Regular readers of this blog will no doubt recall that, toward the beginning of last month, I commented on a hostile review of one of my books that had just appeared in the financial blogosphere. At the time, I noted that the mainstream media normally ignore the critics of business as usual, and suggested that my readers might want to watch for similar attacks by more popular pundits, in more mainstream publications, on those critics who have more of a claim to conventional respectability than, say, archdruids. Such attacks, as I pointed out then, normally happen in the weeks immediately before business as usual slams face first into a brick wall of its own making
Well, it’s happened. Brace yourself for the impact.
The pundit in question was no less a figure than Paul Krugman, who chose the opinion pages of the New York Times for a shrill and nearly fact-free diatribe lumping Post Carbon Institute together with the Koch brothers as purveyors of “climate despair.” PCI’s crime, in Krugman’s eyes, consists of noticing that the pursuit of limitless economic growth on a finite planet, with or without your choice of green spraypaint, is a recipe for disaster. Instead of paying attention to such notions, he insists, we ought to believe the IMF and a panel of economists when they claim that replacing trillions of dollars of fossil fuel-specific infrastructure with some unnamed set of sustainable replacements will somehow cost nothing, and that we can have all the economic growth we want because, well, because we can, just you wait and see!
PCI’s Richard Heinberg responded with a crisp and tautly reasoned rebuttal pointing out the gaping logical and factual holes in Krugman’s screed, so there’s no need for me to cover the same ground here. Mind you, Heinberg was too gentlemanly to point out that the authorities Krugman cites aren’t exactly known for their predictive accuracy—the IMF in particular has become notorious in recent decades for insisting that austerity policies that have brought ruin to every country that has ever tried them are the one sure ticket to prosperity—but we can let that pass, too. What I want to talk about here is what Krugman’s diatribe implies for the immediate future.
Under normal circumstances, dissident groups such as Post Carbon Institute and dissident intellectuals such as Richard Heinberg never, but never, get air time in the mainstream media. At most, a cheap shot or two might be aimed at unnamed straw men while passing from one bit of conventional wisdom to the next. It’s been one of the most interesting details of the last few years that peak oil has actually been mentioned by name repeatedly by mainstream pundits: always, to be sure, in tones of contempt, and always in the context of one more supposed proof that a finite planet can too cough up infinite quantities of oil, but it’s been named. The kind of total suppression that happened between the mid-1980s and the turn of the millennium, when the entire subject vanished from the collective conversation of our society, somehow didn’t happen this time.
That says to me that a great many of those who were busy denouncing peak oil and the limits to growth were far less confident than they wanted to appear. You don’t keep on trying to disprove something that nobody believes, and of course the mere fact that oil prices and other quantitative measures kept on behaving the way peak oil theory said they would behave, rather than trotting obediently the way peak oil critics such as Bjorn Lomborg and Daniel Yergin told them to go, didn’t help matters much. The cognitive dissonance between the ongoing proclamations of coming prosperity via fracking and the soaring debt load and grim financial figures of the fracking industry has added to the burden.
Even so, it’s only in extremis that denunciations of this kind shift from attacks on ideas to attacks on individuals. As I noted in the earlier post, one swallow does not a summer make, and one ineptly written book review by an obscure blogger on an obscure website denouncing an archdruid, of all people, might indicate nothing more than a bout of dyspepsia or a disappointing evening at the local singles bar. When a significant media figure uses one of the world’s major newspapers of record to lash out at a particular band of economic heretics by name, on the other hand, we’ve reached the kind of behavior that only happens, historically speaking, when crunch time is very, very close. Given that we’ve also got a wildly overvalued stock market, falling commodity prices, and a great many other symptoms of drastic economic trouble bearing down on us right now, not to mention the inevitable unraveling of the fracking bubble, there’s a definite chance that the next month or two could see the start of a really spectacular financial crash.
While we wait for financiers to start raining down on Wall Street sidewalks, though, it’s far from inappropriate to continue with the current sequence of posts about the end of industrial civilization—especially as the next topic in line is the way that the elites of a falling civilization destroy themselves.
One of the persistent tropes in current speculations on the future of our civilization revolves around the notion that the current holders of wealth and influence will entrench themselves even more firmly in their positions as things fall apart. A post here back in 2007 criticized what was then a popular form of that trope, the claim that the elites planned to impose a “feudal-fascist” regime on the deindustrial world. That critique still applies; that said, it’s worth discussing what tends to happen to elite classes in the decline and fall of a civilization, and seeing what that has to say about the probable fate of the industrial world’s elite class as our civilization follows the familiar path.
It’s probably necessary to say up front that we’re not talking about the evil space lizards that haunt David Icke’s paranoid delusions, or for that matter the faux-Nietzschean supermen who play a parallel role in Ayn Rand’s dreary novels and even drearier pseudophilosophical rants. What we’re talking about, rather, is something far simpler, which all of my readers will have experienced in their own lives. Every group of social primates has an inner core of members who have more access to the resources controlled by the group, and more influence over the decisions made by the group, than other members. How individuals enter that core and maintain themselves there against their rivals varies from one set of social primates to another—baboons settle such matters with threat displays backed up with violence, church ladies do the same thing with social maneuvering and gossip, and so on—but the effect is the same: a few enter the inner core, the rest are excluded from it. That process, many times amplified, gives rise to the ruling elite of a civilization.
I don’t happen to know much about the changing patterns of leadership in baboon troops, but among human beings, there’s a predictable shift over time in the way that individuals gain access to the elite. When institutions are new and relatively fragile, it’s fairly easy for a gifted and ambitious outsider to bluff and bully his way into the elite. As any given institution becomes older and more firmly settled in its role, that possibility fades. What happens instead in a mature institution is that the existing members of the elite group select, from the pool of available candidates, those individuals who will be allowed to advance into the elite. The church ladies just mentioned are a good example of this process in action; if any of my readers are doctoral candidates in sociology looking for a dissertation topic, I encourage them to consider joining a local church, and tracking the way the elderly women who run most of its social functions groom their own replacements and exclude those they consider unfit for that role.
That process is a miniature version of the way the ruling elite of the world’s industrial nations select new additions to their number. There, as among church ladies, there are basically two routes in. You can be born into the family of a member of the inner circle, and if you don’t run off the rails too drastically, you can count on a place in the inner circle yourself in due time. Alternatively, you can work your way in from outside by being suitably deferential and supportive to the inner circle, meeting all of its expectations and conforming to its opinions and decisions, until the senior members of the elite start treating you as a junior member and the junior members have to deal with you as an equal. You can watch that at work, as already mentioned, in your local church—and you can also watch it at work in the innermost circles of power and privilege in American life.
Here in America, the top universities are the places where the latter version of the process stands out in all its dubious splendor. To these universities, every autumn, come the children of rich and influential families to begin the traditional four-year rite of passage. It would require something close to a superhuman effort on their part to fail. If they don’t fancy attending lectures, they can hire impecunious classmates as “note takers” to do that for them. If they don’t wish to write papers, the same principle applies, and the classmates are more than ready to help out, since that can be the first step to a career as an executive assistant, speechwriter, or the like. The other requirements of college life can be met in the same manner as needed, and the university inevitably looks the other way, knowing that they can count on a generous donation from the parents as a reward for putting up with Junior’s antics.
Those of my readers who’ve read the novels of Thomas Mann, and recall the satiric portrait of central European minor royalty in Royal Highness, already know their way around the sort of life I’m discussing here. Those who don’t may want to recall everything they learned about the education and business career of George W. Bush. All the formal requirements are met, every gracious gesture is in place: the diploma, the prestigious positions in business or politics or the stateside military, maybe a book written by one of those impecunious classmates turned ghostwriter and published to bland and favorable reviews in the newspapers of record: it’s all there, and the only detail that nobody sees fit to mention is that the whole thing could be done just as well by a well-trained cockatiel, and much of it is well within the capacities of a department store mannequin—provided, of course, that one of those impecunious classmates stands close by, pulling the strings that make the hand wave and the head nod.
The impecunious classmates, for their part, are aspirants to the second category mentioned above, those who work their way into the elite from outside. They also come to the same top universities every autumn, but they don’t get there because of who their parents happen to be. They get there by devoting every spare second to that goal from middle school on. They take the right classes, get the right grades, play the right sports, pursue the right extracurricular activities, and rehearse for their entrance interviews by the hour; they are bright, earnest, amusing, pleasant, because they know that that’s what they need to be in order to get where they want to go. Scratch that glossy surface and you’ll find an anxious conformist terrified of failing to measure up to expectations, and it’s a reasonable terror—most of them will in fact fail to do that, and never know how or why.
Once in an Ivy League university or the equivalent, they’re pretty much guaranteed passing grades and a diploma unless they go out of their way to avoid them. Most of them, though, will be shunted off to midlevel posts in business, government, or one of the professions. Only the lucky few will catch the eye of someone with elite connections, and be gently nudged out of their usual orbit into a place from which further advancement is possible. Whether the rich kid whose exam papers you ghostwrote takes a liking to you, and arranges to have you hired as his executive assistant when he gets his first job out of school, or the father of a friend of a friend meets you on some social occasion, chats with you, and later on has the friend of a friend mention in passing that you might consider a job with this senator or that congressman, or what have you, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, not to mention how precisely you conform to the social and intellectual expectations of the people who have the power to give or withhold the prize you crave so desperately.
That’s how the governing elite of today’s America recruits new members. Mutatis mutandis, it’s how the governing elite of every stable, long-established society recruits new members. That procedure has significant advantages, and not just for the elites. Above all else, it provides stability. Over time, any elite self-selected in this fashion converges asymptotically on the standard model of a mature aristocracy, with an inner core of genial duffers surrounded by an outer circle of rigid conformists—the last people on the planet who are likely to disturb the settled calm of the social order. Like the lead-weighted keel of a deepwater sailboat, their inertia becomes a stabilizing force that only the harshest of tempests can overturn.
Inevitably, though, this advantage comes with certain disadvantages, two of which are of particular importance for our subject. The first is that stability and inertia are not necessarily a good thing in a time of crisis. In particular, if the society governed by an elite of the sort just described happens to depend for its survival on some unsustainable relationship with surrounding societies, the world of nature, or both, the leaden weight of a mature elite can make necessary change impossible until it’s too late for any change at all to matter. One of the most consistent results of the sort of selection process I’ve sketched out is the elimination of any tendency toward original thinking on the part of those selected; “creativity” may be lauded, but what counts as creativity in such a system consists solely of taking some piece of accepted conventional wisdom one very carefully measured step further than anyone else has quite gotten around to going yet.
In a time of drastic change, that sort of limitation is lethal. More deadly still is the other disadvantage I have in mind, which is the curious and consistent habit such elites have of blind faith in their own invincibility. The longer a given elite has been in power, and the more august and formal and well-aged the institutions of its power and wealth become, the easier it seems to be for the very rich to forget that their forefathers established themselves in that position by some form of more or less blatant piracy, and that they themselves could be deprived of it by that same means. Thus elites tend to, shall we say, “misunderestimate” exactly those crises and sources of conflict that pose an existential threat to the survival of their class and its institutions, precisely because they can’t imagine that an existential threat to these things could be posed by anything at all.
The irony, and it’s a rich one, is that the same conviction tends to become just as widespread outside elite circles as within it. The illusion of invincibility, the conviction that the existing order of things is impervious to any but the most cosmetic changes, tends to be pervasive in any mature society, and remains fixed in place right up to the moment that everything changes and the existing order of things is swept away forever. The intensity of the illusion very often has nothing to do with the real condition of the social order to which it applies; France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 were both brittle, crumbling, jerry-rigged hulks waiting for the push that would send them tumbling into oblivion, which they each received shortly thereafter—but next to no one saw the gaping vulnerabilities at the time. In both cases, even the urban rioters that applied the push were left standing there slack-jawed when they saw how readily the whole thing came crashing down.
The illusion of invincibility is far and away the most important asset a mature ruling elite has, because it discourages deliberate attempts at regime change from within. Everyone in the society, in the elite or outside it, assumes that the existing order is so firmly bolted into place that only the most apocalyptic events would be able to shake its grip. In such a context, most activists either beg for scraps from the tables of the rich or content themselves with futile gestures of hostility at a system they don’t seriously expect to be able to harm, while the members of the elite go their genial way, stumbling from one preventable disaster to another, convinced of the inevitability of their positions, and blissfully unconcerned with the possibility—which normally becomes a reality sooner or later—that their own actions might be sawing away at the old and brittle branch on which they’re seated.
If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you definitely need to get out more. The behavior of the holders of wealth and power in contemporary America, as already suggested, is a textbook example of the way that a mature elite turns senile. Consider the fact that the merry pranksters in the banking industry, having delivered a body blow to the global economy in 2008 and 2009 with worthless mortgage-backed securities, are now busy hawking equally worthless securities backed by income from rental properties. Each round of freewheeling financial fraud, each preventable economic slump, increases the odds that an already brittle, crumbling, and jerry-rigged system will crack under the strain, opening a window of opportunity that hostile foreign powers and domestic demagogues alike will not be slow to exploit. Do such considerations move the supposed defenders of the status quo to rein in the manufacture of worthless financial paper? Surely you jest.
It deserves to be said that at least one corner of the current American ruling elite has recently showed some faint echo of the hard common sense once possessed by its piratical forebears. Now of course the recent announcement that one of the Rockefeller charities is about to move some of its investment funds out of fossil fuel industries doesn’t actually justify the rapturous language lavished on it by activists; the amount of money being moved amounts to one tiny droplet in the overflowing bucket of Rockefeller wealth, after all. For that matter, as the fracking industry founders under a soaring debt load and slumping petroleum prices warn of troubles ahead, pulling investment funds out of fossil fuel companies and putting them in industries that will likely see panic buying when the fracking bubble pops may be motivated by something other than a sudden outburst of environmental sensibility. Even so, it’s worth noting that the Rockefellers, at least, still remember that it’s crucial for elites to play to the audience, to convince those outside elite circles that the holders of wealth and power still have some vague sense of concern for the survival of the society they claim the right to lead.
Most members of America’s elite have apparently lost track of that. Even such modest gestures as the Rockefellers have just made seem to be outside the repertory of most of the wealthy and privileged these days. Secure in their sense of their own invulnerability, they amble down the familiar road that led so many of their equivalents in past societies to dispossession or annihilation. How that pattern typically plays out will be the subject of next week’s post.