Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Trajectory of Empires

The structure of empire anatomized in last week’s post is a source of considerable strength for any imperial nation that manages to get it in place, and a source of even more considerable difficulty for anyone who opposes the resulting empire and hopes to bring it down. Nonetheless, empires do fall; every empire in history has fallen, with one present day exception, and for all its global reach and gargantuan military budgets, the American empire shows no signs of breaking that long losing streak. Thus it’s important to understand how empires fall, and why.

It sometimes happens that the fall of the last major empire in any given civilization is also the fall of that civilization, and a certain amount of confusion has come about because of this. The fall of Rome, for example, was the end of an empire, but it was also the end of a civilization that was already flourishing before the city of Rome was even founded—a civilization that had seen plenty of empires come and go by the time Rome rose past regional-power status to dominate the Mediterranean world. The example of Rome’s decline and fall, though, became so central to later attempts to understand the cycles of history that most such attempts in the modern Western world equated empire and civilization, and the fall of the one with that of the other.

That’s the principal blind spot in the writings of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, the two great theorists of historical cycles the modern Western world has produced. Both Spengler and Toynbee argued that the natural endpoint of what Spengler called a culture and Toynbee a civilization was a single sprawling empire—a Universal State, in Toynbee’s phrase—in which every previous movement of the culture or civilization that preceded it reached its completion, fossilization, and death. A barely concealed political subtext guided both authors; Spengler, formulating his theory before and during the First World War, believed that the German Empire would become the nucleus around which Faustian (that is, Western) culture would coalesce into the rigor mortis of civilization; Toynbee, who began his A Study of History in the 1920s and saw its last volumes in print in 1954, believed that an Anglo-American alliance would become that nucleus. In each case, national aspirations pretty clearly undergirded scholarly predictions.

Yet it bears remembering that a Universal State along Roman lines is only one of the options. Plenty of successful civilizations—the ancient Mayans are one example of many—never came under the rule of a single imperial power at all. Others—the civilization of ancient Mesopotamia is an example here—had empires succeeding one another every century or two all through the latter part of its history, so that no one empire put its stamp on the civilization the way that Rome did on the ancient Mediterranean world. Other civilizations had their own ways of dealing with the phenomenon of empire, and so a distinction needs to be made between the fall of empires and that of civilizations.

I’ve argued at length here and elsewhere that the fall of civilizations takes place through a process that I’ve termed catabolic collapse. This unfolds from the inevitable mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital—that is, how much economic activity has to be put into maintaining all the stuff that civilizations create and collect as their history proceeds—and the resource base needed to meet the maintenance costs of capital. Since capital tends to increase steadily over time, but resources are always subject to natural limits, every civilization sooner or later finds itself with more capital than it can maintain, and that tips it into a maintenance crisis: basically, a loss of capital, usually made worse by conflict over who gets to keep how much of their existing shares. If the civilization relies on renewable resources, it simply has to shed enough capital to get down below the level that it can maintain with the resource flows it has available; this is what drives the sort of repeated collapse and recovery rhythm that can be seen, for example, in the history of China.

If the civilization relies on nonrenewable resources, though, the depletion of those resources triggers a downward spiral—catabolic collapse—in which each round of crisis is followed, not by recovery, but by a brief reprieve before the declining resource base forces another maintenance crisis. Rinse and repeat, and pretty soon the capital you can’t afford to maintain any longer amounts to everything that’s left. That’s the extreme form of catabolic collapse, and there’s good reason to think that we’re already seeing the early stages of it in modern industrial civilization.

Empires suffer from the ordinary form of catabolic collapse, just like any other form of human social organization complex enough to accumulate capital. Still, they have their own far more specific version of the phenomenon, and it’s generally this specific form that brings them crashing down. To understand how empires collapse, two things have to be kept in mind. The first is the core concept of catabolic collapse just mentioned—the mismatch between maintenance costs and available resources, and the distinction between renewable and nonrenewable resources that determines the outcome of the mismatch. The second is the definition of empire introduced two weeks ago—that an empire is a wealth pump, an arrangement backed by military force that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core.

Imperial rhetoric down through the centuries normally includes the claim that the imperial power only takes a modest fraction of the annual production of wealth from its subject nations, and provides services such as peace, good government, and trade relations that more than make up for the cost. This is hogwash—popular hogwash, at least among those who profit from empire, but hogwash nonetheless. Historically speaking, the longer an empire lasts, the poorer its subject nations normally get, and the harder the empire’s tame intellectuals have to work to invent explanations for that impoverishment that don’t include the reasons that matter. Consider the vast amount of rhetorical energy expended by English intellectuals in the 19th century, for example, to find reasons for Ireland’s grinding poverty other than England’s systematic expropriation of every scrap of Irish wealth that wasn’t too firmly nailed down.

This sort of arrangement has predictable effects on capital and maintenance costs. The buildup of capital in the imperial center goes into overdrive, churning out the monumental architecture, the collections of art and antiquities, the extravagant lifestyles, and the soaring costs of living that have been constant features of life in an imperial capital since imperial capitals were invented. The costs of building and maintaining all this accumulation, not to mention the considerable maintenance costs of empire itself—the infrastructure of an empire counts as capital, and generally very expensive capital at that—are exported to the subject nations by whatever set of mechanisms the empire uses to pump wealth inward to the center. Over the short to middle term, this is an extremely profitable system, since it allows the imperial center to wallow in wealth while all the costs of that wealth are borne elsewhere.

It’s over the middle to long term that the problems with this neat arrangement show up. The most important of these difficulties is that the production of wealth in any society depends on a feedback loop in which a portion of each year’s production becomes part of the capital needed to produce wealth in future years, and another portion of each year’s production—a substantial one—goes to meet the maintenance costs of existing productive capital. In theory, an empire could keep its exactions at a level which would leave this feedback loop unimpaired. In practice, no empire ever does so, which is one of the two primary reasons why the subject nations of an empire become more impoverished over time. (Plain old-fashioned looting of subject nations by their imperial rulers is the other.) As the subject nation’s ability to produce and maintain productive capital decreases, so does its capacity to produce wealth, and that cuts into the ability of the empire to make its subject nations cover its own maintenance costs. A wealth pump is great, in other words, until it pumps the reservoir dry.

The wealth of subject nations, in other words, is a nonrenewable resource for empires, and empires thus face the same sort of declining returns on investment as any other industry dependent on nonrenewable resources. It’s thus predictable that the most frequent response to declining returns is an exact analogue of the "drill, baby, drill" mentality so common in today’s petroleum-dependent nations. The drive to expand at all costs that dominates the foreign policy of so many empires is thus neither accidental nor a symptom of the limitless moral evil with which empires are so often credited by their foes. For an empire that’s already drained its subject nations to the point that the wealth pump is sputtering, a policy of "invade, baby, invade" is a matter of economic necessity, and often of national survival.

The difficulty faced by such a policy, of course, is the same one that always ends up clobbering extractive economies dependent on nonrenewable resources: the simple and immovable fact that the world is finite. That’s what did in the Roman empire, for example. Since it rose and fell in an age less addicted to euphemisms than ours, Rome’s approach to pumping wealth out of subject nations was straightforward. Once a nation was conquered by Rome, it was systematically looted of movable wealth by the conquerors, while local elites were allowed to buy their survival by serving as collection agents for tribute; next, the land was confiscated a chunk at a time so it could be handed out as retirement bonuses to legionaries who had served their twenty years; then some pretext was found for exterminating the local elites and installing a Roman governor; thereafter, the heirs of the legionaries were forced out or bought out, and the land sold to investors in Rome, who turned it into vast corporate farms worked by slaves.

Each of those transformations brought a pulse of wealth back home to Rome, but the income from conquered provinces tended to decline over time, and once it reached the final stage, the end was in sight—hand over your farmland to absentee investors who treat it purely as a source of short term profit, and whether you live in ancient Rome or modern America, the results you’re going to get include inadequate long-term investment, declining soil fertility, and eventual abandonment. To keep the wealth pump running, the empire had to grow, and grow it did, until finally it included every nation that belonged to the ancient Mediterranean economic and cultural sphere, from the tin mines of Britain to the rich farms of the upper Nile.

That’s when things began to go wrong, because the drive to expand was still there but the opportunities for expansion were not. Attempts to expand northward into Scotland, Germany, and the Balkans ran headlong into two awkward facts: first, the locals didn’t have enough wealth to make an invasion pay for itself, and second, the locals were the kind of tribal societies that fostered Darwinian selection among their young men via incessant warfare, and quickly found that a nice brisk game of "Raid the Romans" made a pleasant addition to the ordinary round of cattle raids and blood feuds. Expansion to the south was closed off by the Sahara Desert, while to the east, the Parthian Empire had an awkward habit of annihilating Roman armies sent to conquer it. Thus Roman imperial expansion broke down; attempts to keep the wealth pump running anyway stripped the provinces of their productive capital and pushed the Roman economic system into a death spiral; the imperial government stumbled from one fiscal and military crisis to another, until finally the Dark Ages closed in.

The same process can be traced throughout the history of empires. Consider England’s rule over India, once the jewel in the crown of the British empire. In the last years of British India, it was a common complaint in the English media that India no longer "paid her own way." Until a few decades earlier, India had paid a great deal more than her own way; income to the British government from Queen Victoria’s Indian possessions had covered a sizable fraction of the costs of the entire British empire, and colossal private fortunes were made in India so frequently that they gave rise to an entire class of nouveaux-riches Englishmen, the so-called Nabobs.

It took the British Empire, all in all, less than two centuries to run India’s economy into the ground and turn what had been one of the world’s richest and most productive countries into one of its poorest. Attempts to expand the British empire into new territory were ongoing all through the 19th and very early 20th centuries, but ran up against difficulties like those that stymied Rome’s parallel efforts most of two millennia before: those areas that could be conquered—for example, eastern Africa—didn’t yield enough plunder to make the process sufficiently lucrative, while where conquest would have been hugely profitable—for example, China—British imperial ambitions ran up against stiff competition from other empires, and had to settle for a fraction of the take. Neither option provided enough income to keep the British empire from unraveling.

Another example? The short-lived Soviet empire in eastern Europe. In the wake of the Second World War, Russian soldiers installed Marxist puppet governments in every nation they overran, and the Soviet government proceeded to impose wildly unbalanced "trade agreements" that amounted to the wholesale looting of eastern Europe for Russian benefit. Much of the Soviet Union’s rapid recovery from wartime devastation and its rise to near-parity with the United States can be assigned to that very lucrative policy of pillage. Once the supply of plunder ran short, though, so did the Soviet economy’s capacity to function; efforts to expand into new territory—Afghanistan comes to mind—ran into the usual difficulties; and when the price of oil crashed in the mid-1980s, depriving the Soviet system of much of the hard currency that kept it afloat, collapse followed promptly.

The United States, as I hope to show in upcoming posts, is being driven by the same forces along the same trajectory toward imperial bankruptcy and collapse. Like the empires just described, and many others as well, it’s become economically and politically dependent on a set of unbalanced relationships that extract wealth from much of the world and concentrate it here at home. The specific form of those relationships unfolds from the unusually complex history of America’s empire; we’ll begin talking about that in next week’s post.

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End of the World of the Week #11

Prophets of a new world about to dawn have spoken and written in many different styles, ranging from some of the world’s greatest poetry to some of the world’s least impressive gibberish. In 19th century Europe, however, it became fashionable to express such predictions in philosophical language, the more pompous and turgid the better. Two of the figures we’ve already discussed, Charles Fourier and Karl Marx, came out of that tradition, but Fourier had too colorful an imagination and Marx too readable a prose style to represent its main current.

No such handicaps burdened Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who managed to become the 19th century’s most influential philosopher by writing some of its most unreadable books. His bio is nearly a caricature of a contemporary German academic career—private lecturer at the University of Jena, editor of a literary journal at Bamberg, headmaster of a high school at Nuremberg, professor at the University of Jena, and finally chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he spent the rest of his life. His publications followed the same utterly conventional route: his doctoral dissertation studiously avoided the least suspicion of original thought; his first major work staked out a carefully chosen stance within the field of 19th century idealist philosophy, and later works applied the same stance at progressively greater length to various fashionable fields of thought.

His theory of history was part and parcel of this agenda. He argued, if it’s possible to sum up a vast amount of murky prose and convoluted reasoning in a few sentences, that history is the process by which the Absolute manifests Itself in space and time, according to a rhythm of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis by which each manifestation contends with its internal contradictions and achieves a new synthesis, which generates its own internal contradictions in turn, and the beat goes on.

Eventually, though, the Absolute will have completely manifested Itself in the world, the perfect human society will have been achieved, and history will come to a screeching halt with the appearance of a "world-historical personality" who would embody the Absolute. Hegel spent a good deal of his career waffling about when this would happen, but toward the end of his life, announced that it already had, and that Germany was the perfect human society. History, though, failed to take the hint, and just kept on going.

—story from Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Structure of Empires

Empires, as last week’s post noted, have been around for a long time. The evidence of history suggests that they show up fairly promptly once agriculture becomes stable and sophisticated enough to support urban centers, and go away only when urban life also breaks down. Anyone interested in tracking the rise and fall of empires thus has anything up to five thousand years of fairly detailed information from the Old World, and well over three thousand years from the New—plenty of data, one would think, for a coherent picture to emerge.

Unfortunately one major difficulty stands in the way of such a picture, and it’s one that was mentioned last week: empires attract doubletalk the way a dead rat attracts flies. Some of the doubletalk comes from rival power centers, outside the empire du jour or within it, that hope to excuse their own ambitions by painting that empire in the least complimentary colors that can be found, but an even larger amount gets produced by empires themselves—or, more exactly, by the tame intellectuals that empires produce and employ in numbers as large as the imperial economy can support. Between the doubletalk meant to make any given empire seem much worse than its rivals, and the doubletalk meant to make the same empire seem much better than its rivals, understanding is an early casualty.

Last week’s post gave a few examples of the first class of doubletalk. I could cite any number of examples of the second, but one that’s particularly relevant to the theme of this series of posts is that shibboleth of contemporary economics, free trade. That term’s become so thickly encrusted with handwaving and deliberate disinformation that it probably needs to be defined here; “a system of international exchange that prohibits governments from taxing or prohibiting the movement of goods, services, or money across borders” is as good a definition as any.

Pick up an introductory textbook of economics, though, and your chances of finding an objective assessment of a system of this kind are very low indeed. Instead, what you’ll find between the covers is a ringing endorsement of free trade, usually in the most propagandistic sort of language. Most likely it will rehash the arguments originally made by British economist David Ricardo, in the early 19th century, to prove that free trade inevitably encourages every nation to develop whatever industries are best suited to its circumstances, and so produces more prosperity for everybody. Those arguments will usually be spiced up with whatever more recent additions appeal to the theoretical tastes of the textbook’s author or authors, and will plop the whole discussion into a historical narrative that insists that once upon a time, there were silly people who didn’t like free trade, but now we all know better.

What inevitably gets omitted from the textbook is any discussion, based in actual historical examples, of the way that free trade works out in practice That would be awkward, because in the real world, throughout history, free trade pretty consistently hasn’t done what Ricardo’s rhetoric and today’s economics textbooks claim it will do. Instead, it amplifies the advantages of wealthy nations and the disadvantages of poorer ones, concentrating capital and income in the hands of those who already have plenty of both while squeezing out potential rivals and forcing down wages across the board. This is why every nation in history that’s ever developed a significant industrial sector to its economy has done so by rejecting the ideology of free trade, and building its industries behind a protective wall of tariffs, trade barriers, and capital controls, while those nations that have listened to the advice of the tame economists of the British and American empires have one and all remained mired in poverty and dependence as long as they did so.

There’s a rich irony here, because not much more than a century ago, a healthy skepticism toward the claims of free trade ideology used to be standard in the United States. At that time, Britain filled the role in the world system that the United States fills today, complete with the global empire, the gargantuan military with annual budget to match, and the endless drumbeat of brushfire wars across what would one day be called the Third World, and British economists were accordingly the world’s loudest proponents of free trade, while the United States filled the role of rising industrial power that China fills today, complete with sky-high trade barriers that protected its growing industries, not to mention a distinctly cavalier attitude toward intellectual property laws.

One result of that latter detail is that pirate editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica were produced and sold by a number of American firms all through the 19th century. Most of these editions differed from their British originals in an interesting way, though. The entry for “Free Trade” in the original editions repeated standard British free-trade economic theory, repeating Ricardo’s arguments and dismissing criticisms of free trade out of hand; the American editors by and large took the trouble to replace these with entries critiquing free trade ideology in much the same terms I’ve used in this post. The replacement of pro- with anti-free trade arguments in these pirate editions, interestingly enough, attracted far more denunciation in the British press than the piracy itself got, which shows that the real issues were tolerably well understood at the time.

When it comes to free trade and its alternatives, that level of understanding is nowhere near so common these days, at least in the United States—I’ve long suspected that businessmen and officials in Beijing have a very precise understanding of what free trade actually means, though it would hardly be to their advantage just now to talk about that with any degree of candor. On this side of the Pacific, by contrast, even those who speak most enthusiastically about relocalization and the end of corporate globalism apparently haven’t noticed how effectively tariffs, trade barriers, and capital controls foster domestic industries and rebuild national economies—or perhaps it’s just that too many of them aren’t willing to consider paying the kind of prices for their iPods and Xboxes that would follow the enactment of a reasonable tariff, much less the prices that would be required if we had the kind of trade barriers that built the American economy and could build it again, and American workers were paid American wages to make them.

Free trade is simply one of the mechanisms of empire in the age of industrialism, one part of the wealth pump that concentrated the wealth of the globe in Britain during the years of its imperial dominion and does the same thing for the benefit of the United States today. Choose any other mechanism of empire, from the web of military treaties that lock allies and subject nations into a condition of dependence on the imperial center, through the immense benefits that accrue to whatever nation issues the currency in which international trade is carried out, to the way that the charitable organizations of the imperial center—missionary churches in Victoria’s time, for example, or humanitarian NGOs in ours—further the agenda of empire with such weary predictability: in every case, you’ll find a haze of doubletalk surrounding a straightforward exercise of imperial domination. It requires a keen eye to look past the rhetoric and pay attention to the direction the benefits flow.

Follow the flow of wealth and you understand empire. That’s true in a general and a more specific sense, and both of these have their uses. In the general sense, paying attention to shifts in wealth between the imperial core and the nations subject to it is an essential antidote to the popular sort of nonsense—popular among the tame intellectuals previously mentioned, at least, and their audiences in the imperial core—that imagines empire as a sort of social welfare program for conquered nations. Whether it’s some old pukka sahib talking about how the British Empire brought railroads and good government to India, or his neoconservative equivalent talking about how the United States ought to export the blessings of democracy and the free market to the Middle East, it’s codswallop, and the easiest way to see that it’s codswallop is to notice that the price paid for whatever exports are under discussion normally amounts to the systematic impoverishment of the subject nation.

In the specific sense, flows of wealth can be used to trace out the structure of empire, which is a more complex matter than the basic outline discussed so far might make it seem. It’s entirely possible that a long time ago, when empires were new, there might have been one or two that consisted, on the level of nations, of a single imperial nation and a circle of subject nations; and on the level of populations, of a single ruling class and an undifferentiated mass of oppressed subjects. If empires this simple did exist, though, it was a very long time ago.

Nowadays an imperial system normally involves at least four distinct categories of nations, and an even more complex set of population divisions. On the level of nations, the imperial nation is in a category of its own; around it is an inner circle of allied nations, who support the empire in exchange for a share of the spoils; the third category consists of subject nations, the cash cows that the empire milks, and in due time will milk dry; finally, around the periphery, are enemy nations that oppose the empire in peace and war. In theory, at least, this last category shouldn’t be necessary, but it may not be accidental that when an empire loses one enemy, the usual response is to go shopping for another.

On the level of populations, the sort of crudely manipulative rhetoric that divides an elite 1% from an oppressed 99%, which was made popular last year by the Occupy movement, is a formidable barrier to understanding. An empire that tried to manage its affairs along those lines would fall in weeks. From ancient Rome to contemporary Washington DC, “divide and conquer” has always been the basic strategy of empire, and the classic way to do that in modern times is to hand out shares of wealth and privilege unequally to different sectors of the population. The British empire turned this into an art form, using arbitrary privileges and exclusions of various kinds to keep ethnic groups in each subject nation so irritated at one another that they never got around to uniting against the British. From the simmering rivalry between India and Pakistan, through the troubles of Northern Ireland, to the bitter mutual hatreds of Israelis and Arabs in what used to be British Palestine, the ethnic hatreds whipped up deliberately for the sake of Britain’s imperial advantage remain a live issue today.

These same divisions can be traced out within the imperial nation as well, and readily make hash out of any attempt to sort things out along the simplistic “us and them” lines favored by political activists. In contemporary America, for example, different sectors of the population are subject to the same sort of privileges and exclusions that defined so much of life in British India; if you’re an American citizen, the average annual income of your parents is a more exact predictor of your own income than any other factor, but your gender, your skin color, the location on the urban-rural spectrum of the neighborhood where you grew up, and a great many other arbitrary factors have far more to say about your prospects in life than America’s egalitarian ideology would suggest. These complexities are hardly accidental.

Still, there’s more going on here than simple manipulation from the top down. Within an imperial system, different nations and population groups are always competing against one another for a larger share of the wealth and privilege that empires make available. That happens on the scale of nations, for example, when a subject nation in a strategic location becomes an ally, or when an ally—as America did in 1945—supplants the former imperial center and takes the empire for its own. That also happens on the scale of populations, and on smaller scales still.

The ruling class of any nation, for example, consists of a loose alliance of power centers, held together by the pressures of mutual advantage, but constantly pursuing their own divergent interests and eagerly trying to claim a larger share of power and wealth at the expense of the other power centers. There are always families, factions, and social groups rising up into the ruling class at any given point, and others falling out of it; while outside the ruling class is an even more complex constellation of groups who support power centers within the ruling class, who expect to receive wealth and privileges in return for their support, and who rise and fall in their own intricate rhythm. Proceed step by step down the pyramid, and you’ll find the same complexities in place all the way down to the bottom, where a flurry of ethnic, cultural, and social groups compete with one another over whose oppression ought to get the most attention from middle class liberals.

On the level of nations or that of populations, in other words, it’s neither possible nor useful to divide the structure of empire into the simplistic categories of oppressor and oppressed, ruler and ruled. Many nations in any imperial system fall between the summit and the base of the pyramid, and are permitted to pump wealth out of nations lower down on the condition that they forward a certain fraction of the take further up. The vast majority of people in the imperial nation and its allies, and a certain fraction of those even in the most heavily exploited subject nations, receive at least a modest share of wealth and privilege in exchange for their cooperation in maintaining the imperial system, compete constantly for a bigger share, and generally limit their criticisms of the imperial system to those aspects of it that profit somebody else. That’s why empires have proven to be so enduring a human social form; the basic toolkit of empire includes an ample assortment of ways to buy the loyalty, or at least the passive acquiescence, of all those potential power centers that might otherwise try to destabilize the imperial system and bring the empire crashing down.

Yet empires do come crashing down, of course. The fact that the form has proven to be enduring has not given a comparable endurance to any individual empire. Britons during Victoria’s reign liked to boast that the sun never set on the British empire—though that may have been, as the Irish liked to suggest, because God Himself wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark—but the sun did set on that empire in due time, and once the sunset started, it proceeded with remarkable speed. Children who were just old enough to remember the celebration of Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, when the empire was not far from its zenith, had not yet reached retirement age when the last tattered scraps of that empire went whistling down the wind.

The collapse of the British empire is a fascinating story in its own right, but it’s also an object lesson of great importance just now. That collapse opened a window of opportunity through which several nations tried to climb, and the one that succeeded is today’s dominant imperial power, the United States of America. Understand Britain’s imperial sunset, and the broader patterns by which empires overshoot their economic basis and go under, and you understand one of the most important and least anticipated facts of the decades ahead of us—the parallel collapse of the American empire, and the struggle to replace it. We’ll explore that in outline next week.

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End of the World of the Week #10

England has a long history of tolerating eccentrics, and its apocalyptic prophets have accordingly been among the more colorful examples of the species. From the Middle Ages through to the present, some truly exotic claims have been made by English prophets, but I know of only one who announced that she would bring about the Second Coming by the simple and elegant means of duplicating the role of the Virgin Mary and giving birth to Christ.

This was Joanna Southcott. Born in 1750 in the West Country village of Gittisham, Southcott led an unremarkable life until middle age, when she began to develop a reputation as what people at that time politely called a “wise woman” and earlier generations had called by the more robust label of “witch.” Her skills as a folk healer and fortuneteller attracted a modest following, which grew considerably in 1792 when she announced that she was the woman clothed with the Sun described in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. Moving to London, she began issuing prophecies in bad verse—one of them stating that the Second Coming would occur in the year 2004—and providing followers with seals that declared them members of the fortunate 144,000 who would enter into the New Jerusalem.

One of the job requirements of the woman clothed with the Sun, though, was to give birth to a man child who would rule the nations with a rod of iron. In 1814, at the age of 64, Southcott announced that she was pregnant and would give birth to the Messiah after the normal interval. Nine months later, with an exquisite sense of timing, she died; her followers, convinced she was in a trance, kept her body warm with hot water bottles until the smell of decay became intolerable.

—story from Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Nature of Empire

Niall Ferguson is arguably the most uneven of our living historians. His The War of the World is perhaps the best one-volume survey of the era of global war that began in a flurry of bullets at Sarajevo in 1914; his The Ascent of Money, by contrast, is little more than an exercise in cheerleading for the same misguided economic notions that are setting the stage right now for an explosion that may well rival the one that followed Sarajevo, and the same divergence can be traced straight through his work. Still, Ferguson’s writing makes an excellent starting place for any attempt to make sense of the phenomenon of empire—though this is something of a backhanded compliment, as his misses illuminate the subject at least as well as his hits.

It would be useful if the same thing were true of the other misunderstandings of empire that jostle one another in the collective conversation of our time. Regrettably, that’s anything but the case. In order to make sense of the impact that the fall of America’s empire is going to have on all our lives in the decades ahead, it’s crucial to understand what empires are, what makes them tick—and what makes them collapse. To do that, hovever, it’s going to be necessary to bundle up a mass of unhelpful assumptions and garbled history, and chuck them into the compost.

We can start with the verbal habit of using empire—or, more exactly, the capitalized abstraction Empire—as what S.I. Hayakawa used to call a snarl word: a content-free verbal noise that’s used to express feelings of hatred and loathing. The language of politics these days consists largely of snarl words. When people on the leftward end of the political spectrum say "fascist" or "Empire," for example, these words mean exactly what "socialist" or "liberal" mean to people on the right—that is, they express the emotional state of the speaker rather than anything relevant about the object under discussion. Behind this common habit is the most disturbing trend in contemporary political life, the replacement of ordinary disagreement with seething rage against a demonized Other on whom all the world’s problems can conveniently be blamed.

In too many cases this sort of thinking is taken to frightening extremes. Consider David Korten’s The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, which manages to be both one of the most popular works in the anti-Empire canon and one of the most profoundly antidemocratic tracts in recent memory. Korten’s argument is based on the theory that certain people—quite explicitly, those who share his background and opinions—belong to a higher "developmental stage" than anyone else, and the world’s problems can only be solved if power is taken away from those who have it now and given to the gifted few. If you want thoughtful analysis of the ideas and motivations of the supposedly less evolved people who hold power nowadays, don’t look for it in Korten’s book; what you’ll find instead is an unusually crude version of the standard left-wing caricature of right-wing thinking.

Empire, in Korten’s book, amounts to the whole of the existing order of society, portrayed in the shrill language of apocalyptic rhetoric—unless the gifted few who have "spiritual consciousness" get the power they ought to have, one gathers, all life on Earth is doomed. It’s interesting to note, though, that exactly how the utopian state of Earth Community will deal with the flurry of planetary crises luridly depicted in the first part of The Great Turning is nowhere detailed. The reader who is able to step back and cast a cold eye on the book’s argument may thus be forgiven for thinking that Earth Community is simply Empire with the ruling class Korten prefers, just as the "emerging values consensus" that guides Earth Community can be hard to distinguish from the ideologies that guide Empire, and so on down the list of inevitable parallels.

The need to sidestep this sort of manipulative rhetoric, it seems to me, makes it urgent to get past the habit of using terms like "empire" as snarl words, and recover their actual meaning as descriptions of specific forms of human political, economic, and social interaction. Getting rid of that initial capital letter, arbitrary as it seems, is one step in the right direction. Just as the younger Bush administration was able to disguise a flurry of dubious motives and justify a misguided rush to war by converting the tangled reality of Muslim resentment and radical militancy into the capitalized abstraction of Terror, too many people on the other side of the political spectrum have covered equally dubious motives and justified a range of unproductive actions by converting the tangled realities of influence, authority, and privilege in modern industrial states into the capitalized abstraction of Empire. The so-called Global War on Terror, of course, turned out to be an expensive flop, and much of what passes for "fighting Empire," though a good deal less costly in blood and money, has not been much more successful.

This post and the ones that follow it, then, will be discussing empire, not Empire, and as soon as we get past some initial questions of definition, they will be discussing specific empires—the one the United States currently maintains, primarily, but also the British empire that preceded it, and a variety of others that cast useful light on its past, its present, and its future. One striking detail, of course, sets today’s American empire apart from most of its predecessors, and that is the curious fact that very few people will publicly admit that America has an empire at all.

This is where Niall Ferguson enters the picture, because he’s one of the notable exceptions. In several books and a flurry of essays, Ferguson has argued that the United States fills exactly the same role in international affairs today that Britain held a century ago, and since nobody then or now finds it especially problematic to talk about the British empire, open discussion of the American empire ought to be an equally straightforward matter. He makes a very solid case that the United States is an imperial power. What makes this all the more interesting is that while most people who talk about American empire these days mean the label as a criticism, Ferguson does not. Quite the contrary, he thinks America’s empire is a good thing, and has publicly urged American politicians to take their imperial role more seriously—in other words, to get out there and lord it over the world in earnest.

Some of what’s behind this quixotic rhetoric is doubtless the spluttering indignation it evokes from liberal pundits—Ferguson has admitted that one of the motives that got him involved in conservative politics in his student days was the fun to be had by baiting the left—but there’s more to his argument than that. He points out that periods when one imperial power dominates any given system of nations tend to be periods of relative peace and stability, while periods that lack such a centralized power tend to be racked by wars and turmoil. It’s a valid point—imperial Britain’s century of world dominion from 1815 to 1914 featured fewer wars in Europe, at least, than any comparable period up to that time, and American dominion since 1945 has imposed even more rigid a peace on that fractious continent—and Ferguson goes on to claim, on the basis of that undoubted fact, that imperial rule is a good thing for everyone involved, ruled as well as rulers.

That last step, though, goes well past what the evidence will support, and a good hard look at the claim will prove revealing. Partly, this shows Ferguson’s tendency—which is of course shared by many of his peers in Britain and the rest of Europe—toward an unthinking Eurocentrism. While Europe was relatively calm between Waterloo and Sarajevo, there were very few years in that interval where the British army wasn’t busy fighting someone somewhere in the world, and the smaller colonial empires other European states acquired by Britain’s permission during those same years were in many cases just as racked with wars. Still, there’s another point that’s even more crucial, which is that peace, stability, and the Victorian British idea of good government for the natives are not necessarily the only goods worth weighing in the balance. By this I don’t mean to bring up such intangibles as freedom and self-determination, though of course they also have a place in any meaningful moral calculus; the issue I have in mind is one of cold hard economics.

A broader view of history may be useful here. The first explorers to venture outwards from Europe into the wider world encountered civilizations that were far wealthier than anything they had known. After returning to Italy from the Far East in 1295, Marco Polo was mocked as "Marco Millions" for an account of China’s vast riches that later travelers found to be largely accurate. When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama made the first European voyage around Africa to India in 1497, he and his crew were stunned by the extraordinary prosperity of the Indian society they encountered. When Hern├ín Cortes reached the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitl├ín in 1519, it was easily among the most populous cities on the planet—current estimates range from 200,000 ato 300,000 within the city alone, and another million in the urban region surrounding it—as well as one of the richest. A few centuries later, at the zenith of Europe’s age of empire, China, India, and Mexico ranked among the world’s poorest nations, while England, which had been a soggy backwater on the fringes of Europe mostly known for codfish and wool, was one of its richest.

Plenty of reasons have been advanced for this astonishing reversal, but there are times when the obvious explanation is also the correct one, and this is among them. The point can be made even more clearly by noting a detail I’ve brought up here before—the curious fact that the 5% of humanity that live in the United States of America, until quite recently, used around a quarter of the world’s energy and around a third of its raw materials and industrial product. This remarkably disproportionate share of the world’s wealth didn’t come to us because the rest of the world didn’t want such things, or because the United States manufactured some good or provided some service so desirable to the rest of the world that other nations vied with each other to buy it from us. Quite the contrary; we produced very little in America during much of our empire’s most prosperous period, and the rest of the world’s population is by and large just as interested in energy, raw materials, and industrial product as we are.

It’s considered distinctly impolite to suggest that the real reason behind the disparity is related to the fact that the United States has over 500 military bases on other nations’ territory, and spends on its armed forces every year roughly the same amount as the military budgets of every other nation on Earth put together. Here again, though, the obvious explanation is the correct one. Between 1945 and 2008, the United States was the world’s dominant imperial power, filling the same role in the global political system that Britain filled during its own age of empire, and while that imperial arrangement had plenty of benefits, by and large, they flowed in one direction only.

With this in mind, we can move to a meaningful definition of empire. An empire is an arrangement among nations, backed and usually imposed by military force, that extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core. Put more simply, an empire is a wealth pump, a device to enrich one nation at the expense of others. The mechanism of the pump varies from empire to empire and from age to age; the straightforward exaction of tribute that did the job for ancient Egypt, and had another vogue in the time of imperial Spain, has been replaced in most of the more recent empires by somewhat less blatant though equally effective systems of unbalanced exchange. While the mechanism varies, though, the underlying principle does not.

None of this would have raised any eyebrows at all in a discussion of the mechanics of empire, in America or elsewhere, during the late nineteenth century. Such discussions took place, in the mass media of the time as well as in the corridors of power, and it was widely understood that the point to having an empire was precisely that it made your nation rich. That’s why the United States, after a series of bitter public debates we’ll be discussing a little further on in this series of posts, committed itself to the path of empire in the 1890s, and it’s why every nation in western Europe either had or desperately wanted an overseas empire—even Belgium, for heaven’s sake, had its own little vest pocket empire in Africa, and exploited it ruthlessly.

The near-total domination of the world by European empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in conjunction with the popular racism of the time—Kipling’s pompous blather about "the white man’s burden" was embarrassingly typical for its era—has given rise in some circles to the notion that there’s something uniquely European or, more precisely, uniquely white about empire. In reality, of course, the peoples of Europe and the European diaspora were by and large Johnny-come-latelies to the business of empire. Ancient Egypt, as already mentioned, was as creative in this as in so many other of the arts of civilization, and had a thriving empire that extended far south along the Nile and north along the Mediterranean coast.

The great arc of city-states that extended from modern Turkey through the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and the mountains and plateaus further east to the Indus Valley gave rise to dozens of empires at a time when Europe was a patchwork of illiterate tribal societies that still thought bronze was high tech. China had its own ancient and highly successful empire, and half a dozen other east Asian nations copied the Chinese model and pursued their own dreams of imperial expansion and enrichment. Sub-Saharan Africa had at least a dozen great empires, while the Aztecs were only the latest in a long history of Native American empires as splendid and predatory as anything the Old World had to offer. Empire is one of the most common patterns by which nations to relate to one another, and it seems to emerge spontaneously whenever one nation has a sufficient preponderance of power to exploit another. Its emergence sets certain patterns and processes pretty reliably into motion; we’ll be discussing those during the weeks to come.

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In other news, I'm delighted to report that my new book The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil is now available for preorder from Scarlet Imprint, in two limited editions. (The paperback and e-book editions will be available for preorder a bit later.) Everything's on track for a release at the upcoming Spring Equinox. Please visit www.scarletimprint.com/bloodoftheearth.htm for full details and ordering information!

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End of the World of the Week #9


Joachim of Fiore was a medieval monk, but in many ways it’s hard to think of a more thoroughly modern figure. He was born somewhere around 1135 in the Italian province of Calabria, worked for the government of the Kingdom of Sicily for a while, then got religion in 1174 and entered the Benedictine order—yes, that’s the twelfth-century equivalent of leaving your corporate job and ending up in a New Age ashram in Sedona. In 1184, while on his way to Rome on monastery business, he stopped at an abbey in Casamari, and that’s where he suddenly metamorphosed from common or garden variety mystic seeker to full-blown medieval guru.

While he was at Casamari, to be precise, he had a series of visions that revealed to him the secret meaning of the Book of Revelations and the entire shape of the world’s history. The short form was that all of time was divided into three parts, which related to the three persons of the Christian trinity. The Age of the Father ran from the creation of the world to the advent of Jesus, and was the age of law; the Age of the Son ran from there to the downfall of Antichrist, which either Joachim or his students—nobody’s quite sure which—expected in the year 1260, and was the age of grace; the final Age of the Holy Spirit, the blissful age of love and liberty, ran from then on until the end of the world. Thus the various cataclysms of the Book of Revelations, in Joachim’s thought, were simply rough patches on the road to paradise on earth.

Joachim’s good news proved to be highly popular, and made him internationally famous. When King Richard the Lionheart was on his way to the Third Crusade, he made time to stop by Joachim’s monastery and ask for a prophecy about the upcoming war with the Saracens; Joachim obligingly did the necessary calculations, and told the king that the Crusade would be a huge success and Jerusalem would be recaptured by the Christians; he was wrong, but that did nothing to dent his reputation. He went to his death in 1202 serenely convinced that the wonderful Age of the Holy Spirit was going to arrive on schedule in not much over half a century. Instead, his views were condemned as heretical by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and when 1260 rolled around, nothing out of the ordinary happened at all.

—story from Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Looking Backward, Looking Ahead

Over the last few weeks, after many detours, this blog’s path has finally finished traversing a landscape I first sighted more than a year and a half ago. I’d like to take a moment here to glance back over the territory we’ve crossed together in that time, wrap up some loose ends, and then take a look ahead at the terrain into which we’ll be venturing in the months to come.

As June of 2010 began, having wrapped up the sequence of posts on economics that eventually turned into The Wealth of Nature, I took up the next point I wanted to discuss—the role of fantasy, myth, and the nonrational in shaping the industrial world’s nonresponse to the rising spiral of crises that has come to dominate our time. It was a propitious moment to start a discussion of that theme; the first round of efforts to plug the disastrous Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had failed, and in response, an astonishing number of people here in America had to all intents and purposes gone barking mad.

It’s worth reminiscing a bit about the raw nonsense that passed for reasonable thinking during those troubled days. Serious pundits were seriously insisting that the United States government had better hurry up and use a nuclear weapon on the recalcitrant well. None of them that I heard ever got around to explaining how blasting a gargantuan crater in the floor of the Gulf, vaporizing any remaining impediment to the flow of oil, and crashing an oily, radioactive, fifty-foot-high tsunami into the Gulf coast would have helped matters any, but very few people were rude enough to try to intrude that little difficulty into the discussion.

Meanwhile the hirelings of the oil industry were insisting that dumping millions of barrels of crude oil into the waters of the Gulf would merely add a little piquance to your next dish of Creole shrimp, while on the other side of the fence, rumors were surging through the crawlspaces of the internet that the oil spill was quite literally going to cause the extinction of life on Earth. That’s the sort of gibberish that comes foaming out, apparently, when a nation far too certain of its own omnipotence runs into a hard reminder that there are inconvenient realities called the laws of physics that can’t be bullied or whined into behaving the way we prefer.

So while oil was spewing out of a broken drill pipe, and nonsense was spewing out of a broken society, I started the discussion that finally wound up over the last few weeks. The delay? Well, that was partly the result of a post I made on the last day of June, 2010—there’s an Al Stewart joke that belongs here, but I’ll let that pass for now—which suggested that it might be worth reviving the ideas and practices of the 1970s appropriate tech movement. I’d recently helped to translate a 10th-century training manual for wizards, and so, in a flourish of rhetoric, I suggested that maybe the practitioners of the arcane and eldritch arts of organic agriculture, homescale alternative energy, and the like might think of themselves as "green wizards."

By the time the dust finally settled, that post had garnered more comments and more page views than anything else I’d posted here up to that time, by a large margin, and I’d been deluged by comments and emails asking me to talk about the green wizardry stuff in more detail. That, dear readers, was why I spent the next year and a bit talking about my experiences in organic gardening, energy conservation, and other bits of Seventies backyard-garden and basement-workshop green tech; I also helped found a forum for green wizards to discuss their craft, and had several other posts break the records set by the one that started the process. It was only after all of that was taken care of that I finally worked my way back to discussing what I’d originally started to talk about in June of 2010, more than a year and a half ago. Then that discussion proceeded to veer off in unexpected directions of its own, with results ranging from a science fiction short story contest to a series of posts on a subject I’d resolved never to discuss on this blog, the interface between peak oil and the traditions of ceremonial magic. Looking back on the last nineteen months of Archdruid Report posts, I feel rather as though I’d planned to take the overnight train from my home in Cumberland to Chicago, and finally arrived in the Windy City six weeks later by way of New Orleans, San Francisco, the Aleutian Islands, and the North Pole.

Still, it’s been a productive trip, and those of my readers who are interested in souvenirs of the journey will have several to hand in the months to come.

First of all, I’m delighted to announce that last fall’s posts on magic and peak oil have become the seed for a book that will be released this spring. The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil is being published by Scarlet Imprint, a small occult press with a big reputation. While they’re best known for their deluxe limited editions—which use, by the way, archival quality paper and bindings, not a minor point at a time when most newly printed books can be counted on to disintegrate into sawdust in a quarter century at most—Scarlet Imprint will also be producing paperback and e-book editions of The Blood of the Earth. Being small and lively, they move fast; I expect to be able to post preordering information in the very near future, and the book will be for sale in a couple of months at most.

Second, I’m even more delighted to report that the anthology of science fiction short stories about the postpetroleum world is becoming a reality. I’d hoped, when I announced the contest last fall, that I would field a dozen stories good enough to publish. As it turned out, more than sixty stories were submitted, well over half of them were of publishable quality, and many of the rest could have reached that mark given a bit of work and some editorial feedback. It took quite a bit of thought and many rereadings to work down to the final list of stories that will be in the anthology:

Randall S. Ellis’ "Autumn Night"
E.A. Freeman’s "The Lore Keepers"
Thijs Goverde’s "Think Like A Tinkerer"
Susan Harelson’s "Maestra y Aprendiz"
Harry J. Lerwill’s "Caravan of Hopes"
Catherine McGuire’s "The Going"
Avery Morrow’s "The Great Clean-Up"
Kieran O’Neill’s "Bicycleman Sakhile and the Cell Tower"
J.D. Smith’s "The Urgent, the Necessary"
Philip Steiner’s "Traveling Show"
David Trammel’s "Small Town Justice"

Those of my readers who submitted stories that won’t be part of the anthology should take heart. Much of what was submitted for the contest was remarkably good, and the decision came down fairly often to a hard choice between two or more stories with similar themes or plots, or to that even harder choice of which of two or three good stories would make for a better balance in the book as a whole. One of the unexpected revelations of the long strange trip we’ve taken together is just how large of a pool of writing talent exists among the readers of this blog; if I had the time and the inclination to launch a magazine of postpeak fiction (or perhaps "mundane SF," the current term for science fiction that gets along without invoking alien space bats), I’d anticipate no trouble finding ample raw material to fill its pages right here.

I’ve taken the editor’s privilege of adding one of my own stories, "Winter’s Tales"—readers who have been following The Archdruid Report long enough will remember a set of three short stories posted here in 2006, set in the winters of 2050, 2100, and 2150 respectively; those were the raw material for my entry—and an introduction to the anthology, and giving it a working title, After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future. I’ve had a tentative approval from a publisher, but they’re waiting to see it as a complete manuscript; that’s a few weeks away at this point—there’s some editing still to be done—but I’ll post something as soon as there’s a contract and a tentative publishing date.

Third, of course, is a book on green wizardry, the most extensive of the detours we’ve taken together. That currently exists as a shapeless, sprawling, nearly unmanageable rough draft of 120,000 words—about half again as long as any of my other peak oil books—and is going to take quite a bit more than the usual amount of revision to make it a book worth reading. My usual peak oil publisher, New Society Publications, has expressed interest in the project but, sensibly enough, wants to see a couple of finished chapters before cutting a contract. If you hear something that sounds like a machete at work coming from the direction of Cumberland, MD, it’s me, hacking paths through a nearly impenetrable jungle of archdruidical prose. I hope to have the couple of chapters into New Society within a few weeks, and will post further news as it comes in.

Fourth is the most unexpected of my detours, the systems theory version of the Tao Te Ching I started mostly by accident in a post here almost exactly a year ago. That’s not finished yet; I’ve found that it needs to take its own time, but I’ve got 54 chapters (out of 81) finished in draft, and expect to finish it and add an introduction and commentary this year. I have no idea who on Earth will be interested in publishing it, but capable small presses prospering in niche markets are popping up at an encouraging rate these days, so I’ll doubtless find somebody.

So that’s the scorecard, to shift metaphors a bit, as the dust settles from the last year and a half or so of this blog. To borrow a phrase from the Grateful Dead, it’s been a long, strange trip. And the path ahead?

The path ahead leads straight into a theme that most Americans don’t want to discuss at all, and that they and the rest of the world’s population desperately need to discuss: the political, economic, ecological, and military implications of the twilight of America’s global empire. The end of the industrial age, as I’ve discussed here at some length already, is shaping up to be a protracted process, as the decline and fall of a civilization usually is. The arc of decline and fall, though, tends to be punctuated by sudden crises. One of the common causes of such crises is the collapse of existing power centers and their replacement by others, which face collapses of their own further down the road. While the overall history of the industrial world over the next few centuries will be dominated by the overall arc of energy decline, the history of the next few decades will be profoundly shaped by the more immediate impact of the end of America’s empire.

One advantage we’ve got in making sense of this situation is that America’s imperial sunset isn’t the first such collapse of empire in the downward arc of industrial civilization. A century ago, Britain was the nation that enforced peace and unequal trade policies on a restive world, bankrupted itself paying for the bloated military and bureaucracy that its empire required, and ended up being shoved onto the sidelines of history in a series of explosive political, economic, social, and military events that left very few corners of the world unscathed. The United States is well along the same trajectory, and the shape of the American future—as well as the impacts of its decline on the rest of the world—can be gauged in part by studying what happened a century ago to Britain, as well as what has happened to other empires caught in the same downward spiral elsewhere in history.

That’s the theme I plan on exploring over the next year or so. That exploration is going to have to start from basic questions that haven’t been asked often enough, or answered honestly enough, in recent years. It’s going to be necessary to talk about what empires are and how they function; to get past certain dysfunctional but popular notions on the subject; to talk about how America ended up in its current role as the world’s primary imperial power, and to sketch out what can be learned from the experiences of other failing empires. All that belongs to the first phase of the exploration. The second phase will attempt to sketch out how the collapse of American empire is likely to unfold, how it has already begun to unfold, and how the current barrage of attempts either to insist that America’s empire doesn’t face collapse, or to prevent the collapse from occurring, are making the downward arc that much steeper and more inescapable.

Finally, I want to talk about what can be done in an age of imperial decline and collapse. Obviously, given the core agenda of this blog, a great deal of what I want to discuss focuses on what individuals, families, small groups, and communities can do to get ready for the likely consequences of imperial collapse, to weather the rough parts of the process, and to find a new equilibrium once the rubble stops bouncing. Still, I think it’s possible to go further than that. One of the common consequences of imperial collapse, wherever it takes place, is a drastic expansion of options: things unthinkable in an age of empire become possible in empire’s ruins. Irish independence and legal standing for labor unions are only two of the impossibilities that became real in the wake of the British Empire’s implosion, for example, and it’s entirely possible that equally sweeping transformations could follow the collapse of the American empire. Of course it bears recalling that not all such transformations must be for the better—I think most of my readers know enough about history to recall what followed the collapse of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires in 1918.

That’s a very brief preview of the terrain we’ll begin to explore next week. That said, none of the information covered over the last year and a half has lost its relevance, and the conversations over at the Green Wizards forum still have plenty of useful ground yet to cover. I’ll be referring back to green wizardry and other themes already discussed as we proceed; even though this blog has quite a bit of diverse ground to cover, all of that belongs to one and the same future.

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End of the World of the Week #8

Apocalyptic movements, like most other human social phenomena, follow the law of supply and demand; when there’s a demand for a particular kind of movement, the supply of people willing to launch and run such a movement rarely takes long to respond. Among the more colorful examples of this process in action is the medieval heresy of the Free Spirit.

To understand the Free Spirit and its followers, it’s necessary to recall one of the curious features of late medieval culture—the great mismatch that opened up between the number of men and of women available for marriage. Since the Catholic church had many more openings for men than for women, and nearly all these openings had celibacy (at least officially) as a job requirement, a very large fraction of women remained unmarried, or married elderly husbands and then faced most of a lifetime of widowhood. The peasantry and the nobility had established roles for unmarried women, and nunneries could take a certain fraction of the remainder, but in the rising urban classes, a great many women ended up consigned to lives of idleness and chastity. Many turned to mystical religion or to illicit love affairs; the advantage of the heresy of the Free Spirit was that it enabled them to do both at once.

According to the preachers of the Free Spirit, who were mostly defrocked priests and monks, the world was on the brink of a vast transformation of consciousness—the coming of the Third Age—in which the burden of original sin would be lifted from humanity and all people would be naked and unashamed as they had been in Eden, living without sorrow or labor according to a new law of love. Human nature being what it is, that new law was usually interpreted in a distinctly physical sense, with enthusiastic promiscuity and group worship in the nude standard practice in most Free Spirit circles. Another part of the belief system was that in the Third Age, all wealth would be shared freely; since the prophets of the Free Spirit were usually very poor and many of their converts were well-to-do, most of the resulting sharing went in one direction.

Despite the efforts of the Catholic church to exterminate the heresy, and as many of the heretics as it could catch, the Free Spirit remained an active presence in European culture for at least five centuries, and its influence lasted longer still. Those who belonged to a certain generation still with us will no doubt remember more recent prophets who insisted that a utopian age of easy sex and freedom from work was about to dawn. Still, it’s worth noting that those recent prophecies, like those of the Free Spirit, somehow never quite came to pass.

—story from Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Recovery of the Human

The myth of the machine, the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post, has implications that go well beyond the usual terms of discussion in the peak oil scene. One of those implications, which I mentioned briefly last week, unfolds from the way that so many people who are concerned about peak oil fixate obsessively on the hope that some kind of machine will solve the problem.

There are at least three ways in which this fixation gets in the way of any meaningful response to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. The first, of course, is that peak oil isn’t a problem, because by definition a problem at least potentially has a solution. Peak oil has no solution. That’s true in the narrow sense of the term—no possible turn of events will allow industrial civilization to extract a limitless supply of crude oil from a finite planet—and it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s just as true in the broad sense—no other energy source can provide anything close to the torrent of cheap, highly concentrated energy that petroleum provided to industrial society during the last century.

Peak oil is thus a predicament rather than a problem, since nothing we or anyone else can do will make it go away. Instead, we and our descendants down through the millennia to come will have to live with the reality of a world much less lavishly stocked with concentrated energy sources than the one our ancestors inherited a few short centuries ago. The task awaiting us and our descendants is that of finding creative and humane responses to that implacable reality. To that challenging and rewarding task, in turn, the current obsession with fantasies of salvation via machine offers no help at all. Quite the contrary, by distracting attention from the adjustments that will have to be made, the obsession makes the work ahead of us more difficult than it has to be.

The second sense in which the obsession with machines gets in the way of a useful response to the predicament of peak oil is that it pushes responsibility for doing something onto someone else. I sincerely doubt that any of my readers have any influence worth noting over the decisions involved in building giant wind turbines, say, or developing thorium reactors, or turning some substantial fraction of Nevada into one giant algal biodiesel farm. This makes it easy to insist that steps like these are the appropriate response to the coming of peak oil, since the people doing the insisting don’t have to follow through on the insistence; it’s all somebody else’s job.

No doubt the sheer convenience involved in this approach has much to do with its popularity, but there’s another factor involved. An enormous amount of rhetoric about the future these days starts from the assumption that the lifestyles of the middle classes in today’s industrial societies are normal, and ought to be available indefinitely—at least to those same middle classes. Now in fact there’s nothing normal at all about the pampered and privileged lives of today’s middle classes; from strawberries in midwinter to vacations in the tropics, those lives are full of the most absurd sort of extravagance, and only a civilization surfing the tsunami of cheap energy that ours gets from fossil fuels could convince itself that such habits are anything else. Still, those who have access to such things are predictably unwilling to let go of them, and insisting that it’s someone else’s job to come up with a way to keep them around is one way to express that unwillingness—at least for the moment.

The downside of depending on someone else to do that or any other job, of course, is that dependence always has a political cost. Frank Herbert’s classic SF novel Dune has one character explain this to another with commendable precision: "Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them." The same dynamic is present whenever people allow themselves to become dependent on machines, for reasons that follow from the points made last week.

Power exerted through a machine is defined purely by I-It relationships; the only way to relate to a machine is to compel and control it, and (not, please note, "or") to be compelled and controlled by it.. That defines the direct relation of person to machine, but it also tends to define the indirect relation of person to person when a machine is the medium. The logic here is straightforward: a machine can only transmit those aspects of relationship that require no inner life to communicate, since a machine has none. The more thoroughly an interaction between people is reshaped for machine processing, therefore, the more completely any potential for I-Thou relationship is filtered out of the interaction.

It’s possible for a relationship between people that passes through a machine to avoid being flattened out into a relationship of compulsion and control, but it takes work, and tends to be most successful when the people in question also have interactions that aren’t dependent on machines. The more that human life and human interactions are defined by machines, the more difficult this tends to become—and of course it’s not incidental that people who want to compel and control, or to be compelled and controlled, can do that easily enough without going to the trouble that’s involved in sustaining an I-Thou relationship in a world of machines. Carry this logic out to its natural endpoint and you get the total erasure of all human values that Jacques Ellul anatomized in The Technological Society, a system in which every relationship is forced into the Procrustean bed of mechanism because anything else would be inefficient.

Ellul assumed that this trend was inescapable, but then he was a man of his own time, and the first faint shockwaves of the end of the age of abundance apparently slipped past him unnoticed. Other social critics who commented on the same thing—Lewis Mumford and C.S. Lewis are among those I’ve mentioned in earlier posts—assumed, along the same lines, that only a sustained effort to oppose the rule of mechanism could halt the march of society toward a future of inhuman efficiency. What very few thinkers of their generation grasped was the extent to which the myth of the machine misstated the source of the power that machines had during the twentieth century. What made industrial society so powerful in their day wasn’t any particular strength or virtue in the cult of mechanism itself, or in the habits of thinking that an obsession with mechanism made popular for a time; it was simply that during a relatively brief window of historic time, the amount that could be done by machines powered by fossil fuels, and following the internal logic of machinery, was vastly greater than the amount that could be done by humans powered by human energy sources, and following their own internal logic.

That window of time is coming to an end around us right now, and the third sense in which an obsession with machines gets in the way of a useful response to the predicament of peak oil unfolds from that fact. Those people who are rushing around trying to find a mechanical answer to peak oil are jumping aboard a bandwagon when the horse pulling it has just fallen over dead. Lacking the cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy that only fossil fuels can provide, complex machines are by and large much less efficient than human beings, and the obsession with machines is therefore a habit of thought that’s well past its pull date.

It’s hard to think of anything that flies in the face of contemporary attitudes more comprehensively than the suggestion that human beings are more efficient than machines under any circumstances at all. Still, if you consider the whole system upon which each of the two depends, the superiority of the human is easy to see. Behind the machine—almost any machine in the modern industrial world—stands a sprawling infrastructure that depends on constant inputs of energy: not just energy in general, either, but very large quantities of cheap, concentrated energy fitting precise specifications. That energy powers the machine, to be sure, but it also manufactures it, keeps spare parts in stock, and powers and supplies the huge networks that make it possible for the machine to do what it does. A laptop computer all by itself is an oddly shaped paperweight; to make it function at all, you have to add electricity, and thus the entire system that produces the electricity and keeps it flowing; to make it more than a toy, you need the internet, and thus a far more complex system, which among other things uses a vast amount of additional energy; and of course to produce the laptop, the electrical grid, and the internet in the first place, counting all the products and services needed by all the economic sectors that contribute to their manufacture and functioning, you need a fairly large proportion of the entire industrial economy of the modern world.

Human beings do not suffer from the same limitations. A human being all by herself is capable of meeting her essential operating needs in a pinch, using only the very diffuse energy sources and raw materials available in a natural environment; a few dozen human beings, given suitable knowledge and skills, can support themselves comfortably over the long term on a tribal-village level, using the same diffuse energy sources; a few thousand human beings subject to all these limits can create a civilization. In a world without vast amounts of cheap energy, human flexibility and creativity consistently beats mindless mechanical rigidity. That’s why, for example, the ancient Greek inventors who created the steam turbine and crafted highly efficient gearing systems didn’t launch the industrial revolution two thousand years early; the recognition that fossil fuels existed in enough quantity to power steam engines, drive gear trains and replace human labor with mechanical force was missing, and without that, Hero of Alexandria’s steam turbine and the Antikythera device’s clockwork mechanism could never be anything more than clever toys.

A society used to turning as much of its work as possible to machines faces a similar failure of understanding when the fuel for the machines runs short. The missing piece in the present case, though, is the extraordinary potential for productive and creative work that exists within human beings. Machines fill so potent a role in our emotional lives that most people in the modern industrial world shy away from the thought of doing much of anything without them. Even if we could count on a limitless supply of cheap energy, this would be an embarrassing dependency—a shiny high-tech crutch is still a crutch, after all. A limitless supply of cheap energy, though, is exactly what we can’t count on, and so what would otherwise be merely an embarrassment is shaping up to be a lethal liability.

Thus one of the greatest challenges ahead of us as the age of abundance ends is nothing less than the rediscovery of the possibilities of our own humanity. The work that needs to be done—and in an epoch of decline, there will be plenty of that—will have to be done with the capacities woven into the human body and mind, along with those additional capacities that can be developed in both by training and practice. The effort that nowadays gets poured into teaching people how to manipulate machines will need to be redirected into teaching them how to bring out the creative and productive capacities in themselves. That can’t be done effectively, please note, by trying to manipulate them like so many machines, or by teaching them to manipulate themselves in the same manner; I-It relationships do very poorly at directing human productive and creative powers. It will require instead the ability to understand human beings as human beings rather than inconveniently squishy bipedal machines, and the capacity to enter into I-Thou relationships, that has always defined good teachers and good leaders.

Less than a hundred years ago, the sort of awareness I’m suggesting here was a common response of people across the industrial world to the mechanization of everyday life, and less than forty years ago a revival of that same approach—the human potential movement of the Seventies—achieved a not inconsiderable success before it was stomped by the same backlash that flattened the industrial world’s last real attempt to turn aside from the mess it’s made for itself. The recognition that the potential within the individual human being is the industrial world’s most thoroughly wasted and neglected resource has surfaced at intervals straight through the history of industrialism, and been hurriedly swept back under the rug time and again. Go back to the origins of contemporary industrial society in the scientific revolution, in fact, and you can trace the same opposition in the tangled conflicts by which the first versions of modern science seized the cultural conversation of their time from the remnants of Renaissance humanism and set our civilization on the path to its current predicament.

There are immense issues involved in a recovery of the human, a refocusing of attention toward what human beings can do with their own innate possibilities and potentials for learning and away from the quest to replace as many human functions as possible by this season’s crop of computerized gimmickry. I’ve touched on a few of those issues in the sequence of posts on magic that appeared here in the last months of 2011, and plan on bringing up others here and there in the months to come. For now, what I hope to get across is the core idea that the most important resources we have left at this point, the most promising potentials for a response to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy, are not machines, or potential sources of fuel, or anything else outside the individual human being.

Even considering that thought, as I’ve suggested, flies in the face of deeply rooted prejudices. Point out, for example that a human mind with appropriate training can remember impressive amounts of data—there was once an entire system of mind training, the Art of Memory, designed to make this possible—and most people will come up with any number of reasons why some kind of remembering machine is a better idea. In a world with drastically limited supplies of concentrated energy and far too many urgent uses for those supplies, a system of training that can take care of the need to remember data without adding to the demand for electricity, spare parts, or the like is pretty clearly the better idea, but that recognition can only happen once people step outside the myth of the machine.

There are any number of other examples of things that human beings can do, or can learn to do, that will fill essential needs in a deindustrializing or fully deindustrialized world, when permanent shortages of concentrated energy suitable for powering machines makes the vast majority of today’s technology useless except as scrap. A significant number of them are still being practiced, or—like the Art of Memory—can be revived with relative ease from written sources dating from the Renaissance or, in some cases, more recently still. A great many more will need to be invented, or reinvented, in the years ahead. The supposedly serious thinkers of our time are unlikely to contribute anything to that task; in contemporary industrial civilization, as in every other human culture, the basic qualification that makes thinkers respectable is an unthinking acceptance of the basic myths of their era. Nowadays, the myth of progress is one of those basic myths, and the myth of the machine stands right beside it.

The myth of progress is coming to pieces around us as I write this. The myth of the machine will follow it in due time. In the interval before they dissolve and are replaced by narratives better suited to the needs and possibilities of the deindustrial age, there is a great deal that can be done to begin the rediscovery of the human, to preserve those teachings from the past that can fill critical needs in the future, and to sketch out the first rough drafts of new disciplines that will apply the creative and productive possibilities of the individual to the challenges ahead. How that might be done—well, I hope to talk about that, among other things, in posts to come.

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End of the World of the Week #7

Picking the Antichrist has been a popular sport for close to twenty centuries now, since the Book of Revelation made its way into the assortment of sacred books that became today’s Bible and provided generations of believers with a set of potent metaphors for the experience of immanent evil. There have always been those who took the visionary narratives of John of Patmos as a symbolic description of eternal spiritual realities, to be sure, and there’s also a long and by no means implausible tradition of interpreting the Book of Revelation as a whole as a prophecy of the fall of the Roman Empire; still, a great many Christians over the centuries have taken the whole thing more or less literally as a factual description of events that would come to pass someday. To a significant minority of them, in turn, that "someday" was expected very soon.

Well before the tenth century, when Adso of Melk published the most popular medieval biography-in-advance of the Antichrist, a good many attempts to predict the End Times came to focus on the sinister figure of history’s ultimate bad guy, and that habit remained firmly in place as the centuries rolled past. During the American Revolution, for example, some wag figured out that the words "Royal Supremacy in Britain," when translated into Hebrew, added up to the dreaded number 666, while Tolstoy’s sprawling novel War and Peace includes a scene in which Pierre, one of the main characters, adds up the letters of "l’Empereur Napoleon" and gets the same inevitable sum. During the Second World War, with equal facility, British Christians announced with some enthusiam that if the letters in the alphabet are all given numbers starting with 101, so that A=101, B=102, and so on—well, try the name "Hitler" and see what sum you get.

Still, a little before this latter bit of ingenuity went into circulation, a great many people in the Western world were convinced that the Antichrist had clearly revealed himself at last: Benito Mussolini! As candidates go, at least in the years before the Second World War, he certainly looked impressive; his warmongering and his claim to rule a revived Roman Empire certainly helped, as did his status as Europe’s most colorful demagogue—it’s not often remembered these days that until 1940, when the Blitzkrieg abruptly tipped the scales, most people thought of Hitler as that funny little man in Germany who was trying to imitate Mussolini. There was accordingly quite a bit of prewar literature insisting that Mussolini, as the Antichrist, would shortly seize control of the world and usher in the Tribulation.

Somehow things didn’t work out that way. The funny little man in Germany turned out to be one of history’s most hideously talented megalomaniacs, while il Duce, for all his natty uniforms and blustering speeches, proved hopelessly incompetent at doing much of anything but posturing. Well before he met his end dangling from piano wire, those who had been loudly proclaiming his status as Antichrist apparent quietly pulped their books of prophecy and went looking for other candidates.

—story from Apocalypse Not