Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Democracy's Arc

The troubling news about methane releases from the Arctic ocean that was the focus of last week’s post on The Archdruid Report belongs, as I mentioned then, to the wider trajectory of industrial society’s decline and fall, not to the more specific theme I’ve been developing here in recent months. The end of America’s global empire takes place against the background of that wider trajectory, to be sure, and core elements of the predicament of industrial civilization bid fair to play a crucial role as the United States backs itself into a corner defined by its own history. Still, important as the limits to growth are just now, there’s much more at work in the endgame of American empire.

Thus this week’s post will plunge without further ado from the austere heights of atmospheric chemistry to the steaming, swampy, snake-infested realities of American politics. It’s a jarring shift in more ways than one, since everybody basically agrees on what methane is, what the atmosphere is, and so on; the terms that frame debates about the greenhouse effect and anthropogenic global warming are clearly defined and bear some relationship to observable fact. We don’t have that advantage in  politics. In particular, the possibility of an intelligent conversation about American politics is hamstrung by the spectacular distortions imposed on basic terms by nearly everybody involved.

The worst example, and the one I propose to explore this week, is democracy. It’s hard to think of a word that’s bandied about more freely, but I keep on waiting for Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride to stand up and say his classic line: “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

On both ends of American politics, for example, democracy is for all practical purposes defined as a political system in which a majority of voters will support whatever group happens to be using the word at that moment. That definition can be seen at work most clearly in the shrill insistence, common these days over much of the political spectrum, that the United States isn’t a democracy; after all, the argument runs, if the United States was a democracy, the people would vote in favor of their own best interests, which of course just happen to be identical with the platform of whoever’s talking. The fact that this claim can be heard from groups whose ideas of the people’s best interests differ in every conceivable way—for example, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street—simply adds to the irony.

Behind the rhetoric is a conception of democracy that has nothing in common with the real world, and everything in common with the Utopian fantasies that have come to infest contemporary political discourse. When Americans talk about democracy or, with even richer irony, “real democracy,” they usually mean a system that does not exist, has never existed, and can never exist—a system less real than Neverland, in which the free choices of millions of individual voters somehow always add up to an optimal response to the challenges of a complex age, without ever running afoul of the troubles that inevitably beset democratic systems in the real world.

Here’s an example.  Nearly all those who insist that the United States is not a democracy cite, as evidence for that claim, the fact that our elections are usually corrupt and sometimes fraudulent. Now of course this is quite true; the winner in an American election is generally, though not always, the candidate that has the most money to spend; the broader influence of wealth over America’s media and political parties is pervasive; and election fraud is as much a part of American culture as baseball and apple pie—the Democrats who waxed indignant about the rigged election returns from Florida in 2000, for example, by and large seem to have gone out of their way to forget about the voting machines at the bottom of Lake Michigan that put John F. Kennedy in the White House in 1960.

Does this prove that the United States isn’t a “real democracy”? Not at all. This is how democracies actually function in the real world. Under a system of representative democracy, the people who have wealth and the people who have power are by no means always the same; some of those who have wealth want power, some of those who have power want wealth, and the law of supply and demand takes it from there. That extends all the way down to the individual voter, by the way. Give citizens the right to dispose of their votes freely, and a significant number of them will use that freedom to put their votes up for sale—directly, as in old-fashioned machine politics, or indirectly, by voting for candidates who provide them with goodies at the public expense. There’s no way to prevent that without depriving citizens of the right to vote as they choose, and you can’t eliminate that and still have a democracy. 

By this point I suspect some of my readers may be wondering if I’m opposed to democracy. Quite the contrary, I’m very much in favor of it; despite its problems, it beats the stuffing out of most systems of government. It has three benefits in particular that you don’t usually get in other forms of government.

First, democracies tolerate much broader freedom of speech and conscience than countries ruled by other systems. I can critique the personalities, policies, and (as here) fundamental concepts of American government without having to worry that this will bring jackbooted thugs crashing through my door at three in the morning; in nondemocratic countries, critics of the government in power rarely have that security. Equally, I can practice the religion I choose, read the books I prefer, carry on conversations with people in other democratic countries around the world, and exercise a great many other freedoms that people in nondemocratic countries simply don’t have. These things matter; people have fought and died for them, and a system that makes room for them is far and away preferable to one that doesn’t.

Second, democracies don’t kill anything like as many of their own citizens as most other forms of government do.  The history of the twentieth century, if nothing else, should have been enough of a reminder that authoritarian governments come with a very high domestic body count. All governments everywhere kill plenty of people whenever they go to war, and all governments everywhere go to war when they think they can get away with it; imperial democracies also tend to build up very large prison populations—the United States  has more people in prison than any other nation on Earth, just as Britain in its age of empire shipped so many convicts to Australia that they played a sizable role in the settling of that continent.  Still, all other things being equal, it’s better to live in a nation where the government doesn’t dump large numbers of its own citizens into mass graves, and democracies do that far less often, and to far fewer people, than nondemocratic governments generally do.

Finally, democracies undergo systemic change with less disruption and violence than nondemocratic countries do. Whether we’re talking about removing a failed head of state, coping with an economic depression, dealing with military defeat, or winning or losing an empire, democracies routinely manage to surf the wave of change without the sort of collapse such changes very often bring to nondemocratic countries. The rotation of leadership hardwired into the constitutions of most successful democracies builds a certain amount of change into the system, if only because different politicians have different pet agendas, and pressure from outside the political class—if it’s strong, sustained, and intelligently directed—very often does have an impact: not quickly, not easily, and not without a great deal of bellowing and handwaving, but the thing does happen eventually.

All three of these benefits, and a number of others of the same kind, can be summed up in a single sentence: democracy is resilient. Authoritarian societies, by contrast, are brittle; that’s why they can’t tolerate freedom of speech and conscience, why they so often murder their citizens in large numbers, and why they tend to shatter when they are driven to change by the pressure of events. Democratic societies can also be brittle, especially if they’re newly established, or if a substantial fraction of their citizens rejects the values of democracy; still, all other things being equal, a democratic society normally weathers systemic change with less trauma than an authoritarian one.

One measure of this greater resilience, ironically enough, may be seen in the lack of success radical groups generally have when they try to delegitimize and overturn an established democratic society.  Rhetoric that would bring a brutal response from authoritarian governments get little more than a yawn from democratic ones. A few years back, the phrase “repressive tolerance” was the term for this on the American far left. I doubt those who denounced it under this label would have preferred to be dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, shot through the head, and tumbled into an unmarked grave; the rest of us, certainly, have good reason to be thankful that that’s not the way America generally deals with its dissidents.

That aside, there’s equally good reason to want a system in place just now that can handle systemic change with the smallest possible amount of trauma and violence, because we’re headed for a great deal of systemic change in the years and decades ahead. Part of that is due to the wider trajectory of industrial society I referenced toward the beginning of this essay, part of it is due to the ongoing decline of America’s global empire, but a good deal of it comes from a different source

The Greeks, who had a penchant for giving names to things, had a convenient label for that source: anacyclosis. That was the moniker coined by the Greek historian Polybius, who chronicled the conquest of Greece by the Romans in the second century BCE. He noted that the squabbling city-states of the Greek world tended to cycle through a distinctive sequence of governments—monarchy, followed by aristocracy, followed by democracy, and then back around again to monarchy.  It’s a cogent model, especially if you replace “monarchy” with “dictatorship” and “aristocracy” with “junta” to bring the terminology up to current standards.

A short and modernized form of the explanation—those of my readers who are interested in the original form should consult the Histories of Polybius—is that in every dictatorship, an inner circle of officials and generals emerges.  This inner circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the dictator or, more often, simply waits until he dies and then distributes power so that no one figure has total control; thus a junta is formed. In every country run by a junta, in turn, a wider circle of officials, officers, and influential people emerges; this wider circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the junta, and when this happens, in ancient Greece and the modern world alike, the standard gambit is to install a democratic constitution to win popular support and outflank remaining allies of the deposed junta. In every democracy, finally, competing circles of officials, officers, and influential people emerge; these expand their power until the democratic system freezes into gridlock under the pressure of factionalism or unsolved crisis; the democratic system loses its legitimacy, political collapse follows, and finally the head of the strongest faction seizes power and imposes a dictatorship, and the cycle begins all over again.

It can be educational to measure this sequence against recent history and see how well it fits. Russia, for example, has been through a classic round of anacyclosis since the 1917 revolution: dictatorship under Lenin and Stalin, a junta from Khrushchev through Gorbachev, and a democracy—a real democracy, please remember, complete with corruption, rigged elections, and the other features of real democracy—since that time. China, similarly, had a period of democracy from 1911 to 1949, a dictatorship under Mao, and a junta since then, with movements toward democracy evident over the last few decades. Still, the example I have in mind is the United States of America, which has been around the cycle three times since its founding; the one difference, and it’s crucial, is that all three stages have taken place repeatedly under the same constitution.

A case could be made that this is the great achievement of modern representative democracy—the development of a system so resilient that it can weather anacyclosis without cracking. The three rounds of anacyclosis we’ve had in the United States so far have each followed the classic pattern; they’ve begun under the dominance of a single leader whose overwhelming support from the political class and the population as a whole allowed him to shatter the factional stalemate of the previous phase and impose a radically new order on the nation. After his death, power passes to what amounts to an elected junta, and gradually defuses outwards in the usual way, until a popular movement to expand civil rights and political participation overturns the authority of the junta. Out of the expansion of political participation, factions rise to power, and eventually bring the mechanism of government to a standstill; crisis follows, and is resolved by the election of another almost-dictator.

Glance back over American history and it’s hard to miss the pattern, repeating over a period that runs roughly seventy to eighty years.  The dictator-figures were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, each of whom overturned existing structures in order to consolidate their power, and did so with scant regard for existing law. The juntas were the old Whigs, the Republicans, and the New Deal Democrats, each of them representatives of a single social class; they were overthrown in turn by Jacksonian populism, the Progressive movement, and the complex social convulsions of the Sixties, each of which diffused power across a broader section of the citizenry. The first cycle ended in stalemate over the issue of slavery; the second ended in a comparable stalemate over finding an effective response to the Great Depression; the third—well, that’s where we are right now.

There’s no shortage of crises sufficient to tip the current system into its final stalemate, and no shortage of people in the political class who show every sign of being willing to give it that final push. The great difficulty just now, it seems to me, is precisely that fashionable contempt for democracy as it actually exists that I addressed earlier in this essay.  In 1860, that habit was so far from finding a place in the political dialogue that the constitution of the Confederate States of America was in most respects a copy of the one signed at Philadelphia a long lifetime before. In 1932, though a minority of Americans supported Marxism, fascism, or one of the other popular authoritarianisms of the day, the vast majority who put Roosevelt into the White House four times in a row expected him to maintain at least a rough approximation of constitutional government.

That’s much less true this time around.  Granted, there’s less public support for overtly authoritarian ideologies—I expect to see Marxism make a large-scale comeback on the American left in the next few years, for reasons I’ll explain in a future post—but as Oswald Spengler pointed out almost a century ago, in the endgame of democratic societies, it’s not the cult of ideology but the cult of personality that’s the real danger. As the Russian proverb warns, it’s never a good idea to let the perfect become the enemy of the good; in our time, as a growing number of Americans insist that America isn’t a democracy because it doesn’t live up to their fantasies of political entitlement, it’s all too possible that one or more mass movements could coalesce around some charismatic figure who offers to fix everything that’s wrong with the country if only we let him get rid of all those cumbersome checks and balances that stand in his way.  How many of the benefits of democracy I listed above would survive the victory of such a movement is not a question I would like to contemplate.

End of the World of the Week #20

Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age got plenty of favorable reviews when it saw print in Italian in 1972, and English and other languages in 1973. As apocalypses go, Vacca’s was as lively as it was up to date. He argued that the industrial societies of his time had reached so high a level of complexity and interconnectedness that they were riding for a very hard fall; all those linkages and complexities meant that cascading crises that would bring one system crashing down after another, leaving the people of the industrial world struggling for survival without transport, power, food, or water, had become a statistical inevitability and would begin by 1985.

Except, of course, that it didn’t. Ironically, Vacca, a computer scientist, missed the fact that the complexity whose risks he described wasn’t an independent variable; it was being driven by the rise of exactly the computer technology that was making high complexity manageable, and would make it even more manageable in the decades ahead. Despite the failed prediction, or possibly because of it, The Coming Dark Age marked the coming of age of a flurry of apocalyptic prophecies that relied, as Vacca’s did, on the questionable claim that extreme worst case scenarios sooner or later have to come true. We’ll discuss another of these next week.

—for more stories like this, see my book ApocalypseNot


William Bruin said...

I find this entire post both interesting and slightly frightening. After all, my infant son will be living through a good number of changes during his life and it falls to his mother and I to prepare him for that.

Ultimately, I wonder what the next enigmatic leader will look like. I can think of a few people who likely assume it is the current president and I will admit there are times I wonder.

Anacyclosis seems an interesting concept but it also (as the term itself implies) a cycle. I believe it is not necessary to fear it more than it is necessary to prepare ourselves and future generations how to weather the changes.

Kieran O'Neill said...

This prompted me to look up the old Churchill quote (the "democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried" one).

Which reminded me that the British democracy, for all its peculiarities, also survived its WWII-era authoritarian figure (Churchill).

Of course, Churchill was arguing passionately and eloquently that the House of Lords acts in equivalence to the Senate in other democracies, and represents the "will of the people" (despite being made up of a tiny, unelected minority)!

And indeed this brings up another benefit of democracy -- I was freely able to look up and peruse the entire exchange, as it was recorded, complete with mutterings of "rubbish" from the other side and Churchill's vitriol about the "slatternly trough of collectivism".

It beats the hell out of small groups of powerful men making all the important decisions in secret.

John Michael Greer said...

William, the temptation to fear the future is always there, especially for those who have an emotional stake in it -- I can think of few more powerful than a child who's going to experience it. Still, it's not fear but understanding that's the key to walking that road.

Kieran, small groups of powerful men make most of the important decisions, no matter what system of politics you have in place. One virtue of democracy is that the small groups have to worry, at least now and then, about what people outside the small groups are going to think.

William Hunter Duncan said...

There's plenty of the flavor of Marxism flowing out of the 99% rhetoric, and plenty of fascism in the folk who bandy about the word liberty as an incantation, when they really mean whatever their ideological conditioning has trained them to think of as appropriate liberties. For all the flak Obama has taken for being an appeaser, he is certainly capable I think of out-flanking the GOP with the same sort of tyrannical behavior they are so infatuated with. I'm not eager to contemplate either, an America gone mad in the strain of declining resources/economic contraction/climate change. I'm for nurturing peace in one's heart, kindness in one's actions, and reconnecting to the earth.

barath said...

That was a nice succinct analysis of virtues of democracy I hadn't seen articulated before.

I know you're not a fan of Strauss and Howe, though I'm sure it came to mind that the cycles (and even roughly, the causes and effects) you describe for the American ~80 year cycle match their analysis. To me, that strengthens the case, since I imagine you think about these things somewhat differently than they do.

The determinism of it bugs me a bit, though. Such social periodicity shoudn't happen (my engineering thinking tells me), unless it's an emergent behavior of all complex human social systems that is too hard for us to quantify. That such cycles are observable (and even used for prediction) gets us quite close to Asimov's psychohistory.

Are there instances in which the cycle failed? What was the cause of its failure? said...

I always enjoy your posts, JMG, but one occasionally comes along that just totally throws me for a loop, in a good and exciting way. This is one of those. Your take on our democracy is fascinating and seems quite insightful at first glance. I actually was unfamiliar with Anacyclosis, so applying that theory to American democracy strikes me as very interesting.

As someone who has been extremely passionate about politics in the past, I've found a great relief in recent years from just sort of letting the whole system go. I still keep up with it, I still have opinions, and I still have tended to vote, but I see it all as largely a game in many respects, and the long view I've started to take on our future leaves me feeling as though the constant political scrums that so many people invested in the system like to think of as life and death are really just distraction and spectacle as much as anything. When you start looking at a future that you don't think can support our basic economic and social infrastructure, whatever political shenanigans are happening at the moment start to seem not as big a deal.

And while I've tried not to lose all my concern, as I do think there's still an importance to it, this easing back of involvement does help me to focus on my own life, which just happens to be something I can control. Imagine that! I have plenty to do within that framework. I've barely even got the garden started!

Thank you for this view of American democracy. It's given me quite a bit to consider. Like you, I do have fears about a charismatic leader seizing too much power--executive overreach does seem to be on the rise. I suppose we'll see how it shakes out. In the meantime, I'll keep a wary eye on the political scene while continuing to work on getting my own life in shape and doing my best to prepare for a future that looks plenty trying.


Phil Knight said...

"it’s all too possible that one or more mass movements could coalesce around some charismatic figure who offers to fix everything that’s wrong with the country if only we let him get rid of all those cumbersome checks and balances that stand in his way."

Here's my fun prediction: it won't be a him, it'll be a her.

Christophe said...

This piece is full of interesting concepts so deftly woven together that they illuminate each other in unexpected ways. How is anacyclosis a form of resiliency, and how is it a manifestation of perennial brittleness? How are we resilient as biological, spiritual, social, political beings, and how does misunderstanding that resiliency leave us unnecessarily brittle? Why do we have a greater tendency to shatter in some periods and a greater tendency to adapt in others?

The density of the thought is so rich it actually draws seemingly unrelated and unquestioned ideas into it for comparison and reevaluation. What are the real benefits of my family or workplace that lend me added resiliency? Or even, what are the benefits and drawbacks of our current conception of family or work? At what point in the cycle of consolidation and diffusion of control has my psyche, my relationship, or my family found a balance? How close is that temporary balance to either adapting or shattering? JMG, thank you for sharing the gift of your thoughts with us.

ladydog70 said...

I've been considering some of your most recent essay's and am left with the thought that we the people, have rather easily fallen in to a trap of allowing our politician's to buy our vote with our money. Or should that be our own debt? Or should that be our own children's money?

Against that, I recall the stooshie, (a good Scottish word) a number of years ago about bees flying. There was comment that bee's should not be able to fly, but because no one had told them, they did anyway.

I wonder if our modern globalised industrial economy will lumber on for much longer than many think it can because in effect no one will tell it?

The future may not be what it used to be but also, I think we can not know the timetable for what it will be yet, either. If I may, I think you, Archdruid, more than many others understand that things take their owntime and are not convenient for much of what claims to be modern media analysis.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Quote: "Russian proverb warns, it’s never a good idea to let the perfect become the enemy of the good"

I've been noticing this trend for quite a while now in that people demand and expect perfect outcomes when there are quite good and serviceable processes and systems available.

I noticed this particularly when I wrote a series of articles on living with solar power. The responses I received were, let us say, slightly odd and mildly antagonistic. All is now clear.

It's very insightful on your part that the pursuit of this ideal is some sort of utopian fantasy. I'd never considered this aspect, however, sometimes I also think that there is an element of hand-waving going on too - lots of noise, but not much action.

On this topic too - Many years ago I lived in a house built in 1890 (a major boom and then a major bust time for Melbourne). It had two bedrooms, one bathroom and a kitchen that hadn't been updated since at least the 1940's. The rear extension (indoor toilet and bathroom) used packing crates as structural elements! Friends were a bit disturbed and horrified by it, yet not that long ago, the previous owners raised four children in that same small house. People’s expectations are simply too high now to be sustainable, but few want to back down voluntarily.

Incidentally, in your country, I'd be worried about the clout that the Super PACs - which I mentioned several months ago, after the Supreme Court verdict on freedom of speech brought them into existence - are now wielding. The combined resources of those entities are quite scary and will shape all of your futures.

Incidentally, I try not to predict things because I'm often very wrong, but it is really fascinating to watch the processes in your country as they try to emulate the exact same economic failings which caused the great crash of 1929. Well done, you lot, powers that be.



Paul Milne said...

I was thinking about how the cycle of anacyclosis relates to British politics (as an Ex-Pat American about to vote for the first time in British local elections) and I realized that on a national scale it happens almost every election. Because of the primacy of the Commons (despite what Winston Churchill said) whenever a Government with an absolute majority is elected an authoritarion regime is formed for a limited period of time. It depends on whether the leader is a strong figure or not whether it begins as a dictatorship or a junta. You could argue that Margaret Thatcher's government was junta-fied by John Major, similarly Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. Okay, it's not an exact analogy, but it's interesting to note the anxiety caused by minority or coalition governments, because the model of monarchy has seeped into the workings of democracy - someone has to be in absolute powers, or the Brits get nervous (to generalise outrageously!)

Thijs Goverde said...

So, democracy is 'resilient', eh? I remember what that word means, in your vocabulary, and I agree: they are quite inefficient. I think everyone who's been hoping for any sort of Solution to Pollution will agree.
I am very much in favour of democracy, I love those freedoms you mention - but the slow destruction of our ecosystem (this apparently being the will of the people) well, that's one hell of a trade-off.
(Of course I realise that the non-democratic regimes who actually try to curtail this destruction are very, very few and very, very far between).

By the way, what's the story on the voting machines in Lake Michigan? I tried to google it, but I was just redirected here. Was that a, heh, machination of Mayor Daley's?

Craig Barnett said...

It seems to me that most democracies exist somewhere on a spectrum with regard to how much public dissent is tolerated, with the US and most European countries representing one extreme. Many poor countries with more-or-less functioning democratic systems have different (and often ambiguous) limits to what is 'acceptable'. I have just returned from living in Zimbabwe, which (despite its representation in the western media) is far from a totalitarian state, but does feature the intermittent harassment of journalists, opposition activists etc. These are also fairly routine features of life in many African countries - including the ones that are not regarded as pariah states by the US and its client states.
Many thanks for all your writing, which is always illuminating.
In Friendship,

The Watchman? said...

I have just started reading Cochrane's 'Christianity and Classical Culture' and find his description of the rise of Caesar, the Triumverate, and eventually Augustus to contain hints of this post. He describes the development of the imperial prerogative as an accumulation of extraordinary rights and duties in the main detached from the public office (of the principate) so that the form and appearance of the republic were preserved. I'm not so sure that such an accumulation has not already started with some of the more obscene executive orders that have come into being (most recently the National Defense Resource Preparedness Act). What is different, however, is what you mention as a common hostility to democracy - or the general indifference to it - which would allow those vying for power to take charge without needing to provide the pretense of "keeping the classical antiquity ideal of the republic alive", as was apparently required of Augustus. If I were to place money on the thing, I, too, would lean towards the rise of an autocratic leader. The real question is, as you have noted before, whether we see the rise of a Washington or a Stalin. Such things really do seem to be crap shoots.

MawKernewek said...

I consider real-world democracy to mean that the populace has a legal means of getting rid of and replacing the government at reasonable intervals.

In the British context, that there is always a general election at least once every five years meets this criterion.

The first past the post constituency MPs mean that each MP, including the PM needs to win in his or her own constituency. Wheras in a party list system, the seats of the party leadership of the two main parties are effectively unassailable.

The House of Lords has limited power to modify legislation, but is, ultimately powerless due to the 1911 Parliament Act. The ultimate threat is that the Commons can appoint new peers at will - hundreds at a time if necessary - David Lloyd George threatened this to get the Parliament Act passed.

The one exception to the ability of the Commons to overrule the Lords is to extend the term of a parliament beyond 5 years.

Brien said...

Wow, I'd read Polybius and up until now I'd simply been sure that we in the US were overdue for our next phase of the cycle. I guess I was too fixated on names and formalities, because I'd noticed how different Lincoln and Roosevelt were from other presidents, but didn't plug in my knowledge of Polybius.

To say "all government should be democratic" is true, in the sense that the state and its rulers will thrive in direct proportion to how they engage the active creative support and corrective moral support of all their citizens. Whether the ballot box is the only way or the best way to do that in all times and circumstances is another question entirely.

More importantly, to consider the ballot box to be the only indispensable part of democracy is to forget - and often, to neglect - many other necessary 'democratic' elements of society: economic freedom, including land access; local rule in all matters that can be locally ruled; and provision for lawful local and personal defense, to name just a few. In the age of the Thaumaturgic State, it is often too easy to think that being a formal democracy is enough, rather than actually spending the virtue and vigilance to remain a democracy in practice.

kleymo said...

Samuel Hunington refers to your "junta" stage as "creedal passion" periods, of which there have been four.

I remember originally studying this in college in the early 1980's. No mention of Greeks, though. I find myself continuously and pleasurably chagrined by the breadth of sources you bring to bear in supporting your positions and thinking.

Don Stewart said...

Dear JMG
Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

Much of my life was spent in the corporate world trying to meld democracy at the work group level with the need for somebody to finally make a decision and get on with the job.

So I found this article about bee decision making interesting:

It seems to me that there are a couple of elements which make it work for the bees. First, the need to make a decision and stick together. Second, the reliance on some facts which have been gathered by the scouts. Third, the willingness to listen to the scouts.

I know a few people who live in 'intentional communities' who are fed up with the endless discussions leading to ever postponed decisions. So are humans just genetically disposed to be dumber than bees?

Do you have any thoughts about why bees might be able to make it work better than humans?

Thanks...Don Stewart

Justin said...

I've been predicting the emergence of a Caesar like figure on the American seen soon.

All it is going to take is a figure to come along at the right time who promises to fix what's gone wrong in America. I.e. restore a way of life as remembered in the pre peak oil, height of American empire. People are going to be looking for someone to do that relatively soon.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

Just a quick note to fellow readers of this blog:

Tonight, on May 3rd, at 10PM EST I'll have the pleasure of having JMG as the guest on my radio show. He'll be calling in from his home in Maryland to Cincinnati, where "On the Way to the Peak of Normal" airs every Thursday between 10PM and Midnight on WAIF 88.3 FM.

The show can also be streamed live over the internet here
for those who aren't in the range of our 4,000 Watts. A brief ad will be played by the company who hosts the stream before going to the live programming.

We'll be discussing ideas from his recent books The Blood of the Earth and Mystery Teachings of the Living Earth. I am very excited! Thanks to any and all who are able to tune in.

BruceH said...

I'm always a bit skeptical about any explanation that involves simple whole numbers, anacyclosis strikes me as one of these. One of the benefits of democracy is that it tends to be a more efficient way to maintain social order. One of the main reasons the Soviet Union “fell,” I believe, is that Gorbachev and his circle realized they did not have the resources necessary to maintain their police state, which is a very costly endeavor with it's spies and gulags. He literally said he would no longer play the games with the West that his predecessors had and embarked on an evolutionary program to mimic our more efficient democratic principles for maintaining social order. He realized it is far more efficient to promote a democratic system where the populous is convinced it has choices through thaumaturgy and becomes essentially self policing. I think the Chinese will eventually come around to this realization as well.

Matt and Jess said...

I was discussing this with Matt this morning and he said "so the last 12 years haven't been dictatorships?" but I more or less see it as the cracking at the end of the democracy part of the cycle. Funnily enough I also sense a little bit of similarity between fear of this dictatorship and fear of the antichrist. It's also interesting that the three dictators you mention are all very highly regarded among presidents. (Perhaps that's not as true in the south...I don't know.)

Richard Larson said...

Interesting, I was not aware of this political cycle. But I do know about the differences between a Constitutional Republic and a democracy. My view is the political system the United States is now operating under a blend of the two.

So the speed of the blender is now on the highest setting.

Also interesting this idea about technology managign complexity. Can a sustainable energy source power the technologies? In the future will we all have an internet connection while automobiles are considered a waste of resources?

Steve said...

Thanks for a much-needed dissection of the sometimes comical trend to denigrate the American political system. I see it all the time on the left, as I live and work near an enclave of wealthy liberal types, many of whom are still in a hangover from the 60s. I went through a personal phase of lamenting the inequities of our democracy, but I stopped being so critical of it when thinking about a conversation I had with my right-wing brother-in-law.

He worked during college at a union cereal mill in Battle Creek, and he told many stories about workers sleeping on the job, shifts that were overstaffed, and how the high wages kept the workers in all the beer that they could drink after a shift was over (and sometimes during it). Comparing his stories to the corruption in politics and business that resulted in corporate jets and yachts, sweatshop labor conditions, widespread poverty and massive inequality, I couldn't escape the conclusion that corruption is simply a part of human enterprises. The real work we have in navigating the myriad of choices in politics and other aspects of public life is choosing the character of our preferred corruption.

Since that time I've been a volunteer election judge at every election. I have plenty of friends who are activists and political move-n-shakers, but I am happy to play the role of counting the ballots and making sure that those who bother to show up can have their vote registered. I also feel pretty grounded in my politics, thinking about why I vote for one scoundrel over another doesn't get me wrapped up in righteous indignation or a set of partisan ideology.


As for the three sets of anacyclosis in American political history, this post is well-timed for me. I'm about halfway through Gore Vidal's American Chronicle series of novels, and I had been coming to a similar conclusion about our history. The cast of characters seems pretty consistent throughout, though the names, parties, crises, and national mood changes. Thinking about all of the upheaval in our society over the past 236 years, it's striking that though the balance of power passes to different constituencies again and again, the underlying foundations of law and governance are pretty much the same. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

Raymond Wharton said...

Politically it seems that recent leaders have smelled that the door is open for another "Super President" but so far not one has been able to navigate the extremely complicated world of American politics quite deftly enough to pull it off. George W. Bush unwrapped the golden ticket in a pile of rubble, but seemed to get lost walking to the office to cash it in. Obama picked it up, only to find that it is non transferable and no longer valid. Even Bill Clinton could smell the change in the wind, heck Reagan back in the day flirted with the position in what could have been a peak in some sort of sub-cycle.

I prefer small government. Not in some libertarian sense of the word. But more literally smaller nation-states. If a central concentration of power is a simple function of the current human social technology of the nation-state, a smaller state might serve to restrict the room for power gradation. Sadly the road is not a pleasant one to travel.

Mister Roboto said...

I'm writing this comment on the fly, so apologies if someone has said this already. What you say about Abraham Lincoln riding roughshod over previous law and tradition in order to institute a new exegesis is quite true. Prior to the American War Between the States ("Civil War" is such a misnomer), what we now call "The United States of America" was called "These United States of America" because the Union really was a federation of politically sovereign entities. Neo-Confederates who say that the right to secede was implicit in the original political arrangement of 1789 aren't just "whistling Dixie", so to speak. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) Abraham Lincoln realized that if America was to be a succesful rising industrial power, we needed to become a more unitary state. However, the union remained so territorially large that many of the mundane responsibilties of legislation, governance, and law enforcement remained the responsibility of state governments.

jollyreaper said...

In professional wrestling, Kayfabe: is the portrayal of events within the industry as "real" or "true". Specifically, the portrayal of professional wrestling, in particular the competition and rivalries between participants, as being genuine or not of a worked nature. Referring to events or interviews as being a "chore" means that the event/interview has been "kayfabed" or staged, or is part of a wrestling angle while being passed off as legitimate. Kayfabe has also evolved to become a code word of sorts for maintaining this "reality" within the realm of the general public.

Kayfabe is often seen as the suspension of disbelief that is used to create the non-wrestling aspects of promotions, such as feuds, angles, and gimmicks, in a similar manner with other forms of entertainment such as soap opera or film. In relative terms, a wrestler breaking kayfabe during a show would be likened to an actor breaking character on camera. Also, since wrestling is performed in front of a live audience, whose interaction with the show is crucial to the show's success (see pop), one might compare kayfabe to the fourth wall, since there is hardly any conventional fourth wall to begin with.

"Kabuki theater" is the American pundit's term for our this sort of thing. I've been known to call particularly egregious examples "bukkake theater." Slate suggests a better term, "Grand-Guignol, which Wikipedia aptly defines as "graphic, amoral horror entertainment."

That's a good second choice but I want to stick with kayfabe.

The primary difference between the totalitarian dictatorships and the democracies is that the totalitarians fear open criticism and the autocrats of democracy realize it doesn't matter. Carlin's brilliant "American Dream" rant would have been worth a bullet in the head or an extended stay in Club Gulag in the USSR but in the US of A nobody bothers because it doesn't matter. If anything, it might be cathartic. Yeah, our leaders are a bunch of dirtbags and criminals. 2 minutes of impotent rage! Got that out of your system? Finish your beer and get to bed, got work in the morning.

“The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it's profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.”
― Frank Zappa

Kayfabe, baby.

Óskar said...

I was familiar with the concept of anacyclosis from classical history lessons many years back. Thanks for this revisit and update of the idea, it's quite interesting. I want to propose a tweak to the model to make it more universally applicable:

Legitimacy is the underlying "master resource" that sustains any political system, just as living organisms and natural forces are driven by energy.

Another key feature is a spectrum of power distribution, ranging from concentrated (e.g. dictatorship) to diffuse (e.g. democracy). "Concentrated" could also be called "monopolized" and "diffuse" could be called "fragmented", but I'd rather stick to the most neutral terms possible.

Legitimacy is subject to a comparable law of entropy as energy is - the political system's legitimacy constantly deteriorates. The entropy leads the political system to develop away from its last maximum state of power distribution and towards the other end - i.e. a concentrated system develops towards increasing diffusion (dictatorship > junta > democracy) and a diffuse system develops towards increasing concentration (democracy > corrupt party politics > dictatorship).

Although the distribution is a spectrum, change is not necessarily gradual all the time. The political system will usually have a degree of resistance to change which will cause tension to build up until change is brought by abrubt political events (e.g. rebellions, coups, assassinations, scandals), comparable to earthquakes (large or small) in nature.

Finally, the rate of entropy is highly variable between times, place, culture, and also which way the system is developing. Cultural values can be biased towards either extreme of power distribution, causing a higher rate of entropy when the system is going toward the culturally favored state. For example, I would say Russians highly favor concentrated power, while my own Icelandic culture tends towards diffuse power.

So what's the point of this model? I believe it's a more universally applicable elaboration of anacyclosis. The Greek idea reminds me of the well-known Chinese cyclical view of dynastic history, in which the Mandate of Heaven (legitimacy) is gained by a new imperial dynasty which unifies all of China (peak power concentration), then gradually loses it (entropy), leading to corruption, barbarian invasions and natural disasters. Power diffusion in this context is towards increasing power of regional warlords or officials. Eventually, either through war between regional states, or through a successful popular rebellion against the degenerate dynasty, a new dynasty is founded and China returns to concentrated power.

John said...

This might be slightly off topic...has anyone read the series of books by Chalmers A. Johnson in the American Empire Project? Worth the read?



Odin's Raven said...

Are there any penalties under the American constitution for the usurpation of office? Who is supposed to monitor that the constitution has been followed?

Unknown said...

Another excellent commentary, JMG. Although I'd heard of Polybius, I was not familiar with his work; a situation I shall remedy as quickly as possible.

I first discovered your blog last year, but it has only been in the last 4 months as I've begun cutting way back on the masses of information I used to absorb on a daily basis that I've begun to enjoy the meditative pleasure of reading your posts, not to mention the ensuing comments and discussions.

And I do mean 'meditative': you are one of very few writers whose work leads me to a clear, contemplative state from which to observe both the nature and state of things.

I'll be listening tonight on WAIF's stream.

With warm regards,

Gordon Cutler

DeAnander said...

re: bees

the degree of specialisation and predestination in bee life is so marked that many observers take the tack that bees are not individuals, but more like motile organs of one organism. bees within a hive do not compete (until the moment that multiple queens are made, at which time the queens may briefly battle for dominance -- but more commonly, one queen takes a cohort and leaves to found a new colony): they have, apparently, no "individual benefit maximisation" or selfishness trait. they perform their assigned tasks at the assigned stage of life, never shirking, never sneaking a quick cigarette out back and letting someone else carry the load -- any more than your kidneys suddenly decide they want an 8 hour work day and two snack breaks.

in a hard winter, the bees in a colony will share out the last of the honey equally until it is all gone. either everyone survives, or no one survives: individuals do not hoard or steal from each other, there are no "food riots". when queens battle, individual bees do not align themselves with one queen or the other, forming factions, hoping for personal preferment if their side wins.

evo bio types would probably say that all this is because the only reproductive member of the hive is the queen, hence all the workers' investment in their genetic heritage is in the colony which protects the queen, their collective parent. individual workers do not reproduce, and hence have no motivation to display, find mates, compete, claim territory and resources, etc. humans, being mammals, have individual reproductive strategies which involve competition, deception, etc.

humans may not be "dumber" than bees (other than in the evolutionary sense of seeming far more likely to crash our own population); we just think, reproduce, and organise in smaller units, even though we've come to live in bee-like large units (cities). this conflict -- between small-group loyalty and altruism and big-group culture and living arrangements -- might account for a lot of our troubles, come to think on't...

Seaweed Shark said...

Thanks again for this entertaining historical analysis of the past several weeks, which I have read with interest, although also with what an earlier age might have called "increasing bepuzzlement".

In recent months it appears you have invoked four separate processes of social consolidation and breakdown: two driven by energy costs and two that happen independently of energy costs. The four processes are (1) the "wider trajectory of industrial society's decline and fall" caused by rising energy costs; (2) the "end of America's global empire" caused by the political failure of its colonial wealth pump - a process that is independent of global energy costs, as it happened to the Brits at a time when global energy costs were falling; (3) a coincidental breakdown in domestic American society that is driven by rising energy costs; and (4) a generational cycle of domestic politics that is not driven by energy costs, as it has happened multiple times during the past 200 years while energy costs were falling.

Is this correct or what am I missing?

Thom Foolery said...

Hi Mr. Greer,

Long time reader, of your books and your blog, but first time poster.

I consider myself a leftist, although not a doctrinaire one by any stretch of the imagination. I wondered what your thoughts were on non-authoritarian applications of Marxist thought and socialist "ideology," for example democratic socialism?

It seems to me that, like "democracy," "socialism" is a word that has as many meanings as there are people using the term. (The most glaring example to me is calling the bailouts of the TBTF banks, with no strings attached, "socialism"---what does shoveling public funds into private pockets have to do with public ownership of the means of production? Seems like it precisely the opposite phenomenon at play But I digress.)

It also seems that in our mainstream media discourse (which is evidently controlled to a large degree by the folks who own the media outlet, disparagingly referred to as "capitalist") the only meanings of the term bandied about are the ones that uncritically demonize it as automatically authoritarian, unAmerican, unChristian, etc.

Thanks for your thoughts!

spottedwolf said...

It will be interesting to whoever lives through the changes during the chaos which rapidly approaches on that scale. The 'speed' of often miscalculated rate since it has no historical measure....has created a growing population which demands a common persona fed by industrial ideals in order to feed itself. This has come at rapidly increasing cost to nature's normal ability to fund populations....of any species at any era in what we call earth-history. I suspect the "slow decline" will be increasing at rates as yet unrecorded.

Justin G said...

My computer is acting strange, so if this is a double post please delete the first version.

This post was perfect for me, as just this morning I was pondering the parellels between the current rise of ultra-right wing parties such as the Golden Dawn in Greece and the politics of Central Europe between the World Wars. It isn't hard to imagine something similar happening here once we get to the stage of catabolic collapse Greece is currently experiencing.

Unknown said...

Hi all,

This is worth a read:

Glubb looks at the rise and fall of (several) empires as a series stages not unlike the cycle mentioned.

Don Plummer said...

@Thijs--I never heard of the voting machines at the bottom of Lake Michigan, the notion that dead people in Chicago rose from their grades in November 1960 to cast ballots for Kennedy has become a cliché of sorts. Another cliché, "Vote early; vote often," also comes from that election.

lamentforthetirnanog said...

Democracy has taken on such a metaphysical dimension, that having a discussion about it real strengths and weaknesses (and alternatives) is nearly impossible. Numerous political groups seem to make a fetish of democracy, often to the detriment of accomplishing their stated goals.
While democracy is certainly a better system than most, I think it is dangerous to make it into an ultimate good, an end unto itself. Call me dangerously old-fashioned, but I would not die for democracy, and I most certainly would never accept a war to spread democracy (I have often wondered how a Christian, who is commonly understood as not being permitted to wage war to spread his faith, can promote war to spread a political ideology). If a democracy oppresses me, regardless of whether or not this is less likely to happen, then I would resent it much more than a monarch or dictator who leaves me in peace.

Kieran O'Neill said...


I'm not really sure that those are necessary features of Democracy. I'd stick with JMG's features -- freedom of speech and the rights, protections and checks which keep the legal system from turning into the Gestapo or Stasi.

"economic freedom, including land access" -- I can't think of a single democracy, modern or otherwise, that guarantees land access to its citizens. It's a noble idea, and one I support, but more a feature of Distributism or Marxism than Democracy.

"local rule in all matters that can be locally ruled" -- I don't think this is really a feature of Democracy, and in fact there are examples where too much local rule has acted counter to Democracy (notably during the Civil Rights Movement).

"provision for lawful local and personal defense" -- I think there are plenty of cases showing that this is not a requirement for Democracy (or even particularly correlated with the "democraticity" of a nation). There are many democracies with strict laws against the use of weaponry for self defence (Canada, all of the EU, Japan), and plenty of authoritarian states with loose gun control (e.g. the former Yugoslavia).

They're all important and hotly debated issues (especially within the USA), but I think your views on them are more characteristic of the "American frontier society" perspective than Democracy.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Wait -- I take that back about democracies not providing land access.

The US government (via the NEA) is funding the development of Walden, the video game. Soon any US citizen will be able to re-live Thoreau's experiences at Walden Pond without leaving their computer chair! Who could ask for more?

phil harris said...

Keep 'em coming.

Has it been possible in recent decades to blur in the minds of the majority of potential voters the distinction between democracy (elections) and government? Quite a trick, if that is what has happened. The question seems to have been put, with some success; "Who needs government if there are market forces that respond to consumer choice?" It is then possible to portray 'government', and the messy compromise of executive choices made by elected governments, as having usurped freedom in society, i.e. the freedom of owners, business (“the freedom of managers to manage”) and consumers. It is actually possible to pull off the trick of simultaneously personifying 'strong government' and being 'against government'. Margaret Thatcher here in Britain managed that trick many times and outflanked powerful forces both within her own government and in the civil service and justice system, and in the educational establishment, including academic economists, and, indeed, in industry. I should add that she was able to, and did, remove whole industries, though sometimes I guess somewhat inadvertently. Britain was the first major country to follow Pinochet’s Chile down that experimental 'privatisation' road advocated by the hitherto ‘wacky’ Chicago school of ‘neoliberal’ economics.

John Michael Greer said...

William, that's always a good place to start.

Barath, the periodicity seems to vary from nation to nation, and it's by no means unusual for various things to throw a monkey wrench into it. It's a tendency rather than a strict deterministic pattern.

Joel, Candide's Law -- if all else fails, you can always tend your garden -- is a good rule to keep in mind! (We're already eating radishes and turnip greens, and had a nice round of asparagus; the kale, snow peas, and early lettuce aren't that far behind.)

Phil, that's also a possibility.

Christophe, excellent. You're most welcome.

Ladydog, exactly. It's fashionable to imagine sudden change as soon as possible, but history moves at its own pace.

Cherokee, the "super PACs" simply bring out into the open what's been going on all along. As for the 1929 crash, we had that in 2008; what's going on now is identical to the failed attempts of the Hoover administration to keep things patched together -- the same policies, in fact. We're waiting at this point for our Credit Anstalt moment.

Paul, fascinating. I haven't studied British politics much, so can't really say much more than that.

Thijs, the voting machines in Lake Michigan were put there by Mayor Daley. Back in the day, voting machines were these complicated mechanical devices, supposedly tamper-proof, that registered how many votes were cast for which candidate. In 1960, Daley simply had his crew get a bunch of spare machines, voted mostly Democratic on them, then swapped them for the voting machines that had actually been used in strongly Republican precincts and had the latter dumped in Lake Michigan. The fake votes gave Kennedy Illinois, and the electoral votes from Illinois were what put him ahead of Nixon in the 1960 election. That used to be famous -- I'm not surprised that it's been edited out of our historical memory, but I understand that people who do scuba diving in Lake Michigan can show you the voting machines, rusting in the mud at the bottom of the lake.

Craig, oh, it's always a spectrum, and whether the US considers a nation a "pariah state" or not has very little to do with the civil rights available to its citizens; it's basically a function of whether its leaders can be counted on to knuckle under to pressure from Washington.

John Michael Greer said...

Watchman, good. The Roman people were by and large proud of their institutions and traditions, and so the Principate had to leave those intact while transferring real power elsewhere. Since the 1960s, that's been increasingly untrue of the US, which certainly makes matters easier for future despots.

MawKernewek, true, the ability to get rid of a failed head of state is one essential of democracy, and I'd be open to the claim that it's the most essential of the lot.

Brien, most of the things you've specified as part of a democratic society aren't found in democratic societies. That's the sort of thing I was talking about in the post -- the use of the word "democracy" to mean, not an actual system of government, but a dumping ground for fantasies of the way things ought to be.

Kleymo, fascinating. I'm generally not a Huntington fan, but will certainly follow up the link.

Don, we're social primates, not social insects, and one consequence of that is that -- like most mammals -- each of us is always jockeying for position vis-a-vis the rest of the baboon troop. It's not a matter of being dumber; over our evolutionary history, looking out for the Number One Primate has apparently paid off better than the alternatives.

Justin, bingo. A charming, silver-haired guy with an impressive resume, an avuncular stage presence, a good speaking voice and a middle-of-the-road platform that gets vague about any difficult issue could basically own this country in about eighteen months.

JPM, talk to you shortly!

Bruce, er, maybe you ought to reread my post and then tell me where you get the "simple whole numbers" thing. I don't see it.

Jess, that's a common attitude, and it shows that the people who have it have no idea what a real dictatorship is like. How many people your husband knows have been dragged away by death squads?

Richard, nah, the internet is at least as resource-intensive as automobiles, and far less scalable -- you can keep a few hundred cars and a few convenient roads and the rich can still get some benefit out of them, while an internet that's just a few hundred terminals and a few servers isn't even worth having.

Steve, thanks for the reminder -- I've been wanting to read Vidal's series for a while now.

Raymond, the problem with the whole series of recent presidents is that none of them has been willing to contemplate real change in the political and economic spheres -- least of all the current incumbent. That's what made Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt stand apart: they took office at a time when change was unavoidable, yes, but they ran with it, and imposed a personal vision on the flow of change that has shaped America ever since.

Thomas Daulton said...

Yeah, speaking from the Left, insofar as such labels matter... about how the smooth pivot from democracy to dictatorship goes... what passes for a Left around here certainly doesn't let me sleep much better at night, despite the Left's claiming the mantle of populist anti-fascist. Anyone who voted Green in 2000 can tell you that there are quite a number on the American Left who will happily help load the political undesirables of the day onto boxcars when the time comes. Simply for different reasons than their counterparts on the Right.
As you say about Inigo Montoya, I was recently very struck emotionally to hear the old Mose Allison song, "Everybody's Cryin Mercy But They Don't Know the Meaning of the Word". I wish those lyrics would lose their relevance at some point.

MawKernewek said...

The one thing we can't actually do is get rid of the head of state in the UK.....

But of course, the PM effectively exercises royal prerogative on her behalf in almost all cases.

One thing that has changed a bit recently, is the PM can't exercise royal prerogative to call an early general election, there is supposed to be 5 year fixed term parliaments now, although these can be still be dissolved early in the event of a no-confidence vote.

There are however of course quite different models, such as the Italian, with typically revolving-door coalition politics.

Declan said...

At the end of "The Republic," Plato argued something similar - that states would descend through a sequence from an oligarchic 'government of honour' (similar in nature to the feudal rulers - Plato considered it inferior to his eponymous Republic, but the best government we were likely to actually get) to an oligarchy run by wealthy businessmen, to democracy and from democracy to tyranny.

It wasn't clear if he thought there was an escape from tyranny, or if the tyrannized polis would just collapse eventually and be replaced by some other polis.

Bruce The Druid said...

As far as the discussion about voting machines, perhaps it should be noted that many of these machines had an optional lever one could pull to "vote the ticket/party". With one pull, all the Republic or Democrat candidates would be punched. With that, it would be very easy to tamper with the mechanism to vote Republican or Democrat regardless of the intentions of the hapless voter.

As far as the simple whole numbers, I suppose BruceH was objecting to the "roughly seventy to eighty years" reference.

I know for some it seems deterministic, but really, its simply a pattern that's followed throughout human history, as social groups vacillate between security and liberty, equality and order, and a mess of other binaries we are so fond of. I would suppose it happens more regularly in cultures that have difficulty accepting opposing opinions, and those that are focused on results: "ends justify the means" rational empowers small but influential groups to seize power.

What I wonder is could one make a comparison between the ecology of nature, and the ecology of politics? Does authoritarianism represent political ecological overshoot? Or does the human impulse to attempt to control events introduce a different dynamic into the system?

It seems to me that one could compare human politics (in cases where some groups exert active attempts at control) with human attempts to control nature; in both cases an organic system is interfered with, adding variables not normally seen.

Just my Taoist nature wondering...

eclecticdog said...

To John: Chalmers Johnson is a great read (Blowback and Sorrows of Empire).

Mark Angelini said...

In other words, humans have been acting on r-selected evolutionary traits? Or current forms of democracy are steps towards more K-selected traits?

xhmko said...

Thanks JMG for fleshing out this theme. It's a fitting dance partner to the threads on fascism.

There is no such thing as a perfect system: anywhere, anytime. Only a more or less functioning system and even that is subjective.
Democracies are flawed because humanity is flawed and in the grand scheme of things evolution gets the final word. That said, I have personally met people while they were locked up in Australian Refugee Detention Centres who took risks most people in a democracy would never take, just on the off chance that they might live in relative stability, let alone paradise.
A journalist who stowed away in a ocean freighter and whose mother was beaten and whose colleagues were found in a large unmarked pit - some fifty of them; a couple who committed the sin of having an interfaith marriage; an ex police officer who refused to cut peoples hands off anymore. And I met some whose "claims" couldn't be "verified" who were sent back never to be heard from again.
Yes my democratic nation sent them back for myriad motives and misunderstandings and has left me with little respect for political posers and button pushing bureaucracies. But we were able - with a few arrests and fines and police surveillance and vitriol from a fearful public - to travel the country and hold public discussions, do interviews, speak directly to police officers about their roles and meet the detainees themselves without worrying (or knowing) that we - and quite likely our families - would be tortured, killed and publicly displayed. There are many who suffer under our current establishment it is true, the First Peoples for instance who never invited the First Fleet over in the First Place. "We've come along way since Botany Bay" but there is still many ways to go from here and the fact that most people don't actively participate in our democracy doesn't mean we don't have one. However flawed and historically (not to mention presently) unethical it can be, with a little indifference and a lot of unrealistic expectations, it could always be worse.

@ lamentforthetirnanog “I would resent it much more than a monarch or dictator who leaves me in peace.” Well it all depends on why they leave you in peace. Being an inoffensive blue-eyed, blonde-haired Aryan might be just your luck, for example.

jollyreaper said...

I prefer small government. Not in some libertarian sense of the word. But more literally smaller nation-states. If a central concentration of power is a simple function of the current human social technology of the nation-state, a smaller state might serve to restrict the room for power gradation. Sadly the road is not a pleasant one to travel.

This comment and the earlier one about corruption being endemic to the human condition has me thinking about my own political beliefs.

I think it's human nature to exploit advantages and it's not so important what the current generation says they'll do with it, the next one is the one to watch; if men say they need a military for self-defense, they may be sincere but will their sons and grandsons resist the urge to start wars and not just end them?

I believe that human organizations become sclerotic, unresponsive and corrupt in time. It is as natural and unvarying a process as aging and the only way to accommodate it is with death and renewal. Poor organizations fail and are replaced by competitors. Allow organizations to become too big to fail and poor choices are rewarded, not punished, and the inevitable crash threatens to take out vast swaths of society.

I distrust aggressively centralized systems. I agree that planned economies fail because you have people far removed from the situation at hand trying to make decisions that require local knowledge. But I also believe that without proper oversight, everyone will take shortcuts, will cheat. Human nature strikes once more.

I like the idea of government oversight and regulation. The government isn't in charge of building houses, running power plants and growing food. It does set the rules for how all of that should be done and keeps everyone honest. It's an attempt to get the best of both worlds. Striking the balance requires a continued conversation, a public debate.

I find that people in the public debate fall into the following categories:

1) Means well, knows what they're talking about (rare)
2) Means well, hasn't a clue (most common)
3) Self-interested, competently evil (mixed bag)
4) Self-interested, really bad at it, Mayberry Machiavellis (quite a few)

jollyreaper said...

(comment continued)

The means well crew is looking for the greatest good for the greatest number but can often times be their own worst enemies. The self-interested kind are usually the ones in power, benefiting from the status quo and have a vested interest in keeping it this way.

I'm not drawing the line between left and right. There are reasonable conservatives politically but they've been ejected from the Republican party. The Democrats are pretty much the liberal branch of the Republican party and their leadership pretty much consists of the same self-interested types who are doing quite well under the status quo.

My personal supposition is that the Democratic Party exists to occupy the space that would otherwise be taken by a proper opposition party. It is like the blast suppression system on a rocket pad, taking fiery passions and taming that power, calming and redirecting all of that force away from the superstructure so it can safely attenuate in the atmosphere. Energetic volunteers are kept spinning their wheels until they are spent and burned out. They leave having accomplished nothing, changing nothing, and are no longer a threat. The Democrats are mindful of what happens when a populist faction within the party slips control. Just witness the difficulty they've had with the Tea Party torpedoing same, comfortable, moderate candidates. It's like the consternation of the rich man whose son pays attention in church and actually takes the teachings of Jesus seriously. "No, no, that's not how it works! Going to church is keeping up appearances. The stuff the pastor says, it's like the parsley on your dinner plate -- it's meant for decoration, you're not supposed to eat it! Those sayings of Jesus, you're supposed to nod reverently and say 'Aw, isn't that nice.' You're certainly not supposed to live it out! Give up all your wealth to follow him, are you mad?"

I find the whole situation deeply troubling. I'd like to believe the "we'll muddle along" crowd who says things will be fine, there's never the big disaster. Yeah, that's been ok for some but not for others. Muddle along has turned to bomb blasts and horrific death quite often in history.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

How does the theory of anacyclosis account for societies that existed for a long time without any democracy, such as ancient Egypt and pre-modern China?

The Croatoan 117 said...


You Sir, get todays gold star, not for another excellent post, but for quoting Inigo Montoya in an otherwise serious discussion. Well Played.
In all seriousness, despite our system's innumerable flaws I still believe in it, although there are quite a few trends that concern me.
I do think there is a degree of hyperbole used by both sides of the political spectrum to paint the other side as maniacal dictators. I remember last year, at the height of the Occupy protests, the pepper spraying of protestors being described as Stalinesque. While pepper spraying a bunch of kids is not good, I don't think Stalinesque is close to the mark. To me that's like equating a walk to the corner store to the Bataan Death March.

beneaththesurface said...

Another thought-provoking post, which I’m contemplating, but first… (which hopefully is not too much of a digression from this post’s topic)

I was reading the comments and discovered that you were currently on Justin Patrick Moore’s radio show, so I listened in halfway. You were talking about the law of limits, and how that’s sometimes the hardest law for people to accept. It reminded me of an experience I had at the end of October, which for me held a certain symbolism both in my own life and the larger society I live in.

It was the day a big snowstorm came to the East Coast, and I had already planned to hike up Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah with a hiking group. There was almost a foot of snow on the ground the highest we got. Three quarters of the way up, we started to do the beginning of the rock scramble section, the section where one has to jump over 30-foot crevices from one large boulder to the next. It’s normally challenging on a sunny summer day, so in the icy treachurous weather, it would have likely been impossible without a good chance of being injured. However, one of the hikers with us, not wanting to be a “coward,” was determined to try it, as long as another would join him. No one else was that stupid to volunteer. So we all turned back and walked down, including him, though a bit relunctantly at first.

Most of the way down the mountain, I found myself deep in contemplation, thinking about the symbolism of having the courage NOT to go all the way to the top, even though it was our original plan. What if everyone else in my group didn’t want to appear to be a coward and had continued on? Would I have had mustered the courage to express my own limits, and turn back alone and not just follow the crowd “courageously” attempting do the impossible?

This made me reflect on how oftentimes humans think of courage as courage to be a daredevil and do seemingly impossible and heroic things, to be strong and invincible. And that type of courage is important and admirable to have at times. But as you say, balance is important. There's also a different kind of courage that's important at times, which is the courage to recognize and admit limits and weaknesses and to be able to say no to impossible feats. Sometimes that kind of courage is actually harder to exercise than the former, I think. This is true in my personal life, but also true in the larger contemporary human predicament that we face in this era of hitting the limits to growth on a finite earth.

People talk about gathering enough courage to do the impossible--launch a green tech revolution that will miraculously lead to a sustainable society, or the courage to find an energy source that will power society for years to come, or the courage to spark a mass revolution in consciousness that will bring about the Great Turning and some utopian society. But perhaps the courage which is hardest to express is our weakness and vulnerability, that we can’t achieve impossible goals. That takes a lot of humility, something which is lacking in this age. And paradoxically, having this latter type of courage might actually allow us to achieve some goals that matter in the decades to come.

Limits (ecological and other kinds) and their relationship to freedom is a topic I often contemplate. I find that accepting limits, the ability to actually say “no, I can’t do this,” and being honest about my own weaknesses, in a paradoxical way, has been a tremendous source of freedom in my life, though that’s often counter to the current dominant ideology of what “freedom” means. It is a topic that I’ve contemplated writing a larger set of essays on. Do you know of any books that explore recognizing limits as being a source of freedom?

NMObserver said...

Wow, that was a really informative and thought provoking piece. Thanks for writing it. It's really gotten me to think about my own definition of democracy and what I expect from my government.

Brien said...

I agree with you entirely that such things are not what democracy actually is. The problem (which I have communicated poorly, my apologies) is that something called "democracy" is spoken of by contemporary discourse as the sine qua non of civilized life; more a set of political virtues than any concrete system. "A dumping-ground for fantasies" is an even better description.

In such an intellectual environment, no distinction is made between the concrete system of holding periodic elections on one hand and the political truism that "things go better when people are participating rather than scared" on the other. Without making that distinction, any rational discussion of the pros and cons of true democracy versus, say, constitutional monarchy is impossible.

In such an intellectual climate, there is no choice between competing systems of government; there is only the choice between sacred Democracy and mere barbarism.

This is all the more sad given that real Democracy has much to favor it, as you have cogently argued - to inflate its claims is unneeded. In addition, for us Americans it is the working system given us by our forefathers, and that should count for something. Democracy is many good things, but civilized culture has preceded it and will long survive it.

I hope clarity eventually enters these matters in our national discourse, though I fear I may have muddied more than I cleared.


PS ~ As regards economic freedom and the rest, what I was clumsily trying to express is that if we're trying to enumerate desirable goals of a regime, then that list is much, much longer than mere presence or absence of a ballot box. That's all.

It's also probably a long list of which everyone has a different version. But hey, coming to agreement and compromise on such things is the heart of politics, right?

DeAnander said...

Thanks for bringing up the Mandate of Heaven; I'd been thinking about that as part of the political cycle. Part of the US political scene is the repeated attempt of Party A to prove that Party B has lost the mandate of heaven, that they are "steering the country wrong," that "the voters have got tired of them" etc.

Another thing about party politics that drives me nuts is Party Discipline; politicians are required to vote the party line on any given issue regardless of their personal convictions or the convictions of the community which elected them. You get Party A, you get the whole standard menu of Party A, the official platform. (And the winner-take-all electoral process only makes it worse; IRV could be quite a game-changer imho). Rarely does your own personal Senator from your own state actually represent the priorities of the voters of that state, if you see what I mean; if s/he isn't busy representing the priorities of the Chamber of Commerce and the PACs, then s/he is busy toeing the party line (which might come to the same thing).

Reading Trollope f'rexample makes me rather nostalgic for moments in history when elected politicians actually wrestled with their individual consciences when considering their position on key issues of the day. We've seen some minor dramas of this kind in our own time -- the few rogue Republicans who are willing to admit that climate change is a serious issue, for example. This tendency to form up teams, lump together opinions/positions and declare them as team property, persecute or denounce any team members who don't keep lockstep, etc. seems to be part and parcel of the decay curve of authenticity or sincerity in political life (whether it be the history of socialist movements or US democracy or whatever). Surely it must be some weird crossover of abstract intellectual concepts (like opinions, principles, and positions) with very antique primate notions like turf, territory, and tribe?

BrightSpark said...

I'm trying to apply anacyclosis here to New Zealand actually, which has had a continuously functioning fully representative democracy now for close to 150 years, albeit one without a written constitution, in the evolved Westminster style. And yeah, the theory holds, but the nuances won't mean much to many of your readers, from a tiny little country floating somewhere off Australia

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Ah, of course you are correct on both counts.

What is interesting is that the Super PACs are being brought out into the open as influential groups wielding vast resources, when in the past they worked from the shadows.

There has been quite a few articles here in recent times highlighting that their open existence has now lead to disillusionment with your political system by the average person.

This is an interesting concept because as you point out, they are not new, but being out of the shadows, they may ultimately wield less influence? There must be a point at which there is a critical mass of disillusionment in any system?

As to the 1929 crash, you are probably again correct - not that I know either. What is interesting is that to stave off the worst of the impacts of that time, Keynesian economic theory has been applied in a big way, and quite quickly too.

I'm no neo-liberal or conservative - in fact I'd prefer if wealth was more equitably distributed as the benefits far outweigh the costs - but all those IOU's tend to scare me.

I kind of think that in Europe, Spain is being given over as the next sacrificial lamb in order to divert attention from Italy. Again, I could be wrong…

What did those Chinese say about Interesting times?

Hi Leo,

I'm really interested to hear about your studies into bio-fuels here. I understand that they use sugar cane waste to produce the ethanol (a higher EREOI than corn), but what interests me is how do they fertilise the sugar cane fields in the first place?

In my travels in Queensland I noticed ethanol refueling stations, as some vehicles up there are setup for a blend of E85. Interesting stuff. Mind you, it wasn't that far from the Bundy factory either and there's something in that too!



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John and everyone,

This is a truly shameless promotion of my latest article all about soils:

At the very least, I'd appreciate it if you clicked on the link and had a look at the photos. You can even see a joey hanging out of the pouch of big mama the local kangaroo boss on the farm here, if you look carefully enough. FYI, she's 6 foot tall and not to be messed with.

There's also a higher resolution picture of chunky, my wombat avatar who you may have noticed on my comments here.

All of the other photos are from here too, and there's even one of my smiley face!

It would be great if people left a comment as this helps my meagre writing income and also helps me get further writing gigs in the future. Plus, you may just learn something if you read the easy to read and entertaining text!



Cherokee Organics said...


Oops, the link should be:

Food Forests: Part 3 - Soils



phil harris said...

JMG and all
I read this in a summary of a paper in this week’s edition of the journal Science about understanding complex biological networks. In this case they look at a bacterium, but I think it is a neat way of putting the point about political economy.
“As a pathway evolves, there are likely to be competing objectives that must be satisfied. Key objectives for the bacterium were strong performance under a given environmental condition, balanced by a requirement for adaptability—minimizing the adjustments required to respond to changed conditions.”
Phil H

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

You've said in The Long Descent that society in ancient China was highly resilient - life for the majority of ancient Chinese was rarely affected much by changes of dynasty. But the government of ancient China wasn't democratic - at least, nominally not. So how is it that their society was so resilient?

Jim Brewster said...

I wanted to echo a couple of the comments about corruption as a part of the human social condition. I propose that if we are trying to take the snarl out of words like "empire" and "capitalism" we perhaps should do the same with "corruption."

I heard a story on NPR the other day about how corruption and fraud can stem as much from social impulses to help someone else as selfish impulses to help one's self. Here is the online version. Interesting stuff.

So if we think of greed and corruption as separate things it might help us understand some of the dynamics at play. I think effective ("good") governance involves managing corruption at least as often as it does trying to stamp it out. After all, measures to stop corruption often create new unintended opportunities for corruption. Think of the FDA!

It also brings to mind Prohibition, and how many millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens were willing to break the law (including Congressmen once their private stashes ran out).

Hal said...

John Michael, I am certainly enjoying and getting a lot of insight out of this series, but I need to caution you on your choice of terms. If you haven't already, expect some blowback from the Right on your use of the word, "democracy."

I believe you're using the term in a very generic sense (the way I and almost everybody else use the word) to mean a modern, representative, more-or-less pluralistic form of constitutional government. Conservatives, though, will tend to discount everything you say on this subject, because, as they are quick to point out, we are not a democracy, but a republic. That is, of course, no more technically correct than the term you use: think of the wide range of hypothetical and real governments that have used that moniker, from Plato, through Rome and on to modern forms, but it is used by them to gain points over the (so-called) Democratic Party in this country.

Not that they don't have a point. It conjures for them images of crones with knitting needles. Democracy, they will say, is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner. If anyone were arguing for pure democracy, their point might have some value, but as it is, it's only a rhetorical trick. But one that will get in the way of communicating with this constituency. Anyway, I was just thinking that when this gets ready for publication you might want to make sure your terms are more carefully defined than necessary for a blog post.

(Please insert obligatory "the Left is just as bad" comments here because, well, it's true.)

Bill Pulliam said...

Wow, get a day behind and the comments pile up! I just scanned all 51 of them, and did not see this matter brought up:

Preface: in general, the argument "but it is different this time" is not a very helpful one because (a) it is always different every time and (b) just because it is different does not mean it won't be similar. That said, this particular time there is a difference worth discussing (and maybe it will figure prominently in future installments and I am jumping the gun again):

The three American anacyclodes you discuss all happened during the general era of American expansion and resource abundance, even if they may have come to a head during low points n the decadal cycles. Hence the dictator/junta phases had something to work with. This next cycle will be the first post-peak, and the charismatic leader will not be able to surf the waves of industrial, military, and imperial expansion. This is doubtless not a unique circumstance in the global history of empires, but it is a fish of a different color for America.

Grimalkin said...

JMG : Agreed, the word 'Democracy' is overloaded with a myriad of meanings depending on who uses it. You mention the ancient Greeks but not one key aspect of the original Athenian democracy : sortition. Choosing most representatives at random for a short mandate was based on the principle of defiance against human nature. On the opposite, asking people to vote and choose between a small group of persons from the same law schools, is based on the principle of trust. That's one big flaw, in my opinion.

Bill Pulliam said...

On another point... it occurs to me that many might try to make a case for Reagan and the subsequent NeoCon movement representing a 4th round of American anacyclosis. Why did you conclude otherwise? Because for all their bluster they really only tinkered with the New Deal machinery rather than replacing it wholesale? I quess the end of the current phase will have to be marked by the effective end of Medicare, Social Security, all the various species of Welfare, and our existing tax code, and their replacement with new systems and structures, to meet the criteria.

Jason said...

There are other comments relevant to this already, but I'd like more of JMG's thoughts on the fact that both American 'dictators' and the American Revolution seem more positive than other dictators and other revolutions. Bill Pulliam brings up the fact that this is chiming with energy expansion periods, and we've already had the fact that the written constitution was created and preserved through the cycles -- what else is there to it?

Also JMG (or anyone) I was wondering whether you'd read the works of Turchin and Nefedov on secular cycles and if so what you thought.

Justin G said...

"while an internet that's just a few hundred terminals and a few servers isn't even worth having."

Depends on the context I suppose. I'm sure the military will keep the SIPR and NIPR nets up as long as they can scrape together the resources, and perhaps some private enterprise as well. Of course, what would remain would be more akin to several independent LANs than the internet as we know it.

deeperthanecology said...

The Russian proverb that you mention seems so relevant to this topic and to the post industrial question in general. I know that there have been times when I have been rooted in inaction because I have been unable to find a perfect solution.

Your observation about prison populations was of particular interest to me. As someone who works in criminal justice in the UK, I am acutely aware of the problems caused by a high prison population and spend a significant portion of my working life trying not to add to it unnecessarily. However, I am enormously grateful that in our democracy we house, feed and water these bodies rather than bury them. I am curious why it is that you suggest that imperial democracies in particular build up very large prison populations.

Bolo Harris said...

Just recently began following The Report, and first time poster. Regards to you and all commenters. This is a welcome breath of fresh air. Intelligent, sane, civil discourse, what a concept.

This week’s blog rang a familiar bell. This might be old hat, but want to see if you or fellow readers have read "The Politics Presidents Make" (1993) by Stephen Skowronek (political science professor at Yale). He describes a similar cycle, but of usually shorter duration. Each cycle has three stages - reconstruction, articulation, and disjunction.

Reconstruction would correlate somewhat to the dictator stage, wherein a president sets up a new vision and describes new policies, overturning the previous vision. He has great influence, though he may not necessarily be able to fully enact the vision and policies. The presidents of this stage are revered (and in some cases worshiped) and are reference points or touchstones. These presidents include Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt (FDR), and Reagan.

Articulation, which follows the Reconstruction by an election or two, may correlate to the junta stage. In this stage, a president is affiliated with the Reconstructive president and is able to make great strides in enacting the vision and policies of the Reconstructive president. This corresponds to the presidencies of Monroe, Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, LBJ, and I would argue Geo W Bush.

Another couple of elections occur before we reach the Disjunctive presidency. This presidency is usually considered a great failure. The Reconstructive vision has run its course, its policies are discredited, and the president is seen as incompetent. These presidencies include JQ Adams, Pierce, Hoover, and Carter. In each case, they served only one term and (except for Pierce) were immediately followed by a Reconstructive president.

We have not reached the end of the Reagan reconstruction and encountered its disjunction, though I expect that the next Republican president may have the dubious honor following either the 2012 or 2016 elections. This may set up the Reconstruction (dictator) in 2016 or 2020. But, as others have suggested, since we are on the lee side of Hubbert's Sand Dune, who knows what may happen.

BTW, George Washington is an exception, a towering, larger-than-life figure. He was followed by John Adams who, though there wasn't necessarily a “Reconstructive” vision, is seen as the first disjunctive president. During his presidency, previous visions for the country were repudiated and Jefferson set out on a different course.

Please understand that this is all just a very brief outline and my take on Skowronek’s perspective. Of course, he goes into much more detail and nuance, as well as analyzing the other presidencies scattered amongst these archetypes that don't necessarily fit the pattern.

Thanks, and again, best regards to all.

Ian said...

This post has me thinking even harder than most. The cyclical model is compelling, but I keep wondering about the length of cycles you've established and the figures you've chosen to demarcate them.

Just focusing on Lincoln for a moment. While it is easy to see the unilateral nature of Lincoln's presidency, I can't see the junta clearly at all. The Southern elite took some bitter medicine after the war, but within 20 years they had pretty much reasserted their political control and formed a solid block that kept Northern interests in check for decades. The massive diaspora of African Americans out of the South is evidence enough of that.

I also find Teddy Roosevelt's absence odd given his importance in the establishment of the American Empire. In the wake of popular opposition in Congress, he abrogated great power to himself. And he really did have a junta of interested parties that capitalized (quite literally) on the changes he wrought.

MawKernewek said...


I don't know a lot about Chinese history but maybe ancient and medieval Chinese stability only looks like that from a distance - population collapse and warfare were realities at the time but at great distance in time and culture maybe we forget?

Jim Brewster said...

@Bill Pulliam irt "but it's different this time":

I though much the same thing. With resource constraints it is becoming harder for leaders to save the reputations of their peers and predecessors, and to bribe, distract, coopt, or otherwise mollify the public.

Without the largesse to float the boats it will be a rocky course for the ship of state and its fleet...

Joachim Dippold said...

Hello John Michael,

I´m reading your articles with great interest and I agree on most things you say. But I think there´s some wrong information in this week´s post. In a democracy elections are forbidden! I´m not kidding. Do you happen to know the following paper?

As stated earlier, for the Greeks elections were undemocratic. No wonder, the anonymous painting of a cross inside a huge mass is the absolute opposite of what is called self-government from responsible citizens. The ancient thinkers would most probably laugh at our today's pathos with which we applaud us for our "right" to be citizens for a day and then subject for five years.
Source: , page 43.

I know it´s in German and I know it´s a long read but in case of interest I´ll be happy to translate the key parts for you to read?

In short: The term democracy comes from "demos" and "kratein", and a major misinterpretation is that demos would mean "people" which it does not. If you look up demos it has two meanings, and the one fitting here is "smallest administrative unit" aka. "village". The Greeks never used democracy for a whole land or state, the term "state" came much later from the latin word "status" and has nothing to do with the Greeks. The greek cities were not united but rather autonom, self-governed city states, there was no "ancient greek democracy" like we want to see it....

This might surprise some readers but also taxes are forbidden in a real democracy! No kidding here, neither.

Another thing is that the founders of America knew from histrory that a big scale democracy cannot work but rather must lead into tyranny. They tried to avoid this but when I look around today I don´t think that they were successful? No offense intended!

Enjoy your Saturday!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Quote: "imposed a personal vision on the flow of change"

It reminds me of the book, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, which highlighted the intellectual battles between the Sophists and their opponents Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece. There's nothing new in the current goings on. It's an old game.

Still, I'm left with a vague level of discomfit that few political incumbents in the past decade or so are offering a vision. I suspect that the punters know this, which is why they may follow a charismatic individual at some point in the future as you say history has shown to be the case?

Wanting to give you something back for all of the energy that you put into this blog and your books - Jack Vance wrote an entertaining book about wealth pumps called, "Emphyrio". I realise that I'm always banging on about this author, but it really is a genius tale and well worth the read.



Joachim Dippold said...

John Michael, I don´t know how to contact you so I have to write here, sorry for any inconvenience!;-)

Here is a link to the term "deme": . It describes what I meant, quote "deme, Greek Dēmos, in ancient Greece, country district or village, as distinct from a polis, or city-state."

Could it be that many of our today´s problems derive from misinterpretations?

Enjoy your afternoon!

Jim R said...

Interesting new word for me. Anacyclosis. Had to look it up, Wikipedia has a nice writeup on it.
Lots of good comments here. ... I must say, when I was in elementary school, history was one of the most boring and hated classes I had to endure. "So-and-so signed the treaty of such-and-such on some date in some century, ending a war, or launching one. Or something." MEGO.
This sort of analysis makes history interesting. It is, in reality, an amazing fractal. There's an analogy to be found in the humble slime mold, with its pulsating protoplasm blob, taking up moisture and engulfing and digesting hordes of disorganized individual microbes, and then running out of 'stuff', and metamorphosing to put up spore pods.
Some of us now recognize that our 'stuff' supply is limited, and that we are going to encounter change. Yes, this time will be different. And a few of us read blogs like this, indeed, this blog... thanks, JMG, for sharing it.

I wonder what sort of spore pods our civilization will put up? I hope it's more than just a few scattered space probes with no 'home' to phone back to.

Óskar said...

@Joachim Dippold,

How much does the meaning of the original Greek word or the actual characteristics of the Athenian democracy really matter though? Modern democracy developed out of liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. It developed as a response to social, economic and political developments in 18th-19th century Europe, not as a carbon-copy of the original Athenian democracy.

I believe the main reason we celebrate the Greek system is the result of mythbuilding by the liberal proponents of democracy.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

It seems to me that there is an interesting parallel between anacyclosis and Kuhn's scientific revolutions. If one allows that anomalies in normal science are comparable to problems in a stagnant democracy then both can be addressed by moving in a radically different direction. The difference is that Kuhn's anomalies are 'problems' for a specific conceptual framework while for a government 'competing circles of officials, officers, and influential people emerge; these expand their power until the democratic system freezes into gridlock under the pressure of factionalism or unsolved crisis; the democratic system loses its legitimacy' are problems of power sharing arrangements and anomalies of their ideology.

Interestingly, this also allows one to map the gradual 'diffusion of power' from the original dictator to the junta to the democracy to the gradual acceptance of a concept from the original radical scientist to some less radical colleges to the whole conservative establishment until problems and anomalies build up to the point of needing a new radical.

This makes me think of Odum's pulsing paradigm. I like this framework, although I have to admit I'm having trouble mapping it to a predator prey model from ecology. Hope you find these words worth reading.


barath said...

Regarding the Internet I think I'll split the difference between Richard and JMG. The Internet isn't nearly as energy / resource intensive as the car / ICE-based transportation system, given that the latter uses on the order of 20% of all energy globally. The Internet---including both the electricity and manufacturing energy of all the devices such as laptops, smartphones, data center servers, routers, etc.---uses about 2% of energy globally. That and with the exception of one or two rare minerals whose use isn't fundamental to my knowledge, computers can be made using very common minerals.

However, there are some major downsides to the Internet. As JMG points out, the value of the Internet declines quite quickly as the number of nodes declines. (This is the little-discussed downside to Metcalfe's law.) That and the industry itself depends upon constant growth to keep building new fabrication facilities, each of which is extraordinarily expensive. What happens when that growth stops is a huge unknown.

Ruben said...

@ DeAnander re: bees

Overwintering bees may be One for All and All for One, but before winter they murder all the drones. Drones do no other work than mating with a queen, and since a queen only mates once, are rarely needed. So before winter, the workers kick all the drones out to die....

Frank Hemming said...

It does seem that Athenian democracy was something substantially different to what we think of as democracy. I've just looked up the Wikipedia entry which gives a useful description.
Direct democracy gets my vote!

RainbowShadow said...

There's something I'd like to add:

I'm noticing that a lot of people in modern political debates, both on television and on the Internet, are fond of pointing out hypocrisy in their political opponents, it doesn't matter who. They don't always use the word "hypocrisy" directly, but there's a distinct tone of "how DARE my opponents SAY that? They don't take their own advice, so who are THEY to talk!"

Here's one example from each party:

"How dare this Democrat accuse us Republicans of lying to the public about being against reckless spending when in fact we always vote for increasing the size of the Pentagon military budget? THEY went along with our adventurous foreign wars TOO!!! So the Democrats are all a bunch of hypocrites!"

"How dare this Republican accuse us Democrats of exercising too much arbitrary and unnecessary control over the guns some Americans need as part of their daily cultural life? THEY exercise too much control over our DRUGS!!! So the Republicans are all a bunch of hypocrites!"

But pointing out that someone is a hypocrite can itself be a logical fallacy, "Appeal to Hypocrisy," if one is not careful.

Here's an example: Someone accuses me of committing adultery, meaning I've slept with someone who's not my future wife if I ever get married.

Let's suppose instead of saying the charge is false and I'm innocent, I say that my accuser is ALSO an adulterer, i.e., he's a hypocrite!

Well that may in fact be TRUE...but whether or not my accuser's a hypocrite, that doesn't excuse MY adultery. If I am guilty, my accuser is right to call me out on it, whether he's a hypocrite or not.

Meaning: if you accuse your opponent of hypocrisy because he's guilty of what he accuses you of, but if he happens to be right in his statement regardless, then it's no more productive than calling someone a fascist or a communist. You're still avoiding his actual argument in favor of attacking his character. That your attack on his character may be valid does not mean his statement of fact is not equally valid.

And all of this advice applies whether you're a conservative calling a liberal a hypocrite, or whether you're a liberal calling a conservative a hypocrite.

Oh, something else, too:

I've noticed that almost everyone who calls himself "avoiding the left and right debates" still uses the opportunity to take a potshot at the side he secretly doesn't like. A lot of people represent themselves as being fair and balanced, as being moderate, as being coldly rational and above the mongrels, as someone who hates the way our country is headed and the fact that our children are picking up habits of if only this or that opposing party would go away!

For a conservative example, take the Conrad Black example I brought up once when I posted in an earlier blog post of yours. He's sick of all the warring debates in this if only we'd vote all the Democrats out for being too divisive, the Tea Party and/or the Republicans can make sure all our discussions are civilized! We can have civil discourse in this country, if only all the Democrats would just go the heck away!

For a liberal example, take Frank Schaeffer, former evangelical who has left the fold. He's fed up with the crazy atheists and the crazy Christians. He wants a middle ground of if only the Republicans would quit being a bunch of morons! We could have civilized discourse in this country at last, if only the Republican Party would lose all of its Congress seats!

The tribalism in this country has gotten so bad that almost everybody who says they haven't picked a side...have in fact picked a side.

Hey, at least I'm willing to say I'm a liberal flat-out! :)

The Heirloom Troubadour said...

The insistence amongst groups on the American left and right in the idea that the U.S. political system can no longer be considered democratic is, I think, undoubtedly the most troubling and dangerous element in our political discourse at the moment. Charlatans on both sides of the spectrum are responsible for this poisonous rhetoric and obviously only time will tell as to how this situation, or the end of our current cycle of anacyclosis, will unfold. What I find interesting in this current cycle of is the plethora of events that could serve as the catalyst for a politically expedient and savvy individual to seize the moment and capitalize on these growing seeds of discontent in our populace. Looking at the results of recent European elections in France and Greece, an Obama loss in the upcoming election and a Romney-backed adoption of a Paul Ryan-style austerity program would seem catastrophic, as would an Obama win coupled with a greater expansion of U.S. debt.
Both sides of the spectrum will be screaming in any regard, and this is why I view this upcoming election cycle as perhaps one of the most intriguing in our nation’s history. It truly seems as though whoever wins the presidency will immediately be illegitimate to an alarming portion of the population even before they are sworn into office. Thinking back on American history, I can’t think of any other time that a democratically-elected American president faced such a situation upon assuming office. The conventions have yet to occur and people have yet to head to the polls yet opinions are being galvanized on both sides of the aisle and the familiar party incantations are being chanted on Fox News and the New York Times alike. This is why it was so dangerous when the left called for the impeachment of Bush, and why the Trump-led crusade against President Obama’s birthplace seemed to plunge our country into an even murkier place of political discourse. As you aptly stated, democracy doesn’t mean that your side gets all the goodies it wants, likewise, it also doesn’t mean the other side is an enemy that should be treated as such at every opportunity.
As I have argued before, at the end of the day, I think the basic concerns of most Americans are fairly identical. It is only in the machinations of modern politics and the two party system that the lines become blurred and people fall into the hyper-partisan trap whereby their opinions are so heavily influenced by the propaganda and rhetoric of cable news and pundit websites that they essentially permit blinders to be installed upon their innate sense of reason. This is troubling on many levels, not the least of which is as you alluded to in your post; it could potentially open the door for a tyrant with a cult of personality to emerge who promises the moon and stars in exchange for power. From ancient to modern history, there are striking examples of this sort of trajectory that we appear to be following. This time, at least for America’s sojourn in the imperial spotlight, the perfect storm seems to be brewing, as it often does at the end of empires, whereby there are so many variables at work that could provide the spark that could truly, as remarkable as it sounds, potentially end our democracy. To be sure, the tempest has been brewing for some time, but the plethora of potentially crisis-inducing situations coupled with the poisonous political environment in this country is enough to make one pause and hope that our constitution is stable and resilient enough to survive this go round.

GHung said...

Some parting words from Ernest Callenbach:
Epistle to the Ecotopians

marxmarv said...

As described, the cycles of Uranus spring to mind (JMG, do you have a favorite USA horoscope for this sort of thing?), but has the US actually seen democracy in the past 80 years, or are we still in the oligarchy following FDR's ascent and democracy is just around the corner?

@Heirloom, let us not get too deeply into Constitutional idolatry. Other countries which have more recently updated their charters have more rights and freedoms, and less of a compulsion to sell off social goods to the rich at a discount. They also generally have left wings, instead of the weak, center-right sauce the US has now.

@RainbowShadow, I avoid the left and right debates because "left" and "right" in the US are merely the colors of two right-wing gangs, the only difference between them being whether they would have me buy and wear a leash or a shock collar, a gag or a chastity belt. There is no left wing in US politics, by any objective standard. If you aren't in it to make the rich rich, you just don't go far in politics.

Joel said...

Aren't religious institutions and (indefinite-charter) corporations more resilient?

In the latter case, continuity seems especially bulletproof. I'm kind of surprised the hereditary bigwigs in Star's Reach are jennels and cunnels instead of seeyos and seefos.

Robert Mathiesen said...

This is a fascinating analysis of our political history as a nation. I am very much inclined to accept it for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it meshes rather well with certain recurring patterns in the history of alternative religions and new religious movements in the USA.

For a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s I offered a course on the history of women-led new magical (or quasi-magical) religions in the USA from the late 1700s down to the present. (There is, unsurprisingly, no textbook on this subject, so I taught it chiefly from primary sources.) Working through this material, I noticed a rough cycle of about 60-80 years at play.

The first cycle began around the time of the War of Independence, with Mother Ann Lee (of Shaker fame) and more characteristically with Jemimah Wilkinson. For about 35-40 years the religious climate was permissive and these movements developed freely. (So did freethought, Deism, and Swedenborgianism, but these other movements, not being led by women, fell outside the scope of my course.) Around the time of the war of 1812, the religious climate seemed to change, and became steadily more repressive, and remained so for another 35-40 years. (The Anti-Masonic movement was connected with this development, though again it fell outside the scope of my course.)

The rapid rise of Spiritualism around 1850 marked the beginning of a second permissive era in our religious history. This period also saw the beginning of the New Thought / Christian Science group of religions, the founding of the Theosophical Society, and the rise of a new kind of non-Christian Occultism promulgated by Emma Hardinge Britten's books "Art Magic" and "Ghost Land," all around 1875-1876. Here, too, belongs the low-key Paganism of Victoria Woodhull. Repression of alternative religion set in again under the leadership of Anthony Comstock, and was in full force from about 1885 to the end of World War I.

There was a somewhat shorter permissive period from about 1918 to World War II, marked by a resurgence of Spiritualism, New Thought and Occultism (also cf. Aimee Semple McPherson within Christianity), and a somewhat shorter repressive period until the late 1960s. Then, of course, we entered another permissive era, in which we occurred the rise of Wicca and large-scale Paganism.

Permissive and Repressive are relative terms, of course. Two of the most important early leaders of First-Wave Feminism, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, were able to publish major critiques of Christianity as an oppressive religion in the middle of the 1890s: "The Woman's Bible" and "Woman, Church and State," respectively. But they got far more grief for these books of theirs than would have been the case twenty years earlier, even within the Women's Rights movement that they had helped to launch. (Gage was also an occultist and theosophist; Stanton's views on such matters are less clear.) Also, the boundaries are not sharp: each shift from permission to repression and back again took place over a period of 5-10 years.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Your comments about Washington, Lincoln and Franklin D Roosevelt seem spot on to me. Washington, of course, was the first president General of the Society of the Cincinnati. It was formed explicitly to uphold the example of the legendary Roman Cincinnatus, who was called to serve as dictator during a crisis, but laid down his powers and went back to his plow as soon as the crisis was over.

As for Franklin, among the various gewgaws in my great-grandmother's house was an old political placard saying "Why risk dictatorship? No third term!" This was, of course, a relic from the contested election that did put FDR in the White House for his third term.

It's instructive, too, to consider the designs of US coinage. From the 1790s onward, almost every coin had a female head, or full female form, with the name "Liberty" attached to her. She was nothing less than the old Pagan Goddess Liberty, as the emblem or even the patron of our new nation. Only in the 20th century did that design change, when the head of Liberty was replaced with portrait busts of various iconic dead presidents. It began with Abraham Lincoln in 1909 on the penny. Then came three of the founding fathers: George Washington in 1932 on the quarter, Thomas Jefferson in 1938 on the nickel, and Benjamin Franklin in 1948 on the half dollar. The word "Liberty" remained on all these coins, but it was no longer the name of an ancient Goddess, just a venerated political abstraction. And in the final analysis abstractions are, well, abstract . . . and political abstractions seem somewhat less real than concrete leaders.

As the cult of the Sitting President as the Larger-than-Life Leader and Living Human Symbol of the Nation (rather than just a man who happens to be acting as the chief executive at the moment) grew ever stronger, a few more recent presidents also began to appear on our coins, filling out and completing the new pattern: Franklin Roosevelt on the dime in 1946, John F Kennedy on the half dollar in 1964, and Dwight D Eisenhower on the dollar coin in 1971. (The current movement to put Ronald Reagan on the dime is part of the same pattern.)

On the gut level, this bothered me as it happened (I was born in 1942), and it still bothers me deeply. I would really like to see Liberty take her old place on every coin again. But I don't think it's going to happen.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Forgot to mention previously about how pleased I was to see the Australian reference in your essay this week. It was a truly bizzare social experiment on the part of the British government.

It would be akin today, to packing off the most unwanted portion of the population in society to Mars!



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

A quote I thought you may like:

"Freedom, privileges, options must be constantly exercised, even at the risk of inconvenience. Otherwise they fall into desuetude and become unfashionable, unorthodox - finally irregulationary. Sometimes the person who insists upon his perogatives seems shrill and contentious - but actually he performs a service for all. Freedom should never become licence; but regulation should bever become restriction."

From the book Emphyrio, Jack Vance.



The 27th Comrade said...

JMG; a contradiction:

“I can critique the personalities, policies, and (as here) fundamental concepts of American government without having to worry that this will bring jackbooted thugs crashing through my door at three in the morning; in nondemocratic countries, critics of the government in power rarely have that security.”


“All governments everywhere kill plenty of people whenever they go to war, and all governments everywhere go to war when they think they can get away with it; imperial democracies also tend to build up very large prison populations—the United States has more people in prison than any other nation on Earth, just as Britain in its age of empire shipped so many convicts to Australia that they played a sizable role in the settling of that continent.”

Since America has surpassed the Gulags, and yet the CCCP had jackbooted thugs kicking in doors at three in the morning, it follows that America necessarily has these jackbooted thugs kicking doors at three in the morning—otherwise how would it manage to get to its unbelievable prison population? America is even ahead of Apartheid South Africa in the targeted nature of the imprisonment to which the prison demographics bear witness.

You say that you are glad not to have to worry about the jackbooted thugs; that is because you are not one of the targets. What people say or think is not what the particular regime of America is scared of, having long developed immunity via things like steady, high-quality TV for the otherwise-dissenting masses. (That is why nobody is arrested for what he writes or says.) The offence against the powers is not necessarily the one that worked in the CCCP. But it is there, and so are the jackbooted thugs.

Richard said...

I have often made the point of sharing these posts with liberal friends of mine on Facebook, and they almost never reply to me about it. The issues brought up here seem to shake their faith in centralization, Big Socialism, and Progress. The conservative friends that I share this with will dismiss the post due to a percieved radical environmentalism, and a genreal attitude that the free market can take care of our energy concerns. it's interesting to see.

Rennaissance Man said...

It's true that I've observed that, officially, the U.S. government (whichever Party is in power) is always in favour of "democracy" in other countries -- except when the U.S. doesn't like who wins the election. e.g. Palestine, Chile.
We in the West have always had a schitzophrenic attitude towards our electoral system. We demand the best behaviour, but elect the worst, and complain bitterly when they don't live up to our demands, even though we, the people, reward their behaviour by electing them. (Or, more accurately, given voting abstinence of late, allowing them to be elected.)
I can see where anacyclosis could describe the United States as a classic civilization pattern, but I've always rather thought that it followed more of a migration-era barbarian or viking pattern of ethnogenesis.
A confederation of quasi-tribal states with varied, local cultures, evolving from culturally hetergenious into a culturally more homogenious confederation, then devolving under stress (e.g. slavery, civil rights) into violent factionalism (e.g. civil war, 60s turmoil), then evolving again into a stable confederation (e.g. reconstruction, Reagan era). I believe the U.S. is once again in a period of stress leading to strife i.e. there are numerous divisions appearing between "red" and "blue" states/areas, and within those areas, down to the neighbourhood level.
Yet there is also still a core sense of being, at heart, American first, foremost, and above all else. That core value has weakened several times over the past 230 years, but only failed once -- with extremely violent results.

The Heirloom Troubadour said...

I highly doubt that hoping that the constitution will be able to withstand our current spin cycle amounts to idolatry. Like JMG, I tend to like some of the rights I am afforded by it. You know, the right to freely practice my spiritual beliefs, the right to speak freely on this forum, the right to not have government thugs ransack my small farm for no good reason.

Furthermore, you prove my point exactly. I am well aware that others have updated their charters recently to expand rights, however; these countries are not the United States. I take it from your comment about the "center-right sauce" that you would support more leftist positions. Why then would you think that a revision of the American governing document would necessarily fall in line with your ideology and not be upended by the other side? What if, for instance the Tea Party gained power and decided to revise the document to suit their interests?

Regardless of which "side" eventually comes out on top, tinkering with the foundation of a system of government is always a risky business and one that in the current political climate, should be avoided at all costs.

That is why I hope our governing document survives through whatever plays out. This isn't idolatry, rather, it is basic self-preservation.

John Michael Greer said...

Mister R., I'd say it was a little more complex than that; the phrase "the United States" was also in use, and the question whether states had the right to secede was contested from 1789 right up until 1865. Still, it certainly wasn't as cut and dried as a lot of more recent histories claim.

Reaper, it's still better to live in a country where you can listen to Carlin, and laugh, than one where doing so will get you a bullet in the head.

Oskar, that seems like a very workable theoretical framework; I use the more specific pattern of anacyclosis because it helps make sense of a particular stage in the process, which I expect the US to encounter -- or rather slam headfirst into -- in the next decade or two.

John, they have their own very specific political bias; that being said, they make some good points.

Raven, yes -- that's what impeachment is for -- and the penalties range from expulsion from office to the full range of criminal penalties. Congress is supposed to enforce constitutional limits on the executive branch, and the Supreme Court enforces them on the legislative branch. Now of course that's how it works in theory; in practice, whether or not this happens is a complicated issue.

Unknown Gordon, thank you!

DeAnander, there's some reason to think bees may not be as altruistic as all that; the BBC had an interesting article on that a few days back.

Shark, good. No social phenomenon has only one cause; all four of the factors you've sketched out are currently in play, and helping to shape the mess called "America's near future."

Thom, there are many kinds of socialism; Marx didn't invent the concept, and his version is far from the most interesting or practical. I note that democratic socialism has worked fairly well in some European countries, though fairly poorly in others -- might be worth exploring the differences, and drawing some conclusions for second- and third-generation attempts.

Wolf, well, we'll see.

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, I got two copies; not a problem. You're quite right that we could get very similar conditions here.

Unknown, that piece by Glubb gets posted here about once every year or so -- it's worth reading, though, so I certainly don't object.

Lament, a democracy is a good deal less likely to oppress you than a dictator or monarch, though. Unfortunately, the attitude you've expressed is common enough in the US these days; we may have to go through a period of dictatorship before people figure out the problems with that way of thinking.

Phil, the other side of Thatcher's counterrevolution was the rapid drawdown of the North Sea oilfields, which produced a temporary economic boom that made her policies seem to make sense. (In the US, the rapid drawdown of the Alaska North Slope did the same thing for Reagan's delusional policies.) Prosperous people rarely get upset about the system that's keeping them fat and happy, even when other people are getting shafted by it.

Thomas, that's a great song! Many thanks for sharing it.

MawKernewek, I dunno, you managed it in 1649 and 1688.

Declan, good. Plato and Aristotle both discussed the process, and so did other Greek philosophers -- Polybius was drawing on a long and thoughtful tradition when he crafted his summary.

Bruce, I'd say instead that human political systems are like ecosystems, and have their own parallel to ecological cycles.

Mark, varies from society to society. Empires are very strongly r-selected, which is why they implode so rapidly.

Xhmko, thank you. The notion that people can be made perfect by putting a perfect political system in place has got to be one of the most productive sources of human misery and death on record.

Reaper, good. I'd point out that all those things are somewhat easier to bring about in a democratic society than in an authoritarian one.

Ozark, as Polybius points out, it only applies to societies with a democratic tradition. Other societies follow other cycles.

John Michael Greer said...

Croatoan, exactly. It's precisely because we don't have a Stalinesque system that the pampered and privileged professional activists we've got in America today have the freedom to insist that it's a Stalinesque system, and not end up being dumped into a mass grave.

Beneath, I don't -- and I would encourage you to write one.

NMObserver, glad to hear it.

Brien, be that as it may, it's pretty much beside the point I was trying to make, which is that the system we've got has certain huge advantages that its most likely replacements almost certainly won't have. Constitutional monarchy, for example, isn't a realistic option here in the US, nor will be for many centuries -- those things that are, other than some form of democracy, don't have the positive features I listed.

DeAnander, politicians always act like baboons scrambling for status. The difference is that in some historical periods, they have to pay attention to people outside the political class, and so make decisions on some basis other than what their party demands; at other times, they don't have that worry, and so simply do what will improve their status among other politicians.

BrightSpark, fascinating.

Cherokee, the thing that fascinates me is that the version of Keynsian remedies being applied at the moment is the same one that was tried, and failed abjectly, by the Hoover administration in the wake of the 1929 crash. The bank bailout program then was called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and it did exactly what the current version is doing, that is, enable banks to make obscene profits while doing nothing to slow the implosion of the economy. Those who do not learn from their history...

Phil, that's a standard dilemma for any system -- and the need to balance between those goals is basic to any practical application of systems theory.

SMJ, the Chinese political system was as brittle as autocracies normally are; what was resilient was the village-scale organization and the subsistence economy. That meant that whatever convulsions went on in the centers of power, the basic structure of Chinese life in most of the country went on uninterrupted.

Jim, that's a sensible point.

Hal, yes, there's a lot of detail and definitional precision that gets put in at the editing stage! I am indeed using "democracy" in a very general sense -- the word "republic" is also exceptionally generic, of course, and can be reasonably applied, for example, to aristocratic oligarchies like the Venetian Republic, or for that matter to modern China. I plan on a good couple of paragraphs of definition when this gets turned into a book.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I read this week that your banks are hanging on to the liquidity provided by the fed. Interesting stuff.



jollyreaper said...

Don't get me wrong, I prefer living in the US of A to Russia at any point in history. I'm just angry at the gap between the American national myth and the American reality and how even the reality is being eroded and destroyed for the benefit of connected elites. For all our flaws, we were one of the better goes at civilization ever attempted in human history and it's getting chipped away at.

I have this terrible suspicion that our relative prosperity and good fortune in the great middle-class is an artifact of the hydrocarbon economy, the largess of cheap energy and a temporary point in history, not a permanent enlightenment and the new normal.

Leo said...

Cherokee Organics

they only just added the section on biofuels recently so its a very small section (plus the course gets redesigned next year) that states Peak oil. a short but accurate paragraph with "when worldwide extraction can no longer keep up with demand" "greatest amount of oil was found in 1964" and surprisingly "we may even be there now!"
then it simply lists and describes the production of ethanol,biodeisel and biogas and a short description of how to make them.
as for the sugarcane in queensland i understand they plan to use the leftover stalks first since they only burn them now.

The change in education in response to sustainability, peak oil and the overall problem here in victoria (also major australian Unis) seems to be mostly modifing courses e.g all the mechanical engineering courses i've seen mention working with renewables and a small increase in new course or increase in specific such as envirmental engineers or a course in renewable energy.

phil harris said...

Thanks for enlarging on Thatcher, and on your side, the delusional Reaganomics and Alaskan oil. UK North Sea oil actually gave some early problems, exacerbating Thatcher's early economic disasters (industries sliding like snow off a wall). Oil drove up the pound sterling value, and early dramatic see-saw exchange rates helped kill a lot of otherwise viable industry. This was portrayed as necessary weeding of the uncompetitive. Later of course North Sea saved some bacon, but the first phase was almost entirely done by American oilmen. It was all inches, BTU, and degrees Fahrenheit; none of the rubbish world standard measurement units. One oil field was named after T. Boone Pickens’ wife Beatrice!
To put it another way: the wealth pump in the UK part of the North Sea sent a fair bit across the Atlantic. Part of the reason it got pumped so fast. (PS We are apparently attempting just now a reprise of ‘Thatcher’; at least that is what Public Relations tell us. A lot of people are being ‘weeded out’.)

jeffinwa said...

@Robert Mathiesen

Liberty still walks on the new silver dollars; beautiful to behold and to hold.

JP said...

Barath says:

""I know you're not a fan of Strauss and Howe, though I'm sure it came to mind that the cycles (and even roughly, the causes and effects) you describe for the American ~80 year cycle match their analysis. To me, that strengthens the case, since I imagine you think about these things somewhat differently than they do.

The determinism of it bugs me a bit, though. Such social periodicity shoudn't happen (my engineering thinking tells me), unless it's an emergent behavior of all complex human social systems that is too hard for us to quantify. That such cycles are observable (and even used for prediction) gets us quite close to Asimov's psychohistory."

I think that the Strauss and Howe cycles are directly related to credit expansions/busts.

Expanding credit enables the inner world to be rejiggered by Awakening generations. People can afford to "find themselves" because the financial system crashed and was reset.

Eventually we get to today's exciting point where the credit expansion has run into the shoals of a credit bubble bust, wherein the Millenials don't even have enough money to live on their own. They then end up having to fix the external world because they really don't have the option of embarking on a journey of self-discovery.

Mike Alexander (a data-centric Chemical Engineer) played with this back to about 1250 at the time of the Champagne fairs.

Thoughts JMG?

Also, I'm giving you a gold star for noticing that we had our "1929 crash" in 2008 and are just waiting for our Creditanstalt moment this go-round. I was impressed that they kicked the can so well after the dot-com crash.

Thomas Daulton said...

Just a generic comment having more to do with your sidebar about American energy consumption last week, than Democracy this week.

I've read several tsk-tsk-ing articles this week about how people, especially in Europe, need to accept "financial austerity" and "live within their means" after "binge-ing". It's all over the press.

S'funny how you never hear anybody talking about "energy austerity" and living within our "energy means" after binge-ing, eh? Yet the principle of the argument is precisely the same in both cases. Funny to imagine if all those articles had been written about "energy austerity" instead. To bad the premise of the former is wrong, but gets all the press; (the people being threatened with financial austerity aren't actually the ones who signed the commitments, their banks and governments did) ...meanwhile the reverse is true about the latter.

I think JMG's phraseology about "LESS is more" is much more attractive than harsh words like "austerity", which are meant to imply that the people under discussion need to be punished on moral grounds. Energy conservation is about prudent good sense, not punishment. Yet talk about energy conservation anywhere but here, and people react like you just slapped them in the face.