Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Descent into Stasis

Last weeks’ post attempted, with the help of the ancient Greek philosopher Polybius, to trace out the trajectory that democracies—and in particular the United States—tend to follow across time. The pattern that Polybius outlined, and that American politics has cycled through three times so far in the course of its history, begins with most of the nation’s political power concentrated in a single person, and follows the diffusion of power to the point that the entire political system settles into a gridlock only a massive crisis can break.  Just now, according to that model, we are in the stage of gridlock, and thus of maximum diffusion of power.

Now of course this interpretation flies in the face of the standard narrative that surrounds power in America today. Both sides of the political spectrum these days like to insist that too much power is in the hands of the other side, at least when the other side is in the White House or has a majority in Congress. The further from the mainstream you go, the more strident the voices you’ll hear insisting that some small group or other has seized absolute power over the US political system and is running things for their own advantage. The identity of the small group in question varies wildly—it’s hard to think of anyone who hasn’t been accused, at some point in the last half century or so, of being the secret elite that runs everything—but the theory that some small group or other has all the power that everybody else seems to lack is accepted nearly everywhere. Whether it’s Occupy Wall Street talking about the nefarious 1%, or the Tea Party talking about the equally nefarious liberal elite, the conviction that power has been concentrated in the wrong hands is ubiquitous in today’s America.

It’s an appealing notion, especially if you want to find somebody to blame for the current state of affairs in this country, and of course hunting for scapegoats is a popular sport whenever times are hard. Still, I’d like to suggest that an alternative understanding explains much more about the current state of the American political system. The alternative I have in mind is that the political system is lurching forward like a driverless car along a trajectory set by the outdated policies of an earlier time, and that just now, nobody is in charge at all. Unpopular though this way of thinking about power in America is, I suggest that it makes more sense of our predicament than the more popular notion of elite control.

It’s important to understand what my proposal means and, more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. A great many of those who insist that power in America is in the hands of a small elite offer, as evidence for the claim, the fact that a relatively small number of people get an obscenely large share of national income and wealth, and they’re quite correct. The last three decades or so have seen America turn into something close to a Third World kleptocracy, the sort of failed state in which a handful of politically well-connected people plunder the economy for their own benefit. When bank executives vote themselves and their cronies million-dollar bonuses out of government funds while their banks are losing billions of dollars a year, just to name an obvious example, it’s impossible to discuss the situation honestly without using words like “looting.”

Still, the ability to plunder one corner of a complex system is not the same thing as the ability to control the whole system, and the freedom with which so many people pillage the institutions they’re supposed to be managing could as well be understood as a sign that there’s no center of power willing or able to defend the core interests of the US empire against death by financial hemorrhage.  The only power the executives of, say, Goldman Sachs need is the power to block any effort to stop them from stripping their bank to the bare walls for their personal enrichment, or to cut them off from the access to tax dollars that’s made that process so lucrative.  That much power they certainly have—but it’s a kind and a degree of power shared by many other influential groups in America just now.

Consider the defense industries that are busy profiting off the F-35 fighter, an impressively corrupt corporate welfare program currently chewing gargantuan holes in the defense budgets of the US and several other nations.  Years behind schedule and trillions of dollars over budget, the F-35 is by all independent accounts a dog of a plane, clumsier and more vulnerable than the decades-old fighters it is supposed to replace. The consortium of interests that profit from its manufacture have the power to keep the process chugging along, even as the delays stretch to decades and the cost overruns head toward lunar orbit, and again, that’s all the power they need. It’s all the more telling that they’re able to do so when the F-35 project is directly opposed to crucial US interests: having the US and its allies equipped with a substandard fighter, at a time when China and Russia are both busily testing much better planes, risks humiliating defeat in future wars—and yet the program moves steadily forward.

Examples of the same sort of thing can be multiplied endlessly, and they aren’t limited to corporations. Cities and counties all over the United States, for example, are being driven into bankruptcy by the cost of public-sector salaries and benefits that politically influential unions have extracted from vulnerable or compliant local politicians. Equally, other countries—China and Israel come to mind—have learned to make use of the diffusion of American power for their own interests.  It doesn’t matter how blatantly the Chinese manipulate their currency or thumb their noses at intellectual property rights, for instance; so long as they keep their lobby in Washington well funded and well staffed, they’re secure from any meaningful response on the part of the US government. I’ve come to suspect that the only reason the US government is down on Iran is that religious scruples keep the Iranian government from buying immunity the way the Chinese do; they’ve got the petroleum and therefore the money, and could doubtless have their own influential lobby capable of blocking hostile legislation in Congress, if only they didn’t let their ideals get in the way. 

The power exerted by each of these groups is by and large a veto power.  They may not be able to get new policies through the jungle of competing interests in Washington, a task that is increasingly hard for anyone to manage at all, but they can prevent policies that are not in their interest from being enacted, and they can defend any policy already in place that benefits them or furthers their ability to loot the system. They have that veto power, in turn, because no one in contemporary America has the power to get anything done without assembling a temporary coalition of competing power centers, each of which has its own agenda and each of which constantly has its hand out for the biggest possible share of the take.

Not every potential power center in American politics functions as a veto group, mind you. A great many groups have become captive constituencies of one of the existing power centers, and thus lost whatever independent influence they might have had. Compare the way that the Democratic Party has seized control of the environmental movement to the way that the Republicans have played the same trick on gun owners.  In both cases, the party can ignore the interests of its captive constituency until elections come around, and then bombard the constituency with propaganda insisting that the other party will do horrible things to the environment or the Second Amendment if they win the election. The other party duly plays its part in this good cop-bad cop routine by making threatening noises about gun rights or environmental issues at intervals. It’s an efficient scam, and it keeps environmentalists voting for Democrats and gun owners voting for Republicans even though neither party gives more than lip service to the issues that matter to either group.

To the members of the captive constituencies, in turn, all this simply feeds the belief that there must be somebody in the system who has the power they lack; after all, they keep on voting for the right people,  and yet none of their policies ever get enacted! Since very few gun owners ever sit down and share a couple of beers with environmentalists, there’s rarely an opportunity for them to compare notes and notice that neither side is getting what it wants, and the same gimmick is being used on both. The one place on the political continuum where this sort of comparison does take place is out on the fringes, where the extreme left increasingly bends around to touch the extreme right, and the paranoiac beliefs endemic to the farther shores of American politics turn the whole thing into yet another proof that the Freemasons or the Jews or David Ickes’ imaginary space lizards run everything after all.

Just as the ability to plunder one part of a system does not equal control over the whole system, though, the ability to manipulate a handful of politically naive pressure groups does not equal the ability to manipulate the whole system. It’s precisely because no one group has an effective monopoly on power that political parties and other power centers have to resort to complicated and expensive gimmickry to hammer together the temporary coalitions that enable them to cling to whatever power they have and, on increasingly rare occasions, force through some policy or other that favors their interests.

As the system settles ever more deeply into gridlock, in turn, policies put in place in previous decades become increasingly resistant to change. Even those that turned out to have severe flaws will inevitably get support from those who profit from them, and from employees of government bureaucracies whose jobs would go away in the event of a policy change.  Machiavelli pointed out a long time ago that reforms always face an uphill struggle, since those who benefit from the status quo can be counted on to fight fiercely to hold on to what they’ve got, while those who might benefit from reform have less incentive to fight for gains they know perfectly well they may never see; factor in the mutual support among power centers who have a mutual interest in keeping the status quo fixed in place, and you have a recipe for exactly the sort of stasis the United States sees every seventy or eighty years, as the cycle discussed in last week’s post approaches its end.

How the endgame plays out is a matter of more than academic interest.  In 1860 and 1932, a political system frozen in gridlock and incapable of anything like a constructive response to crisis finally hit a crisis that could not be evaded any longer, and the system shattered. In the chaos that resulted, a long-shot candidate with a radical following was able to pull together enough support from the remaining power centers and the people in general to win the White House and force through changes that redefined the political landscape for decades to come. That’s a possibility this time around, too, but a possibility is not a certainty, and nowhere is it written in stone that a crisis of the sort we’re discussing has to have a happy ending.

The range and scale of the crises facing the United States as it finishes the third lap around the track of anacyclosis, to begin with, pose a far more substantial challenge than the ones that punctuated the cycle in those earlier years.  In 1860, as we’ve seen, the question was which of two incompatible human ecologies would dominate the North American continent; in 1932, it was the simpler though still challenging matter of how to pry the dead fingers of a failed economic ideology off the throat of the nation.  This time, the United States faces two immense and parallel difficulties, neither one of which has the sort of straightforward solution that Lincoln and Roosevelt respectively had to hand.

The first difficulty, as I’ve discussed at length in these posts, is that the global empire established by the United States in the wake of the Second World War is coming apart. The American way of empire – the custom of leaving the administration of subject countries to puppet governments drawn from local elites – was cheaper than the traditional approach of subjugation and rule by an imperial viceroy, but it turned out to be more vulnerable to change and less directly profitable to the imperial government:  American corporations profited mightily from the wealth pump directed at Latin America, for example, but very little of that money ended up in the coffers of the US treasury, where it could help cover the costs of empire.

As the American empire falters, in turn, rival powers expand their own military capacities and apply pressure wherever they can get away with it, short of being drawn into a premature war; the US military reacts with the same sort of stereotyped response that characterized the latter years of the British empire, preparing to fight bygone wars with ever more ornate and overpriced technology, while its most likely opponents show every sign of asking the hard questions about basics that lead to sudden revolutions in military practice. When this has happened in the past, the results have almost never been good for the established imperial power, and there’s no reason to think that things will be noticeably different this time around.

Meanwhile America’s “empire of time,” its once-immense energy resource base, has been drawn down at breakneck rates for more than a century and a half. Recent handwaving around shale gas reserves has served mostly to pump up the price of drilling company stocks, and enabled a certain number of rich men in influential positions to get away with another round of looting; we’ve all heard the strident claims that the United States will become an energy exporter sometime very soon, but the numbers don’t even begin to add up, and it’s a safe bet that a few years down the road shale gas will have gone the way of ethanol and all the other energy sources that were allegedly going to replace petroleum and keep the industrial age running smoothly ahead.  The American economy is utterly dependent on very large quantities of petroleum; so is the American military; drastic changes, going far beyond the baby steps involved in manufacturing a few electric cars or running a naval vessel or two on biodiesel, would have to get started well in advance to cushion the end of either dependency, and those changes are not taking place.

The consequences of the end of these two empires can’t be dealt with on the battlefield, as the long debate over the shape of America’s human ecology was, and it can’t be dealt with by jerry-rigging a set of temporary expedients to overcome the mismatch between real wealth and a dysfunctional financial system, as the crisis of the Great Depression was.  It will require massive changes in every aspect of American life, starting with a steep decline in standards of living and the forced abandonment of privileges most Americans think of as theirs by right. That would be an immense crisis at the best of times, and these are not the best of times; our political system has spent the last thirty years trying to evade exactly these issues, while sinking further and further into stasis, and it’s our luck that the crisis seems to be arriving just as American politics freeze up completely.

That might result in the kind of systemic shock that brings another long-shot candidate with a radical following into the White House, and catalyzes immense natonal changes. It might also result in the more extreme form of systemic shock that shatters a nation into fragments. In the weeks to come we’ll be discussing both those possibilities, and others.

End of the World of the Week #21

It’s necessary to turn to history books to get the details on most of the apocalyptic prophecies discussed here and in Apocalypse Not, but there’s at least one important exception – and no, I’m not talking about Harold Camping. Nearly all of my readers will remember those giddy months toward the end of 1999 when a great many people expected industrial civilization to grind to a halt because an older generation of computer software used two digits, rather than four, to keep track of the year, and risked freezing up when “99” turned to “00” amd a variety of internal functions geared to incremental changes in date went haywire.  That was the Y2K crisis—or, more precisely, noncrisis—and it has a lesson that not everyone who lived through the nonarrival of that noncrisis may have grasped.

I had a certain advantage in grasping it, as I lived in the high-tech hotbed of Seattle and knew a lot of people in the computer industry. Some of them knew as much about the Y2K problem as anybody alive, but you’d just about have to schedule an appointment with them to hear what they had to say about it, because they were working as much overtime as they wanted, and raking in money at a dizzying pace. Those who still remembered enough from their college classes in COBOL and other obsolete computer languages were rewriting code for banks, bureaucracies, and big corporations; those who didn’t were generally installing brand new Y2K-compliant PC systems and networks for smaller firms that had decided to scrap their existing hardware altogether.

Quite a lot of people spent those last months of 1999 cowering in fear or gloating over the imminent demise of everybody else.  For computer geeks, though, the Y2K noncrisis was an extraordinarily profitable time, and every round of dire warnings in the media was followed by panicked phone calls to computer firms from more businesses eager to save their companies from the “Millennium bug.”  I can’t say for sure that those dire warnings were part of a deliberate marketing strategy, but they certainly functioned that way, and they drove the single largest boom the US computer industry had ever seen.

Mind you, I used an old and noncompliant PC for writing, and didn’t have anything like the money I would have needed to buy an up-to-date machine. Instead, a few weeks before the new year, I went into the software and reset the internal calendar to the equivalent date in December 1949, and then went through the rollover to January 1, 1950 without any trouble at all.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Katie said...

If the system is frozen, does this mean I can abstain from voting guilt free? :-)

SDBoneyard said...

This is a wonderful blog. I am one of your lurkers who delight in reading you weekly,

John D. Wheeler said...

"How the endgame plays out is a matter of more than academic interest. In 1860 and 1932, a political system frozen in gridlock and incapable of anything like a constructive response to crisis finally hit a crisis that could not be evaded any longer, and the system shattered. In the chaos that resulted, a long-shot candidate with a radical following was able to pull together enough support from the remaining power centers and the people in general to win the White House and force through changes that redefined the political landscape for decades to come."

That sounds a lot like what happened in 2008, with the exception that only one redefining change was forced through, health care reform.

I seriously wonder if anyone can come to power as a pseudo-dictator now that Obama has already used that narrative. The only one I see that comes close is Ron Paul, but support of 20% of the general population seems to be the best he can do.

steve said...

Hi JMG, I just want to say a great big THANK YOU, I read "The Archdruid Report" every week. It always teaches me something pertinent to our onrushing predicament. Great post this week. I just received the green copy of "The Blood of The Earth". I love it. Very good read, thanks again. It has reinvigorated me. At times I find I suffer from Peak Oil fatigue and need a refocusing of near and long term goals. Today I put cow poop on the garden and dug it in. Planted some more pepper seeds, and gave a tomato plant to an ex-girlfriend. Please keep up the great work, the chicken outlaw, NorCal.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Sometimes, reading this blog, it can feel a bit like floating over one of those ornamental mazes in a hot air balloon. Gazing down, you can see all the people within the maze - for the most part totally lost and looking for the way out - with some boldly striding around insisting they know the way out.

It's only with the lofty perspective from above that you can see the whole maze, occupying its own small part in the landscape that in turn is filled with other mazes - as well as forests and other interesting things that nobody can see over the tall hedges.

So thanks once again!

I saw in the news this morning that the Fed has approved Chinese banks to be allowed to buy stakes in US ones. Of course it will all be highly 'subject to comprehensive, consolidated supervision' and the banks, which are owned by the Chinese government will be 'ring fenced'.

Looks like those Chinese lobbyists have been hard at work of late.

BTW I read your latest book 'Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth' and much enjoyed it. I wrote a post about it over on my own blog if anyone is interested.

Kevin said...

As John D. Wheeler points out, it seems the "long-shot candidate with a radical following" gambit has already been deployed to fairly dismal effect, and will not play well a second time. If the US economy goes far enough south, maybe the winning candidate won't have to be a pseudo-dictator: maybe desperate voters will opt for the real deal.

Your discomfortingly lucid prospectus on our likely destination makes me wish someone would haul out a giant block of granite and carve on it "Such a dire situation as this in which we now find ourselves is guaranteed to end happily," and display it in some prominent public place. If we're going to recite incantations, we might as well take it all the way.

Speaking of incantations: a few weeks ago I glimpsed on TV a highly produced ad touting Obama's 100 Years of energy - presumably by fracking for natural gas, I suppose - in which a swanky blonde declares that this surefire bonanza will "put Americans back to work," or words to that effect. This is the first admission I've ever encountered on national corporate advertising that Americans are having any trouble getting enough work. But if a swanky blonde declares with sufficient conviction that salvation is at hand, then I guess it must be true.

I wonder if any military people in the US follow this blog, and how many are asking the hard questions about military practice?

galacticsurfer said...

I was on vacation and just got around to reading your last two blog entries. Great analysis, democracy as naturally corrupt, Greek cycle I had read about in my History of Western Philosophy test and the Generational 80 year cycle I had read Strauss and Howe for. To put them together like you did in your last post was quite good. And now to try to analyze the unique position of the current US empire (250 year empire cycle?-Pluto? how long can a "democracy" or political system/culture hold?) and together with the Peak oil and environmental degradation to see what will come next is great.

Just for fun-

"Recent discoveries by certain outstanding non-astrological investigators are interesting, even if as yet speculative, in the fact that they check with the periods of the two planets which there is some reason to believe lie beyond the orbit of Pluto. Studies of the Culture Cycle, by Jean Bradford, and by Petry, the great Egyptologist, indicate a period of about 1500 years as the duration of a Culture: subdivided into 6 culture -- phases of about 250 years each, in each of which certain psychologically different basic components receive special emphasis. She has correlated recognizable physiological differences with endocrine imbalance, based on the work of Dr. Berman, recognized endocrinologist, revealing wherein both the psychological and the physiological characteristics of a culture-phase display a different sense of Space, dimensional in nature."

dragonfly said...

I must confess that I too thought about the health care reform boondoggle after reading this evening's post. However, it struck me more as evidence of mounting gridlock than as any substantive, redefining change.

Granted, said reform was at the start a monumental undertaking, but after N months of wrangling, I was starting to get the impression that Obama would have signed anything just to get the thing done. And I lost count of what N was.

Janne said...

Y2K -- it's true it was not a crisis. It was a manageable problem, though a costly one. Without the millions of hours dedicated to correcting the problem, there could have been trouble. But still, it was pretty straight-forward. And yeah, I was one of the geeks :)

john john said...

"That might result in the kind of systemic shock that brings another long-shot candidate with a radical following into the White House, and catalyzes immense national changes. It might also result in the more extreme form of systemic shock,,,,, that shatters a nation into fragments."

Or both/and

What a wonderful opportunity for the bioregional movement to take center stage.

The Ecotopian vision laid out in the novel by Ernest Callenback, who recently passed over, imagines a future where self sustaining human cultures live within ecological bounderies that in the pre-conquest era were defined by indigenous language groups.

Actively organizing since 1984 as bi-annual North American Bioregional Congresses the movement embodies the principles of localization shared with permaculture.

Here's hoping this short screed does not fall to the "infallible ideology" delete button.

Candy said...

Programmers were working overtime to prevent a Y2K crisis.
There is almost no effect being put in to cope with peak oil, peak resources, man made global warming, all of which are arriving together.

Avery said...

Your description of the United States as leaderless seems apt to me, because it reminds us what leadership actually is. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, it is better to have a bad leader who can command everyone, than to have no leader and everyone out for themselves; and the latter situation seems to be what we are slipping into. Medieval German kings may have looted their underlings, but they also had the duty to rule. Goldman Sachs only does the looting; you couldn't ask them to run the country, and they wouldn't want to.

The United States President in this situation is not a leader, because his ability to command is slipping. His most important quality is now to be a beacon of reassurance to the world, that America is just as strong as it always has been, and there is no need to worry about the future. For doing this successfully, I think, Obama was given his Nobel Peace Prize. And it's for this reason that I personally don't really care who wins the presidential election. It is not going to determine our future, or even very much of our present. Our Caesar has not yet come.

Jason said...

Love this especially the stuff on Iran's religious conscience. :) :)

Question: why are American revolutions and dictators seemingly so positive? We've had a) They had soluble problems; b) They had energy [which may = a]; and c) The constitution was somehow preserved. Is there anything else to it?

Also, have you JMG or anyone checked out the work of Turchin and Nefedov on secular cycles and if so what do you think? I just found what appears to be the entire book in pdf here.

Jason said...

[It wasn't the whole book after all, just the first and last chapter, but it gives a good brush past the subject.]

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Ha! One essay that dealt decisively to two of my favourite bugbears: Directors and IT managers.

Yeah, when I used to work in the big end of town, the focus of both directors and IT managers on their remuneration used to cause me despair! Truly, if they'd put as much effort into their jobs as their incessant concerns about remuneration, well, let's say that the businesses themselves would have run more smoothly.

There is a sentiment in the business community that the powers that be were “done over” during the whole Y2K kerfuffle. It is very interesting to note that in recent times, many IT jobs here are being shipped off shore to low cost destinations (recently the big four banks here tried a bit of this action). I predict that this is a beginning and not an end point. This is also much the same thing that happened to manufacturing jobs here in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s. Watch this space, and meanwhile, chop wood and carry water.

So, no one is at the wheel? This conclusion doesn’t surprise me as you can see that it is becoming increasingly difficult to introduce reforms. The competing voices clamour for their own self-interest and the government of the day has forgotten that they are voted in to make choices between the various vested interests – you can’t please everybody.

Change is a constant feature of our society and yet, I can still see that complexity is continuing to increase here regardless of the cost or effective return on that level of complexity. I reckon that that visionary you speak of will also need to offer to reduce the overall complexity of society and its institutions too. This will be appealing to the public. This is also in accordance with the theory of catabolic collapse as it ties in nicely.

Yeah, Australia is in the whole F-35 thing too, up to its eyeballs in fact.

Still haven’t received the copy of your recent book yet, but I’m hopeful it’ll turn up soon. It is a long way from there to here after all.

PS: Thanks to everyone here that posted a comment on my recent article about soil. I really appreciated the feedback and interesting stories from the readers here and have responded to these individually.



Odin's Raven said...

Orlov agrees with you on shale gas. Here's the Russian view that it is a financial bubble:

Unknown said...

Thank you for a most educative effort. I am slowly developing a thesis about the role conflicted interests play in the failure of democratic governments to deliver outcomes that serve the common good. I contend that it stems from party political candidates who demonstrate by standing for a party that they do not understand they have just conflicted their interests. I further contend that we need to re-define the role of our elected representatives so that the discussion in our houses of assembly is less a battle between polarities and more a search for durable outcomes that serve the common good of the planet and all who reside thereon.
My early efforts in this regard can be found here:
Your thoughts are most welcome.
Once again, thank you for taking the time to assemble such a concise analysis of what at times seems to be a tangle beyond sense or reason.

Unknown said...

Hi there-

Y2K. No planes dropped from the sky, but the UK the phone system would have stopped (I was at BT from 1997 and heard plenty of stories). Do not think this was fraud - of course the advantage to earn was taken. Perhaps an example of disaster averted?

A few weeks back I wanted to write of Michael Moorcock, but Capachita refused me; here's my chance!

I avidly read MM in the 60's and 70's. The End of the World figured large:

The Dancers at the End of Time (SF, c. 1970)

A far-future culture of bourgeois moral defectives 'party-on' for eons, masters of all they can see and think. With a twist of their rings they can evoke anything - raise mountains, turn the sky pink, loft a castle into the sky forever. Fashion and novelty is all. Boredom is the enemy. Menageries (of curious things and people) and time travel are popular, leading to complications such as a love affair between a married Victorian woman of stiff mettle and our hero (almost inevitably Jheric Carnealien). Meanwhile, the stars in the heavens are going out. Occasionally, an alien arrives reporting that their world is lost, consumed by the encroaching dark - which is spreading fast this way! Hear our warning! Inevitably, they are popped into a menagerie and ignored.

The dancers dance and play games - and throw a really big party for the dark's arrival. This is the End of Time.

(subtext - humanity has mastered all physics - but abuse the power. Their children, now eternal citizens - care not one whit of their actions so fritter away 'endless' energy. Hidden machines perform wonders, such as re-arranging the intimacies of reality so the sky can be pink. Vast energies are spent on whims - so Humanity burns up the Universe. The dark is a consequence; this is humanities doing.)

The Sundered Worlds / The Blood Red Game (SF, c. 1964)

In another future, a space-faring humanity exhausts the Universe's resources and seek to flee - into the parallel dimensions of the multiverse! Here, they may find realities without life, but with resources ready to be plundered!

Unfortunately, species from other parallel universes have the same idea. War breaks out between realities, fought by fleets of ships, slipping sideways through parallel spacetime. Evasion is easy, winning is hard. Outside physical reach, psychokinetic battles are fought. Each ship is now filled with long corridors of "slumbering" psychic warriors. All is quiet (occasionally a head bursts. This is the Blood Red game).

// I am not doing justice to MM's ability to spin a tale, even so the sweep of his stories comes through

MM does Fantasy - the adventures of Elric of Melneborne and more (complete with excellent titles like 'The Jewel in the Skull', 'The Mad God's Amulet')

One story stands out (the title of which I have lost). Here, Elric is the Eternal Champion sleeping between lives, ready to be reincarnated to save Humanity in its hour of need! He feels himself disturbed from slumber and incarnates into a world shared by stunted humans and a somewhat bland alien race, of peaceful disposition. Where is the need, the urgency to be called back? The humans assert the aliens are evil oppressors. They see complex plots and conspiracies against them, and blame unfortunate events on the aliens. Elric joins and begins the slaughter of the alien.

However Elric is tired of being the Eternal Champion, never allowed to fully rest in piece - further, he is troubled by the docile nature of the 'evil enemy'. A crisis - and in revelation Elric sees humans as cruel, bigoted and deeply racist - the worst of their kind. If anything the aliens are the best of humanity! He must change sides!

The Champion now fights for the aliens and leads them to a complete eradication of humanity, down to the last babe. So remain the alien and Elric, who can eke out days of domestic tranquility - and rest, at last.

//subtext - thus the world is a better place.


JP said...

"The power exerted by each of these groups is by and large a veto power. They may not be able to get new policies through the jungle of competing interests in Washington, a task that is increasingly hard for anyone to manage at all, but they can prevent policies that are not in their interest from being enacted, and they can defend any policy already in place that benefits them or furthers their ability to loot the system. They have that veto power, in turn, because no one in contemporary America has the power to get anything done without assembling a temporary coalition of competing power centers, each of which has its own agenda and each of which constantly has its hand out for the biggest possible share of the take."

This is one of the best concise descriptions of the current state of affairs that I have read.

The point is that the only power anyone has at this point is the power to maintain the status quo.

And we're heading toward a waterfall.

Thijs Goverde said...

China has lobbyists? Other than the regular, you know, ambassodor and stuff?
I learn something new here every week!
I'd have thought they didn't much need lobbyists, because they are way to big already to be strongarmed bij the US.
Crafty... only goes to show you can't ever beat a Go player, no matter how good you are at chess.

Another excellent post, of course. I've long felt that the only instrument you need to deal with conspiracy theories was the one famously developed by the good William of Ockham

BruceH said...

As I noted last week in my comment, I don't think Polybius's three part anacyclosis theory explains history quite as neatly as you think it does. I am not a professional historian ( and I don't play one on TV), but anacyclosis does not map as neatly as you claim to American history.

This week you wrote...”In the chaos that resulted, a long-shot candidate with a radical following was able to pull together enough support from the remaining power centers and the people in general to win the White House and force through changes that redefined the political landscape for decades to come.”

However, in 1932 FDR was not a long shot candidate. He was the popular governor of the largest state who had just been reelected in 1930 by a landslide. He had a cousin who had been President the generation before and had himself been a VP candidate in 1920. He was no outsider and certainly no long shot. Also you need to consider that Prohibition was also a major factor in the 1932 election, not just economics.

Furthermore, I don't think Washington can really be characterized as a “Dictator” and I don't see how you get a “Junta” out of the Presidents, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe.... who followed him

Mister Roboto said...

Examples of the same sort of thing can be multiplied endlessly, and they aren’t limited to corporations. Cities and counties all over the United States, for example, are being driven into bankruptcy by the cost of public-sector salaries and benefits that politically influential unions have extracted from vulnerable or compliant local politicians.

Well, this ties directly into Wisconsin's hyper-contentious recall election, so of course, I have something to say about it. (You knew I would, right?) The answer to the problem you've outlined is not, as Governor Scott Walker and his supporters would have us believe, entirely quashing the power of public-sector unions. In fact, Walker's tax-giveaways to big corporations threaten the state's fiscal solvency as much as too much public-sector privelege does. And let us not forget that Walker's agenda has left Wisconsin dead last in new jobs created for the previous year.

However, I would point out that the public sector in Wisconsin is starting to recognize (as if they had a choice!) that it will have to give up some things, evidenced by the fact that they have stated their intention to accept Walker's severe cuts in their pay and benefits though not Walker's goal of ending union collective-bargaining power. However, the unions still have a way to go in fully accepting this new reality, demonstrated by the fact that they supported Kathleen Falk, somebody who would have automatically given the unions everything they wanted, over the more likely to win Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, in the recent primary to determine who will run against Walker in June.

Barrett recognizes that it's just as unhealthy to give the unions everything they want as it is to give the owning-class everything it wants. I fear Falk would have been the left-wing antithesis of Scott Walker (both were certainly not averse to taking out-of-state big money), and the voters of Wisconsin would have given her a resounding thumbs down for that come June. As it is with Barrett's victory this week, it's going to be a squeaker if the recall side wins. And even that might not be enough if the Republicans engage in their characteristic lie-cheat-steal methodology to capture close elections and the Democratic Party heirarchy once again just sits on its collective hands and plays dumb. In which case, I peronsally will be done with the two-party system and elections forever.

One more thing. I do have a feeling that if the US and Israel are foolish enough to attack Iran, the Iranians are going to take the bloated military-industrial complexes of both countries to school in a pretty major way. And if Iran were to be completely smashed, it will be more because Israel is such a formidable little war-machine of a country than because of our decaying global empire.

Twilight said...

This is well done, and I think an accurate picture. There is certainly wealth concentration, and wealth can provide power. But wealth is not power, and the things that count as wealth can evaporate quickly – this is especially true right now. What we have is a lot of different sources of wealth and power pulling the present system apart, while the system itself is weak. The elite are not of one mind, they're more like cats in a sack, each with their own plans and interests which combine and fall apart in an ever shifting landscape. This is not an environment in which things can be accomplished easily. And nothing is.

I do not see yet the movement/personality that might consolidate power and become the next movement, but I'm certainly not all-seeing. It could come from anywhere, but still things take time. Starting from a today in which such a force is not yet visible, it would take years yet to make itself known and drive change.

I wonder if the consolidation and concentration of political power requires, in some way, a concentration of physical energy and/or resources to drive it? In the 1860's there was much left to exploit in North America. In 1932 the age of oil was just shifting into high gear. What happens when we reach stasis without an energy source – do social structures just dissipate? Can you build up a strong social movement without an energy source available?

Draft said...

It's a good analysis JMG but I think you had to nip and tuck a few facts on the ground to get it to work. So while I agree with your overall case, I thought I'd point out that things have not been as static as you imply over say the past four years. Numerous real policy changes have been made. Just consider the real gains made in gay rights. Of course it's not the whole hog in one go, but a number of big steps have happened both at the national and state levels and has had a huge impact in peoples' lives. And contra your point about employees of government bureaucracies lobbying to keep their jobs, the last four years has seen the largest decrease in government employment both at the national and state level in the last several decades.

You've also mentioned "a steep decline in standards of living and the forced abandonment of privileges most Americans think of as theirs by right" many times and so I would be interested to know specifically what are some of the less obvious implications here. We all know that driving a car, taking flights, eating meat, and so forth are not rights. What else did you have in mind?

messianicdruid said...

"It doesn’t matter how blatantly the Chinese manipulate their currency..."

Manipulation of currency is practiced by all governments using it. Trading worthless currency for items with intrinsic value is a logical attempt to preserve options for your own people; something our government seems to have no interest in doing.

Justin said...

JMG, Noam Chomsky has an editorial up now that is a great example of what you are writing about. According to his interpretation, the roles of energy and empire, as well as the political and economic aftermath of WWII that left the US as the world's only intact industrial economy, have no place in the current U.S. situation. All that is needed is a nu New Deal.

Justin said...

I missed much of the conversation on Empire, but I did catch up on the reading. So the following is a bit out of place within the context of this post. Apologies.

The idea that empire creates a wealth gradient that leads to the breakdown of an empire's wealth pump mechanism by way of wealth entropy is most interesting. I'd like to take the concept a bit farther down the line. Money is an abstraction of wealth, meaning that the value of the natural resources, goods and services in the real world are the real sources of wealth, money is an abstraction of that wealth and is used for our means of commerce. Wealth can be further generalized as energy, matter and energy applied to matter. The application of entropy to human disequilibriums of wealth, or energy, as fundamental to understanding empires and why they break down makes sense. However, entropy may also be generalized into a rough explanation for why civilizations break down. An ecology is a system of processing and harvesting energy, what we harvest from this system, we call wealth. The health or sustainability of an ecology is directly related to the diversity of species taking part in its energy stream. The plant absorbs the sun, the bug eats the leaves of the plant, the bird the bug, another bird that bug, the worm the dead bird, and so on it goes until the human chops down the tree and builds a house. As empire is a wealth pump among humans, human civilization is an energy/wealth pump among species. The pattern of relationships recurses. Civilization is a way for humans to crowd out other species from participating in an ecological energy stream so the humans can multiply and utilize a greater share of the ecological wealth stream for human endeavors.

The human population has seen an exponential growth curve in the previous century coinciding with a massive die off of many other species. We are crowding out virtually every other species except the ones we have domesticated or that live off our largesse. The problem with the energy pump of civilization is that an ecology becomes brittle as it loses diversity, and once broken, does not recover easily. The terrible state of top soil all over the world as a result of industrial agriculture, which has been a means for humans to claim virtually all of the energy stream for themselves wherever they grow crops, but has left a million deserts waiting to bloom without the inputs of fertilizers (Hello, Cherokee Organics). Perhaps civilizations collapse when the energy pump has created an disequilibrium among species that can no longer be maintained.

To maintain the current disequilibrium, we are investigating ways to harvest tidal and wind energy, which will require a huge material and energy investment to manufacture the equipment, maintain it, and lay new lines to pipe it to people. I await the proposed scheme to harvest the massive plumes of methane gas being released in the arctic water. A sobering thought, the current iteration of civilization is global, and the civilized possess the means and will to pump every ecology that can be pumped so long as they have fossil fuels. The heart of civilization is a desert and the body may one day be too.

I suspect JMG's response would be that Gaia is more resilient than I think, but even factoring in ecological resiliency, it could be an ugly come down. A more optimistic thought, humans may evolve their interspecies wealth pump so that they are availing themselves of the energy stream, but not blocking it or causing turbulence. Surfing is a way to avail ourselves of the stream without disruption, massive tidal energy pumps that suck energy out of the waves for electric energy, causing unforeseen disruptions to the movement of sand and the ecology of critters and birds near shore, is an example of the kind of thing we are trying to do now.

Andy Brown said...

I think your analysis this week is spot on. The U.S. has been growing increasingly sclerotic for generations as the (innumerable) backers of the status quo have grown more powerful and rigid. But the current paralysis is different and new. And I think it is probably because powerful people see no palatable solution to the biggest of the challenges we face: economic contraction, climate change, energy decline, population overshoot. There may be solutions (or more likely adaptations and ameliorations) to some of this, but every single one explodes the status quo. So we can have no solutions.

Allie said...

Great post this week, JMG. Your description of the current state of our political-economy reminded me a lot of Sheldon Wolin's description in Democracy Incorporated.

His definitions of managed democracy and inverted totalitarianism fit nicely with some of your descriptions in this post.

The good cop-bad cop routine b/w the two parties that co-ops and controls 'captive constituencies' is spot on managed democracy. At first blush the system seems legit, but as you mentioned, it is indeed a scam.

The inverted totalitarian aspect seems to tie in with your descriptions of power centers with only veto power and a "political system [that] is lurching forward like a driverless car along a trajectory set by the outdated policies of an earlier time...".

No one is exactly in total control, but those power centers (corporate welfare queens, Chinese lobby, AIPAC, et al) that benefit from those old outdated policies ruthlessly defend them. They thwart any challenge to those policies through any means available to them. Mainly tools such as campaign contributions, PR campaigns, funding junk science and the like. IMO, these tools are primarily defensive. They buy time for the power centers. For example: big oil's expenditures on these tools to delay real action on climate change.

I am curious if you have read Wolin's book, Democracy Inc.?

Jason Heppenstall said...

I don't know if (British prime minister) David Cameron reads The Archdruid Report, but only a few hours after this post was published his government dropped a substantial bit of support for the F-35 project, choosing instead to go back to the old Harrier jets.

Turns out there are only so many defence contractor blow-backs you can afford when you're broke.

Unknown said...

There was another gridlocked political system in 1932 that was resolved. Google 1932 and Hitler. Several similarities present themselves.

xhmko said...

Hi JMG, I started writing a response to this and its come to two pages on a word document so far. I may post it up later if anyone's interested but in short:

There is just no such thing as controlling everything. It is a physical impossibility. Furthermore, there is no uber-boss. And the more you fixate on the idea that there can be an uber-boss at all, let alone strive towards it as a career path, the less sane you become. This shall henceforth be known as Caligula's Law.

lamentforthetirnanog said...

You comment about the captive constituencies blaming a corrupt elite for why their policies never get enacted could be expanded to the populace as a whole. The entire political system feeds a message that the power of the people and the will of the people are supreme, yet we come to find that the government frequently doesn't obey the will of the people. In Washington State where I live, we have a process where laws can be enacted by citizen initiatives (these are frequently funded by big business for their ends), and almost invariably these initiatives are challenged in court when they are passed. The opposing side supports the will of the people when they vote the "correct" line, but tries to thwart it when it opposes what they want.
All of this does lead down the road of conspiracy theory, but by the same token it seems that more and more people are simply respoding with apathy.

John Michael Greer said...

Katie, most local elections have candidates and issues that are worth voting for, or against, and it's not unheard of for votes to matter on a state level. It's at the federal level that your votes are simply fodder for quarrels over who gets to pocket what share of the nation's wealth.

Boneyard, thank you!

John, not at all. Obama's anything but a radical -- he's simply a standard issue Illinois machine politician with a good sense of PR -- and health care "reform" is simply another round of looting, this time on the part of the insurance industry: too many people aren't buying our product, hey! We can force them to buy it under penalty of law. The next wave of authentic radicalism won't be a rehash of the New Deal, any more than the New Deal was a rehash of the Republican party platform circa 1865.

Steve, thank you! Good luck with the garden.

Jason, you're welcome. The Chinese lobbyists have the advantage of being able to yank hard on several of the US economy's leashes, so you can bet that the "ring-fencing" won't last long.

Kevin, the risk of a dictatorship isn't small. As for the military issue, I know I have some readers in militaries overseas -- not sure about the Pentagon yet -- but we'll be talking a lot more about such issues, since they bid fair to play a major role in how things will shake out.

Surfer, well, I'll leave the astrology to others for the time being.

Dragonfly, no argument there. I think Obama had to get some kind of payoff to the insurance industry in place, in order to pay off one part of the coalition that got him elected.

Janne, that wouldn't surprise me -- a real crisis makes as good a sales pitch than an invented one.

Raymond Wharton said...

The American Empire is a sublimly complicated decentralized machine. The various small machines of power, like private wealth pumps tied to the top levels of many instatutions, work off each other like so many gears. I am concerned about how much of a suden shock the system can endure with out massive faliure. So few even have more then the most basic or mostly inaccurate information about the functioning of society, if the gridlocked assemblage keeping the system lurching forward jams up completely, who would even know how to reverse engineer it, to replace it, or to repair it?

I guess I have always been distrustful of such systems. Like a child looking at a computer, knowing that there is an explination for why it can do as it does, but thinking it quite uncanny that anything can act as such. I think this is one of the main pushes for projecting a conspricy behind the curtain, the sheer disbelief that a duct taped system like ours could function at all.

Spiritchaser said...

Hi John,

There is much insight contained in this post, and I find myself thinking that the narrative describes certain realities to a significant degree. However, I think political situations such as between the US and Iran may represent a weak link in the thesis, and it would be useful to explore this conflict more in-depth.

About Y2K: The Y2K situation could have been a much more significant problem. However, people took the situation seriously and worked on preventative measures well beforehand. Perhaps a key reason why various interests considered Y2K worthy of a response is that computer clocks to be set forward and outcomes examined. In other words, Y2K could be tested beforehand. The large response to the problem may have prevented much more serious outcomes. Predicaments such as Peak Oil do not lend themselves so easily to this kind of examination.

Nevertheless, it is not unimaginable that the Y2K response contributed to the serious economic crisis that resulted shortly afterward: The dot-com bust. For example, with so much new equipment bought by businesses and other entities in 1998 and 1999 for Y2K mitigation, demand for computers slumped in 2000, causing problems for the high-tech industry. In this sense, Y2K becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Bill Pulliam said...

Wow, it still surprises me how many people on and off this blog have no idea what a "radical" is. Obama is hardly a radical, he is smack dab in the mainstream. But folks, Ron Paul is not a radical either. Advocating a return to the fiscal policies that served us so well in the 1920s is not radical, it is reactionary. You will not hear the names of real radicals in this society being mentioned on network or cable TV. A radical promotes a wholesale and NOVEL change in the structure of government and its relationship to society. Neither overhauling the existing machinery nor trying to resurrect the structures of an earlier time earns this tag. Marxism is not radical either; it has been extremely mainstream in a global context for nearly a century. It is just another plug-and-(fail-to)-play orthodoxy from the industrial era (same as Ron Paul et al's "libertarianism."). Here's a test: Are the ideas your "radical" is promoting firmly rooted in well-known long-established systems ands schools of thought from earlier centuries? Marx and Ayn Rand fit that description. If so, then s/he is not really a "radical."

Though I am decidedly not christian, I might note that many of the ideas actually expressed by Mr. Chi-Rho himself remain quite radical, as they have never actually been implemented on any significant scale by any mainstream government, religion, or other social institution.

barath said...

It's definitely the case that most of those who are held up as radicals aren't, and as Bill observes advocating for infinite growth on behalf of old libertarian or socialist doctrine is just reactionary.

What would be truly radical would be an adoption of Herman Daly's steady-state economic policies. Unfortunately I've yet to read of a politician at the state or national level who will even mention such ideas, yet alone advocate for them. (Of course they won't solve all our problems, or even a small fraction of them, but they might help manage our descent a bit better.)

John Michael Greer said...

John John, since you aren't claiming the bioregional agenda is infallible -- just that it's something you support -- it gets past the troll filters. Stay tuned.

Candy, one reason for that difference is that there was plenty of money to be made fixing computers in 1999, while the only way to "fix" climate change and resource depletion is for everyone to make do with a lot less. Thus the collective decision to party hearty now, and let the crash happen.

Avery, nicely put. I appreciate the nod to Spengler in the last sentence.

Jason, thanks for the link -- I'll check it out. As for why things have worked out well, we'll get into that; the short form is that for all its flaws, representative constitutional democracy does have some things going for it.

Cherokee, that matches what I've heard generally from people who've been in business. "What's in it for me?" is the incessant whine from the upper end of the income spectrum, to the exclusion of such little matters as the survival of the system that makes it possible for these same people to be at the upper end of the income spectrum.

Raven, Dmitry's quite correct. The whole shale gas business is spelled s-c-a-m, both in its financial manifestation as a pump-and-dump operation for drilling company stocks, and in its media manifestation as this month's excuse for not paying attention to the end of the petroleum age.

Unknown from Tasmania, you're welcome.

Unknown from Melnibone, Moorcock's earliest version of the Eternal Champion story has his hero turning halfway through on the people he was originally out to save, so it's part of the mythos from way back.

JP, exactly. To change metaphors a bit, if the steering wheel is stuck and nobody can get to the brakes, that brick wall up ahead is a much bigger problem than it would be otherwise...

Thijs, you bet China has lobbyists. Like any other major player in Washington politics, they have a lobbying firm or two looking out for their interests, along with the usual assortment of PACs and assorted cozy arrangements with politicians. So do a number of other nations; that's the way the game is played these days.

Bruce, a model is always a simplification of complex phenomena -- it has value in that it shows common features that would otherwise be obscured by details. If you don't find my model useful, then use another.

Mister R., good. Very few people seem to be able to see past the rhetoric and grasp that both sides are corrupt, and offer "solutions" that are just another round of the same problems, with different people (corporations or unions, take your pick) pocketing the gains.

shargash said...

I work for a large software development and services company. One of our older (and most-used) pieces of software used an internal field to count the number of seconds since some arbitrary date (1/1/1901, I think). That field was due to "wrap" in the early 90s. We knew it was going to wreak havoc when it did. So we spent a lot of effort going through every line of code to fix the issue. We actually missed 2 places where an old routine was used, so we had small taste of what life would have been like had we not fixed the problem. But because the problem was relatively contained, it was no worse than many other software bugs.

Y2K was not a crisis, but we will never know if it was not a crisis because so much effort went into preventing the crisis, or whether it was all hype. Based on the experiences of my company, I lean towards the former.

It is always thus with prevention. If prevention works, you will inevitably have second guessers asking why you spent so much effort to fix something that obviously was no big deal.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Forget the environment or guns, the latest distraction-du-jour appears to be gay marriage.

The conclusion that Washington is permanently and irreperably broken is becoming more common even among 'mainstream' commentators. Edward Luce has a new book about it, and see this:

Why Washington Can’t Be Fixed
And is about to get a lot worse.

And I can't help but include this tidbit about the salvage economy from the UK Telegraph:

Metal thieves in the Czech Republic dismantled an entire 10-ton bridge and more than 650ft of track.

Last month The Daily Telegraph reported that metal theft had cost the Church of England £10 million last year, with the value of church insurance claims rise from £173,000 to almost £4.5 million across the country. Metal theft is estimated to cost the British economy £770 million every year.

For more details about the F-35, see The Jet That Ate The Pentagon

The Heirloom Troubadour said...

I love your comments about “captive constituencies” this week. This is nicely done indeed. Whether it be through laws that require women to undergo probing medical procedures to obtain an abortion or Obama’s statement in support of gay marriage, it seems as though all of the stops are being pulled out in this election cycle to reign in the left and right wing bases on issues that become futile once the election cycle is over. With the candidates acting as the ringleaders, the clowns that serve as political pundits and the media will rehash debates about social issues that have been ongoing for decades in a foolish game of charades that will undoubtedly get some of these constituencies fired up and ready for the polls. It is what happens after the election that is most interesting.

I remember hearing from numerous friends about how Bush would try to overturn Roe v. Wade when he came into power. After all, they argued, the Bible Belt was a major force behind his election campaign. When he focused instead on economic and foreign policy matters these same friends didn’t know how to react. Likewise, friends who are friendly towards the 2nd amendment chanted about how Obama was going to take everyone’s guns away. Again, when it didn’t happen, they really didn’t know how to explain it.

The media, the parties, and the pundits create these unicorns, bugbears and hobgoblins, fantastical creatures to be sure, but that is entirely the point. The captive constituencies latch onto the threat, or the promise, propagate it via social media, the base gets fired up, and they then head to the polls.

In the end the unicorns and goblins fail to materialize, that is until of course they are needed in the next election season at which point they are revived in their full glory and the spin cycle repeats again.

What amazes me is how people from all walks of life, regardless of socioeconomic standing, educational level, ethnic group, or spiritual orientation fall into this trap time and again. For many, it results in electing someone to office that may not necessarily have their best interests in mind. For others, each election cycle is like a rehashing of the realities of post-WWII electoral American politics. No one truly gets even a fraction of what they want and regardless of all the pomp and circumstance, the American president remains more of a regent, a figurehead of sorts, whose sole responsibility is safeguarding the whole mess from imploding.

That is why environmentalists are up in arms about what they perceive as Obama’s failure to deliver on environmental unicorns, and it is also why the Tea Party continues to rail against the bugbear of national debt that many in their ranks happily helped create. The political headwinds and tailwinds are way too strong at this point to accomplish anything meaningful so the only thing that occurs is blame and of course more incantations about the evils of the other side.

Steve in Colorado said...

I'd like to suggest that there is a difference between recognizing the flaws in a dualistic narrative, and assuming that the two sides are identical.

I'm not old enough (28) to remember a time when unions had real power, but growing up, my mother was a member of a public sector union-- the teacher's union. The kind of money we might be said to have siphoned off the government-- the effect that that money had and has, individually, socially, and economically-- is simply not equivalent to government subsidies to banks and corporations.

Furthermore, in response to Justin: Chomsky is wrong about what a new new deal would mean, because in all of his writing he has never addressed the issue of energy depletion. That said, something like a New Deal, paid for by cuts in military spending, could actually help right now. I've seen this work. I worked in a rural area (Douglas County, Oregon) during the first round of Obama stimulus. The alternative high school I worked at applied for a grant and got it. We used the money to create a quarter-acre organic garden which is now producing 8,000 pounds of food for the local food banks and to employ local youth in a conservation program, which included providing "free" labor (paid for by us via Uncle Sam) to local organic farmers.

The point is, the stimulus made a real difference, both in the old-fashioned economic sense of getting people jobs and spending money, and in the new sense of helping create a sustainable local food supply that will help that area survive the decades to come. A larger federal investment could make an even bigger difference (and would, of course, have made *the* difference as the response to the economic crisis of the 1970s, rather than the Reaganist austerity and military Keynsianism that we actually got). It's probably never going to happen. My point is that just because both parties are thoroughly corrupt and basically Reaganist in outlook, and similar narratives dominate the discourse on both left and right, doesn't mean that the policy-ideas coming from left and right are equivalent.

I apologize if this was rambling or off-topic.

Bill Pulliam said...

Just to illustrate my point about radicals using a topic "ripped from the headlines," as they say in Hollywood. This issue is utterly off-topic here, which is a deliberate choice for illustrative purposes:

Obama's latest "radical move" (supporting same-sex marriage) represents his adopting a policy that is supported by a 60%+ majority of the American electorate. This is at best a modest "reform" position, representing a very small tweak to existing marriage laws. The other "extreme," such as what NC voters just passed, is only a small reactionary step to codify into law what was the de facto popular understanding of marriage just a few decades ago.

Here's a radical proposal about the same topic: Abolish all government recognition of and involvement with marriage. If it is a "sacred" institution, then why is it the government's business at all? Children have parents, biological or adoptive, the law can recognize this and duly grant parental rights and responsibilities. Inheritance, financial matters between partners, etc. can be arranged through existing legal systems (wills, partnerships, joint tenancy, etc.).

How often have you heard ANYONE in the media being allowed to advance that proposal?

Now try to envision equally radical positions to take on other issues and institutions more directly relevant to the core topics of this blog. Abolish corporations? Abolish banking? Abolish currency? Outlaw fossil fuel extraction and burning? Use your own imagination.

tubaplayer said...

Very minor snippet JMG just to show that I am still reading, enjoying and taking notice of the wise words that you produce.

Y2K problem. The only failure that I ever heard of was that the tide gauge at the entrance to Portsmouth, England harbour stopped working because of a Y2K problem.

I worked on Y2K myself as a student on placement (what you call internship?)

OrwellianUK said...

It seems to me that the 1% is actually a pretty sizeable 3 million plus individuals, so naturally there is no way that these Elites could all form a consensus.

The reason it appears to in the eyes of many is because the mentality of all these people is close enough to be all going in the same general direction. That mentality is the institutionalised pursuit of wealth and power before anything else. Of course sometimes, one factions pursuit of these goals come into conflict with that of another faction and we see some Elite infighting.

I tend to think of it as an illegal prizefight in which the participants and those involved in watching or betting etc, will be trying to crush the opposition, but will all close ranks to prevent exposure of the game to the outside world. That's because they see the public as a greater enemy than each other.

Because the agenda of these interests all flows in the same direction - that of a rapacious pursuit of ever more control by similar or allied corporate interests - it can easily appear as though a small number of individuals are running things because it is so systemic and consistent.

A remarkably small number of Corporations and Banks control the world's resources and finances, but they're very often occupied with trying to eat each other, before turning on the rest of us for dessert. Still, the end result is largely the same - an ever smaller core of increasingly wealthy interests emerging.

As for Iran, the reason that they are being threatened is because control of the country is part of a long standing plan for the region by the US Military and Political Elite. The US has never forgiven the Iranians for having the audacity to overthrow a US client dictator and then maintain their independence, despite US overtures at the time. It is this, plus the factors of Oil and Petrodollar hegemony, which are attracting the ire of the US and Israel, and not the smokescreen of Iran's nonexistent nuclear weapons program, which is as vapourous as Iraqi WMD.

Of course, the reason why Iran isn't actually being attacked right now, (and probably won't be), is because both Russia and China have made it clear to the White House that they won't allow it. This and the fact that many other influential countries such as India have made it unequivocally clear that Iranian oil is far too vital to their economies to be taken off the market as the result of a military strike. Hence the prolifera of sabre rattling, but little actual action.

Right now, Iran is emerging as a major regional power, and all the signs, are that the US is having to accept this. Of course neither Russia nor China will want an overly influential and powerful Iran, and this will be a factor in the ongoing balancing act of 'negotiations' playing out, where completely different discussions to those being reported in the media will actually be taking place as all parties involved do their best to save face.

Syria can also be factored into this Geopolitical theatre, as a staunch ally of Iran and with connections to Russia and China. It's the reason we haven't seen a 'no fly zone' and 'humanitarian intervention' to support the US/NATO backed terrorist groups currently fighting the Syrian government and causing absolute chaos, in the way we did in Libya.

It's interesting watching these international crises play out, and then applying a similar framework to what might be happening with the various factions domestically.

Jon said...

John, as an IT professional who worked with mainframe systems during the Y2K problem, many of which are still quietly functioning today, I would like to point out that there were actually two Y2K events: One technical, involving short sited decisions by designers and managers of information systems developed in the 1980’s (back then we designed systems to run for five years) and one an over hyperbolized cultural narrative involving planes dropping from the sky, ATM machines vomiting outdated 100 dollar bills and cell phones spontaneously prank calling everyone on a suddenly darkened planet. The first problem was addressed after about 10 years of sometimes intense work and dedicated, if not plodding, boring engineering.

The second, like all cultural narratives, was not there to be resolved successfully at all. It was there to tell a morality tale, this one in the ‘chicken little’ genre. Like the Unsinkable Titanic (a claim never made by White Star, incidentally), adrenaline pumping folk tales of Computer Little’s and latter day doom did not come from the ones busily fixing the problem. I believe Mr. Kunstler did a lot of end of the world predicting set on that stage. Come to think of it, both Y2K: Apocalypse Edition and The Unsinkable Titanic for Fun, Profit and Hubris, came from the same source: The media.

Then, when there was no Mad Max: Beyond Computerdome on 1/1/1900, er, 2000, people were angry at the IT professionals for ‘misleading’ them. This turned out to be an interesting case: When the straw man was finally revealed as a fake, people got even madder at the object of the effigy!

Is there something to be learned here? Probably. Will it be learned? Probably not.


William Hunter Duncan said...

Exactly! No one is in charge of this mess, and no one really knows what is going on. But if there is a writer in America with more clarity about the crises we face, I'm not sure who that is. Thank you.

Eagerly anticipating the posts following this line of thinking.

Seth said...

I like the term "Representative Kleptocracy" for the system you have aptly described.

The kleptocrats are numerically on a par with the population of a smallish city (~30,000 among a US pop. of >300M), so the top 0.01% is still too big a group to be completely homogeneous or cohesive. Because our kleptocrats are divided, very little can be decided.

But when the kleptocrats' taxes are discussed -- IMMEDIATE unified action by the entire US goverment. When the kleptocrats' investment portfolios are under dire threat of financial collapse (eg Lehman BK 2008) -- IMMEDIATE unified action to the tune of ~$1T from the entire US government.

It's just the socially consequential, long range questions which get gridlocked.

Jim R said...

The descent is noticeably accelerating now. Just saw an article about the biggest silicon chip-maker gloating at the failures of some rivals.
Soon it will be a monopoly. But then there's the story of yet another big financial house failing.
Can the chip-maker continue without finance? Or vice-versa?

Richard Larson said...

"Still, the ability to plunder one corner of a complex system is not the same thing as the ability to control the whole system".

Got it. Then it makes sense that those who can cash out, are cashing out, before the driverless car crashes into a wall.

Still, it won't stop an elected extremist or revolutionary from hanging them from lamp posts.

I have decided I'd rather hug the trees and love the ecology than be a revolutionary. The trees have far more to offer than any future US Gov can.

Oh, we did the same roll back with our business computer. :-)

Mister Roboto said...

Mister R., good. Very few people seem to be able to see past the rhetoric and grasp that both sides are corrupt, and offer "solutions" that are just another round of the same problems, with different people (corporations or unions, take your pick) pocketing the gains.

Actually, I really do have to take exception to that. Yes, there are corrupt unions, but the unions in question here are not corrupt, and not even one quarter as black-hearted as they corporate fat-cats; they just have to learn to see a bigger picture and recognize that everybody will have to give things up in an age of contraction and decline. That so many people who support the unions are as reluctant as anybody else to realize the difficulties that lie ahead for our society, is the thing that concerns me the most right now. Failure to recognize this crucial truth would play right into the hands of the plutocrats who would use society's coming tribulations to consolidate their power to the maximum degree. This is what I regard as the worst-case collapse scenario, and it could seriously happen, perhaps with the complicity of the Democratic Party.

John Michael Greer said...

Twilight, strong social movements existed long before the beginning of the industrial revolution, so I'd say the answer is yes.

Draft, every model has to be more simplified than the phenomenon it describes, so it's always possible to quibble over details. As for your question, the US is in the process of becoming a Third World country; think of the things that make your current lifestyle different from that of the average Indonesian, say, and you've got a good first draft.

Messianic, and yet Americans get to exchange worthless currency for goods and services from overseas all the time.

Justin, no, my response is that civilization is not necessarily a wealth pump, even though the current example is definitely a member of that species. I'd point out cities in China and southern France, to name only two examples, that have been going concerns for three thousand years and haven't produced a desert -- I'd also point out the role of non-anthropogenic climate change in creating the deserts of the Middle East, which tends to get neglected in current critiques of civilization in the abstract. Still, industrialism is by definition part of a wealth pump -- it can't function outside of that context -- and only the self-terminating nature of a system dependent on nonrenewable resources will keep it from making a much bigger mess of things than it has already.

Andy, not until the status quo implodes, as it will. That's why it's crucial to field test solutions on an individual, family, and community basis, so we've got other options on the shelf and ready to go when the rubble stops bouncing.

Allie, I haven't, no.

Jason, I wish! According to the BBC, he didn't go back to the Harrier, which is a good workmanlike plane; he simply changed the order from the F-35C, the failed carrier version, to the F-35B, which does what the Harrier does, but not as well, at many times the cost per plane.

Unknown, I don't need to google it; there are these things called history books, and I read quite a few of them. ;-)

Xhmko, that gets you tonight's gold star. Caligula's Law ought to be taught in the schools.

Lament, true enough. Ordinary people are in one sense simply the smallest and least influential pressure groups, and thus most likely either to become captive constituencies or to be marginalized. Voter apathy makes perfect sense, after all, when most national votes are between Tweeledum and Tweedledee, and the issues that matter are never on the ballot.

Zach said...


Very interesting. The model of maximum gridlock and "there is no 'they' in charge" does explain much that is puzzling about the current American political scene.

I think you are spot-on about captive constituencies. I see a certain number of people (on both sides of our pseudo-right/pseudo-left divide) waking up to that, but they tend to catch a lot of flack -- particularly from their own side.

One counterpoint, though: in the midst of this gridlock, we see the Federal power in DC, and particularly its Executive, gaining powers and prerogatives year after year that frankly would have made Nero swoon with joy. How does this fit with the notion that no one is in charge and power being maximally distributed?


Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- an aside about your passing mention of preindustrial "non-anthropogenic climate change." Anthropogenic climate change began many millennia ago, probably with the taming of fire and the advent of controlled burning to manage landscapes for forage and hunting. It certainly accelerated with the spread of agriculture. Human activities were affecting climate patterns long before we began burning fossil fuels. An interestinh relatively recent school of thought has European contact with the New World triggering a massive increase in carbon sequestration (depopulation via diseases caused an end to large-scale agriculture and controlled burns, hence more carbon in biomass and soils). At the same time in Europe the Black Death reemerged and resulted in depopulation and reforestation there as well. The resulting lowered atmospheric CO2 (shown in Antarctic ice cores) may have contributed to (at least helped lengthen and intensify) the Little Ice Age. There are links to original sources about this stuff on the wikipedia page for the Little Ice Age. I would not be at all surprised if the desertification of the Middle East was actually in part due to the spread of agriculture and human population across the region.

John Michael Greer said...

Raymond, nicely put. For reasons we'll be discussing down the road a bit, American democracy has become a brittle machine, and the risk that a shock might send it juddering to a halt or flying apart is not small.

Spiritchaser, the standoff between the US and Iran isn't part of US domestic politics, which is what I've been discussing this week. We'll get to foreign affairs in due time. As for Y2K, good -- what I heard from a lot of people in the Seattle tech scene was that the drop in orders and income after the noncrisis made its nonappearance had a great deal to do with the tech stock bust.

Bill, thank you. Spengler predicted that as Faustian culture petrified, the production of new ideologies would cease, and the quarrels would become a matter of contending personalities rather than contending ideas; here as so often, he may have been right.

Barath, the funny thing is that I can't help but see Daly as a moderate, not a radical. It's the folks who think we can have infinite growth on a finite planet who are the howling radicals.

Shargash, I don't have the tech background to know how much of it was hype, but I do know that there was a lot of hype in the mix!

Escape, how on earth do you steal a ten ton bridge? That's a wowser. Many thanks for the links!

Heirloom, exactly! Now if more people were to start talking about the fictional nature of the goblins and unicorns, we might get somewhere.

Steve, the Dems funnel money to their coalitions, and the GOP funnels it to theirs; it just so happens that you (and I) are more likely to benefit from the former, while (say) factory workers in the defense industry are more likely to benefit from the latter. I don't agree that a new New Deal is a good idea, for reasons I'll cover in detail in a later post: the short form is that the US is bankrupt, and communities and individuals need to get to work *now* downshifting their lifestyles, and weaving new systems to support things of value without government funding. Another round of government largesse will simply delay that. More on this down the road a bit.

Bill, true enough. What gives the state any business regulating marriage, anyway? And what are so-called conservatives doing supporting so drastic an intrusion of the state into the private lives of American citizens?

Tuba, yep, that's an internship on this side of the water. As for the tide gauge, you mean they didn't just use the sturdy old thing built when Victoria was on the throne? I'm disappointed. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Orwellian, the situation with Iran is complex and fluid, though you're right that it has nothing to do with imaginary Iranian nuclear weapons -- and a huge amount to do with who controls access to Persian Gulf oil as we enter the endgame of the oil age. More on this later.

Jon, no argument. The only point I'd add is that I saw the second, essentially fictional crisis being used deliberately and gleefully by computer professionals as a way to make very large amounts of money in 1998 and 1999.

William, exactly. Thank you.

Seth, "representative kleptocracy" is a good label, because it suggests that the kleptocracy at the top is simply a reflection of the public behavior of the nation as a whole. A country full of people that cheat on their taxes, steal from their employers, and break the law whenever they think they can get away with it, is not going to have a political system with ethics significantly different from their own.

Jim, just don't get caught by the fallacy of assuming linear acceleration. It's a bumpy road down...

Richard, I forget who it was who pointed out that at this point, no conceivable revolutionary movement can bring down the system as fast as the system is bringing itself down.

Mister R., so noted. My own dealings with unions, which admittedly aren't extensive, have led me to think that by and large they're just as corrupt as the bosses.

Zach, the executive branch in the US is pretty obviously preparing to fight against a domestic insurgency. That's not inappropriate, because -- for reasons we'll be discussing -- they're almost certain to get one in a big way within the next decade or so. Civil liberties are among the first casualties of any effective counterinsurgency campaign, and a very large number of the preparations being made very clearly have that in mind. You'll notice, though, that all this has no goal beyond maintenance of the status quo at all costs; what will happen when the status quo turns out to be self-terminating is a question nobody's yet grappled with in the Pentagon or the various bureaucracies.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, of course that's correct, but Milankovich forcing iirc played the primary role in ending the Holocene climatic optimum -- during which the Sahara and most of the Middle East got regular winter rains -- and bringing in the current distribution of aridity in the Middle East. That's what I was referencing here.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

It would be nice for a change if all those people blaming others - even in a seemingly good cause like the Occupy movement - realised that it is the pursuit of self-interest by individuals that has got us all into the mess that we are facing. It's not just the 1%...

Still, things evolve out of necessity. This will leave some behind though. The Greek drama continues... A barter economy is emerging and people are returning to the land. Interesting stuff.

Greek election could trap nation in a labyrinth of debt and division

Thanks for the Creditanstalt reference last week. I looked it up and it was an unpleasant event. Maybe this time around it may not be a bank, but an entire country failing which is a point on the road to nowhere good.

Hi Justin,

Spot on. We’re well past carrying capacity as a species. I challenge anyone who believes otherwise to try and feed themselves from their own produce for a year.



phil harris said...

Perhaps Y2K told us how much we could be relegating executive functions to automata; but that was a long time ago. In 1999 these automata could mostly still be turned off and/or fixed. By analogy, we have always relied on the 'automata' of the natural world, but in that real world we have no idea how to fix our big mistakes.
PS F-35 chaos currently going on in UK defence spending. Netherlands tried to bail out in 2010 but they are on the same hook just now.

Jon said...

True, there are silicon snake oil salesmen everywhere, and it didn't end with the Y2K opportunists. Sadly we old timers get to watch companies abandon those old COBOL systems and replace them with glitzy, lipstick laden, Internet enabled porcines produced by companies with words like ‘Smart’ and ‘Soft’ in their names. Business managers all want to be told they are ‘smart’ right? (Not sure how many want to be thought of as ‘soft,’ though. I guess some people like playing with their food.) Instead of the traditional tar pot and feathers, they just get their contracts renewed for another year.

I always assumed that the existence of parasites on society was a consequence of how altruistic that society is. Societies that are too tolerant eventually bleed to death. Those which are too demanding can’t develop the necessary trust relationships to form cooperative ventures. We teeter between extremes. All social experiments, governments, financial arrangements, etc., are, at heart, unbalanced.


Jim Brewster said...

Looking back on the Y2K years, for me it was a little preview of the age of salvage. This was when I was getting into Linux and free/open-source software, and as offices were frantically upgrading their hardware--nearly all of which was Y2K compliant; it was some of the software that had issues--PC's could be had for basically the cost of shipping on eBay. They could run the latest free software just fine.

It's still the case that many of us hobbyists benefit from society's need to have the latest and greatest, though the planet suffers overall. My current laptop, vintage ~2006, cost me just $150.

@Bill Pulliam, thank you for your comments about gay marriage. I've always been dumbfounded by the need to define civil marriage by moral standards. I have many friends who are polyamorous. Realizing that that can of worms is hardly ripe for opening, some have bypassed the legal briar patch of "marriage" and simply formed corporations. You can be in a corporation with any set of consenting adults.

Yupped said...

I haven’t had much time for commenting recently, what with spring springing and the garden coming on strong. But I’ve been following along and enjoying the posts tremendously. I agree that societies seem to ebb and flow between centralization of real power and gradual distribution of that power back into balance and then into gridlock, as we have now. Crises come along and act as a solvent on the gridlock, opening up space for some new leader/set of ideas to take charge. We seem to have been lucky in this country with the generally reasonable quality of the new leaders and ideas (Founders, Lincoln, Roosevelt, etc). I hope we are similarly lucky with whatever comes next. My sense is that the current gridlock jockeys still have a ways to run, though, before they throw up their hands and admit defeat and create that opening. There does seem to be a lot of confidence around that all of this can be managed and muddled through. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, it’s a little strange to see apparently intelligent people who, on the one hand, seem to have at least some sense of our predicament, offering really bone-headed ideas and slogans in response. For example, the five-elite-families-are-keeping-us-from-the-energy-donut nonsense of Thrive; the end-Fed-restore-the-gold-standard trope; or even just standard issue elect-President-X-all-will-be-well stuff. Nuts really, but I suppose we like our solutions simple. I’m just resigned to waiting for the wave to crest, while doing something useful and hoping that I can survive in some sentient form. We’ll see again.

On a separate note I’m reading Mystery Teachings From The Living Earth at the moment. A lovely book, and thank you for it. I’m particularly enjoying the Law of Limits. It’s also giving me some new perspective on the accumulation of voles in the garden, which I’m heading off now to try to tackle.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, it's especially trying when so many of the people claiming to speak for the 99% are part of the global 1% -- that only takes an income of US$43K a year, as I recall. As for Greece as a Credit Anstalt analogue, it's entirely plausible.

Phil, a very useful way of looking at things! Also a very old one; a lot of people down the centuries have talked about the frequency with which people end up possessed by their possessions...

Jon, one of the enduring mysteries of contemporary life, at least to me, is the frequency with which capitalist economic systems reward abject failure. You're right, the tar pot and feathers would be a good deal more appropriate.

Jim, the computer age is likely to stagger on for quite a while after fab plants become uneconomical, simply because of the number of outdated but still perfectly usable PCs in circulation. I use old computers by preference, and until we moved to a relatively geek-deficient region, I usually got my latest computer because it was cheaper for somebody to give it to me than to pay the disposal fee.

Yupped, if you can figure out the limiting resource for voles in your garden ecosystem, and limit it even further, you can make it an unwelcome environment for them, and the population will go down. Now to figure out how to do the same thing with politicians...

Justin said...

I figure there's got to be a better way too, but this iteration didn't find it. That's the learning curve, sometimes you have to try out a bunch of things that don't work to find what does in a process of elimination.

Steve in Colorado,
I'm more concerned with the emerging concensus on the left ranging from Paul Krugman to Noam Chomsky, all of their narratives exclude the role of energy and empire and advocate some sort of stimulus/New Dealish workaround. That concensus will play out in the future. Politicians will promise good and hard to restore that way of life by addressing that narrow band of reality that a lot of people seem to agree is the only consideration, the power to ram through a nu New Deal and break apart existing power centers.

messianicdruid said...

Oil was not a "resource" until the technology was developed to make use of it. Practically no one was even using oil before about 1850.

Unused resources are often viewed as useless or worse until someone develops a technology. Then they become valuable.

Jim R said...

Yes, JMG, I agree. We are not quite yet to the age of salvage in computers.
But I also see the formation of a chip monopoly as a logical step along that path, and that is taking place now. In fact the chip business (has not yet but soon) will be further impaired by the salvage side of things. And as you know, it's a nonlinear process which will speed up once it gets going.

JessicaYogini said...

"Still, the ability to plunder one corner of a complex system is not the same thing as the ability to control the whole system".
I hope this will help me explain it to people. Sometimes, the focus on non-existent center of coherent control seems to be a major obstacle.

I would posit a possible alternative or cooperating deep structural cause for the breakdown: The inability to make the transition to a knowledge-centered economy. It is this largely unnoticed blockage of societal maturing that is the source of the decay. The Hubbert Peak only matters if the economy is kept addicted to non-renewable energy. With the knowledge-economy unleashed, we would have the renewable energy we need and the social configuration to use it maturely.

Unknown said...

You've basically reinvented the work of sociologist Mancur Olson here. His theory was that, absent emergencies, people tend to form groups and associations to protect their interests. These groups are fundamentally conservative; a group that considers itself threatened works harder than a group that merely sees opportunity for growth. As these interest groups develop in society and worm themselves into critical positions (positions where hostile action can be blocked and the groups' advantages perpetuated), society becomes ossified and inflexible.

For example, the medieval guild of scribes is still hard at work in the middle east. Its members still earn their traditional meager wage for copying Korans by hand, and have managed to keep the printing press at bay for centuries. Our own publishing industries are doing everything they can to repeat this feat re: the internet.

planningdown said...

Great post, JMG. I particularly like the observation that each interest group (in the widest sense of the term) buys veto power against any positive effort to right the ship. And so we go, sailing along into the dark...


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

All this talk about Y2K reminded me that if you poke just under the surface, a lot of computers aren't actually that necessary. Particularly when unemployment is cresting over 10% (some say unofficially 15%) as it is in the US.

Back in the early 90's I had the opportunity to see how things had run for at least 100 years up to that point. Yeah, completely manual double entry ledger systems. I loved them in their simplicity. The funny thing I noted was that after they moved to computers there wasn't any savings in labour. Reporting was faster, much faster, but no labour savings, capital and software costs were higher though. What do they say, "Everything old is new again."

By the way, I read a lovely quote from some Ligurian peasants that, "Land is there to save you money, it doesn't make you money." Very insightful.

Thanks about the Greek drama thought. I keep reading about a domino effect - but it really is a point on a road. Whatever else they say, it will bring a lot of financial instruments into close inspection which they won't tolerate.



Christophe said...

JMG, how do you manage to think so clearly, in the same world as the rest of us, but amazingly outside the mental straightjackets the world has the rest of us bound in? Seeing the current political trajectory in the US as decentralizing toward gridlock is brilliant. I have been so snookered by pundits lamenting the overreach of the executive branch (as well as the judiciary and legislature) that I disregarded the distinct crumbling sounds emanating whenever politicians speak. Their desperate and overreaching flailings in the face of real and growing crises clearly display their lack of hegemonic control.

Thank you for opening up a new avenue of thinking for me, one that far more elegantly takes all the previously conflicting evidence into account. Reality really is so simple and can be summed up by simple, elegant ideas. Complexity is usually manufactured to keep people separated from reality, and thus any real power.

das monde said...

I do not get the particular equivalence of environment and guns. Considering the face value, what are gun owners not getting from the Republicans (and even Democrats)? Public discussions of the second amendment changed a lot and ridiculously since the 1960s. It is actually the Democrats that are sheepishly cooperating (once again) in keeping a political opposition to NRA non-existent. What Heirloom Troubadour said only illustrates this point. The whole issue exists for political reasons only, and there is a word for it: a wedge issue. Dems and Repubs consistently play very asymmetric roles regarding the wedge issues - Dems pretend that they have to retreat, Repubs enjoy scorning them.

Jon said...

Unknown said: ‘absent emergencies, people tend to form groups and associations to protect their interests.’

My master’s dissertation was a computer simulation of the game theory game, “The Prisoners’ Dilemma.” Instead of the usual, play a game and tally the score, approach, I tweaked the game to allow the players to remember previous encounters and learn from those experiences. Also, players could belong to like-minded groups and they could be eliminated from the game (die) or spawn new members of the group (reproduce.) I wanted to make the game more ‘real life.’ I also created a new strategy that I called Honor among Thieves (I originally wanted to call it ‘Gypsy’ but my advisor thought it was politically incorrect. East coast public schools, you know.) My Gypsies, er, Thieves always cooperated with others of their group and always cheated outsiders (hence the political incorrectness.) Groups that used this strategy tended to grow and crowd out all others, sometimes quite rapidly. Extrapolating to human behavior, your ‘groups and associations’ would feel no moral or ethical inconsistency in adhering to strict codes of conduct among themselves while treating ‘outsiders’ inequitably.

Chris, you are right. Information systems are very expensive. They don’t help companies save money, but they can help them do much more with the money they spend. IBM missed this fact when they only half-heartedly supported the PC in the 1980’s. Big Blue liked selling million dollar computers to fortune 500 companies. They didn’t realize that 60 percent of the US’s GDP comes from companies that employ fewer than 150 employees. These companies couldn’t afford million dollar, water cooled mainframes, but they sure could benefit from a lot of $5,000.00 PCs and some rudimentary, though poorly written, spreadsheets and accounting software. Big brother really didn’t propel the microcomputer revolution, but lots of little brothers did.


Joseph said...

The first step of the dramatic decline in standard of living is beginning to play out among young people; minimum wage, temporary work, or unemployment have become the new norm among young people (college graduates or not, there really isn't much of a difference between the two anymore.) What this is is a permanent expansion of the low class, in which these young people will never get to break out of it. There is a profound generation gap in this country in which the baby boomers' very grammar to talk about finances and careers is foreign to we 18-25 year olds. As the baby boomers begin to fade out and are replaced by more and more of we young people the country itself will have a profound cultural shift.

Raymond Wharton said...

Jon - I would love to hear more about your master’s dissertation. Game Theory is one of the... more interesting mutations in recent human thought. Human-apes are, in my opinion always a'watchin' things and copying their behavior, including in the 20th century the behavior of mathematical entities in models of our own inventions. The agents of economic theory have in behavior come more and more to resemble the virtual beings in our models.

Of course the agents of game theory are quite simple, living in a world where they solve a problem that bears only passing resemblance to any real world situation, in fact the paradigm case of the prisoners dilemma is itself structured with in the hypothetical space of quite a strange society.

Do you have ideas about how the "set-up" of the dilemma it self could mutate over time, and how that would complicate the evolution of systems programed to mutate to a dynamic system?

Tony said...

From Cube, one of the only horror movies I like: "This may be difficult for you to accept, but there is no conspiracy. No one is in charge. It's a headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master plan, can you grasp that? Big Brother is not watching you." Only horror movie I know where the ultimate antagonist is, rather than someone intentionally out to do harm or a force of nature, a bureaucracy so large and clueless that no one within it actually knows what it does.

@ Joseph: you've got that right about the young crowd having a completely different experience than the boomers. I graduated from college 1 year ago; I was very much in the science/math/engineering/computer crowd and I STILL know people who have not managed to find jobs [though that has not stopped one of them from setting up a homemade blast furnace and a machine shop in their parents' garage]. The other day I was talking to a fellow grad student, and they mentioned they were going home to visit their old college friends - "half of them are still in town, no luck with jobs yet." A good number of my compatriots still seem to think that this is all temporary, that a crisis occurred but we are 'getting back on track' and 'have bottomed out', and that if only the right people were elected everything would work out - though their numbers are shrinking, and interestingly enough my old Russian-born roommate seems to have a very clear perception of decay...

ladyimbriumsholocron said...

I guess since I'm a proponent of (especially local) environmentally sensible practices and gun ownership, I could always sit down and have a beer with myself...

Rennaissance Man said...

I'm just pondering the psychological mechanics that cause discussions over ideas to degenerate from polite and respectful discussion to eventually result in intractable sclerosis.
I believe (here follows an untested, unverified, personal hypothesis) it's because people fall into a state of fear.
Based on my observations of voting patterns in my riding, the wealty vote Conservative, whose rhetoric is about law and order and maintaining the status quo and resistance to change; the middle-income vote Liberal, whose rhetoric revolves around slowly adjusting over time to changing conditions and improving social state for the majority; the indigent vote NDP (socialist), and have no qualms about upsetting the apple cart, as they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
But for some reason I haven't quite fathomed, debate always becomes more and more intractable as time goes on, until radical polarization results in an overt power struggle: a naked power grab by people with patently ridiculous positions, e.g. the recent crop of Republican U.S. presidential candidates, or Greek socialists (who insist that there is still plenty of everything for everybody).
I was thinking that political gridlock may stem from fear: wealthy conservatives fear and resist change that may cost them; the poor fear becoming even poorer, of losing whatever hopes they have of leading the better life as promised in the American Dream (TM). That fear results in increasingly strident and extreme positions.
For comparison, it occurred to me a few years ago that the tenor of discourse around oil versus "renewable" energy to "save" the planet parallels and echoes the antebellum discourse over slavery. Oil/big business interests are using almost the same specious arguments for status quo as the slave owners. Slave plantation owners were obviously convinced they would lose everything, should slavery be abolished and John Brown's raid convinced them that they would eventually be forced to give up that economic model, so the result was secession and war.

Zach said...


Thanks. So, to push the point, since our gridlocked power centers have as their one point of consensus "preserve the status quo at any cost!", the one thing they can cooperate on substantially is the building of the repression machine? As they all are invested in keeping their business-as-usual wealth pumps operating, and can hope that their hands might be the ones closest to the levers when the machine is fully turned on?

Also, that is a wonderful description of President Obama (I was puzzled in 2008 what all the excitement was over a Chicago machine politician, bought for a time the notion that he was a radical, then have been alternately disappointed and relieved to find that... he's really a Chicago machine politician).

@Bill Pulliam,

Actually, this is the first I've seen it suggested that a change must be historically novel to qualify as 'radical.' Perhaps my working definition is idiosyncratic, but to me 'radical' simply refers to the degree of change in the essentials or fundamentals, But it need not be novel - changing the United States to be a feudal constitutional monarchy would qualify as a 'radical' change to the existing society, but that's certainly not historically novel.

I would argue that gay "marriage" does qualify as a radical change (including your qualifier of historically novel), although I have some sympathy for the reactionary counter-argument that we've already radically redefined marriage as a social institution, and extending it to same-sex couples really isn't much more than a tweak to the already radically-changed institution. ("marriage has already been redefined past its tolerances" is how a friend of mine puts it).

I'm sure hashing though those arguments here is sufficiently off-topic, so I won't attempt it. But, I do find it interesting (and likelier to be relevant to the topic) that we can't even agree on what changes are 'radical' ones. More evidence for the continued polarization of American politics and culture wars, I suppose.


Picador said...

As several commenters have noted above, I think you've unfairly characterized the Y2K scare as being based on foolish fears. Without the degree of intervention that occurred, things might indeed have gone very badly, if not perhaps as catastrophically as the news media would have had us believe at the time. But even the experts were concerned, and rightly so; it's obnoxious now to look back in hindsight and laugh at every safety net that never caught a falling body.

DeAnander said...

Seems to me that allowing gay marriage -- at least among professing Christians -- would be a return to very early tradition, hence not so much radical (in the common usage) as revanchist :-) I recall something about the historical record supporting a theology that considered the soul to be genderless, and marriage to be a sacred covenant binding two souls; hence there was no requirement for the bodies to be of complementary physical sex, and the early Church did not have a problem with marrying two people of the same sex.

Here's one bread crumb; I'm sure there are more lying around. F'rexample, here's a list of traditional "same sex union" services in various Christian churches over the last millennium or so. Anyway... the modern fascination/phobia around gayness and gay marriage seems just that -- modern.

I guess the nature of the word "radical" is such -- related as it is to "radix" (root), touching the root or root cause (striking at the root, said Thoreau, instead of just hacking at the branches) -- that it could as well mean an impulse to *return* to a previous, historically rooted condition, as an impulse to pull entrenched traditions up by the roots and discard them. Gay marriage returns to some root (or ancient) practises in Christian tradition and is certainly "radical" in that sense :-)

Diane said...

Linh Dinh has just given JMG the thumbs up in article on both Dissident Voice and CounterPunch. Hope JMG does not get exhausted by any increased traffic. I kinda like the blog small and manageable :-)

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John and everyone,

Yes, I'm still banging on about the drama's in Europe, but you should all be concerned as it is a sample of what to expect in the future.

A good summary of the goings on can be found here:

Europe's economic nightmare should be keeping us awake

It would be good if everyone who takes the time to read the article, noted that there has been a recent and significant move towards self-interest plus support for the usually more extreme positions politically.

Please take particular note of the unemployment figures (especially youth unemployment) as they are a problem waiting to happen.

It is not a problem, but a predicament as there is no happy solution based on the courses that are being pursued at present.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi everyone,

It is really interesting watching peoples reactions to the Y2K discussion.

I had to re-read the initial entry that provoked such a response from commenters.

I don't think that our host was stating that the Y2K issue wasn't a problem.

What he did state was that the scaremongering going on about the Y2K issue was actually being actively used to pump wealth into the hands of the IT industry. That was the central point of the argument.

Ironically, aren't wealth pumps what we are discussing here recently?

The defensive tone of some commenters is really a reflection of the earlier Y2K arguments spouted by the IT industry and its PR machine. Isn't this the basis of an incantation?

Computers are a fairly recent innovation and they do allow us to process large volumes of data. Widespread use of computers is even more recent than this. However, government, business and people got by pretty well before them and will so again after they fall off the radar.

I don't believe our host is always correct because to err is to be human, but shouldn't we try to learn and peek through the fog that is thrown up in front of us all?



Leo said...

You mentioned that you expect marxism to see a rise in popularity in the near future.
I was wondering if you also expect a rise in nazism (neo or otherwise) since it seems to me that the ideological bulwarks against it and as a main driving point Hitler (who has become a major mythical figure now) who can easily be called great(in the sense of large, powerful and so on) proves to be an effective figure.

The breaking of the ideological defense i refer to are the good vs evil story thats been told about WW2 since america is no longer seen as the good guys there position in that story is weakened.
The Israel's actions against the palestinians has weakened the horrors of the holocaust since they aren't seen as innocent victims anymore (note: i think the conflict between israel and palestine is both sides faults).
also since a lot of those defense i know of focus on hitler and the holocaust it leaves little defense against the core parts of National Socialism. there are other weaknesses.
just wondering if it could become a very active and large part of the near-future since it (as i understand) came about in a similar climate of stasis.

Adrian Skilling said...

Great post. I always try to relate this to the UK where I live - it doesn't differ much I think.

We've been stuck with two identikit main parties; Conservative and Labour for years - they like to pretend they are different but they don't differ much in reality.

The image is that the Conservatives cut taxes and Labour spends but before the general election they proposed pretty similar cuts with Labours cuts being about 6 months later.

I suspect the UK government is less constrained than the US since some unpopular NHS (National Health Service) reforms and cuts to benefits have been forced through even with objections from the Lords. The NHS reforms weren't even in the manifesto and are extremely unpopular.

However, the Liberal Democrats/Conservative coalition has made the Lib Dems vote collapse. So much so that the Green Party is readying to take them on directly and their only MP Caroline Lucas has just resigned as party chairman in a clever move to give the Greens more media attention. Their policies on the economy, banking reform and social issues should be good for most people. May be this might be the start of something.

hereward said...

Not really on topic, but this story in the British newspaper "The Daily Telegraph" shows how far many prominent economists have actually got with understanding the ramifications of peak oil. It's an absolute corker!

Bill Pulliam said...

On the Y2K issue, I read JMGs comments the same way Chris did, not a statement that there was no problem but an examination of how the problem was used and addressed. I personally had little worry about it because of an incident that happened to us in early January 1997. We took a dog in for her 3-year rabies vaccination on January 2, 1997, and they discovered that their computer would not accept January 2, 2000 as the expiration date. Next time we went back to that vet they had upgraded their computer -- three years before Y2K itself. Banks had been dealing with post Y2K dates since 1970, given their 30-year mortgage schedules. Hardly any computer system fails to look ahead, meaning that all the Y2K bug glitches were tripped and fixed gradually over the months, years, and decades leading up to it. It is not like it was possible for it to suddenly strike the global computing system without warning literally overnight. And, yes, those who were proclaiming doom should have known this.

jollyreaper said...

It's convenient and understandable to see vast conspiracies to explain events. It's pretty astounding to read the talk of papist and masonic conspiracies, things that would surely have unfolded if true and are proven bunk by their absence.

I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War and got a bellyful of communist conspiracy talk. As a credulous kid, I was completely take in by every claim. I was only disabused of this kind of thinking by witnessing the fall of the USSR. Unless it was some kind of rope-a-dope, the commies were done-for and history had spoken. The conspiracy buffs were full of BS.

I think that humans are pattern recognition engines and so we find it easy to see things that aren't there. And we also tend to hate a mystery. We prefer a good story to "I don't know." Explains mythology, explains religion, explains why we like simple and convincing explanations that might not be true.

My problem with grand conspiracies is humans just aren't that crafty. All the good conspiracies get found out eventually. Couple of guys conspiring to commit a crime? Plausible conspiracy. Gunpowder plot to blow up Parliament? Plausible conspiracy. Rich colonial landowners rebelling against the mother country? Plausible conspiracy. THEM controlling everything? Not so much.

Polluters don't pollute because they want to dirty the environment, they do so because it's cheaper than doing the right thing. Poachers don't kill rare animals for the joy of being jerks, it's short-term self-interest.

The general crap-storm this country is facing looks like an orchestrated conspiracy but I tend to believe it's the natural result of lots of self-interested parties looking out for Number One and the net result is that things are ruined for everyone. It's no more top-down and directed than the poor luck of a farmer who finds drought followed by locusts followed by a plague that carries away his family. It's all rotten luck but the gods haven't turned against him. He may find it more comforting to think it's for a reason, even a bad one, than to see it as random chance in a cold, uncaring universe.