Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Degeneration of Politics

There’s a certain wry amusement in looking back over the last few months of posts here on The Archdruid Report.  Each week, I’ve gone to the keyboard intending to proceed further with the outline of the impending fall of American empire that’s the putative theme of this sequence of posts; each week, I’ve ended up talking about some way that the impending fall of American empire is affecting us right now.  That’s worth discussing in its own right, to be sure, but I could probably keep on writing weekly posts about such things until long after America’s global empire is a distant memory, and still not get back to the core issues of how we got here and where we’re headed.

Those issues need to be kept in mind, for reasons that are far from academic.  Just now, for example, the United States is trudging wearily through yet another vacuous presidential campaign, and even the mass media has to struggle to find any noticeable difference between the two grinning, gesticulating animatronic dolls disguised as presidential candidates who will spend this coming autumn lurching through their little elect-me routines with the mad persistence of broken cuckoo clocks.  Since neither candidate has a record worth examining, and neither one seems to be able to think of any substantive proposals for dealing with the widening spiral of crises that besets America these days, both campaigns have fallen back on the insistence that the other side’s candidate would be a worse president than theirs. I find myself wondering, in defiance of all the rules of logic, if both are right.

It’s not surprising, given the fatuous spectacle into which our politics has degenerated, that so many Americans have given up on the political process altogether, or that a growing fraction of Americans have gone veering off into political extremism.  The question that needs to be asked is why what was once one of the world’s most vigorous democracies can’t do better. It’s not a new question, but like most questions about contemporary American life, it generally gets asked and answered by people who never wonder if history has anything to say about the matter. 

Now in fact history does have quite a bit to say about the matter.  When the United States won its independence from Britain, the constitution that was signed in Philadelphia in 1787 established a form of government that was not, and did not pretend to be, democratic.  It was an aristocratic republic, of a type familiar in European political history: the government was elected by ballot, but the right to vote was restricted to those white male citizens who owned a significant amount of property—the amount varied from state to state, like almost everything else in the constitution, but it was high enough that only 10-15% of the population had the right to participate in elections.

What broke the grip of the old colonial aristocracy on the American political system, and launched the nation on a trajectory toward universal adult suffrage, was the emergence of the modern political party. In America, at least—the same process took place in Britain and several other countries around the same time—the major figure in that emergence was Andrew Jackson, who seized control of one large fragment of the disintegrating Democratic-Republican party in 1828, transformed it into the first successful political mass movement in American history, and rode it into the White House.  Central to Jackson’s strategy was support for state legislation extending the right to vote to all white male citizens; in order to make that support effective, the newly minted Democratic Party had to organize right down to the neighborhood level; in order to make the neighborhood organizations attract potential members, the party had to give them an active role in choosing candidates and policies.

That was the origin of the caucus system, the basic building block of American political parties from then on.  Jackson’s rivals quickly embraced the same system, and one rival force—the Anti-Masonic Party, which was a major force in national politics in the 1820s and 1830s—built on the Jacksonian template by inventing state and national conventions, which everyone else quickly copied. By the 1840s, the American political party had established itself as an essential part of the way Americans chose their candidates and made their laws. 

Here’s how it worked.  Party caucuses existed in every urban neighborhood, small town, and rural center, and their activities were not limited to one meeting every four years; they met regularly, as often as once a week, to talk politics and keep party members informed of what was going on in local, state, and national affairs.  Ambitious young men—after 1920, ambitious young women as well—attended caucus meetings throughout their voting district, pressing flesh, making connections, and learning the ropes of politics.  As election time approached, caucuses went into overdrive, nominating candidates, drafting policy proposals, and—crucially—electing delegates to city or county conventions, who would support the candidates and the proposals at that level. 

The city and county conventions then did much the same thing, sorting through the candidates and proposals from lower down, choosing party candidates for local officers, and electing delegates to the state convention.  The same process repeated itself at the state level, sorting out proposals from below, nominating candidates for state offices and Congressional seats, and electing delegates to the national convention, where the presidential candidate was chosen.

I once had the misfortune to be stuck in the Atlanta airport, waiting for a long-delayed flight back to the west coast, while large television screens all over the concourse showed the Republican National Convention in full spate.  A series of forgettable speakers were bellowing at the top of their lungs about the alleged virtues of whatever forgettable candidates the GOP was fielding that year; I suspect the point of all the yelling was to keep the delegates from dozing off, because the proceedings reminded me of nothing so much as a high school pep rally for a team that’s already lost its shot at the local playoffs.  The candidate had already been selected; ditto the party platform, a collection of bland sound bites that not even the most diehard of the faithful expected anyone to remember the day after the election; all that remained was the sort of tepid rah-rah atmosphere you get when people are going through the motions of something that used to matter, but no one any more can remember why.

As recently as the 1950s, that kind of atmosphere was unthinkable at a political convention, because what happened there actually made a difference.  Since the local caucuses all happened at more or less the same time, as did the local and state conventions, the absurdity of the current nominating process—in which victory in three or four early state primaries can all but clinch the nomination for a candidate long before most party members have any voice in the matter—was not an option. Instead, it was standard for delegates to converge on the national convention backing anything up to half a dozen serious candidates, and the candidate who proved best at making speeches, managing his public presence, and engaging in no-holds-barred backroom political deals—not bad job training for the presidency, all things considered—normally came out with the nomination.

That was the way the system worked.  Was it vulnerable to corruption? You bet.  Most large American cities spent many decades under the one-party rule of political machines that funneled public money to an assortment of private pockets, buying and selling votes like so many pork bellies, and the bosses of the biggest machines—Chicago’s Richard Daley was among the most famous of the recent examples—could play kingmaker on a national scale in a tight election.  Party machines more generally were full of able political connivers whose obvious interest in advancing their personal power and wealth noticeably outweighed any concern they might have had for the public good. All these were among the reasons why the caucus and convention system was gutted, stuffed and mounted in the 1960s and 1970s, and primary elections became the standard way to choose candidates.

Compare the older system to the way presidential nominations are handled nowadays, though, and it’s not exactly easy to claim that the present system is more representative or less blatantly corrupt than the caucuses and conventions of the past. Where winning a presidential nomination in 1852 or 1952 required solid organizational skills, the backing of a significant fraction of the party’s local movers and shakers, excellent public relations, and a good dollop of the amiable ruthlessness that makes for success in the world of political dealmaking, winning a presidential nomination nowadays requires precisely one thing:  money.  Business interests unquestionably had a seat at the table in the days when caucuses and conventions mattered, but theirs was far from the only such seat, and it happened quite often that a candidate favored by the very rich got elbowed aside by some upstart with populist notions who was just that little bit better at playing the political game.

More generally, it’s worth taking a look at the kind of people who advanced to power through the old system, and comparing them with the kind of people who advance to power through the new.  A Kansas City haberdasher like Harry Truman wouldn’t be elected to the city council today, but he was one of those ambitious young men I mentioned earlier, and his exceptional skills as a campaigner, organizer, and bare-knuckle political bruiser took him all the way to the White House; the world-class drubbing he dealt out to media favorite Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election was typical of the man.  More generally, it’s fair to say that very few of the significant political leaders of American history between Jackson’s time and the beginning of the 1960s could get elected in today’s money-driven environment. If we’re going to have a corrupt political system—and we are; no political system anywhere will ever be more honest than the people it governs—we might as well have one that produces leaders more capable than the airbrushed marionettes who infest the American political scene these days.

Quite a few of the reforms that reshaped American politics in the 20th century had the same effect as the gutting of the caucus and convention system.  Two of the Progressive Era’s chief reforms—direct election of US senators and nonpartisan elections for city governments—are cases in point.  Until 1913, US senators were appointed by state legislatures, were directly answerable to state governments, and thus reliably opposed attempts by the House of Representatives to expand federal power at the expense of the states.  Once US senators were elected by popular vote, that check went away, and the backroom political deals that previously put state politicians in the Senate gave way to outright purchase of senators by corporate interests, which could readily provide the money that candidates needed to win elections.  In the same way, campaigns to “clean up” cities by abolishing political machines got rid of the machines, but this simply meant that business interests no longer had to bargain with machine politicians for favors; they could simply buy elections and get what they wanted.

Changes along these lines, it deserves to be said, are tolerably common when a nation gets into the empire business. The rise of each of the major European empires, for example, were preceded by bitter struggles between the national government and feudal domains that had existed as quasi-independent states for centuries; only when traditions of local autonomy and decentralization are crushed can a nation concentrate the power and wealth needed for imperial adventures.  The extreme decentralization of the United States under its original constitution made conflicts of this kind inevitable, and earlier posts have already outlined the shifting battle lines along which those struggles were fought out.

The specific form that those struggles took in the United States, however, have consequences that will likely play a large role in shaping the course of America’s imperial decline.

The first is that the gutting of the caucus and convention system took place alongside the collapse of an entire world of democratically run voluntary organizations, which provided citizens with most of the training they needed to take an effective role in local politics.  In 1920, for example, half of all adult Americans, counting both genders and all ethnic groups, belonged to at least one fraternal order, and these orders—ranging in size from multimillion-member organizations such as the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows down to little local orders with a single lodge and a few dozen members—were nearly all run by the same democratic processes used by caucuses to elect delegates and vote on policy proposals.   Nearly all the other institutions of American civil society, from gun clubs and historical societies to  independent lending libraries and farmers’ cooperatives, ran their affairs in exactly the same way.

Those days are long gone.  The vast majority of those institutions went extinct decades ago, abandoned in the course of America’s transformation from an active civil society to a passive mass society, and even in the few organizations that remain, it’s rare to find anybody who still remembers how to chair a meeting so that all viewpoints get heard, the necessary decisions get made, and everyone still gets home at a reasonable hour. The fetish for consensus politics among activists on the left helped to finish the job, replacing old and effective methods of organization with a system that simply doesn’t work.  I don’t suppose that my readers have yet forgotten the torrents of self-praise that came out of Occupy Wall Street and its equivalents last year, or more precisely from the activists who hijacked the mass demonstrations in New York and elsewhere, pushed consensus methods on them, used those methods to get control of the meetings and the money, and then ran them into the ground. The result, as usual, was that most of the people who had originally joined the protests simply walked away, once it became clear to them that their voices had been coopted and their concerns would not be addressed, and the activists drifted elsewhere once it became clear to them that they no longer had an audience.

That’s the first consequence.  The second is that, by gutting the caucus system, the American political system deprived itself of a crucial source of guidance and feedback.  When neighborhood caucuses were still debating political issues over mugs of beer and passing their recommendations up the line to county, state, and national conventions, canny politicians of both major parties paid attention, since shifts in the political wind could be sensed there more quickly than elsewhere. Canny politicians in the major parties also paid close attention to anything the small parties did that attracted more than the usual number of voters—that’s how labor unions were legalized, for example. That meant that serious problems generally got attention from the political system:  not always quickly, and not always the kind of attention that helped matters much, but more often than not it kept the US from sailing blindly into disasters that everybody but the political class saw well in advance.

The current political system doesn’t have that advantage. These days American politics is a closed loop in which the competing pressure groups that make up the political class need not listen to anyone outside of their own narrow world of power brokers, corporate donors, and tame intellectuals.  It’s a perfect culture medium for groupthink, efficiently screening out the divergent voices and alternative views a nation needs in order to survive in an uncertain and troubled world.

The third consequence is that the centralization of American power, thorough as it was, never quite reached all the way down to the level of structure.  Many European countries scrapped their old regional provinces entirely in the process of centralizing power, replacing the traditional geography of power with a new structure that deliberately disrupted local ties and loyalties. The United States never managed to break up the states, say, into a couple of hundred administrative districts with boundaries that cut across the old state lines and only such powers as Congress chooses to hand out.  Instead, the states remain fully functional regional governments, clinging jealously to what remains of their old prerogatives, and possessed of certain rarely exercised powers that could turn out to be decisive in a time of crisis. We’ll talk more about those next week.

****************
End of the World of the Week #33

Not every prophecy of doom that claims to be ancient is actually ancient. Fans of the supposed Mayan origin of the current flurry of 2012 prophecies may find it useful to keep that in mind, as theirs is far from the first time that some contemporary writer has foisted predictions onto a much older and more famous figure.  One example that comes to mind right away is the notorious Mother Shipton.

Ursula Shipton, née Southeil, was born around 1488 in Yorkshire and died in 1561.According to a popular chapbook published six years after her death, she was fabulously ugly, but a skilled fortune teller with a more than local reputation.  Nearly all her prophecies were about local Yorkshire events, and none featured the end of the world.

That was remedied in 1862 when a hack writer named Charles Hindley supplied Mother Shipton with a new set of prophecies, ending with the couplet:

The world then to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty-one.

Needless to say, 1881 came and went without any particular sign of doom, but Hindley’s invented prophecies have been circulated since his time as Mother Shipton’s authentic prophecies. When I was in high school, a version appeared that applied a useful update to that last couplet:

The world then to an end shall come
In nineteen hundred and ninety-one.

1991, in turn, passed without apocalyptic incident.

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

112 comments:

ofthehands.com said...

Ahh, an excellent post, JMG. As someone who went through a few years of being very interested in politics--even to the point of actually ceasing blogging about it long enough to volunteer for a couple campaigns and attend a caucus or two--I must say that it's very satisfying to read a critique of current politics that helps shed light on the disenchantment that quickly followed my brief emotional investment into this bizarre world. A couple election cycles back, I lived and died by political results; now I'm skeptical I'll even lodge a vote in the presidential election.

I wish I could say I learned how to caucus when I attended a caucus. But mostly we just waited to lodge our vote, then fiddled around a bit with rubberstamping a platform and attempting to find some people who were willing to be a delegate. This was in 2004, and by the time our Washington caucus rolled around, I believe Kerry about had the nomination wrapped up. I still came out for Howard Dean, who I was quite infatuated with at the time, but it was already a foregone conclusion that he would not be the nominee, as he had gotten a bit too excited in Iowa.

Anyway, while I don't imagine I would find the bare knuckle world of politics that you describe particularly compelling from a personal standpoint, it does sound quite a few shades better than the nonsense theater we have these days. Every once in awhile, I wonder what it would be like to actually have an interesting politician move up the ladder, even if I didn't particularly like him or her. I don't imagine I'll find out anytime soon--at least, not here in America.

I do feel a certain sadness at the loss of a functioning democracy, at all levels. I keep meaning to attend a meeting at the local Grange. I'll have to actually do that soon. There are still a number of old farmers in the area--dairy farmers, mainly, as I'm on the Tillamook county line here in Oregon--and if I've learned one thing in my last few years of interning on farms, it's that old farmers are good people to know and talk to. And in the context of decline, even better. Plus, from what I've heard from the owner of the farm I worked on last year, they're eager to see some new blood in the Grange.

Looking forward to next week's post on the states.

Joel

galacticsurfer said...

Reading something informative and useful in a long-term historical anaylsis is very satisfying. Add TV and radio to the brew and you have a complete picture. If national aduioence didn't exist the decapitiationg of the regions would be impossible. Were people more locals in earlier times or "Americans"? Now we talk to people from around the world ion the web and become citizens of a global village but can'T talk with our neighbours and are all unifomred and disinterested about practical local politics.

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, get on over to the Grange hall and ask for an application! The Grange used to be a massive force for constructive change in this country, and still has most of the tools in place to fill the same role again, if the people who like to talk about making a difference in farm country will just get off their backsides and make the effort necessary to learn ways of doing things that don't necessarily fit contemporary prejudices. (Full disclosure: I'm a past master and a life member of the Grange in Washington state, and the only reason I'm not active here in Maryland is that there's no Grange close enough for me to get to.)

Surfer, the process started before radio, but of course you're right that radio, TV and the internet, in that order, played a significant role in crushing civil society. There were other factors as well, which I'll discuss in future posts.

Leo said...

I'm not aware if Australia ever had any system like that. Sounds like a robust and workable system, while it has flaws every system has and those ones are better than the current ones, that if it could be revived would be a good fallback as America continues declining. WHat where those old and effective methods of organisation? boundaries, hierarchy, lines of responsibility?

http://amelburniansresponsetoovershoot.blogspot.com.au/
i started i blog and put the essay on catabolic collapse and australian policies i did.

rhyd wildermuth said...

Hello Archdruid!
I've been following your blog for quite some time and find it often quite fascinating and, well mostly brilliant.
I fear, however, you may be being a bit too hard on Occupy. In Seattle, at least, that massive energy has galvanized a strengthened anti-industrialisation (and yes, of course, anti-capitalist) thread of thought and action. They've (we've) started new, practical movements to build the world they wish to live in.
Of particular interest, I suspect, would be the renewed drive to build urban food security--there are many, many new urban/ghetto gardening projects (many quasi-legal) and open/free kitchens all spearheaded by the "core" members of Occupy. The people didn't lose interest, nor did the activists wander away--they're feeding people.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

JMG,

Though our detailed history and organisational structure differs, the results are the same. We Brits have also seen the decline of democratic politics, replaced by moneyed influence and short term political expedience. Even the shock of some 95% of our ‘honourable’ members being exposed as being on the take with fiddled expenses running into tens of thousands still didn’t make them honest.

Explicit election promises were made by a minority party, including a signed pledge. When that same party unexpectedly found itself with the balance of power in a governing coalition, that pledge was promptly abandoned and massive hikes were imposed, because, well, it was a coalition now, and necessary compromises meant those promises for votes no longer mattered when ministerial salaries and cars were at stake.

‘Power tends to corrupt’ - to the extent that the actual issues of importance are not aired, rendering the whole thing a largely irrelevant media sideshow. I go with Dmitry Orlov’s sage advice that we should not pay attention to politicians, as it only encourages them.

Vote Collapse Party!

Mustard

LynnHarding said...

I am the lecturer at my Grange. I try to put the rituals into their historical context and to explain how many of the things we take for granted - rural mail delivery for example - were promoted by the Grange.
I have acquired all of the readily available texts on the history of the Grange. I would love to find something on the growth of the Farm Bureau as an organization created to counter the political power of the Grange. Any suggestions? In fact, any suggestions at all about how to interpret the Grange to the local food, farming and transition movements that tend to be either new age or fundamentalist? Is it hopeless?

Avery said...

The sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein wrote a terrific book called Take Back Your Government!: A Practical Handbook for the Private Citizen Who Wants Democracy to Work in 1946. Heinlein advocates getting involved in party politics, but oddly, his inclination is purely and sincerely centrist (he notes that he supports the Republicans but that his readers can join either party), and his audience is the common man. What he describes is exactly the system you are talking about: going door-to-door in your neighborhood, joining local party branches, having discussions with people, and generally keeping the system working.

His book was not published until 1992; the editor, his old friend, warns the readers that his technique will not work in our horrible present day situation, and it's better to just give up.

Odin's Raven said...

The real problem was 'peak civilization' rather than 'peak oil'.

Here's a lament for his native California by the eminent historian Victor Hanson.
http://pjmedia.com/victordavishanson/california-the-road-warrior-is-here/?singlepage=true

Civilization seems to have long ago departed, civility is but a fading dream, savagery increasingly rules.

The response, however, seems strangely muted. As yet, this decline and loss has not evoked anything like the old Welsh poetry such as Canu Llywarch Hen
http://derwas-read.co.uk/ancestral_poems_part3.htm

'The hall of Cynddylan, dark is the roof,
Since the Saxon cut down
Powys's Cynddylan and Aelfan........
It's not Ffreuer's death I mourn for tonight
But myself, sick and feeble,
My brothers and my land I lament........
Heledd the hawk I am called,
Oh God ! to whom are given
My brother's steeds and their lands ? '

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thanks for last weeks response. Sometimes the needful is not necessarily the pleasant, but I always tend to view things from the long term perspective.

Live today, whilst remembering the past and also keeping one eye on the future.

Yeah, your essay doesn't surprise me either. Over here they have Branch Stacking which is just as dodgy and also effectively undermines the local branches of political parties.

It is worthwhile checking out the Wikipedia link just to see all of the dodgy activities that this involves. My particular favourite is cemetery voting. Well done, you politicians.

Did the advent of television have anything to do with the change from active citizens to passive consumers?

Incidentally your recounting of the story of Taliesin and your interpretation sent shivers up my spine. Very insightful.

Living up in the mountains in a remote out of the way spot gives me time to reflect on things and events. I strongly suspect that a lot of my peers are over stimulated and as such they lose that ability to reflect. When I visit people now, not a single household that I can recall in recent times does not have a television running, regardless of whether people are watching it or not. Have they become frightened by the possibility of reflection? I wonder about this, because it wasn't always this way.

Regards

Chris

Jason said...

This is one of those posts that makes me hope for someone to translate it into British terms. Something similar must have happened, that's for sure.

I'd also love more info on the differences between consensus and the older, better way. Where can I find that?

Ivan Lukic said...

There is distinction between dictatorship and totalitarian rule, made by Hannah Arendt. In totalitarian rule all aspects of life are controled, while in dictatorship only the sphere of political is reserved for the ruler and other spheres of life are open for free individuals. I know that because I lived in Titoist Yugoslavia, which was basicaly dictatorship. I am vintage ’63.

If a country (say US, but the same applies for contemporary Serbia as well) needs to get out of, what Kollapsnik calls, „political gridlock situation“ (meaning too many corupt interested players or influential groups with veto power), some form of enlightened dictatorship may be needed. That is not only necessary, but also inevitable according to Polybius concept of anacyclosis. Dictatorship may have many forms and dictator may protect interests of oligarhy (Pinoche), or of ordinary people (Chaves), or of both (in case of Hitler). The form of dictatorship is open to receive any content (remember Tao) and dictators come in different flavours. In this phase a sheer luck plays a role.

Consider this „thought experiment“.

Most rich people in US are clueless, but not all. What if some of them know that some kind of dictatorship is necessary in order to save their riches for some time? The only thing they need to do is to provoke some big war (small one won’t do). What they have to lose? Absolutely nothing. If the war is victorious (unlikely) they can grab the riches of Euro-Asia, after they squeezed the last drops from both Americas. If lost, again it’s good for them because they removed immediate „clear and present“ danger that explosive mass of youngsters living in non-voluntary poverty represent to them. For many poor youngsters going to Army is „one way out“ (no pun intended with Sonny Boy Williamson blues). This is only one possible scenario, but remember that biggest US exports ever are:

1. Myth of unlimited consumption
2. Wars as a way of solving internal problems

Unfortunately, rich people usualy does not consider sharing their fortune with ordinary people, although that is, at least theoreticaly, one possible scenario. For US this shall be youngsters vs. banksters game.

Readers of this blog are advised to read Carl Schmitt’s essay on The Concept of Political. Forget the writer’s political preference, forget that he was Nazi. The principles still apply, for any country.

I am sorry for orthography mistakes, spelling tool is not available for Serbian keyboard.

Source_Dweller said...

Greetings John Michael,
A tremendously astute analysis of the current American political scene, though I am viewing this from the Canadian rust-belt province of Ontario, somewhat removed. Quite a few of us Canucks follow American politics though, and for good reason.
As a long time member and past-every-office-in-the-club of a local chapter of a made in Canada service organization, I can confirm that in twenty years the skills of the chairmen has declined to the point of being nearly nil, and the general knowledge of meeting rules, etc. gone by the wayside.
A once vigorous and rigorous forum has been replaced by a muddling through, with decisions pushed along in the direction of the most persistent or prestigious talkers, the requisite vote being usually forgotten.
The same kind of sloppiness infects all sorts of groups.I am thinking of a particular church re-building committee I'm dealing with at present, where most participants seem quite clueless as to their roles, any sense of procedure they might follow to reach a decision, any sense even, that a conflict of interest should be at the very least disclosed. And very little knowledge of, and consequently little respect for, the opinions and the roles of professional consultants including myself honestly trying to bring the project along.
It is not always the case. Other denominations have been a joy to work with, these kind of folks respect each individual's right to speak, and however informally, make democratic decisions; brought in their consultants early on, not at the last moment, and actually did consult them.
I may be whining. If so, consider this off-topic.
Regards, Robert
Another small sign of the times.

August Johnson said...

JMG - off topic, Greenwizards.org seems to have vanished from the Internet as of yesterday morning. Has someone not paid the domain registration fee?

Mister Roboto said...

Good post, as usual. My understanding was that even back during the eighties, the national Democratic Party had a much more substantial grassroots structure than the Republican Party, but during the nineties, the exact opposite became the case. The Bill Clinton machine transformed the Democratic Party into a much more top-down sort of organization; and while the Republican Party remained as heirarchical as ever, a virtual army of movement-conservatives and religious-right followers filed into it ready and willing to drink any Kool-Aid and follow all orders in order to fight the despised Democrat (who could in fact be described as one of the USA's most successful Republican presidents) in the Oval Office.

The result is today's Democratic Party which is so at loggerheads with its traditional base, that only the most pathetic codependent doormats remain enthusiastic supporters. So that's why you have healthcare reform that was originally a Heritage Foundation proposal from the previous decade, and that's why you have the national party nickel-and-diming crucially decisive regional contests such as the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall. The only way I can imagine the Democratic Party surviving as a viable political force is if people gravitate towards it in response to the extremism-for-extremism's-sake of the neo-John-Bircher Tea Partiers.

Draft said...

I'm wondering whether one positive development of the breakdown of traditional caucus systems and of various private clubs / societies is that it enabled the political system to become more inclusive, first of women and then to a range of ethnic and social minority voices that had been shut out for far too long.

And given the somewhat ugly history a number of fraternal orders have with segregation, etc. well past the point of broader social acceptability (some continuing to this day as I understand), it's hard for me to feel sad for their decline (Elks and Freemasons come to mind, but I'm sure it's true of others). While I understand the downside of not having civic engagement at all, I do wonder if those fraternal organizations were too laden with a history of white male power (whose voices carried essentially all the weight in politics until the 1990s).

What might be some new more inclusive, appropriately reformed fraternal-like organizations for modern, plural America? I would gladly help start such an organization in my town with those I know, but the form of it is still a bit of a mystery to me.

Maria said...

Thanks, JMG, for an explanation of the history I didn't get at my local high school! As usual, your essay is timely for me on a personal level. I belong to a group that is in the process of consolidating power at the state level -- which we are given to understand is happening for our greater good, of course. In the past, change came from the bottom up; recently, I brought up something that I felt needed to be changed (a very small thing). I was put in my place quickly and with condescension that barely stopped short of calling me "little lady." Now, instead of being angry about it, I see it as part of the bigger picture of power consolidation and the need to squash dissenting voices in order to achieve that goal. I can more clearly see what my options are.

These are things a middle-aged woman should probably already understand, but I've led a rather sheltered life. Call it the introvert disadvantage. :)

Alex Boland said...

JMG,

This post really struck a chord with me. It felt like the closest thing I've seen to an "answer". I'm not downplaying appropriate tech, but it seemed that there was something more fundamental that had to be regained if we wanted our efforts at survival to (1) not be merely throwing pebbles at a giant and (2) work in a way that is aligned with the unpredictable nuances of our situation. It's a bold conjecture coming from a n00b like myself, but it seems that if we want to get through this, the most important skill is for us to collectively re-learn to think like a community.


Also, I wanted to draw attention to a relevant kickstarter project an acquaintance of mine, Chris Crawford, has been working on. It's an environmental simulation he intends to host on the web for free in order to inform people about some of the choices we make. It's not as "doom and gloom" (so to speak) as the views put here, but I've been in touch with him and he's a very thoughtful and intelligent person who understands the difficulties that we'll be facing in the 21st century. I also think that the readers of this blog will enjoy playing and critiquing the free demo on the site (warning: it's a prototype, lots of bugs).

Anyway, here's the kickstarter page:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/544670315/balance-of-the-planet

Hoping this encourages some discussion!

Alex Boland said...

Oh, also, on political disintegration, there's another great book I've been reading that resonates with the themes of this blog. It's called The Pentagon Labyrinth, written by pentagon insiders and showing how compromised our defense industry is. There's a free PDF here:

http://pogoarchives.org/labyrinth/full-labyrinth-text-w-covers.pdf

Logan said...

activists ... hijacked the mass demonstrations in New York and elsewhere, pushed consensus methods on them, used those methods to get control of the meetings and the money, and then ran them into the ground.

Um ... citation needed.

Au contraire: from the beginning Occupy was a backlash against the structures of conventional activism, which were seen as having failed for thirty years. It was Carnival, an un-asking of the question, a declaration that "Your war is not over, Lebowski, the bums may yet win!" Occupy Denver electing a border collie as its leader epitomized the movement, such as it was.

You may argue against the efficacy of their stance, but I find rather incredible your implication that Robert's Rules type democracy is the natural state of human groups, while consensus is something which must be nefariously foisted.

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

Old style retail politics still work at the local level (I'm located in a county of about 300,000 population, capital of Florida). Costs are rising but political skill and effective tactics do still win occasionally.

I work with local environmental, neighborhood and peace groups - mostly with similar politics, who become a base for action.

Just a word of advice - national (environmental) groups sure do suck the life out of a campaign more
often than not. We've had national group leadership take over state and local chapters because we were too "radical." Oh well...

Good luck to us ALL!

Best regards,
edde

Christine4 said...

JMG, I read every week (many thanks) and comment now and then. Your post this week is perhaps less relevant to your overseas readers (i'm in the UK). Nonetheless, a couple of thoughts occur to me.

People these days are notoriously reluctant to commit time and energy to local organisations. Similarly, I heard that it is quite common to struggle with getting firm RSVP replies to a social event, as people say "maybe", and then wait to see what they feel like on the day, or to see if any better option turns up than attending your event. Whether it is selfishness, exhaustion, or some other cause, it is affecting all sorts of voluntary organisations.

The book "Freakonomics" by Levitt and Dubner suggests that in the US election system, when looking at campaign donations and spending, the amount of money spent has almost no effect. They reach this conclusion by comparing consecutive elections in which the same two candidates ran against each other (about 1000 examples since 1972) and studying the money spent in each race. (This isn't a full explanation - it takes several pages of the book). However, this study says nothing about the behind-the-scenes influence of big business, outside of official campaign spending, so doesn't undermine your wider argument.

Twilight said...

Thank you for that history lesson and very useful perspective. I'm quite humbled that I never knew much of that nor understood the ramifications. It puts a lot of things in perspective. Your knowledge of history and ability to frame it in ways that are relevant to the present are truly a gift.

Tim said...

Good post, I'd suggest some refinements to it... having been involved in both the RNC protests in 2004 in NYC and having helped behind the scenes at OWS last year (after 2004 I decided this stuff was pointless theater but I still sometimes lend a hand to those determined to do it). I think the professional activists you mention do exist - but what happens is they usually arrive on the scene of a ground swell and attach their pet issue to whatever is happening. This happened with the UFPJ march where they were forced to work with ANSWER and we ended up with lots of anti-Israeli stuff injected into a march about the Iraq War... which most of us found irrelevant and some found offensive.

Last year the pro activists all arrived with their pet issues to an economic protest. Some of them were anarchists who had been involved in the Arab Spring and thought that this was "their moment"... certainly their ambitions could never be anything as simple and mainstream as reinstating Glass-Steagall. Beyond that, the overall problem was that this was an act of street theater meant to imitate the Hoovervilles of the 1930's. The problem was, the original Hoovervilles were not an act of theater, and their actual successors can be found out of site under lots of bridges. The folks they actually attracted were mostly pretty well-fed, well-meaning people - some of them out of work, but very few of them with any level of actual desperation.

Don Stewart said...

Dear JMG
A thought provoking post, as usual.

The train of thought it prompts in me goes as follows:
1. The amount of time that can be spent on politics depends on the Net Energy being produced by the civilization. If there is plenty of Net Energy, then a lot can be 'wasted' in politics.
2. Throughout most of our early history, Net Energy was pretty high. Farmers just moved West as the soils in the East were depleted. In effect, we successively mined energy stored in the soil.
3. Then fossil fuels came along and we had even more Net Energy.
4. In the future, we may have very little Net Energy. All the natural systems, including fossil fuels, are depleting or depleted. So we may well be back 'the sweat of our brows' times.
5. The margin between life and death in a low Net Energy environment is narrow. A family or a society can't make too many mistakes and live to tell about it.
6. Recognizing that fact, how much are you willing to compromise to keep political peace? More likely, we will see splinter groups form. In the olden days, those who were dissatisfied joined a wagon train headed for Oregon. Those who left were more or less of one mind, while those who stayed were more or less of one mind. There was less need for political compromise.
7. We no longer have anywhere to go. But there will still be choices. My guess is that we will go in two directions:
A. The plantation choice as laid out by James Howard Kunstler. Somebody with the intellectual and physical strength to direct the effort of quite a few people such that everyone survives.
B. The nuclear family (or maybe extended family) pretty much on its own.
8. In neither case are people likely to be willing to spend much time on politics and compromise. Work days on the roads and perhaps some work on the water systems may be about it.

Don Stewart

g-minor said...

You rightly and fairly describe the two leading candidates for POTUS as "airbrushed marionettes." That implies that someone somewhere is moving their limbs by pulling the strings. I think that is also true but can we find out who that is and will it make any difference?

g

vera said...

So you are getting into the mechanics of politics, JMG! I did not expect that... :-)

I just want to comment to your "If we’re going to have a corrupt political system—and we are; no political system anywhere will ever be more honest than the people it governs—we might as well have one that produces leaders more capable than the airbrushed marionettes who infest the American political scene these days."

The interesting question here is, since we are NOT all corrupt, how come it is the corrupt who rise to, erm, "represent" us? As far as I can tell, the noncorrupt have no representation at all. That's why I will not vote again. All it does is legitimize the status quo...

jollyreaper said...

The thing that scares me is the aura of legitimacy has pretty much been undone for the entire political process. Older people I know who used to believe that the system worked are now thoroughly disillusioned. Nobody feels anything productive will be done, the gears have pretty much stopped turning and are becoming an undifferentiated mass of rust.

When the old solutions no longer work, what new solutions will people turn to? I used to have a more positive take on things and that a great crisis would lead to needed reforms and leave us ultimately better off than before. I have trouble believing in such a rosy outlook now.

Twilight said...

Thinking further about this, I had always ascribed these changes to the development of communications technology allowing high speed communications over long distances. I suspect there is still a linkage. Without rapid communications one must have a structure that grants more autonomy to far flung local regions. Like driving a rover on Mars is different from controlling an RC car, you can only give it directions and let it carry them out. Lacking that up-to-date information the center cannot respond to local issues - it is interesting that they don't even with modern communications. Rather, the communications links are used to go the other way, from the center to the branches.

Yuri Kuzyk said...

Hi John Michael,

Another thought-provoking piece of writing.

I'm curious if you have any comments regarding another elephant in the room: race. Your post alludes to the issues around discrimination in the development of the present system but it goes much deeper.

Recent studies indicate that racial bias is definitely present at the level of cognition (unconscious brain activity) and this type of imprinting is a definite concern once it affects supposedly higher-level decision-making. See the study "The Neural Correlates of Race" as well as examples and discussion in the book "The Hidden Brain" for more information.

I raise this issue for two reasons. The first is that as we progress down the decline both power, with regards to ruling, and racial issues are likely to be major tipping points. Unlike the former USSR and Argentina, North America and many places in Europe are very inhomogeneous with regards to race.

The second issue is that this is a realm where magic (to use your term) has great impact. My own lineage acknowledges, understands and works with the deep undercurrents of cognition as I'm sure yours does and I think that this work is vitally important for ensuring that some of us pass through the next stages carrying good aspects of the present industrial civilizations and, more importantly, the best of the ancient traditions, forward for future generations.

Perhaps some commentary on this?

Tim said...

Our local Grange Hall in Potter Hollow NY is now an evangelical church. Apparently that is a common story throughout the Catskills. This Grange, by the way, was active until the early 90's, when, according to a friend who became a farmer around then, the government bought out the local dairy farmers in the valley. Within a few years, many had moved, some committed suicide, an arsonist (and volunteer fireman) had burned most of the barns, and the entire community was destroyed. Now this valley is all brush.

LewisLucanBooks said...

In the past, the times I most felt like an American was when I went to the polls to vote. There was always good coffee and homemade cookies brought in by the little old ladies and men who oversaw the precinct.

I'd see one of my cranky old neighbors whose vote I imagined I was canceling out. I'd loiter around to make sure my ballot went into the locked box with the slot on the top. I'd proudly wear my "I Voted" sticker for the rest of the day. I'd urge people to vote. "I don't care who you vote for, but vote!" After the election results were counted, I'd often run across complainers as to the outcome. "Did you vote?" I'd ask. Nine times out of ten, the complainer would lapse into silence. Then our county went to vote by mail...

I don't feel so patriotic, anymore. And, I worry about one family member standing over another in a kitchen, making sure they "vote right."

SLClaire said...

Add me in to the list of people who really appreciate your historical analysis, in this post and others as well. I knew about the old political caucuses, the Grange and its role in the old Progressive movement, and Richard Daley. What your post does is fill out the historical background and tie it back to what is happening now better than I've seen done by anyone else.

Richard Daley jokes were a stock feature in the Midwest when I was growing up. Example: two religious leaders (take your pick of which two) and Daley are in a boat on Lake Michigan when a bad storm comes up. It soon becomes clear that the boat can only stay afloat in such a storm with one person in it, not three. Daley proposes an election to determine who gets to stay in the boat; the other two men agree. They hold the election and Daley wins, 5-2.

I was board president of the religious organization I belong to for a total of 8 years and on the board of a number of other local groups before that, so I know exactly what you mean by the skills needed for a good meeting and to keep the organization going. It was very much on-the-job training; nothing I ever learned in school taught me how to do it. I don't have the stomach for it at the level of politics, but it may help me better know what is required for someone else to do a good job at that level. At the moment I am taking a break from organizational work, but it's possible I'll return to it in some way later on.

Renaissance Man said...

Very fascinating summary of how the U.S. political system got to where it is. I always wondered whatever happened to Daley and his powerful political machine, Tammany Hall, &c. They were corrupt, but as one writer wrote, the pork-barrel graft also meant New York got an extensive subway system built very quickly.
I also find it interesting to contrast and compare to how political systems have degenerated in Canada, Britain, and Europe.
As Canada is a client state of the American Empire, we tend to follow along in most trends, albeit a couple of decades later, so we can maintain the illusion of dissimilarity.
In Canada (& UK) Parties have local associations, not dissimilar to congressional districts, to choose the local candidate. Then we jump immediately to national conventions where reps make policy proposals, select boards of directors and Party leaders. (A parallel, but separate organization works at the Provincial level.)
Back in the era of Trudeaumania, the Prime Minister's Office consisted of a chief of staff to handle appointments and a dozen secretaries to handle correspondance. The policies of the Parties were generated by the Riding Associations. The PMO corresponded with the 30 to 40 ministers who oversaw all the various government departments.
Today, the Prime Minister's Office has over 100 staff of managers and functionaries, the ministers seek approval from the PMO for every decision, candidates are pre-approved by the main Party offices, and Party policies are generated by the Party leadership (such as it is) primarily to appeal to the base.
In power, the parties behave indistinguishably on the most important matters, only differing for show on hot-button social topics.
Thus fewer and fewer people have any say, or feel they have any say, and participation in the political process at any level erodes continuously, and politicians become more and more intractable. I see the same thing happening in the U.K. and E.U.
I've been politically active for years, but now I think I've done my civic duty, shall turn to avail myself of the resources at Hagbard's Feast to ensure that no matter what happens to the world, I have some hands-on skills to carry me into old age, just in case I live that long.

Yupped said...

Agree about the generally dismal state of our politics. Politicians at both the local and national level seem unable to ask difficult questions about the true state of the systems over which they wish to preside: they don’t have the critical thinking skills to do so, but most importantly don’t have constituents and stakeholders who really want them to. And probably the ones who know that we’re headed into rough seas don’t believe they have the leadership capacities to turn the ship around anyway. So they flail around busily taking money with one hand and re-arranging the deck chairs with the other. Or so it seems.

I suppose this is understandable at the national level, given the scope and scale of things. It is quite saddening that this seems also the case in local town politics, at least in our neck of the woods. But I say this as an observer – I have never really engaged in the political process, preferring instead to make changes in my own backyard. I’ve worked with a small group of like-minded residents to get a local community garden going, and we are quietly pushing some other local food security projects. But we’ve been careful to avoid getting engaged with local politics. Is my negative attitude towards the political process some sort of cop-out, and should I get more actively involved in (local) politics? But where to start? Hard to think of any local agency that will warm up to the message of LESS.

Ian said...

Thanks again for the history lesson, JMG; I take especial pleasure in them, having spent time lately contemplating US history and, like most of us, its future. These have always crystallized coherent blocks out of the morass of detail.

Robo said...

Another aspect of the degeneration of American politics is explored in a 2002 BBC documentary called "The Century Of Self", which is referenced in one of the comments to a current essay on Automatic Earth.

The central premise is the steady displacement of collective citizenship by individual consumerism in the US & Britain throughout the 20th century. This is effectively demonstrated to be a result of the increasing use of mass psychological and marketing techniques by politicians and corporations

It's a four-hour series, but well worth the time spent watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjFL02NmBrc&feature=player_embedded

Seth said...

The erosion of civil society is key.

Dean for America built a large volunteer organization very reminiscent of the old fraternal orders -- or much more so than the 'regular' Democratic Party organization. When the campaign was over, Dean urged DfA folks to keep up the fight and 'take over' local Democratic Party organizations. Both have happened to a limited exent in some areas, but the impact has been muted.

Obama also built an impressive volunteer organization in 2008 -- and may succeed in doing something similar on a much reduced scale in 2012. But once elected, he generally ignored "OfA". They did mobilize to counter the Town Hall invasions staged by Rent-a-WingNut, Inc. over the Affordable Care Act. But too little, too late and then ... nothing.

What I find interesting about these examples is the persistent role of grassroots mobilization in building an electoral coalition -- money still needs some actual human beings for company, just ask Meg Whitman's lonely $160M. But the money-driven campaign process is very careful to disband these potentially troublesome armies as soon as the election is over.

Two politically aligned civil institutions that DON'T go away after the election are churches and unions. Both create community, but the church model is much more successful these days in creating loyalty and commitment. While lefty church congregations exist, they are generally more reticent about political involvement and definitely less willing to be 'sold' to national politicians via big power brokers the way Evangelicals are.

Maybe a more Earth-centered spirituality will spread among the left while the increasingly right-wing Jesus-branded armies of reaction frantically insist that "the American way of life is non-negotiable" (as Cheney put it). Come to think of it, maybe blowhards like O'Reilly aren't totally off-base with their fake hysteria about a "war on Christmas" and a more general loss of commitment to the cult of Jesus. Traditional institutionalized "capital C" Christianity probably IS part of the deeper problem with contemporary civilization, and could come in for a further round of "reformation" during our post-Carbon binge hang-over.

For the moment the right is circling the wagons to defend the Church Militant (or Militarized), but the left is a bit coy about asserting a specific spiritual alternative. The ideas just haven't achieved sufficient focus to provide a rallying point. But they might -- hard to say when.

DiverCity said...

I am glad to have found your site through a link by Kunstler. Enjoyed the preceding essay but I'm curious how the following statements can be reconciled:

"It’s not surprising, given the fatuous spectacle into which our politics has degenerated, ... that a growing fraction of Americans have gone veering off into political extremism."

"It’s a perfect culture medium for groupthink, efficiently screening out the divergent voices and alternative views a nation needs in order to survive in an uncertain and troubled world."

What was once extreme is now mainstream and, of course, vice versa. In other words, the herd changes direction from time to time.

Richard Clyde said...

Perhaps a side issue: I think it's too categorical to say that consensus "simply doesn't work." I say this not as a defence of Occupy (I don't have a confirmed opinion of it) but because consensual decision-making is just another creature, one that thrives in some circumstances and not others. It's bad ecology to dismiss it out of hand.

I think my experience has been that consensus tends to be very effective a) when parties have common gods (e.g. the organisation has a good 'monarch,' a healthy set of taboos, etc.), and b) when the same organisation doing the consensing has other functions in which dissensus is the norm.

It's probably more prone to the dangers to which you allude in cases where less is agreed upon in common, and where the model of talk is that of a strictly reasoned discourse or of Locke's 'marketplace of ideas.'

(Compare this distinction, maybe, to yours between the unabashedly corrupt organic politics of pre-1960, and the cleaner-seeming but entirely corruptible politics of blank-slate unrestrained capital.)

It may be that Occupy's will towards consensus is ineffective not because it's wrong, but because it's applied on the wrong plane. What they/we should be doing (and to some extent perhaps they are) is working to create some of the conditions in which consensual decision-making has an effective place. (I.e. they should practice magic better!)

phil harris said...

JMG
You struck gold it seems.
I read uniformly terrific replies and comments. These and your essay are fascinating and I have found them most instructive as an elderly Brit observing our own declining relevance of UK party politics.

I have thought recently that the success of Ayn Rand type policies this last 30 years has made 'engaged' politics increasingly irrelevant for many. It really is down to shopping for what we are sold. Collective imagination, whatever its past real or illusory divisions, is difficult to get a handle on these days. The market rules OK. Here in Britain, Mrs Thatcher early on caught the zeitgeist, "There is no alternative". Tony Blair managed a late parting shot when cornered on resource depletion – his one-word answer: "Technology". We have been led by the nose up the primrose path.

Copying America, which was the popular alternative to politics, is no longer much use over here - too many chickens coming home to roost it seems, so I guess that you are right about diversity and individually promoting collective value, and other seeming paradoxes during the retreat.

Faced with the hubris of for example our 'Financial Towers' and their invisible interconnected data-streams, totally obscure to us at street level (try London City or the Royal Bank of Scotland HQ in Edinburgh), party politics seems reduced to Public Relations.

For what it is worth though – the comments this week inspire me to quote from some earlier theoretical work I came across.
Quote: "Make your own lists of examples. We do actually become what we practice; we grow our brains; we remodel our synapses. The more altruistic ‘co-operators’ can co-exist with non-co-operators. Try the thought experiment. For those of us who need a bit of theoretical buttressing, a development different from classical game theory allows simulations of the evolution (adaptive dynamics) of ‘cooperativeness’ between unrelated individuals, and subsequent stable states of co-existence within social diversity, which appears a cheery thought."

Kieran O'Neill said...

Our bike co-op tends to use consensus decision making, with the option of falling back to Robert's Rules if consensus fails. So far I have yet to see a situation where that was necessary. However, I think a major part of why this works is that we have a chairperson for each meeting, who keeps discussion focused and in line with the agenda. We also tend to defer controversial discussions about non time-critical issues until we have a chance to talk them out at more leisure (and for people to ponder them awhile).

That said, the bike shop we run on the side used to be managed by consensus, but we took action a few years ago when it started to run itself into the ground and appointed a single manager.

Anyway, volunteer organisations are still around, and providing their members with some experience at chairing and participating in meetings.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, might be worth talking to some old-timers and finding out how Australian politics used to work. Good blog, btw.

Rhyd, fair enough; I wonder, though, what you could have accomplished if you'd had a system of organizing that allows collective decisions to be made and acted on promptly and fairly.

Mustard, I don't know a great deal about the nuts and bolts of British politics, but none of this surprises me. A Collapse Party, btw, which openly advocates letting the whole thing tumble down soonest, might be an interesting experiment -- it would certainly shift the goal posts a bit!

Lynn, my experience as Worthy Master of a Grange is that trying to reach out to established organizations is a waste of time, since their only interest tends to be in coopting the Grange and its membership for their own causes. Try reaching out instead to people who don't find the existing organizations appealing -- who aren't New Agers or fundamentalists -- but who are likely to agree with what the Grange stands for.

Avery, fascinating -- I'll have to get a copy.

Raven, you might want to remember how long was it between the collapse of Roman Britain and the life of Llywarch Hen. It takes time for a bardic tradition to evolve.

Cherokee, the graveyard vote used to be a major element in machine politics. I'm pretty sure it's still a large part of today's American vote fraud, especially now that so much voting is done by mail -- it's much easier to forge a ballot if nobody has to come in to vote!

Jason, I'm still waiting to find a good critique of current consensus methods and a comparison with democratic process. If none happens in the next couple of years, I may have to write it myself.

Ivan, I'll be discussing the likelihood of an American dictatorship in an upcoming post. I wish I could say that you're wrong and we're not likely to get one.

Source, you're not whining. I've seen exactly the same thing in other contexts, way too often.

August, no, I own the URL and the fee's been paid. I know the site's down, and there's an email or two into the webmistress to find out what's up.

Mister R., nicely phrased! Yes, that's basically my take on how the last scraps of representative democracy got gutted, stuffed and mounted. My guess is that a lot of preliminary work into relearning democratic process has to happen before any political party, existing or new, can be rebuilt from the grassroots up as an effective tool for democratic politics.

John Michael Greer said...

Draft, did you notice my comment that fraternal orders attracted membership from both genders and all ethnic groups? Yes, that means that there were women's lodges, African-American lodges, etc., as well as lodges that accepted people of both genders, all ethnic groups, and so on. It fascinates me that whenever I mention fraternal orders, somebody immediately starts parrotting the media stereotypes that redefine all such organizations as bastions of white male power (and therefore not to be joined), and somebody else usually starts parrotting the equal and opposite stereotypes that redefine all such organizations as conspiracies devoted to devil worship (and therefore not to be joined).

Those are respectively the left-wing and the right-wing versions of the mass media's condemnation of fraternal orders, and people like you recite one or the other by heart without ever wondering what incentive the media might have had to fill your head with ideas that make you draw back in superstitious horror from the thought of joining organizations that, by and large, will do a better job of teaching you how to use democratic process than any other. Fascinating, isn't it?

Maria, you're welcome! I do a lot of teaching of history here -- and most middle-aged people, to say nothing of those who are younger and so got even less of an education, can use a bit of that.

Alex, I'd say that it's the other way around. Appropriate tech is the foundation; building community is what happens after you know you can keep yourself fed and warm through the winter, and so can your neighbor.

Logan, here's one citation. Here's another. I could add plenty of others, but those will do for starters. I'm glad to hear you think that electing a collie was some kind of achievement, but that kind of self-referential stunt didn't exactly make an impact on the crisis of our time, you know. As for your final comment, er, that's a remarkable rewriting of what I said. Of course democratic process isn't the natural state of human groups; it's a specific set of techniques that evolved over a couple of centuries as people wrestled with the challenges of collective decision-making -- and, in particular, worked out ways to stop the abuse of power by the unelected minorities with an agenda that end up controlling consensus-based systems.

Edde, one of the lessons that everybody needs to relearn is that the easiest way to coopt an organization is to seize control of the national office. Most organizations that supposedly exist for the purpose of promoting change suffered that fate a long time ago. There are effective ways to prevent that, but again, you have to know how democratic process works, and put it to work for you.

Christine, true enough; it's part of the ethic of entitlement that's so popular these days.

Twilight, thank you!

Tim, based on what I've read and heard, I think the rot went a lot deeper in OWS -- you might want to read the first of the articles I linked in my response to Logan.

Don, not so. The energy per capita available to Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when political activity in America was at its peak, was a small fraction of the energy per capita available in 1990, when it hit rock bottom. Always, but always, check historical theses against historical facts!

John Michael Greer said...

G minor, nah, I described them as grinning, gesticulating animatronic dolls. I described all American politicians as airbrushed marionettes. As for who's pulling the strings, that's easy: look up who gave them campaign donations.

Vera, we may not all be corrupt, but if you take the average, it falls pretty far onto the side of dishonesty. A nation of people who routinely break speed limits, cheat on their income taxes, and rip off their employers are inevitably going to have political leaders who break other laws, cheat on other financial issues, and rip off their employers -- that is, the public.

Reaper, good. We're going to talk about that in upcoming posts.

Twilight, it's an interesting hypothesis, but there are other variables involved; there were very tightly controlled, highly centralized societies in which the fastest means of transport was a messenger on foot(the Inca Empire is a good example here) and far more technically advanced societies with much more freedom.

Yuri, there's nothing useful that a middle class white guy can say about that issue, so, no, I won't.

Tim, ouch. That's a bitter story.

Lewis, and that's not even taking into account the hugely increased potential for vote fraud that mail-in ballots provide. We still go to the polls here in Cumberland, and it's a civic ritual I appreciate.

SLClaire, yes, I'd heard that! I wonder if the boat was somewhere near where they dumped the voting machines in 1960 to give Kennedy the White House...

Renaissance, sounds very similar to the situation down here. How many people in Canada still belong to voluntary organizations and other institutions of civil society? That will determine, I think, how likely it is that the pendulum can be pushed the other way.

Yupped, staying out of the political sphere is crucial for a fledgling organization of that kind; it's only after you've got some strength, some resources, and a good clear notion of who's going to try to coopt you, that you can try to push for the first few practical changes via the political process.

Jason said...

Jason, I'm still waiting to find a good critique of current consensus methods and a comparison with democratic process. If none happens in the next couple of years, I may have to write it myself.

This might interest. In the other camp this is valuable.

The subject indeed doesn't seem well-studied but is very interesting. Apart from the Society of Friends, I've been told that consensus is used in Japanese companies' decision-making processes very extensively. I don't know what to make of the claim that the Iroquois have used a form of supermajority for a millennium or so...

I see a strong interface with your interests in rhetoric here.

John Michael Greer said...

Ian, thank you!

Robo, I'm familiar with the argument but don't find it wholly convincing, not least because similar things happened to past societies that didn't have the fancy media.

Seth, evangelical Christianity in America is dying, for the same reason that the established churches in so many European countries are on life support: once you mix religion and politics, the religion dries up and blows away, and you're left with a political movement. The separation of church and state exists far more to protect the churches than to protect the state! For the same reason, I'm far from interested in pitching earth-centered spirituality to the left -- though any earth-centered spirituality worth the name requires a willingness to give up at least some of the gravy train of the contemporary consumer lifestyle, and I don't see any significant fraction of today's left showing the least willingness to do that.

DiverCity, did I say I thought extremism was a bad thing?

Richard, you're right, I should have been more precise: consensus doesn't work as a means of political organization. The Quakers apparently make it work quite well in a religious context.

Phil, precisely! So long as people think of themselves as consumers of democracy, rather than producers of it, they face the usual problem when everyone's consuming and nobody's producing: sooner or later the supply runs out.

Kieran, most of the democratic groups I've seen in action work by an informal process of consensus -- the presiding officer knows that his or her first job is to try to find an approach on which everyone can agree. It's when this can't be done, or when a minority with an agenda is trying to manipulate the process, that the gavel comes down and it goes to a vote -- and once that happens, the matter is settled.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, many thanks. As for rhetoric, yes, that's central: a person who can't stand up at a town meeting and present his or her ideas in a clear, thoughtful, and appealing manner is by definition not a citizen but a subject.

Odin's Raven said...

Recently there was a report which showed that the membership of British political parties has been in fairly steady decline for decades. Now the total membership of the three major parties is less than one percent of the electorate. Naturally, the increasingly interchangeable politicians, are keen to finance their parties from taxation.

Worthy attempts to revive democracy are as futile as in Monty Python's sketch. That bird is deceased! It is a dead parrot.

Democracy in America is as dead as De Tocqueville. You saw that a few years ago when hundreds of thousands of voters told their representatives not to give mind boggling sums of money to the banksters, and after only a brief hesitation the politicians obeyed their Wall Street paymasters. Their political judgment was vindicated by the fact that not only were none of them lynched, but none of those who were up for re-election even lost their seats, so far as I heard.

The real problem seems to be a change in the moral nature of the electorate. Even if you could eliminate the crooks and corporations, the sheeple would go running to new masters to look after them, even if they are fleeced and slaughtered. They are happy in their servitude, slaves for whom freedom is too arduous, although they will still bleat about democracy.

It's like the Biblical parable said, its futile trying to patch an old garment with new cloth, or store new wine in old wineskins.

Eventually the new-old system will emerge from the carcass of democracy, 'despotism tempered by assassination'.

Draft said...

JMG,

Hmm, it seems you misread my comment (which admittedly was terse) and ended up beating up a strawman quite well. I had two separate observations that led to a question and really was not trying to quarrel.

The first observation was about the segregated nature of many orders. Of course I saw you mentioned that both genders and all ethnic groups were part of fraternal orders, but what fraction of those were fully integrated a century ago with equal voice and power for all? You would know better than I but it seems likely a minority of them. And it's hard to deny that many continued segregating even until recently, past when segregation was acceptable socially, though this may be a geographically-specific phenomenon.

As a result, second, those that had power or led to power in the American political system were those of white males. That again seems hard to deny though I suppose you might deny it, and if so I'd be interested in examples of non-white male orders that exhibited political power. Of course it is not to say that all orders always had direct political influence since for most that wasn't their aim.

Since fraternal societies met their demise decades before we had more equal representation in the political system for all comers (which is still a work in progress as it always will be) this is something about our civic life that they never universally resolved internally.

Thus I am curious how an improved fraternal order-like system might work in today's plural America, one that has the checks and balances to prevent a reversion to such older, non-plural ways of relating to others. That is if fraternal orders are to be a model for civic values we need to nurture, and I agree with you that they are in most ways, shouldn't we consider how to refine them to rid them of some of the baggage that they didn't shake off themselves before they mostly disappeared?

If you wonder where this is all coming from, I think to the Kunstler-esque visions of a future in which women, and I assume minorities as well, are subjugated once again and wonder what steps we can take to keep such ugliness from returning to our civic life.

SeaMari said...

Lynn Harding, I'd like to have an email discussion with you about the Grange. I've become a member, largely through the postings on this blog discussing the role of fraternal orders.

I don't want to post my email address online. If you'd like to be in touch, perhaps we can each email our addresses to the Archdruid, and request him to put us in contact with each other.

Rita said...

There were a couple of books I read in late 70s or early 80s that I wish I could recall the titles or authors of. One anticipated your discussion of a future dictatorship by predicting that an American Cromwell would arise outside of the two party system. The other made the interesting claim that machine politics was, in some ways, more responsive and responsible to the public than the government produced by Progressive reforms. The author pointed out that the machine maintained support by delivering jobs and other benefits for its supporters.

The skills of running meetings are valuable. Years ago I was on a third party county central committee. When the new chair produced a meeting agenda with specific times for each item and put his watch on the table I thought he was an anal-retentive control freak. When he made us actually vote on whether to extend discussion or call the question my opinion hardened. When I realized the meeting ended on time with all of the agenda items having been addressed decided that a firm hand on the rudder was not necessarily a bad thing.

My ex used to go to union meetings until he realized the real decision making was always delayed until very late in the meeting after all but the most committed had gone home, because most members had to work the next day. One way to manipulate democratic structure.

Don Stewart said...

Dear JMG
Referring to my previous post and your answer.

My argument is not that people in the 1990s didn't have sufficient Net Energy per Capita to engage in politics. I argue that sufficient Net Energy is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition. There are lots of reasons why people might withdraw from politics--no matter how much energy they have.

Let's assume that Net Energy starts to decline and we get some David Korowicz type stress on the crucial systems and life gets harder for people. Will they try to solve their problems by engaging in political action in cities, states, and countries? Or will they decide that these entities are hopeless and go about their business as best they can with either families or the type of groups that Kunstler wrote about? As it turns out, Energy Bulletin has two articles today--by Ugo Bardi and by Sharon Astyk--which bemoan the poverty of politics. Bardi talking about the failure to intelligently discuss why Italy might have stagnated and begun to decline and Astyk talking about how political action on climate change seems destined to happen only to late and to little. Bardi doesn't give an alternative, but Astyk seems to me to say that doing the right thing in your own family is the most productive. I can't see Sharon joining one of McKibbens marches on Washington.

Korowicz lays out a plausible scenario where food disappears in a week or 10 days. Would you put your energy into trying to get the US government, or your State, or your city, to do something in preparation? Or would you just begin to stockpile some food? As things get ever tougher, my guess is that political action will become ever less attractive.

Don Stewart

Yuri Kuzyk said...

Hi John Michael,

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that race was my main avenue of inquiry. I am more interested in your commentary on the possible effects of 'buried' or unconscious biases within the present manifestation of the political framework.

For example, is the present framework the best implementation for immediate gratification of childish desires or possible the direct result of "I over-consume to fill the emptiness inside"?

In other words, if magic was more prevalent (widely practiced) what might the framework/function for politics look like? You have neatly and aptly provided an overview for the history but guidance on where to 'row the boat' would be much appreciated.

You have a unique ability to convey a number of deeper insights for "plan B" or the eventual end-point where we could aim for our 'ecotechnic' future. If we could gracefully meld physical, spiritual and environmental aspects into a political framework, what could that look like?

Ah well, the crickets are singing and it is time to go canoeing. Hope your days pass well.

Don Stewart said...

A little addendum to my previous note. On page 38 of Korowicz:

Rather, drawing upon section III.1, it can be argued that collapse happens when a system
crosses a tipping point and is driven by negative feedbacks into a new and structurally and
qualitatively different state, one with a different arrangement between parts and a fall in
complexity. The operational fabric could cease to operate and the systems that are adaptive
to maintaining our welfare could cease or be severely degraded. As a society, we would
have to do other things in other ways to establish our welfare. Functions and specialities, a
diversity of goods and services, and complex interdependencies would be lost.

Back to me. Korowicz is distinguishing between the fall of an empire which leaves most people's lives relatively unchanged, versus a loss of something fundamental such as energy, food, or confidence in an expanding system of debt...which forces the system into a state of lower complexity with different economic and social arrangements.

Assume that Korowicz might be right. What relevance is the US government likely to have? How much time would you divert from growing your food in the yard to lobbying your congressman?

Don Stewart

John Michael Greer said...

Raven, well, that's one possibility, but insisting that it's the only possibility is ideology masquerading as analysis.

Draft, you're still missing the point. Fraternal orders didn't, with very few exceptions, either have power or lead to it; rather, they served as schools in which people of both genders and every ethnicity learned and practiced democratic process. That was as important in the rise of the women's suffrage movement, for example, as it was in the politics of Tammany Hall. That's the role that such organizations might have again -- though it will only happen if people can get past the kneejerk rejection of surviving fraternal orders and learn how they work in the only possible way, which is by personal experience.

SeaMari, I can certainly do something like that. Please mark the comment "Not For Posting."

Rita, there are plenty of ways to game the system, and they slip by because most people don't know how the system works and so can't use the robust defenses against such tricks.

Don, I still think you're wrong. The reason that politics by and large ground to a halt in the last decades of the 20th century in so much of the industrial world was that, by and large, net energy was so high that disaffected groups could be, and were, bought off by handouts of various kinds. As that falters, I'd expect to see much more political activity, not much less. As for Korowicz' ten-day theory, it's the usual arbitrary fast-collapse logic that assumes that the people in power will sit on their hands and do nothing while the basis for their power and wealth crumbles away around them -- a pretty fantasy, but one without a shred of plausibility.

Yuri, now you've got me good and confused. Your first comment was asking a whole series of questions about race; your second insists that you weren't talking about race and all, and poses questions that, as far as I can tell, don't seem to have much in common with the first set. As far as the role of magic, that's what my book The Blood of the Earth is about -- might be worth a look.

Stephen Heyer said...

John, how on earth do you fit all this in your head?

I mean, I have many of the same interests but I just cannot keep a fraction of the detailed information and knowledge you obviously do in my brain. Wish I could.

Anyway, excellent post. Kind of rhymes with what has happened in the Australian political system, something my friends and I were just discussing.

John Michael Greer said...

Don, assuming that Korowicz is right strikes me as about as useful as assuming that the Rapture will happen this December. Leaving such implausibilities for those who want to believe, I'd suggest that people who find themselves struggling for survival in a less arbitrarily extreme context will have every reason to take politics much more seriously than they do now -- and I'm not talking about lobbying their congresscritter; it's part of the blindness of contemporary life that so many people have forgotten that political organization on the grassroots level is the usual foundation for revolutionary change.

In the years to come, I expect to see major new radical movements at various points on the political spectrum, which will seek drastic changes to the existing order. If we manage enough of a rebirth of democratic process that these movements can be accommodated within the structure of constitutional government, we may squeak through with some kind of representative democracy. If not, the most likely outcome is the sort of dictatorship Ivan talked about earlier in the comments to this week's post -- possibly over the US as a whole, possibly over the country's dismembered fragments. Those are the stakes, as I see it, for which we are playing, as I commented in a post some time ago.

John Michael Greer said...

Steven, heck of a good question. I don't watch TV and don't know a thing about sports, if that helps any.

Diane said...

A brief summary, I hope of the Australian system as it is relevant to todays post. We have a three tiered system,federal, state and local government. I am restricting my comments to NSW as there are quite significant historical state and local differences.
I believe our system has been very much shaped by the compulsory voting system, which has meant that most collective activity has evolved through the two major parties and usually a minor but sometimes politically significant third party. Lodges and granges have existed but generally affiliated with one or other of the two political parties.
As an example the Masons are usually identified with the white male middle class management strata, and the working class which in the past was predominantly irish catholic, with the Labor Party. This stratification was particularly noticeable in State Govt with entire administrative depts being either mason or catholic.Local government tended to follow this stratification.
This system has been slowly eroding since the 1970's due to a whole lot of factors, change in immigration policy the most obvious one.
The Labor Party had a strong local caucus system, where local branches nominated political representatives, but this has been dismantled pretty much over the last 15 years. My generation knew where we stood,and were involved, my kids show no interest, its totally irrelevant to them. I now stand back as a witness, it will be interesting to see what the new structures evolve.
Diane

Steve W. said...

Call me totally crazy, but I actually believed there might have been a chance for some of the more moderate and reasonable elements of Occupy and the Tea Party movements to work together in some areas -- I think they had some of the same grievances when it came to the fusion of government and corporate power. But as is usually the case, those who hold the wealth and power in this country are expert at figuring out how to divide and conquer the masses.

Also have to agree with the above posters on how advanced technology has lead to the decline of civility in our society. We don't interact face-to-face like we used to, so we hide behind computer screens and find it all the more easier to demonize and dehumanize those who don't agree with us. Sad.

Kevin said...

Speaking of democratic political minds versus airbrushed political puppets, Gore Vidal would have made a helluva lot better President than Reagan. I fancy he'd have set us on a path other than our current trajectory toward ruin. But that's now one of history's might-have-beens. Vidal died this Tuesday past, as you've probably heard, and I miss him. He'd certainly have some things to say on the topic in hand.

I expect that for a certain number of people the Rapture will indeed come upon the turning of the 13th Bakhtun. It always does on any given day.

DeAnander said...

My far-from-exhaustive reading of the history of popular uprisings and movements suggests that revolutions often germinate when the little people protest some obviously unjust practise or ask for some very modest and reasonable concession, and are met with contempt and/or brutality. The contempt and brutality generate anger, the issue gets bigger, the movement gets bigger, the repression gets meaner: escalation all around. Different groups with different issues find common cause because they're being treated with the same c&b by the same overclass. And so on, until it snowballs and the Bastille is stormed, or pitchforks and pianos become a scarce resource... So I tend to agree with JMG that local political organising is a necessary precondition for large political changes... we can usually count on the overclass to respond with appropriately maddening cluelessness, arrogance, dishonesty, violence etc. :-)

I can see some potential flashpoints around us. The corporate food monopoly is one (dishonesty, lousy quality, health risks due to adulteration of marketed food, persecution of the small producer etc). Another is industrial crime against the environmental commons (contamination of water, air, land, destruction of fisheries etc). Draconian paramilitaristic policing seems like another good candidate... I'm sure the list could be spun out at great length. It's not a sure thing that any of these might become the seed crystal for a catalytic reaction, any more than it was a sure thing that Rosa Parks' refusal to sit in the coloured section of the bus was going to cause trouble for anyone but her -- but any of them is a possibility. So perhaps the more local organising there is, the more skills people have for organising, the more likely it is that flashpoints will occur as the entrenched hierarchy -- imperial overlords, one percenters, overclass, whatever you want to call our version of les aristos -- tries to squash the local organisers whose bottom-up, democratic organisational methods are now a kind of heresy.

Having emitted this riff... I don't really like it that much, on reflection, because it does hinge on a familiar "things won't get any better until they first get really bad, so that people get angry enough to Do Something" trope which depresses me.

Leo said...

Thanks. I owe a lot to you for the way i think about humanities collective overshoot. All i've got to do now is decide the update schedule and topics (i have a list but still unsure) to cover and what order. i'm thinkin of just doing short posts on a single topic instead of big essays. mostly just need to figure out Australian specific stuff, like the USA's collapse.
The main difference here is our compulsory voting, you can still donkey vote, and our political spectrum is much closer to the centre (both main parties ideology are closer than Americas).

Thomas Daulton said...

Thanks again, this was a very interesting article for me to read. Growing up when I did (born in the late 60s), I've spent my whole adult political life thinking that political parties were basically the root of most of the political evil in this country... (aside from the corrupting influence of money). It just seemed very clear to me that political parties promoted themselves and their own power at the country's expense. (After all, as is frequently quoted, George Washington abhorred political parties, and then there's the Thomas Jefferson quote, "If I could not go to heaven but with a [political] party, I would not go there at all".) But if what you write here is true, then it seems political parties used to serve a crucial function -- inasmuch as they brought people together locally and kept people grounded in immediate local issues.

Which is just about the opposite of what they do today, which is to funnel money and effort upwards to the Washington elite. From an Anarchist point of view, you could say the basic problem is the unspoken assumption that what goes on at the National level is "more important" than real bread-and-butter issues at the local level. Of course National issues are important and affect everybody, but there comes a time when you just have to say that we are neglecting the problems right in front of our noses because we are so hypnotized by the "bigger picture". Unified national political action is so much easier for a few elites to subvert and control for their own gain. At some point the solutions have to be implemented at the local, independent, personal level.

As other commenters have pointed out, this bears a striking resemblance to the modern American predilection of paying more attention to the lives and lifestyles of the rich and famous and the movie stars, than leading and enjoying their own lives. Like how we've all been trained to go out and buy avocados from a huge corporation that have been shipped a thousand miles from Chile and sprayed with weird chemicals, rather than just growing them in our backyards (speaking as a Californian). The focus on the national and the worldly at the expense of paying attention to the ground beneath our feet.

Smells like a bit of Thaumaturgy to me. National issues are important, but the idea that there's a hierarchy and that National issues are so much _more_ important than local issues, that we all need to worry and strategize about the retirement ages of Supreme Court justices rather than pay attention to the pollution in our local river and the appallingly unsafe conditions at our local workplace, seems like the type of idea that is latent in the human mind but nurtured and encouraged by deliberate thaumaturgy.

And finally, after years of reading anarchists such as Smith-Bowen (Stop Me Before I Vote Again), I am finally starting to notice that my earlier assumption is not true, the idea that both political parties promote their own gain at the nation's expense. After many citations by people like yourself and Smith-Bowen, I have finally started to notice how eagerly the Democrats are willing to take a dive and thwart their own agenda, just so long as doing so will preserve the basic stability of the two-party system and the system of funneling wealth and power up to Washington. This again implies that the true problem lies not so much with the actual character of either of the two parties, but with the overarching system that stands behind them.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I've read the comments as they stand now and at the risk of offending a lot of the commenters here, I'll point out that there is a general theme of disconnect. This appears to be consistent with the bargaining phase of grief.

The disconnect arises in peoples comments, because of the general theme that the political process being discussed here is someone else's problem. Truly, most people put so little effort into the larger affairs of the world that we ended up with the system that we deserved.

I could have led a comfortable life of ease like most people in Industrial countries, despite their protestations to the contrary, but the trappings were veneer thin and the dream was too small.

Hi everyone,

There are a plethora of choices to be made in life and yet most people seem to follow the well trodden path of the status quo. Yet, I don't yearn for any utopia, however it is the pursuit of the status quo by individuals that presents us with the dilemmas that we face today. Something for you lot to think about.

Regards

Chris

Don Stewart said...

Dear JMG
You might be right about Korowicz--but you might also be wrong.

Take, for example, the way that the high frequency traders have changed stock markets. And so we get things like 'flash crashes' and a large company going bankrupt in 90 minutes due to a simple programming error. The point here is that the speed and potential volume of the response fundamentally change the risks.

Korowicz, as I read him, thinks that a variety of factors have fundamentally changed the risks not only in the financial markets but also the real markets of production and consumption. Just because 'fast collapse' scenarios have been wrong in the past doesn't necessarily mean that they are wrong now.

As for officials sitting on their hands...name one thing governments have done to ameliorate the risks with high frequency trading or the extraordinary concentration and thus brittleness in the banking system. In the real world world of production and consumption, governments have established oil reserves...but they abolished grain reserves.

I can't dismiss Korowicz as 'implausible'.

Don Stewart

Lance Michael Foster said...

You know what's interesting? The world is in trouble, between the economy, climate change, social unrest, war and the rest. So if we suffer collapse of civilization, of society, of the environment, you know what's going to happen? Everyone is going to say, they knew it was going to happen. Only thing is the left will say it was because we destroyed the environment through our greed and stupidity, and the right will say it was God's judgement for not living according to the Bible, etc. Both sides will say they were right, but all of us will be screwed.

Andy Brown said...

Americans mostly seem to understand that they've been betrayed by their "leaders". But as far as I can tell, this hasn't motivated people to attempt the hard work of running things themselves - even in the restricted spheres where that would still be permitted. I suspect that - even though church-going has been in decline - old beliefs about saviors and god-ordered moral universes still hold too much sway. I have no doubt that once the political animals have picked clean the corpse of the government-slash-empire, or begun to squabble over the remains, some will see what they can do by stoking those fantasies. That's what we're waiting for.

Andy Brown said...

I'm curious to hear what you have to say about the states. I have an old Russian wall map from the early 1980's. What is striking is the little dotted lines that marked the various republics and sub-divisions in the USSR and East Bloc (including divisions within Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia). Almost without exception these were the perforations that shaped the aftermath. (And whenever the (bureaucratic) borders were inconvenient (for ethnic or geographic reasons) it was usually easier to move people than to move borders.) It's easy to assume that US states don't have strong identities vis a vis other states, and so they couldn't turn against one another, but you could have heard people say much the same in mid 80's Yugoslavia - unbelievable as that may sound today. I have absolutely no trouble imagining Oregon ejecting Californians - especially brown ones - or New Hampshire divesting Massholes of their property and sending them packing. Predicting the future is a fool's game, but an interesting game nonetheless.

vera said...

A comparison of old-style decision making and new ways would be of critical importance, JMG. But consensus is on the way out, IMO, because it can only work in very specific circumstances. Sociocracy on the other hand works very well, both in business and politics. We don't need to go back to a system of Robert's Rule.

Diana Leafe Christian has begun a series on why consensus does not work, and what the alternatives are, in Communities Mag this summer. Recommended. Lots of details.

Btw, speaking of Occupy, does anybody know what happened to all the money they collected (last I heard it was about half a million)?

Stu from Rutherford said...

First, JMG, thanks for the hard work involved in an essay like this.
I'm as convinced as anyone else here that there are no electoral political "solutions" to the problems attendent to this point in history. But I vote every time anyway. Why?
-- There are tax issues to vote against. (Why pay more taxes if it will not solve problems.)
-- There are debt issues to vote against. (It's a sin to saddle future generations with debt.)
-- It's a chance to say hello to some neighborhood people.
-- I took a vow when I was young to never vote for a Republican or Democrat (both parties tried to get me killed in SE Asia). And I never have. But there's usually an independent or minor party candidate to vote for, and I do - it's a way of slapping the face of the major parties.
-- It does not matter one small whit if I "legitimize" the system, or "delegitimize" the system by voting. There is nothing to be gained by not voting any more than by voting.
-- I cannot rule out another run at a local office sometime, and having a perfect voting record is handy, since it reduces the number of meaningless questions one has to answer.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to JMG and all.

JMG, Thanks very much for returning to the central thread of your current discussion.

Thanks to all for the thought-provoking comments.

Jon from Virginia said...

Read Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. It's quite a hoot, and is famous for his vigorous defense of honest graft.

Brother Kornhoer said...

Mr. Greer,

My experience in volunteering with local non-profit groups is that they are excellent learning environments....for learning how NOT to run a meeting. Typically, some people are outspoken while others won't get a chance to speak without intervention, the conversation jumps from one issue to another without resolution on the initial issue, and rule is by an uneasy consensus. A little order would go a long way.

Many observers have noticed how atomized American life is - people don't belong to civic organizations or spend time creating with their hands outside of a job - they work, consume, and sleep. It seems sometimes like the society's set up to promote this, and it nicely dovetails with extreme libertarian economic views that treat us all as rational, self-interested independent economic units and little else. Where I live, the churches are generally the only civic institutions left. A sad state of affairs.

I have long felt that the protest rituals the left has invoked since the Vietnam War protests are pretty meaningless. First, unless the protests represent the unspoken sentiments of a substantial part of the population, there's no real political power backing them up. Second, the theatrics associated with some of these protests - like the giant puppets - don't seem innovative or catchy to me. Instead, they seem circus-like, and send the subconscious message that the protesters are clowns, and the protest is not meant to be taken seriously.

Edde, I live where you live. My e-mail is in my user profile if you want to get together sometime.

Bill Pulliam said...

One of the things about the Fraternal Orders has been their esoteric structures. In the modern day this seems to be rather pseudo-esotericism, with official statements that the rituals and symbols are basically just traditions and forms, not tied to any actual belief system. But I have to wonder, even in the modern form, is this actually the best grass-roots organizing unit for the politics of a secular government? The Grange appears to be a bit different, in that it was founded with a very explicit and mundane purpose, but (for instance) the various forms of freemasonry have much deeper and more officially mysterious roots.

Fundamentally, though, I don't think that anything significant will happen in this arena until mass media based culture begins to lose some of its overwhelming hegemony, and culture begins to decentralize and relocalize. If there is anything left of the old fraternal orders by that time, maybe they will begin to expand again in forms that fit prevailing needs and circumstances. Or maybe new structures will emerge organized around other nuclei. Who can really predict?

As for Occupy, how can anyone not see by now that all it amounted to was street theater? Where is it now? The continent is on fire, two "one-percenter" slaves to Wall Street are campaigning for president, and Occupy is nowhere to be seen. If they were really the fundamental movement they claimed, it would have taken a lot more than one (quite mild in much of the east) winter combined with a couple of city councils passing some minor anti-occupy laws to erase them from the scene. Are they going to storm the political conventions demanding real change? Don't bet on it. Like all street theater, people got bored and moved on, and without an audience they no longer existed.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

To JMG and Jason regarding Quakers aka the Religious Society of Friends:

I am writing this long explanation as a contribution to this week's discussion because training in Quaker process most emphatically trains one for all kinds of organizational work, community work, democratic skills-building work.

While the idea that religious organizations might have an easier time using consensus seems correct, in my experience, Quakers don't exactly use consensus to reach decisions.

In fact we differentiate our process from consensus. Frequently, through the process of deliberations, Quaker groups pass through a stage of binary thought to reach a ternary option that is often a better result than either previous option. Then the option has to be approved. Such a process, however, takes time, patience and can be tedious.

One thing that makes it work is a very real sense that the good of the individual is and should be balanced by the good of the community--and vice versa. And we do have a common culture grounded in spiritual values that emphasize peace, non-violence and equality.

What has enabled Quakers to survive even in times when it is not a popular group to be part of, as now, is that there is a system of local, regional, and national groups, and even international gatherings that operate from the ground up, so that the more "central" is guided by the local--and the central does not have any real authority. In fact decisions are sent back to the local groups for approval, so that there is a constant back-and-forthness. This tends to dampen the ability of any one group to take over, as happens in both authoritarian and consensus-based structures--as JMG has described.

As a result, Quakers can and often do participate in other effective democratically-organized meetings or groups that can then take action in a variety of ways.

Does the system have flaws? You bet. Is there conflict and disagreement? Yup. Have there been periods when the pendulum has swung too far in a given direction? Of course. Are there corrupt Quakers? I'm sure, though I haven't personally met any. (And as in all other spheres, there are lazy, apathetic, dogmatic, silly, self-important, etc. Quakers--we are talking about human beings, after all.) Yet Friends, and their unique structure of governance, have persisted during times of repression, war, anarchy, depression, freedom and prosperity. (This is not meant as proselytization, by the way. The Quaker way is not an easy path, and like other spiritual traditions--even Druidism : ) -- is not for everyone.) Thanks for reading.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Alcoholics Anonymous is a pretty interesting organization. Been humming along since the late 1930s. Open to all. There's no "president" or national leader in evidence. The meetings have a pretty tight structure to keep everyone on track and on topic.

I'm sure someone will jump in with some AA horror story. But there are almost as many "shades" of meeting as there are members.I've been told that people move around until they find a meeting that fits them.

Not mentioned so far as to current non involvement in organizations and civic affairs is the book "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam. I think it was mentioned in some previous posts.

JP said...

@Thomas:

"As other commenters have pointed out, this bears a striking resemblance to the modern American predilection of paying more attention to the lives and lifestyles of the rich and famous and the movie stars, than leading and enjoying their own lives. Like how we've all been trained to go out and buy avocados from a huge corporation that have been shipped a thousand miles from Chile and sprayed with weird chemicals, rather than just growing them in our backyards (speaking as a Californian). The focus on the national and the worldly at the expense of paying attention to the ground beneath our feet."

I think this has to do with the fact that the national and the worldly are inherently more complex and interesting than pedestrian day to day life.

It's complex enough that it captures your attention and gives you something to think about that day to day issues (what am I doing to eat, what am I going to do today, what am I working on today) simply do not because day to day living is so repetitive and boring.

Kind of like taking a class and learning about chemistry is interesting whereas the repitition, slow pace, and boredom of actual law work makes you want to chew off your arm in frustration.

Iodhan Silverbear said...

I tend to wonder if it wouldn't be best to simply vote for whomevever is likely to bring collapse that much more quickly as opposed to playing it out longer. On the other hand, it would behoove me and mine to have more time by which we can experiment and prepare (especially my year old son!) for a life after oil.

Perhaps, instead of looking at it from the perspective of "Who will save us" we should vote in terms of "Who will stay the execution long enough for us to learn how to cope."

sgage said...

@Brother Kornhoer, et al.

One of the most amusing summaries of the typical meeting that I've ever come across was made by Art Kleps (a strange character indeed - founder of the NeoAmerican Church).

He wrote:

"I have been to many meetings ... and they all seem to proceed along the same lines unless everything important is defined ahead of time. Few people ever follow an argument to its logical conclusions, either in public or in private. Their "arguments" therefore, ought to be taken as mere expressions of feeling like "ouch" or "yum yum" rather than as attempts to define or reason. Professional politicians take this for granted and do not make everyone uncomfortable by treating what they say as if they really meant it."

That pretty much matches my experience. "Ouch" or "yum yum", indeed!

MawKernewek said...

The UK has experienced a kind of incomplete devolution in the last 20 years, Scotland got its own parliament, Wales its own assembly and NI had its Stormont legislature restored after it had been suspended for decades in the "Troubles". However England does not have its own parliament, however since it has an absolute majority of the UK's population an English parliament would rival the UK parliament and very likely lead to the breakup of the UK in the same way as Gorbachev-Yeltsin rivalry led to the breakup of teh USSR.

Attempts to bring devolution for England started off on the wrong foot, with the Blair Labour government being keen on artificial regions that were originally developed for European statistical purposes, not much to do with areas that held together historically or culturally, the only region that got to the point of a referendum was NE England which rejected it, excepting Greater London which does have its own London assembly and Mayor.

Grassroots calls for devolution such as a 50,000 strong petition for a Cornish Assembly seem to be ignored by the three major parties.

It is difficult after several centuries of an emphasis of concentration of power and capital (for imperial purposes).

I do get a sense of 2012 being a last hurrah for the UK, with the Jubilee celebrations followed by the Olympics but a troubled future ahead.

MawKernewek said...

I wonder if the reluctance to revise any of the post-second world war borders, and the post-colonial borders stems from the experience of Germany in the 1930s using German populations in the Sudetenland, parts of Poland, Alsace-Lorraine, etc. as justification for re-militarisation and ultimately territorial expansion.

International Politics often follows the pattern of trying to fight again the last war, or avoiding the dangers that led to that to the exclusion of more relevant matters.

latheChuck said...

A few years ago, I wandered into a tag sale organized by the local Moose Lodge. As I paid for my purchases, the cashier sized me up as a potentially valuable member. "I'm listening. What do you have to offer?" Cheap beer in a smoke-filled lounge, and a free video arcade for the kids seemed to be the main attractions. And, at ~50 years old, I would have been one of the younger members. Well, I don't drink alcohol, was irritated by the tobacco smoke outside the building, and my son has more than enough electronic entertainment at home. I didn't sign up.

On the other hand, the local amateur radio emergency communications club offers a the chance to mitigate the effects of a major storm (or other "disturbance") by augmenting conventional high-tech communications systems with personally-owned and operated gear. We meet on-the-air weekly for a modest 30 minute training session, and monthly for more in-depth discussions, plus we help organize bike races, marathons, parades, etc. as communications training exercises. It's guaranteed to be moderately social, likely to be useful, and may turn out to be lifesaving. It has a lot going for it, but it's still hard to be confident of our long-term corporate survival.

And then, there's the church. As has been discussed in these essays of the last few months, religious organizations have lasted much longer than political. Stalin is said to have asked, dismissively, "The Pope? How many divisions has he got?" But the existence of church congregations is something worth preserving, whether or not you believe that Jesus will preserve your soul from eternal damnation. As a fourth force in society (after the state, the corporation, and the family), it is a vehicle for organizing alternative structures and a practice field for political process. (Maybe I should have added "the local tavern", since even the smallest midwestern towns (in my limited experience) have at least on bar and at least one church. But the tavern is governed by the owner, subject to the pleasure of the customers, without a shred of democracy.)

Susie Dow said...

After reading your post, for the first time today, I finally grasped that what I have felt for so long is mourning for an innocence lost.

The mirage just finally shattered.

Now on to collapsing before the rush.

Nicholas Carter said...

JMG:
I understand the value that fraternal orders can bring to their members' as teachers and social facilitators. But something I have struggled with is a very vehemently-non-spiritual nature (to put things civilly) and an unwillingness to lie to fraternal orders. Have any fraternal alternatives existed historically for the atheistic or agnostic?
Secondly, because the answer to these questions is always local: Do you have any advice for someone interested in forming a fraternal order without the aid of religious belief?

sgage said...

@JP - you wrote "I think this has to do with the fact that the national and the worldly are inherently more complex and interesting than pedestrian day to day life."

A quote from G.K. Chesterton seems pertinent:

"Unless we can bring men back to enjoying the daily life which moderns call a dull life, our whole civilisation will be in ruins in about fifteen years. … Unless we can make daybreak and daily bread and the creative secrets of labour interesting in themselves, there will fall on all our civilisation a fatigue which is the one disease from which civilisations do not recover."

phil harris said...

JMG and All
Here is something for the weekend (... ahhemm ...).
I mentioned in an earlier comment this week the hubris of the high towers of finance and their invisible data-streams, and implied that a world constructed in such an image could be having something to do with today’s democratic politics not having the same pull as making money and shopping.

Quote from a recent ‘wired’ article: High-frequency traders are a subset of quants, investors who make money the newfangled way: a fraction of a cent at a time, multiplied by hundreds of shares, tens of thousands of times a day. These traders occupy an anomalous position on Wall Street, carrying themselves with a distinctive mixture of diffidence and arrogance that sets them apart from the pure, unmixed arrogance of investment bankers.

Great fun while it lasts.
http://www.wired.com/business/2012/08/ff_wallstreet_trading/all/

Odin's Raven said...

The worm was in the bud, it seems.
http://mises.org/daily/6144/Gore-Vidal-and-Revisionism

Chris said...

Hello JMG

I started reading your blog after reading 'The Long Descent' about a year ago. I've found the clarity of writing and content in both to be excellent and very illuminating, long may it continue!

I am based in the UK where I suspect things have been effectively centralised for an awfully long time. To the best of my knowledge there is no effective grass roots organisations at all though the fiction is maintained. I have a bioscience/IT background and whereas I found some of your initial dismissal of the long term viability of maintaining a technical civilisation somewhat dubious on reflection I agree it would be a challenge.

I don't quite follow your comments regards chaired versus consensus meeting styles. In my experience (mostly corporate) a chaired meeting simply provides a mechanism for unwanted enquiries, criticisms or proposals to be suppressed whether by ridicule, a decree of not relevant, not on the agenda, deferring discussion to subsequent meeting, insufficient time, etc.

Consensus on the other hand gives everyone the chance to contribute and provide input, discuss the issues and generally come up with an effective and mutually agreed solution. Management is dependent on the group being familiar and experienced with the approach but in my personal experience I've found it to work well.

I would assume that the grass roots organisations you referred to in the US formed in most cases before the state and federal governments came into being and their influence at the state and federal levels was implicit and automatic. People will only commit effort to grassroot organisations if they can see that their viewpoints are considered and that they have some influence. What if any avenues now exist for them to re-establish such influence especially given that the state and federal levels are likely to actively resist?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

As a child, I grew up in a single parent household and I remember that after dinner my mother settled in to watch television whilst getting slowly anesthetized.

You know, it was only years later that I had the insight that the characters portrayed on the television were indeed her friends. That was her social life and it was a passive one way experience.

One part of wisdom is having the good judgement to not repeat past mistakes. Whilst I have made many mistakes, this is not one of them.

We are being trained to be passive consumers. I hardly think that it is a conspiracy, it's just the net result of a lot of magic.

Hi everyone,

If as individuals, we don't become active participants in our own lives or the lives of our communities, how can you ever know that the thoughts that you are having and the direction that your life is taking is your own choice?

Regards

Chris

M said...

JMG wrote: "If not, the most likely outcome is the sort of dictatorship Ivan talked about earlier in the comments to this week's post -- possibly over the US as a whole, possibly over the country's dismembered fragments. Those are the stakes, as I see it, for which we are playing, as I commented in a post some time ago."

From the NYT's obituary of Gore Vidal, who died this week:

"As for literature, it was more or less over, he declared more than once, and he had reached a point where he no longer much cared. He became a sort of connoisseur of decline, in fact. America is 'rotting away at a funereal pace,' he told The Times of London in 2009. 'We’ll have a military dictatorship pretty soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together.'"

Richard Larson said...

Right on with the groupthink description. At least from the right, not only will a divergent opinion be cause to ostracize a person out of the group, but the leadership then allows talk of "he's become a demoncrat", or some such other early high school-like form of censorship.

The politics in this country has become very narrow minded both bending knee to those who have the cash.

Going back to a system of counting whitemen owning property votes might be more democratic than the current more cash to campaigns gets more government largess system. No doubt whatsoever US elections just didn't change on a whim, they were electioneered for a payoff.

Well, most of us already know this government is not sustainable and won't last long (in the context of history).

The post was interesting and I haven't thought of it quite in those terms. Will make a note ot this.

Heere is my little two-liner.

Sickness and starvation spread by the devilish elves
The human matrix ends by two-o-12s

John Michael Greer said...

Diane, the thing that fascinates me is precisely that so many people -- like your children -- don't see any point in politics. It's not simply that they're disaffected from the current system; they think the whole shebang doesn't matter to their lives. I suspect they'll find out the hard way just how much it does matter.

Steve, you're not crazy at all. One of the most significant shifts in recent political thought is the adoption of far-right political ideas by the far left -- look at the number of people on the far left these days who have adopted the John Birch Society's attitudes toward groups such as the CFR and the Bilderbergers. The first effective demagogue who can bridge the gap between the two sides and launch a movement that attracts both the radical right and the radical left will have a very good shot at becoming America's Mussolini.

DeAnander, I think it's a bit more complex than that, and next week's post will be covering that in some detail.

Leo, it's particularly good to see blogs covering these issues from the points of view of other parts of the world -- I've only lived in the US, thus don't have much intelligent to say about conditions elsewhere.

Thomas, there's a lot of thaumaturgy involved. It's also not incidental that the political parties have basically been taken away from the people and turned into top-down instruments of manipulation.

Cherokee, if we've actually made it to bargaining, we're doing well. That's halfway there.

Don, the "flash crashes" are actually a good piece of evidence for my contention that Korowicz' fast-collapse theory is right up there with the Rapture in terms of plausibility. Did they bring Wall Street or the global economy to its knees? No. Why? Because the people who had the most to lose from letting that happen stepped in, within minutes, and yanked the plug. Can governments do the same thing on a broader scale if the financial system starts to threaten national survival? You bet. That being the case, I'd like to suggest that we return to talking about futures that have some chance of happening.

Lance, okay, you're halfway there. Now look past the surface of what both sides are saying; they're saying that we're going to crash and burn because there's an order to the cosmos, and we -- and they -- aren't willing to live in accordance with it. They're right, too -- which doesn't change the fact that people on the left are no more willing to cut their carbon footprints far enough to matter than people on the right are to actually live according to the teachings of Jesus.

Andy, when the Oregonians eject the Californians, no, it won't just be the brown ones; in fact, the pink ones will almost certainly be ejected first, and the brown ones may get left alone. When I lived in southern Oregon, the word "Californian" in the local dialect was an obscenity that could be translated loosely as "rich self-aggrandizing jerk" -- and I'm sorry to say I met a fair number of Bay Area expats there who more than justified that use of the word. More generally, having lived in three states now, and visited quite a few others, I've noticed that each state has its own very distinctive character and attitudes; state lines are still potent cultural divisions.

John Michael Greer said...

Vera, I've been wondering about the money myself. No, I don't know who ended up with it.

Stu, I vote in every election. The national elections may not matter much, but local ones unquestionably do.

Adrian, thank you!

Jon, thanks for the link!

Brother K., yes, I've seen the same thing. The collapse of the skill set needed to run a meeting is a massive issue, and one that needs to be addressed somehow.

Bill, the Odd Fellows were the biggest fraternal organization in North America for most of a century and had nothing remotely esoteric about it. For all that they've been very influential in inspiring other orders, Masonry is rather off to one side of the main body of the tradition. One of the few really hopeful signs I know of, in turn, is that Masonry is booming in a fair number of jurisdictions again -- here in Maryland, for example, lodges full of enthusiastic young members are becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Adrian, many thanks! I have no personal knowledge about the Quaker way, so I appreciate information from someone who follows it. (And you're quite right, of course -- Druidry is not for everyone, and it's not an easy path to walk, either.)

Lewis, indeed it has. I hadn't thought about AA, though -- thanks for bringing it up.

Iodhan, the collapse is happening right now. It's not something that will happen in the future; this is what collapse looks like. It's only the tendency to foreshorten the past that makes us forget that collapse takes a while.

MawKernewek, thanks for the update from Kernow! I suspect that further devolution is the wave of the British future -- the British parliament may turn back into an English one when Scotland secedes, as I suspect it will; still, the whole course of British devolution depends far more on international factors than I suspect many people realize.

John Michael Greer said...

Chuck, special-interest clubs (such as local ham radio groups) and churches are also important parts of civil society; I talked about fraternal orders purely because that's a field in which I have a lot of personal experience. I'm sorry, though, to hear that the local Moose lodge had so little to offer -- I suspect other lodges, Moose or otherwise, could have made a better case.

Susie, good. Very good. You get today's gold star; that's exactly the thing that so many Americans are desperately trying to avoid noticing.

Nicholas, to my knowledge, no, there are no fraternal orders that admit atheists. The traditional reason for that, like it or not, is that a believer who invokes his god to witness his pledge has a reason to worry about the consequences of breaking that pledge, while an atheist has no such concern. As for founding an atheist fraternal order, hmm; about the only resource I can think of is my book Inside a Magical Lodge, which is geared toward occult groups using the lodge system -- another of its very traditional uses. You'd have to do a lot of editing and reworking, but it might be an option.

Phil, I see that as one of the classic signs of a system in a death spiral; when the people making the most money are producing nothing of value, and simply gaming the system for their own benefit, it's very, very late in the day.

Raven, thanks for the link.

Chris, the problem with most "chaired meetings" is that the meeting no longer has the right to replace a biased or manipulative chairperson with a candidate of its own choosing, which is an essential detail of democratic process. The chairperson, by the way, should never speak for or against a measure; it's his or her job to make sure the meeting runs smoothly and efficiently, and that's it.

Cherokee, I'm not even sure that it's entirely the product of magic. The roots of popular passivity in the modern world -- that's a fascinating issue and one that needs a great deal of careful thought and study.

M, Vidal was one of my favorite prose stylists, and a very keen observer of the political scene. I hope he's wrong, but I wouldn't bet money on it.

Richard, I'd be happy to see us go back to a system where most Americans have passionate feelings about political issues, and let those feelings lead them to organize on a grassroots level! If democracy is going to return to this country, that's what's going to have to do it.

Iodhan Silverbear said...

JMG, didn't mean to imply that it isn't happening right now. I agree with that. What I mean is hastening the final result as opposed to delaying it. I agree, things are coming down around our ears despite the illusory quality of our politicians that keep telling us "Vote for our guy, he'll fix it." American politics aside, I don't think anyone can "fix it". At best they might delay the inevitable end result. I vascilate between hastening and prolonging even though I ultimately believe that either result would amount to a hair's breadth of a difference in the long run. Maybe I should just concentrate on what I can do now. Thanks.

phil harris said...

JMG
JMG wrote: "British devolution depends far more on international factors than I suspect many people realize." And, I would add, so does much of our daily lives. In my book, that self-centred preoccupation is the one big thing we have not coped with at all since the empire collapsed.

As you imply, Eire and much later Scotland did not devolve in a vacuum. Joining the EU had something to do with the latter, and it was possible to see it coming way back in the early 70s.

I get the impression that understanding the world is similarly not popular in the USA either? A lot of people must hold their innocence wrapped in Picture Book America? Being just an 'Oregonian' could be really scary - a terrifying admission. I imagine it would be a bit like being an ex-communist in the FSU or in the collapsed Yugoslavia? There are differences though between Britain and America. We Brits won’t get a Milosevic IMHO but you could, if I get your drift today?

Phil

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG and Nicholas -- I would be VERY surprised if E Clampus Vitus requires an expressed belief in god or anything else; but they are very limited in their geographic scope at present. Sure the Clampers are as much a satire as a real order, but they do actually do things and if needed I suspect they could become deadly serious in their social mission.

Motorcycle clubs (of the non-1%-er variety) also do charitable work and take their fraternal duties very seriously, thought even the gay clubs would probably not use a froo-froo word like "fraternal." But every time I see them rallying for a charity ride for a brother with cancer, and I see all the clouds of cigarette smoke rising into the sky, I want to slap some sense into a few of their bandana-wrapped heads. But they take their duty to each other and to community quite seriously.

I also thought that, at least in many Masonic orders, you were allowed to interpret "supreme being" any way you like, and could substitute some non-theistic higher value such as "truth," "honor," or "the highest good" for it in your own mind. Is it not quite that simple?

Jason said...

@Adrian, many thanks for that. Would be interested in your reaction to the second link I gave JMG.

@Vera many thanks for the tip on Christian's article, useful.

Ymptree said...

JMG, Nicholas, and Bill,

First, great post, Mr. Greer. I've been reading for a couple of months now, and your blog has been quite an education!

Just to add a little to the atheists and fraternal orders subthread: I have an acquaintance who is a young Mason (he's in his 20s), and who considers himself an atheist. He told me he worked out a personal definition of "God"/"Higher Power" that he was comfortable with. So that would seem to be an option, though I doubt it would work for everyone.

Stacey

Thomas Daulton said...

@ JP and sgage:

Thanks for the discussion (nice Chesterton quote!) I have to side with sgage. How can I best put this: the idea that national affairs are inherently "more interesting" or "more important" than local ones is a broad generalization, it is a knee-jerk reflex which is not true in certain specific situations. My point is that those who practice thaumaturgy take ahold of that knee-jerk reflex and blow it up and pervert it beyond its usefulness. Let me give you a couple of examples.

If you live in a region where tigers roam your local forest and occasionally eat people who are working out in the fields, then you will certainly find local indications of tigers to be much more interesting and important than national-level discussions about the survival and ecology of the tiger species. Which is not to say that you will not be interested in national-level programs about the control or relocation of tigers, or their value as an endangered species. You will certainly be interested in those national-level conversations. But I'll tell ya right now which of those two topics will keep you awake at night: endangered species legislation, or tiger scat on the walking path to your local school...??

That's an exaggerated example, but there are examples at the political level. I don't wish to start a flame war about reproductive rights, but they show a clear illustration. JMG, please feel free to edit this out and show only the first half of the comment if you feel my example is too provocative.

Anyway, last I checked (and I haven't checked in awhile) the number of actual medical practitioners licensed to provide that procedure was on a steep decline in many States, particularly the ones where the populace generally disapproves of that procedure. There is evidence that medical students are avoiding learning the procedure because they feel intimidated or even that their lives may be threatened if they practice it.

So if you live in such a "red" State, and if you believe that certain individual rights must be maintained even when the majority disapproves of them, then you may be facing, in real life, a situation where abortion is legal but you literally cannot find a doctor to perform one, not without traveling hundreds of miles. In that situation, it behooves the supporter of family planning to work locally to counteract the atmosphere of intimidation and to promote the philosophy of reproductive rights at a local and regional level. Note that I am not saying the supporter must ignore campaigns to keep it legal at a national level. But you can easily find yourself in a situation where the rights you fight hard to protect at the national level become moot and trivial because you have no local avenue to exercise them.

I think we're getting to that point with regards to environmental and energy issues. Climate change is a tiger that is starting to eat actual people right and left, but at the national level our leaders are completely devoid of realistic proposals to deal with it. Climate change varies from place to place, so we need local responses, not Federal mandates.

Likewise, almost everybody agrees there should be alternatives to raw Gilded Age capitalism. But while we spend time and effort debating whether America is truly a Capitalist country by nature, we keep postponing the construction of real, modern, practicable alternatives to Capitalism, which must inevitably be implemented from the local grassroots up. The conversation about the morality of Capitalism ultimately does little besides benefit those who sit atop the Capitalist pyramid. Local action, not words, would undermine their Capitalist grip on the economy, therefore the elite pay people to make sure the conversation reaches such a din that nobody can ignore the shouting.

John Michael Greer said...

Iodhan, I'm not sure that anybody has a sufficiently clear grasp of the whole system to know which policies will speed up the collapse and which ones will prolong it, so concentrating on what you can do now is probably your best bet.

Phil, most American high school graduates can't find their own state on an unlabeled map; knowing much of anything about anything, other than the antics of celebrities, is not popular in today's America. As for the possibility of an American Milosevic, yes, anything up to fifty of them.

Bill, good question -- I don't happen to know the Clampers ritual. Of course there are plenty of other organizations filling a more or less fraternal role without using the same traditional hardware as the old lodges. As for the Masonic requirement, most lodges won't ask more than "Do you believe in a Supreme Being?" but atheists are specifically barred from membership by the "landmarks of the Craft," the old traditional rules that all regular Masonic lodges are bound to follow.

Ymptree, hmm. Well, it's up to him and his conscience, I suppose.

Cathy McGuire said...

I haven't had time to get through all of the comments yet (it's moving toward harvest time - and I'm somehow lead organizer in this county's first Food Preservation Fair mid-September!)but one thing it reminded me of was the sad, almost tragic ballot I received last voting day - a full page (both sides) of local district caucus representative elections - and out of 40-ish districts, maybe two had candidates! (The others were marked "no one nominated" or some such - wonder how many wrote their names and got in on one vote?) That was stunning proof of a total lack of interest in my official party in this area (granted, the other party is the dominant one here - but I had no idea HOW dominant!) It was depressing, and I'm too old to take on something like that...

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

It seems to me that the Masonic requirement excludes others besides atheists. Not that there's much present day Freemasons can do about that.

Some Christian sects have scruples against swearing oaths--that's why the Presidential oath of office in the U.S. Constitution provides an alternate wording to "affirm" rather than "swear", in order that there be no religious test for holding Federal office.

Buddhists believe in gods, but my understanding is that the Buddha was at most an agnostic on the subject of a Supreme Being.

Most of the peoples of antiquity were polytheists. Some of them were monists, some not, but when they swore an oath in the name of a god, they swore by a deity who represented justice or truth or retribution, or by the patron deity of their clan or polis, or by the Father of the Gods, but not the Supreme Being. It would be unreasonable to expect the Supreme Being to concern itself with petty human vows.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

"most American high school graduates can't find their own state on an unlabeled map"

I daresay if Essex Suffolk and Cambridgeshire were uniform square shapes like some of your States are, then the same would apply over here.

Top analogy from Thomas D! No tigers here in East Anglia, except at Colchester zoo. Though apparently a few don't know where East Anglia is, or the subtle difference between a leopard and a tiger...

Kevin Pohl said...

Yes, great backstory on how we got here.
The one thing that I keep coming back to is "same as it ever was....?"
I am in my 6th decade and with the accumulated years of false promises, injurious agendas, out and out lies, puppet regimes mismanagement etc. Has it always been like this?
Was there ever any integrity or has each generation endured awful politicians and policy?
Are we reaching some kind of abyss, a nadir not yet dreamed of with our political systems?
I actually think the answer is yes. I believe we will have another financial meltdown in the next 18 months and this will be a doozey.
On the bright side, real deprivation and poverty creates change, or "out of chaos comes order"
Americans are not a people to go to the barricades, but with sufficient cause it might just happen.

sgage said...

@Kevin,

"The one thing that I keep coming back to is "same as it ever was....?" "

When I was a kid in the 60's, my older brother gave me a portion of his paper route as my sole responsibility.

I read the newspaper every day as I prepared for my deliveries. This was the peak of the Viet Nam era, and there was actually a body count on the front page, right below the capsule weather forecast for the day - I kid you not.

But having been very aware of current events from a tender age, I can tell you that I can't remember a time when the world was not IN CRISIS!!!

Seriously, I don't think we've had "normal" since the early 60's. It's been one thing after the other. Our national adrenaline level has been amped up for decades - and it takes its toll. Here we are.

Bill Pulliam said...

Mustard -- actually we only have two "square" states. The other 48 all have distinctive and unique shapes. Even if you allow that North Dakota and Kansas are pretty similar out-of-context, that still leaves 46.

I have heard tales of people from Alaska who, when they told someone where they were from, the response was "Isn't Alaska that little state south of California?" (i.e. where it is often put as an inset on maps).

There's no way around it, Americans are astoundingly geographically ignorant, even of our own home. And it is willful ignorance; the same people easily keep track of hundreds of celebrities in their heads and all their interconnections and gossip. Americans chose to be idiots; we are not born that way.

Richard said...

Well, its Thursday and no new post. Obviously, the government got to JMG. I hope Dmitry Orlov can run fast enough in that boat of his...

tubaplayer said...

"Alex, I'd say that it's the other way around. Appropriate tech is the foundation; building community is what happens after you know you can keep yourself fed and warm through the winter, and so can your neighbor."

I rarely comment thus on your writings JMG. But I have to disagree 100%. Keeping yourself warm and fed through the winter and ensuring that your neighbours can do the same happens long before appropriate tech. Happens right here, right now. Maybe it is to do with the fact that we do not have to "build community" WTSHTF. We already have one.

I despair for places that do not have community _now_. What chance of other than a small prospect of survival if the do not have community already in place?

jollyreaper said...

Sometimes schedules can slip.