criminals", and it seemed that it was open season on us.

It was made clear that we had two choices: 1) rejoin "The System" and become good little consumers again or 2) arm ourselves and start
shooting back.

Almost everyone decided not to resort to physical force.

I recall that 1971 had the feeling of a sullen, defeated, rag-tag hippie army being marched off at gunpoint and sentenced to life at an "Arbeit Macht Frei" Consumerland.

The few that decided to use force did not come to a good end. They
accomplished virtually nothing, and often got themselves and/or other people killed in the process. For example: the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Unabomber Ted Kazinsky.

So perhaps the current nihilism has some darker roots.

sofistek said...

JMG,

"Sofistek, what I'm trying to say is that "so-called" democracies are the only democracies there are. What you're calling a true democracy is a fiction; it doesn't exist, never has existed, and in all probability never will exist."

I don't doubt that, at least at a national scale - I think they have and can exist at a much smaller scale. However, when you write this, you're effectively agreeing with those who say that democracy is a charade. Since we don't have true democracies, then the pretence that we do have democracies is just that, a pretence.

Matthew Heins said...

JMG,

Just one quick thought on the prospect of war for resources:

We must be careful in our analysis to remember that REAL wars -as opposed to the cowardly video-game similacrum that is being practised in Afghanistan and Libya- require a great number of willing bodies to fight them.

I would argue:

1. That there is a dearth of such bodies for the wars of the crumbling Empire NOW -with the video-game wars as supporting evidence.

2. That the U.S. Empire (there is no other more accurate term) will be even more at a loss to find true soldiers in the future.

3. That the current "power" of the U.S. Empire to "fight" pseudo-wars is entirely hinged upon exactly that which is crumbling around the Imperialists head's -their current Imperial power.

4. There is no benefit to any potential enemy in bothering to fight such a crumbling entity when simply waiting in the wings will be of greater benefit to them by allowing negotiated exploitation of the Empire's resources. (For evidence note China's and Russia's abstention from the Libya debacle in the Security Council)

War against the crumbling Empire is pointless for the -potential- Ascendents because -after they have dealt with the collapse of the world-dollar system (which they HAVE already, the BRIC bloc will float a new currency by 2019)- the only real thing of value the U.S. has is a helluva lot of arable land. And the farmers will sell to them who buys, so no problem.

But beyond this, a war must be fought by two sides.

Who will fight on the side of the U.S. Empire?

Not I.

Not anyone I know.

Not even the supposed "pro-U.S." folks lumped together as the "Tea Party-types" that I know.

These people want an imagined version of Jeffersonian Liberty, not death and destruction for Imperial glory!

They'll be the FIRST to turn on Imperial Conscription. As the twisted minds in their "Pentagon" seem to know well, since they ever seek to cloud the Imperial mission and recruit desperate immigrants and idiotes and convicts.

What do you call a conflict where one side is disinterested in fighting and the other is unable to fight?

I don't know, but it is certainly not called "war".

-Matt

John Michael Greer said...

Don, well, I wasn't there at the time, but it seems to me that there were options other than surrender and a futile attempt at violent insurrection.

Sofistek, no, the fact that democracy as it actually exists doesn't live up to the fantasies too often overlaid on it doesn't make it a charade -- it makes it a real system of government in the real world. Honestly, is it that hard to get past the simplistic notion that if something doesn't live up to its propaganda, it must be evil incarnate?

Matt, hmm. You and the people you know may not be typical of young Americans in general. The military, last I heard, isn't having any trouble finding recruits, and given a sufficiently over-the-top war hysteria, I suspect it wouldn't be too hard to get a rush to the colors. Still, we'll see.

Brad K. said...

@ Matthew Heins,

What I was thinking of was the number of people in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, etc. that may or may not have intended to get into armed conflict. Other conflicts conscripted enough 'bodies' to be a problem to neighbors. The draft, after all, is inactive in the US, not dismantled, and mandatory registration at age 18 is still the law of the land.

Those of us living for generations at peace at home tend to assume that is the way the world works. I am sure that the people of Southeast Asia, back in the 1950s, were surprised when the French and Chinese visited - to begin a conflict we know now as the Vietnam War. Similar to Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., sending troops somewhere doesn't make a conflict - unless there are armed people ready to resist.

People at peace are the most likely to disparage and cut back their military because of internal needs. People recently exposed to war are more likely to divert unconscionable levels of resources to defense based on external threats. Anger is difficult to lay to rest, and there are a lot of angry people in the world.

Myself, I don't anticipate war to wash over northern Oklahoma or downtown Brisbane next week, or next year. I think the chance is lessened if our political leaders, and our nations, stay alert to the risk.

vera said...

JMG, I am not treating “democracy” as a synonym for “good.” I am merely insisting that it actually means the rule of the demos, that is, the people, in some meaningful way. Neither am I saying that America = bad. I grew up under communism and I daresay I can tell the difference. I simply don’t think the word democracy fits this system. Iceland, where women banging pots and pans through the night brought down a government has a reason to call itself a democracy. America… not so much.

I doubt I will make any headway, since you have determined that those of us who believe (IMO with plenty of justification), that America is ruled by an elite – namely, the people who hold most of the wealth and most of the power – are wrong. So let me point folks who wish to double check your claim, as follows.

Locally. Plenty of evidence that most localities are ruled by growth coalitions of local landowners, businessmen, uni-people if there is a college, local bankers and so on, all the people who profit by growth, growth, growth. Check out professor Domhoff’s website, Who Rules America, here:
http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/

On the national level, the situation is similar, and financial elites and their friends hold sway. Evidence? Why do you think all the Wall Street crimes and Ponzi schemes have gone unpunished and unchanged? Why is it that the Fed can simply refuse the Congress access to its accounting? The uncontroversial evidence, much quoted, shows that most of the power and wealth in this country is held by a very small elite which is getting much richer, while the rest are growing poorer. That is the gist of elite rule. Most of these people are not in elected positions, and are unreachable to voter influence.

I do not claim “that everything that wrong is the doing of some minority of people whom [I] don’t like.” I am taking offense at your original claim, which said that those who believe America is governed by an elite which is [mostly] unelected and unaccountable, are wrong, are conventionally minded, and are nihilists.

Now you can call those of us who see the evidence plain as day names, and I admit you got my goat with that. But how does that help anything? I do believe that American people do have ways to change things, but it will be extremely difficult, and it certainly will not happen through the pablum of “vote” and “call your Congresspeople” and the like. The left (and whoever is still sane on the right) have not failed because they correctly note the profound sway of the elites. They have failed (in large part) because the system was built to put massive checks on the rule of the people, and much effort has been wasted by assuming otherwise. To this effect, I heavily recommend a little book called Taming Democracy, by Terry Bouton, who describes in great and engaging detail exactly what happened in the last decades of the 18th century in Pennsylvania. It’s my “book of the year” and the information Bouton conveys is vital to anyone who wants to understand the levers of power gone awry.

Matt Mc said...

@sofistek - We often track the idea of democracy back to the ancient Greeks. Interestingly, very few of their political forms would be considered perfectly democratic.

However, the Athenian philosophers (e.g. Plato) also had another insight into the meaning of what an "idea" is. One way of looking at this is that they took a view that the perfect form of anything could only be conceived of subtly (as an idea, or more) - everything in the manifest material world was an imperfect copy.

For example, a perfect circle can be conceived in your mind, but can never be fully realised in reality. Even the most precise technology becomes an approximation at the nano-scale.

So applying this to the idea of democracy: the idea of the perfect form of democracy is important because it guides our vision and implementation in our politics, even if the manifest forms are "imperfect".

Ultimately I suspect that any system is subject to decay and corruption - it is only in the vigilance and creativity of human beings that these manifest forms can be maintained and evolved to meet the circumstances - preferably guided by the subtle vision of the perfect forms.

John Michael Greer said...

Brad, that seems like a very reasonable analysis. I'm not sure how soon we'll see war here in America, but I suspect it may be sooner than a lot of people think. We have all the raw materials for a very ugly guerrilla war here, and several potential flashpoints.

Vera, if you can only hear the argument I'm presenting as namecalling, we're probably stuck talking past each other. I'm quite aware that most people agree with you -- as I've pointed out more than once, it's the conventional wisdom these days, on all sides of the political spectrum. That doesn't make it a useful analysis, nor does it change the fact that activism based on that conventional wisdom has pretty consistently failed to accomplish much of anything. I'll be discussing this more next week.

John Michael Greer said...

Matt, that's certainly one valid approach. The problem creeps in when the perfect becomes the enemy of the good -- when the fact that all real systems fall short of the ideal becomes a reason, or perhaps an excuse, to abandon pragmatic approaches that might do some good in favor of denunciatory rhetoric and daydreaming about perfect systems.

Matt Mc said...

JMG - my point exactly. The ideal is useful as a benchmark, but is rarely realised in itself. It's use is the direction that it can provide and inspiration it can give to improve and evolve without losing the point.

In times of great change, understanding the principles of democracy (i.e. the ideals) is important so that adaptation can proceed without throwing the baby out with the bathwater...

p.s. great work with the last couple of articles. Some quality dialogue and debate in the comments.

sofistek said...

JMG,

I agree with what you're saying regarding the form of democracy (or so-called democracy) that we have. The small point I'm making is that it's not this so-called democracy that people say is a sham; it's that real democracy doesn't exist. So I don't think it's right to argue that the prevailing wisdom has it backwards, if the prevailing wisdom simply recognises the truth (perhaps one of the few truths that people do recognise), that we don't live in a democracy. Since we don't live in a democracy, corruption is inevitable, as you say. Consequently, this version of democracy doesn't deserve our support at all, it deserves our disgust.

Of course, if one supposes that no other version is possible, at the nation scale, then we either accept that, and deal with it, or push for localisation of democracy, just as our lives should be more localised, anyway, in a sustainable society.

John Michael Greer said...

Matt, that seems reasonable enough. You're welcome, btw!

Sofistek, the only reason I suggest that the kind of democracy that actually exists deserves our support is that the alternatives, by and large, are a lot worse. Corruption, manipulation, pressure-group politics, and all the rest of it, ugly as they are, are a good deal less so than a bureaucratic police state like the former Soviet Union, a charismatic dictatorship like Libya, or a violent, chaotic mess like Somalia -- all three of which are options if enough people turn their backs on the flawed but functioning system we've got.

That being the case, I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph, with one exception -- to my mind, the best approach is both to accept and deal with the system we've got, pushing it where possible in constructive directions, and to work on localizing our own political, economic, and energetic dependencies to the point that the antics in the relevant national capital don't affect us that much. More on this next week.

vera said...

Folks, all I am saying, look at the evidence. Is America ruled by elites many of whom are unelected and unaccountable? Look well.

JMG, thank you for the stump. :-)

sofistek said...

JMG,

I think we've reached agreement. Thanks for debating.

Nathan said...

JMG -

How do we know when working with the national political system should be abandoned as a viable strategy? I think many people felt that was the case after Nixon got elected (along with all the other fear and loathing that went down in 1968).

Is a belief in the inadequacy of the current national political system to make any real changes nihilism? No sarcasm intended - I really want to know what you think about working with the feds. Maybe the nihilism comes from people accepting the national political circus is the only way change can actually happen. And then it doesn't.

Loveandlight said...

I know I'm entirely beating a dead horse here so I won't balk if you don't approve this entirely gratuitous comment, but would you believe that it wasn't until I read this blog-post of yours that I realized that the problem into which I ran with those people had much to do with their lack of sincerity? At the time I thought it was because they were such fanatics, but that was only true to the extent of being fanatics about conforming to a certain set of affectations. If one is going to be a fanatic, that is probably the most loserish and ineffective sort of fanatic to be, IMHO! Though in their minds, they probably simply had a vague awareness that I was somebody who was not really what they were, consequently making me an outsider to be distrusted and rejected. I finally realized that such ignorant fearfulness was common in that scene upon finding myself at the receiving end of it.

This was pretty much the continental divide of my social life as adult, hence my weird and probably inappropriate fixation on it. Though as such it undoubtedly had a great deal of impact on how I would later mentally frame collapse-issues such as Peak Oil and climate change and how we should all deal with these things.

Chris Balow said...

JMG,

You noted, in response to Brad, that you see the possibility of guerrilla wars flaring up in the United States. If you don't mind elaborating on this theme: what are some of these "flashpoints" that you see in the United States? Is this more inter-regional conflict, similar to the North vs. South of the Civil war, or intra-regional conflict, with various conflicts that remain limited to their respective locales? Do you imagine the Federal Government becoming involved in such conflicts, or do you see these conflicts flaring up in a power-vacuum created by a weakened federal government?

John Michael Greer said...

Vera, all I'm saying is the realities of political life in America are far more complex than the one-dimensional description you're offering. You're welcome for the stump, though!

Sofistek, good heavens. Is that allowed? ;-)

Nathan, I'll be discussing this in detail in the next post. The short form is that putting pressure on the federal government, or any other level of government, takes a great deal more than most people in the peak oil scene realize -- or have been willing to contemplate.

Loveandlight, it's not an inappropriaste post, or for that matter an inappropriate fixation. The realization that activism can be an expression of what Sartre called "bad faith" is crucial; only when you realize that a great deal of what passes for political and social activism, on all sides of the political continuum, is simply acting out personal melodramas for the sake of obscuring an assortment of unwelcome realities, does it become possible to get past that sort of thing and do what has to be done.

Chris, that's a subject for an entire post, and it'll be part of the next series of posts I plan on launching, once I run out of useful things to say about green wizardry for the moment. The decline and fall of the American empire -- which is what we're talking about, of course -- is a massive, tangled theme, and one that's going to take quite a bit of careful analysis.

AndoLaw said...

I started rereading David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability this morning and in the Introduction he includes a quote from Stuart Hill that immediately brought to mind this week's JMG essay.

Thus my analysis of the situation is primarily psychosocial, rather than just political, and that is exactly what makes such a proposition so difficult to accept, because for me this requires that I first recognize and act on my responsibilities and change myself before pointing fingers at other, or at least while concurrently doing this. This is not to deny the inequities and oppressions that exist and that need to be addressed within our societies, but rather to acknowledge that each of these can be traced to collective and individual patterns of behavior, which if not changed will continue to wreak havoc with our precious planet, our societies and our individual well-being. Furthermore, I believe that the more empowered, aware, informed, competent and clear about our values that each of us is, then the more effective we are likely to be in bringing about the structural and institutional changes that are required. Trying to do the latter without addressing the former can only ever result in initiatives that will fail to address the causes of our problems and that at best can only slightly reduce the levels of unsustainability and degradation.

Who knows how, when or to what extent our larger political and economic systems can be redeemed. What I think I know, though, is that those of us who are completely dependent upon -- and whose minds have been effectively colonized by -- those systems are in a weak and compromised position when we clamor for their overturning. Best have at least one foot well off the rug before you try to shake it off.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello to all and JMG--

OK, caught the tail end of the discussion. My reflections:

--the US is technically a republic not a democracy: built-in elites, theoretically to protect against mob rule (obvious but I like accurate use of terms). A democracy would require all of us (or at least enfranchised citizens) to vote on everything. See how well California functions because of its reliance on referendums. Not.

--Humans are flawed. All of us. The poor will always be with us (and primitive, egalitarian societies still have status differentials). Therefore to live in a human society is to live in a flawed system--ours is just particularly large, complex and unsustainable--and at this point uncontrollable.

--"Have fun" as a spell: perfect.

Bill Pulliam said...

Very late to the party here, but still I must join in with a few comments.

First, to all who say we don't have a democracy: In 2008 in an election universally recognized as (sufficiently) free, fair, and open, the ruling party was voted out of office. Without a whimper or a threat, they packed their bags and left, peacefully. That is democracy. It is less than a perfect ideal, but so is everything. 2008 proved we have democracy. It proved that the Bush administration was not fascist -- fascists do not honor the results of elections that go against them. Democracy : Rule by the people. People are corrupt, hence democracy will be corrupt. But it is still democracy.

More generally -- amazing how many nerves you obviously hit here, JMG! I think another reason people like to believe in conspiracies of evil is that they actually find them comforting -- at least SOMEONE is in charge, which means there is at least in theory hope for change! Just like why Xtians like to believe that evil comes from Satan -- that means it is not inevitable or inherent to the human condition. And I do find a strong correlation around where I live between belief in a dualistic theology and believe in mundane conspiracy theories.

Hey folks, there is exactly ONE person out there whose behavior you can control: Yourself. Live the way you think every individual should, even if everyone else does not. That's all you can really accomplish.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Reflections, Part 2

Here's anecdotal confirmation of your point that so many people feel powerless and think evil elites (corporations/government/media) should bear the blame.

Last week, discussing personal responsibility regarding food with a group of students after showing Food, Inc. To summarize: they said,

"It's all the corporations' fault and junk food tastes good. We have no power."

"No, you give them power, and when you do that you act like babies, just accepting what you're given. Take responsibility for what you eat. Read ingredients, learn to cook, plant a garden." All new ideas to many of these students, who swim in our culture like fish in water, simultaneously electronically connected yet uninformed.

Two days later, facilitating a small discussion group for faculty about teaching sustainability in the classroom: Again to sumarize, they said, "The elites manipulate information, there are no green jobs to train our students for, so how do we make sustainability relevant in the classroom? And the students by and large don't care."

Thinking of the conversation here at Archdruid Report, I said, "There are all kinds of people all over the world working on living with self restraint and taking an alternate philosophical stance to "more is better." For example, show Food. Inc. and start talking about food in terms of personal responsibility."

Point being, thousands of private discussions can start seeds of change. Food is a small (well, actually huge) first step. Maybe those students won't plant a garden this spring, but they've entertained the idea and that's a start. One or two told me they will.

Maybe the instructors, already working on changing what and how they teach, won't make sudden moves, but the fact they discussed the issue with faculty from other disciplines brought an interdisciplinary fizz to the discussion and might help each see things in a new way. And maybe they don't feel so alone in their silos.

How to help people wake up, to discover that the herd instinct isn't necessarily correct, that they can think for themselves--and, most important, get beyond binary thinking! Those are some real, task-generating queries.

wild gypsy said...

Mr. Greer,

I’m a little dismayed that you keep comparing my pet unicorn to a democracy. I worry such words from an Archdruid might diminish his special power to make small children smile. I, for one, hope that kind of magic never disappears.

I was recently schooled a bit on Democracy watching the Egyptian revolution on the intertubes and have come to agree with your position about not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. If young people growing up under dictatorship, censorship and oppression can risk their lives to demand a greater stake in how they are governed with absolutely no guarantee of success and odds stacked greatly against them in a region of the world that will be hit hardest by said perfect storm, certainly a rowdy bunch such as ourselves can push back a lot harder and more creatively than we have been to make our own Democracy function better. (Emphasis on the word better.)

The sustainability movement hasn’t exactly been dormant or even deleted like an unpublished blogger comment. It and the people it comprises have been living, breathing and learning within our changing environment, just as all other people on the planet have been for all of these years. I personally look forward to seeing what comes down the pike next.

Great two-part series you have written. Thanks for sharing your perspective and I will be following to see what alternatives you raise next.

sofistek said...

"2008 proved we have democracy"

Just as 2000 proved that you didn't have a democracy, Bill? In that year, not only did the candidate with the most votes not get into power, but if either of the main candidates had got in, it would have been on a minority of the vote.

The senate currently has a democratic majority on 48% of the vote (though the largest share, but still a minority).

Yes, people generally think of the US system as being democratic but it doesn't always yield democratic results. Similarly for other "democratic" nations. Not that it matters which of the main parties actually makes it into power.

That last point makes me wonder if there is a measure of "maturity" of a society. Once it doesn't matter which party gets into power, can we think of a society as having matured, or perhaps homogenised? Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily mean that some perfect (or best possible) state has been reached. If that state involves drawing down natural resources and degrading the environment, then there seems little hope for that society, since it's unlikely to see any major change in direction, without some external impetus (like extreme weather events becoming common or a precipitous decline in oil production). Is it possible for that homogenised state to be a sustainable one? I just don't know.

Mary said...

Late to the party, but never fail to follow your blog, Mr. Greer. I was feeling pretty dark, when 2 rays of light shone (shined?) through the nonstop clouds and deluges here downeast. First, an article in the local weekly about a nonprofit (hopefully well funded) with plans to bring local, organic grain to Maine. Grain? In Maine? Apparently Somerset County Maine was known as "The Breadbasket of Boston" back in the 1800s. The orgs' general goal is for 1. locally-grown, processed, baked and sold grain, 2. as petroleum-free as possible, 3. to be sold at 2fer 1 prices for foodstampers in farmer's markets. The idea is to bring jobs, improve local health, compete pricewise with Mall*warts (love that name!), reduce dependence on oil, and all other things good...(Note that the University of Maine and Aggie extension have reported several times in recent years that Maine already produceds enough to feed about 80% of its population. Relieved to know that at least some here are watching and taking action to bring that to 100%).

2nd ray of sun again came through the local weekly, this time in the calendar section. A weeklong symposium on sustainability, including talks on weatherization, homes without heating systems, growing your own food / locally produced food with talks by local farmers, and more.

All just 2 villages over from me, and during my week's "vacation" so I actually can attend! I'll be attending starting tonight and report on any interesting findings...

Brad K. said...

@ Sofistek,

Call it democracy, call it a republic, whatever.

What Bill refers to is the transition of power from one government to the next, free of armed strife. Regardless of the legality or propriety of the selection of the new government, the orderly change of regime is noteworthy.

I don't know where the media get their definitions. When the populace rises up and without formal elections enact a change of power, I call that a revolution, and mob rule - as in Egypt, and what is ongoing in Syria.

I know that here in America we got used to 'just an election' and not think of it as a change of government, a change of policy and changing out of those in power. But the orderly and expected opportunity to change our leaders, and especially to do so with continuity, is not the mark of a kingdom or of a dictatorship.

Recall that the media focuses on exit polls and individual state counts, on improprieties, et. al., but the US Constitution provides for the states to elect the President via the electoral college. That separation between citizen and selecting the President was intentional, and by most reasonings separates the US from a full democracy.

On the other hand, the scheduled voting and simple plurality of votes to determine local mayor, in some places sheriff, etc. is pretty democratic - in a representative democracy fashion.

I was assured in public school, in middle school, that the most efficient form of government is the benevolent dictator. Sort of a father of the land. The problems with that form of government is assuring that the dictator actually is, and remains benevolent to all or most, and that there is little mechanism for choosing the succeeding leader to be benevolent as well. Thus the US chose this hodge-podge form of representative, democratic republic as a compromise, a way to look for those benevolent leaders, and to provide for an orderly transition in a reasonably timely fashion to the next, incoming leader.

Don't let the words hang you up, not here, not in the media. We use the word 'democracy' to describe America, knowing full well that our government and civic action isn't what the dictionary calls 'democracy'. The definition of America's form of government is the US Constitution, as amended, and not the dictionary, not the drive-by media, and not my school boy recollection of one day in US History class ever so many years ago.

Your task, should you accept it, is to understand America's government structure and your responsibilities under that Constitution, to hold common practice and elected officials to the letter of the written law. Because the Constitution also allows for remedies when the government, or individuals within that government, violate the law and the Constitution - but it requires that others do their part in the face of wrong doing.

Blessed be.

Lambert Strether said...

I think the Talking Heads would be more appropriate than Styx... Most of Once in a Lifetime (1981) reads like prophecy, today.

Bill Pulliam said...

Sofistek -- so one very bad court ruling in one extremely close election negates an entire system of government, which has shown MANY instances of sweeping change in politics and policy driven by waves of popular sentiment even when they went against the ruling party? What we have in the U.S. and western+central Europe now is as close as you can get to democracy in such large nation states. If you are going to define democracy so strictly that it cannot in fact exist, then you have made the concept pretty useless.

Let's look at a parallel universe in which the 2000 presidential election went the "correct" way and Al Gore was president. Might the 9/11/2001 attacks have been avoided? Maybe, maybe not. Just suppose they happened pretty much the same way, though. In the aftermath, the American people were demanding blood -- Muslim blood, to be more specific. Anyone who tries to revisionize the atmosphere in this country back then to avoid this ugly fact is delusional. If Gore had not given it to them (us), he would have been out on his rear end in an unprecedented landslide. The Neocons would have swept into control of congress in 2002, and we would have had a decade of war in the middle east. Sound familiar? Democracy works in these sorts of ugly ways, too. If your people demand blood and you fail to deliver, they will find someone who will.

Just because the results are ugly, even inhuman and evil, does not mean the process that lead to them was not democratic. Those supreme court justices who threw out two centuries of precedent and ignored all their previously stated views about the role of the federal government were appointed by popularly elected (and often popular) presidents, and confirmed by the popularly elected senate. And of course the real question about the 2000 election that no Democrat wants to ask is "why was this election even close?" Vice president of well-liked president leaving office with high approval ratings, shoulda been a slam dunk. It's not "how could those people have been so stupid as to vote for Nader" but "How did we stray so far from our core principles that so many people who should have been our base could not even bring themselves to vote for our ticket?" Better to blame it on stupid voters and conspiracies of election fraud and supreme court tit-for-tat than to address your own failure to remain true to those who put you in power in the first place.

Besides, anyone can tell you that the problem with the 2000 Election was that Mercury went retrograde on election day.

TG said...

I received a letter from one of my Senators this morning. It was a response to an e-mail I sent last month, in which I expressed opposition to loan guarantees and subsides for nuclear power.

The Senator's letter includes this remark: "I support a comprehensive energy policy that increases domestic energy production, but also emphasizes conservation and efficiency." Although I seriously question whether the first part of that sentence refers to something that's beneficial or even possible, I nearly fell over in shock upon encountering the word "conservation." Especially since I had carefully avoided that term in my own correspondence, as I'm aware it's often not well received. He nonetheless understood what I meant. And he was willing to state that he agrees.

I'm not sure whether to feel a bit hopeful about that or not. I've been lying low for the past few months, attempting to take a mental health break, not thinking overmuch on these matters. I've been reading Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. That's one of those classics I'd somehow missed up 'til now. My experience with Odom's Fundamentals of Ecology last autumn has finally encouraged me to seek out additional reads in that field.

It's been a wet and cold spring so far, but our garden soil is tilled. We've planted onions and a few greens. We are patiently awaiting a sunny day to scatter more seed.

--Tracy G

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Brad K .& Bill P., most interesting comments about our democratic republic. You both said some of what I've been thinking. Wish I could explain things so well.

Tracy G., Sand County Almanac is one of my favorites. Hope you like it. My lettuce is just up.

sofistek said...

Bill, it wasn't just the court ruling; the US presidential election is an indirect election that goes through an electoral college. One could also refer to the UK and, to varying degrees, other countries electoral systems as indirect. The UK system can lead to gross inequities in the result (I recall one year in which the third party got to within a whisker of the second party, in terms of votes, but the indirect nature of the process resulted in a huge disparity in parliamentary seats (with the second party gaining a multiple of the third party seats).

But you are going into areas that are irrelevant to the question of whether the US system is democratic or not. Would Gore have been better? Probably not but that's not the issue at all.

Remember that you tried to claim that the 2008 US presidential election was proof of democracy, on the basis that it was proof of not being a fascist state. I merely pointed out that a single data point doesn't provide proof of anything.

I well realise the there is no truly democratic state and that such a thing might even be impossible at the nation scale.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Could most of the above be summed up in a single Winston Churchill quote?

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

And topped off with one from Gandhi ...

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Michael said...

John, I have to profoundly disagree with you, the television series "V" was anything but forgettable. It is clearly a classic of its genre!

Thanks, it's so nice to read something important, interesting AND well-written.

Ichabod said...

Well, you're definitely into an interesting topic. I teach a course on consumer culture in which I explain the problem as follows: The development of all sorts of conveniences and related technological developments follows the trajectory of fossil fuel usage (especially oil). This has taken shape over a course of several generations. Any new generation, however, is socialized into a world in which there are established norms of a taken for granted world - even when these norms a most extreme when viewed from a historical perspective (or a global perspective for that matter). These norms are reinforced continuously by everyone around the individual. There is tremendous pressure toward conformity in thought and behavior. I think one cure for this problem is the development of an awareness of the worlds of previous generations. Then a thinking person can see the extreme nature of it all. As one example, getting into a car (and other vehicles) and going literally anywhere more or less immediately is very new sort of thing even for the wealthy of the past. But now it is expected and viewed as normal.

I can tell you from LOTS of experience that most people don't ever want to think of the possibility of giving this up.

Enjoyed the post.

damnthematrix said...

"Notice how our economic system, as well as nearly all economists, still act as though replacing human labor with fossil fuel-derived energy is always a good idea, even at a time when unemployment is pandemic and the cost of energy is a rising burden on economies around the world."

There's a very good reason for this: a gallon of gas contains as much energy as me working for eight weeks, and I sure as hell wouldn't work for that long for anybody for four bucks...... remember slavery?

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

That is to say, manipulation works in both directions; those people who try to bend public opinion to their own ends can succeed only by telling the public what it wants to hear.

My experience suggests people are first told what they should want, and then told about the benefits of wanting that thing (or status or "lifestyle").

I don't think there is much prior investigation of demand, and then response to the findings. I've participated in marketing surveys but they've always been very specific, such as "when you're at McDonald's what do you order?" and related Qs such as "which menu items have you tried and disliked?"

When I watch my friends I see people responding to whatever is offered by formal advertisement or informal word-of-mouth, which usually is secondary to previous witnessing of formal advertisement.

For whatever reason, as a young lad I figured out that advertisements were bogus and largely trying to create an itch for me to scratch, so I've always been able to stand outside the sway of fads. They're fun to watch, if you can ignore the destructive wastefulnesses they create.