Last week’s Archdruid Report post, despite its wry comparison of industrial civilization’s current predicament with the plots and settings of pulp fantasy fiction, had a serious point. Say what you will about the failings of cheap fantasy novels—and there’s plenty to be said on that subject, no question—they consistently have something that most of the allegedly more serious attempts to make sense of our world usually lack: the capacity to envision truly profound change.
That may seem like an odd claim, given the extent to which contemporary industrial society preens itself on its openness to change and novelty. Still, it’s one of the most curious and least discussed features of that very openness that the only kinds of change and novelty to which it applies amount to, basically, more of the same thing we’ve already got. A consumer in a modern industrial society is free to choose any of a dizzying range of variations on a suffocatingly narrow range of basic options—and that’s equally true whether we are talking about products, politics, or lifestyles.
I suppose the automobile is the most obvious example, but it has dimensions not always recognized and these bear a closer look. To begin with, the vast majority of cars for sale these days are simply ringing changes on a suite of technologies that was introduced in the late 19th century and hit maturity close to fifty years ago. That’s as true of electric and hybrid cars, by the way, as it is of the usual kind—the hype surrounding the so-called “hybrid revolution” conveniently fails to mention that the same system has been used for more than sixty years in diesel-electric locomotives, and cars powered by electricity were common on American roads before the Big Three auto firms succeeded in getting a stranglehold on the industry during the last Great Depression. Steam-powered cars were also to be had back then—the Stanley Steamer was a famous brand; try finding one now.
What variations can be found nowadays are almost entirely a matter of style rather than substance, and this becomes even more evident when it’s recognized that the auto is simply one way to get people and light cargoes from one place to another. Are there other ways to do this? You bet, but none of them get the saturation advertising, the huge capital investments in manufacturing and distribution, or the vast government subsidies on local, state, and federal levels that cars receive on an ongoing basis. It’s a continuing source of amusement to listen to the pseudoconservatives who dominate the Republican Party these days denounce the very modest government funding that goes to passenger rail service and public transit. Ask them if they’re willing to give up Federal highway dollars, to name only one of the huge subsidies that autos receive, and you’ll very quickly hear a different tune.
It so happens that I don’t own or drive a car, and indeed I never have. Among its other benefits, that’s a good way to see the limits on the alleged freedom of choice that the consumer economy provides its inmates. In today’s America, you can live without a car, but most other choices you make are going to be sharply curtailed by that decision. When my wife and I decided a few years back to leave the west coast and settle in the Rust Belt, scores of pleasant towns we might otherwise have chosen were ruled out in advance because the only way to go from there to anywhere else was to drive a car, and our options for buying a house were just as tightly constrained by the need to be within walking distance of groceries and other necessary services. All those choices the propagandists of the consumer economy prattle about? They exist, but only if you give up your right to make any of the decisions that matter.
That same logic applies across the board in today’s industrial societies. What products would you like to buy? If it’s not something that a handful of gargantuan corporations want to make and market for you, good luck. Would you like a voice in the political process? Sure, but only if you agree with one of two or three major parties whose positions differ so little you’ll need a micrometer to tell them apart. How about a different lifestyle? Here’s the list of available options, every one of them a slight variation on the common theme of shopping for products and running up debt; if that’s not what you have in mind, sorry, we don’t have anything else in stock.
All this can be seen as simply one material expression of the thaumaturgy we discussed a while back in these posts, the manipulation of basic drives through the endless repetition of emotionally charged symbols that serves to swamp the thinking mind and keep the individual penned in a narrow circle of self-defeating behaviors. From another perspective, though, the torrent of material goodies that comes surging through the channels of the consumer economy is the payoff for cooperating with the existing order of things; so long as you want the things you’re supposed to want, you can have them in fantastic abundance. It’s no exaggeration to point out that average middle class people in the industrial world just now have access to material benefits that emperors couldn’t expect to get five hundred years ago. That’s their share of the payoff for acquiescing in the status quo.
That’s the great strength of the "magician states" Ioan Culianu talked about in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, those nations—and if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly living in one—that maintain control over populations by thaumaturgy rather than by brute force. The thaumaturgy is backed up by very real material benefits for those who cooperate. Those who don’t—well, my own experience is a case in point; by the standards of most of humanity, I lead an extremely comfortable life, but most of the people I know are horrified by the thought that if it’s raining and I have errands to run, I put on a coat and open up an umbrella and go for a walk in the rain. They’d be more horrified still to learn that I deal with summer’s heat and humidity without an air conditioner, and respond to cold nights in winter by putting on a sweater rather than turning up the heat, but I don’t go out of my way to bring those details to their attention; my car-free life is enough of a shock for most of them.
Of course there’s more to it than that. The more of the payoff you refuse, the sharper the restrictions you have to live with. Now of course the less privileged classes in the industrial world, and the vast majority of people elsewhere, live with those restrictions every day of their lives, but suggest to those who don’t that they might find it useful to accept those restrictions, and I’m sure you can imagine the response you’re likely to get. Still, this is exactly what I intend to suggest, because there’s another factor in the situation, and it’s the one this blog has been discussing for more than five years now.
The entire operation of the modern magician state, after all, depends utterly on uninterrupted access to gargantuan supplies of cheap, highly concentrated energy. The considerable amount of energy that goes to power the communication technologies that get thaumaturgy to its target audiences is only a drop in the oil barrel of the whole energy cost of the system. A much larger amount goes to supply and maintaining the infrastructure of thaumaturgy, and of course the largest fraction of all goes into produce that torrent of goods and services mentioned above, the collective payoff that keeps those target audiences docile. Now factor in the depletion of concentrated energy sources—above all petroleum, which provides 40% of the world energy supply and close to 100% of energy used in transportation—and the proud towers of the magician state abruptly turn out to rest on foundations of sand.
To understand the consequences of that awkward fact, it’s important to get past the rhetoric of victimization that fills so much space in discussions of social hierarchy these days. Of course the people at or near the upper end of the pyramid get a much larger share of the proceeds of the system than anybody else, and those at or near the bottom get crumbs; that’s not in question. The point that needs making is that a great many people in between those two extremes also benefit handsomely from the system. When those people criticize the system, their criticisms by and large focus on the barriers that keep them from having as large a share as the rich—not the ones that keep them from having as small a share as the poor, or to phrase things a little differently, that keep their privileged share from being distributed more fairly across the population as a whole.
Map the factor of middle class privilege onto the history of protest over the last half century or so and some otherwise puzzling trends are easy to understand. The collapse of the 1960s protest movement here in America, for example, followed prompty on the abolition of the military draft in 1972. The real force behind that movement was the simple fact that the American middle classes were no longer willing to send their sons off to Vietnam, and were willing to use their not inconsiderable political clout to make that change of heart heard. It was indeed heard; the draft ended, the US extricated itself awkwardly from the Vietnam war, and the protest movement popped like a punctured balloon, leaving a minority of radicals who believed they were leading a revolution sitting among the shreds and wondering what happened. Attempts to launch American antiwar movements since that time have foundered on the unmentionable but real fact that middle class Americans by and large have no trouble at all reconciling themselves to war, as long as someone else’s kids are doing the fighting.
It’s in this light that last year’s spasmodic outbursts of protest from within the middle classes need to be understood. Since the peak of conventional petroleum production in 2005, economies around the world—above all the economies of the US and its inner circle of allies, which use more petroleum per capita than anybody else—have been stuck in a worsening spiral of dysfunction, and the middle classes have abruptly found themselves struggling to maintain their lifestyles. Their annoyance at that fact is easy to understand. From their point of view, after all, they’ve kept up their side of the bargain; they’ve bought what they were supposed to buy, borrowed when they were supposed to borrow, lined up obediently behind one or another of the approved political parties, and steered clear of all the hard questions. Now the payoff that was supposed to be their reward for all this, the payoff their parents and grandparents always got on time and that they themselves could rely on until now, is nowhere to be seen.
The payoff is nowhere to be seen, in turn, as a result of processes sketched out more than thirty years ago in a forgotten classic of political economy, Paul Blumberg’s 1980 study Inequality in an Age of Decline. Analyzing the downward spiral of the American economy in the 1970s—the last time, please note, that soaring energy prices clamped down on an industrial society—Blumberg showed that while a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling tide behaves in a much more selective fashion, as those groups with more political influence and economic clout are able to hang onto a disproportionate share of a shrinking pie at the expense of those with less.
The decades since Blumberg’s book appeared have only sharpened his argument. One after another, nearly every economic sector has undergone drastic reorganizations that slashed jobs, pay, and benefits for everyone below the middle class, and a growing number of people in the lower end of the middle class itself. Now that everyone below them has been thrown under the bus, the middle classes are discovering that it’s their turn next, as the classes above them scramble to maintain their own access to the payoffs of privilege. Having nodded and smiled while those further down the pyramid got shafted, the middle classes are in no position to mount an effective resistance now that they’re the ones being made redundant. I can almost hear a former midlevel manager in an unemployment line saying: "First they laid off the factory workers, but I said nothing, because I wasn’t a factory worker..."
Of course that’s not the way most people in today’s middle class like to think of things, and the gap between the reality of middle class privilege and the sort of rhetoric the Occupy movement spread last year—the claim that privilege applies only to the 1% of the population who are much richer than the middle class—opens an immense field of action for zealots and demagogues. Make the claim that you can keep the middle class supplied with its familiar comforts and status symbols and you’ll be able to count on a following in the years to come. The demand for that particular form of comforting nonsense is already booming, and an increase in the supply is already forthcoming; human nature being what it is, it’s probably not safe to assume that all those who provide the supply will be harmless nitwits.
This is where the capacity to envision profound change mentioned at the beginning of this essay becomes essential. In order to make sense of the future bearing down on us, it’s necessary to recognize that the privileged lifestyles of the recent past were the product of the chain of historical accidents that handed over half a billion years of stored sunlight to be burnt at extravagant rates by a handful of the world’s nations. Now that the supply is running short, those lifestyles are going away, and since the decline in petroleum production is gradual rather than sudden, the way it works out is that some people are losing access to them sooner than others. The automatic reaction on the part of most people facing this challenge is to cling to their familiar perks and privileges like grim death; the problem with that reaction, of course, is that the deathgrip in question very quickly becomes mutual.
The alternative is to let go of the perks and privileges before they drag you down. That may be the least popular advice I could offer, but it’s also among the most necessary. Over the years to come, as the real economy of goods and services contracts in lockstep with the depletion of fossil fuels, the fight over what’s left of the benefits of a failing industrial system is likely to become far more brutal than it is today. In the long run, that’s a fight with no winners. The alternative is to walk away, now, while you still have the time and resources to do it at your own pace.
This doesn’t mean, it probably needs to be said, pursuing the sort of green tokenism that’s become the latest form of conspicuous consumption in some circles on the leftward side of American life: the overpriced hybrid car parked ostentatiously in front of the suburban house with a few grid-tied solar panels on the roof, and the rest of it. It means giving things up: for example, doing without a car, getting rid of the suburban house and moving to a smaller, older, more efficient home two blocks from the bus route that will take you to work every day. It means accepting limits, not in some vague and abstract sense (which generally means accepting them for other people), but in the painfully specific sense that applies to your own choices. It means doing without things you want, during the difficult process of unlearning the mental automatisms that make you want them in the first place.
Unpleasant as it seems, this strategy has two massive advantages. The first is that you’ll quickly find yourself saving a great deal of money. Sell your car, and what you now spend on car payments, fuel, maintenance, insurance, and the rest of it, can go to something with a future. Apply the same logic to the other money-wasting habits of the middle class, and the money adds up fast. Since getting or staying out of debt, and providing yourself with the tools and skills you’ll need to get by in an age of decline, ought to be among your core priorities just now, that extra money is a valuable tool. So is the spare time you’ll have—most of those money-wasting habits are also time-wasting habits, remember.
The second advantage is one I’ve mentioned here before. If you’re going to be poor in the future, and you are, you might as well learn how to do it competently. It’s entirely possible to lead a life that’s poor in terms of money, material goods, and energy consumption, and profoundly rich—far richer than most contemporary lifestyles—in human values. If you’re going to do that, though, you’re going to have to learn how it’s done, and the only school where you can study that is that ancient institution, the school of hard knocks. If you start cutting your energy use and your material wants now, before you’re forced to do so, you can get past the hard part of the learning curve while you still have other options.
Thus it’s time, and maybe even past time, to wake up and walk away. Doing that, though, is going to require confronting one of the core superstitions of the modern world; we’ll discuss that next week.
End of the World of the Week #5
You might think that the habit of predicting the apocalypse would yield a bumper crop of self-fulfilling prophecies. Convince enough people that the end is nigh, and you might just get enough of them to do something crazy enough to make some approximation to the end of the world happen, right? Over the three thousand years or so since the apocalypse meme started on its long and merry way through human history, there have been some examples of that phenomenon—but even then, things generally haven’t turned out the way the prophets thought it would.
One instance worth remembering can be found in the War Scroll, one of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written right around the beginning of the Common Era in what is now part of Jordan, and was then a bleak corner of the Roman province of Judea. The War Scroll deserves its name; it’s a lurid advance account of the final conflict between the forces of light and the powers of darkness, and if you know your way around the Jewish apocalyptic literature of that period you know that by definition the powers of darkness spoke Latin and took their marching orders from the big cheese in Rome.
As apocalyptic literature goes, the War Scroll ranks well up there for sheer verbal color. "On the day that the Romans fall there shall be a battle and horrible carnage before the God of Israel, for it is a day appointed by him since ancient times as a battle of annihilation for the sons of darkness," it bellows. "The sons of light and the forces of darkness shall fight together to show the strength of God with the roar of a great multitude and the shouts of gods and men: a day of disaster."
It was prophetic harangues like this one, historians agree, that set the stage for the three Jewish revolts against Rome in 66, 115, and 132 CE. A great many Jewish people by that time convinced themselves that their Messiah would show up to lead them to triumph against Rome. That’s not how things worked out, though; the Romans won every round, and those on the other side who survived were either sold into slavery or driven into exile. The result was indeed "a day of disaster," but the disaster fell almost entirely on the heads of the Jewish people.
—story from Apocalypse Not