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The True Believer

It’s been many years since I read The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer, but this time around was just as educational as the last time. The book is short – 168 pages – and I read it in a few hours.

Hoffer’s contention is that “mass movements do not usually rise until the prevailing order has been discredited. The discrediting is not an automatic result of the blunders and abuses of those in power, but the deliberate work of men of words with a grievance.” Certainly, we see that at work in this country now. Starting with the infamous Lewis Powell memo of 1971, the forces of corporate power have steadily undermined the middle class and impoverished the lower class. Right-wing intellectuals have been engaged in a 40-year campaign to discredit and undermine our political institutions to further private greed. These actions have generated a belated response by left-wing intellectuals that is rendering the government of this country illegitimate – in Hoffer’s words, discredited.

As yet, there is no mass movement, because a mass movement requires the existence of “fanatics [who] can move in and take charge only after the prevailing order has been discredited and has lost the allegiance of the masses.” As a perfect example of this precarious state of affairs, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 19% of Americans believe that Obama and Romney are the “two best people running for the presidency.”

There are fanatics across the political spectrum, my good friend with whom I clashed recently being an example of a fanatical left winger. We are all sickeningly familiar with the positions of the Gingriches, Becks, Bachmanns, Palins, Ryans, and hundreds of other fanatical right-wingers that populate the Republican Party. And, of course, those fanatical right-wingers can point out hundreds of examples of fanatical left-wingers. What will it take to ignite a mass movement? No one knows, but John Michael Greer, in a blog post on the Archdruid Report, says that his money is on a dramatic military defeat for the United States, although he also acknowledges that the triggering event could be “political, or economic, or even environmental.”

We haven’t gotten there – yet. Unfortunately, I think we are going to get there. When we do, it isn’t going to be pretty. Not at all. Hoffer mentions a number of ugly mass movements in his book, among them the American and French revolutions and the events in 1917 in Russia.

So, how does this tie in with my previous post about my good friend? She went off on me, accusing me of “venomous” anger, which I most assuredly am not guilty of. Hoffer, again, has the answer. In chapter 14, he lists the “unifying agents” of a mass movement. They are: hatred, imitation, persuasion and coercion, leadership, action, and suspicion.

Psychologists often use the term “projection” to explain otherwise inexplicable events and I think this definitely explains my friends’ actions: she hates, with a passion, an innumerable number of people who are to the right of her political positions. She revels in visiting political sites that confirm her stances (confirmation bias) and wallows in that hatred. When I pointed out that using the words “amerika” and “pressitute” didn’t help, she projected her anger on to me. How dare I attack her icons??

Thank you, Eric. Of course, my analysis applies equally to those on the Right, who engage in vitriolic denunciations of liberals of various stripes. As Hoffer writes, “mass movements can rise and spread without belief in God, but never without belief in a devil.”

This hasn’t been a “fun” post to write, but I needed to sort out all of my feelings since being viciously attacked by my friend. Will the friendship survive? I don’t know.

If you want to gain a better understanding of the forces ripping our country apart, I would highly recommend that you get yourself a copy of The True Believer and read it, s l o w l y.

Up Against the Wall, Again

I had a run-in, if you want to call it that, with a good friend, via e-mail. She is an inveterate political junkie and she sent me an e-mail that that contained a post by Paul Craig Roberts that referred to America as “amerika” and the journalists as “presstitutes”. When I took exception to the tone of Roberts’ post and wrote that using words like that contributed nothing to my education, she took offense and said that I was full of “venomous” anger. The exchange ended with her promising to remove my name from the list of people she sends e-mail to since “who knows what kind of a nerve i’ll hit next time…hardly worth the reaction…”

I think I’ll go read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer again. There is no getting between the truth as true believers see it and any alternative interpretation of events, it seems. I’m sick and tired of partisanship, hatred and bigotry and it seems as though that is all I encounter wherever I go these days.

Steps on the Long and Winding Road

July 31st, the date of my last post, seems so very long ago. I’m not sure how I got to my present state from John Michael Greer’s posts that I mentioned in my last post, but here goes the journey as I recall it. Perhaps Greer mentioned the potlach ceremony of the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians, perhaps he didn’t. Somehow, I was motivated to buy Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, by Barbara Ehrenreich. That proved to be a most fascinating read, because her thesis is that all societies are hierarchical and that “hierarchy is antagonistic to the festive and ecstatic tradition.” The last chapter of her book was published, prior to its release, in the on-line magazine In These Times. While I don’t completely agree with Erhenreich, she is definitely on the right track, I think. Lots to chew on.

From Ehrenreich, I moved on to David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, which I bought some years ago but never got around to reading. Abram’s thesis is that the invention of the alphabet by the ancient Hebrews and the subsequent modification of it by the ancient Greeks, who included the letters for vowels in their alphabet, led to the destruction of the oral cultures that had served humans so well for hundreds of thousands of years. This invention, which took hundreds of years to spread and become wide-spread, destroyed the storytelling oral culture’s way of relating to nature. The alphabet led to increasingly abstract ways of viewing nature and can be seen as the meaning of the story of Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden. More fascinating ideas to chew upon.

Now, I’m reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which is about gift economies and their relationship to artists and the art that they create.

I’m completely and utterly disenchanted with the political system in this country and want nothing more to do with its lies and corruption. I have nothing but contempt for both Obama and Romney and all of their hangers-on. They are servants of Wall Street and will do nothing to solve the enormous problems that are facing us. My hope lies with personal initiatives at the local level. I see no White Knights on the horizon coming to rescue us from our predicament. The sooner we realize that our future is in our hands and that the political class is our enemy, the better off we all will be. Permaculturalists, anarchists, resiliency and transition people, and those who are working to promote the gift economy are where my hope lies – it does not lie in legislative bodies.

Wisdom and Age

I don’t have a lot of time to go into the details or tie things into neat little packages, but the fact that I’ve finally tunneled down to the root of all evil has been a revelation to me. I sure wish that I had had this depth of understanding many years ago – it would have saved me endless gnashing of teeth!

Hierarchy. What is it, how does it work, and how does it get unbalanced so that it results in the daily atrocities that we see on TV, read in the newspapers, and experience in our daily lives? I’m just beginning to gather information on this central conundrum so that I can tie events together more clearly. I don’t know enough and am not clear enough about the subject, so I can’t write clearly about it. But as time goes on, I intend to make hierarchy the lens that I look at the world through. I think that everything will make much, much more sense when I do that.

I read an utterly fascinating series of blog posts on empire at John Michael Greer’s site, The Archdruid Report. The series starts with this post and continues for about 6 posts. The later ones are not as interesting as the first ones, though.

What struck me while I was reading the series is how similar the mechanisms used to create empire are to those that operate at the individual level. But that should make perfect sense, shouldn’t it? Why should humans behave differently at the impersonal level than they do at the personal level?

It all goes back to my favorite saying, taken from Procul Harem’s song, In Held Twas In I, when the seeker asks the guru for the meaning of life and is told, in reply, “Life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?” In other words, we strive to grow, often at the expense of others, because that is what life is, isn’t it?

To be continued ….

Conversations With Myself

Social Dominance was quite an interesting and eye-opening book, and I may go back and read it again. What it highlighted for me is how important it is to understand hierarchies – how they work, their structure, their function, their usefulness, and their drawbacks. This is something that I don’t think a lot of people on the Left give a lot of thought to. Sure, Leftists rail against hierarchies of dominance and oppression, but the very action of vigorously protesting against hierarchies prevent them from seeing that hierarchies are useful. Hierarchies are found throughout the natural world, as evidenced by the essay that I’ve re-published here. I think it would be very useful if many more people would use the lens of hierarchy as a magnifying glass to examine the daily horrors that we are presented with on TV, in the newspapers, and via the Internet.

Over the years, I’ve gotten into some fierce arguments with women over the existence of what Cynthia Eller, in her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future, calls a prehistoric matriarchy. In essence, this posited social organization was a peaceful and egalitarian society run by women that was wiped out by fierce nomadic patriarchal warriors from the Russian steppes. This “conquest” is the origin of all of our troubles since then. I never accepted the argument but I never had any refutation for it, either. Social Dominance supplied a lot of the pieces of the answer to Eller’s “feminist matriarchialists” and my further researches into hierarchies is providing even more pieces of the answer.

In recent days, I have been digging into the fields of social psychology (John T. Jost’s work on social justification theory, in particular) and evolutionary psychology, which posits that the human brain, like the body, has been subject to the pressures of natural selection.

I did a search on the term “hierarchical abuse” and came across the following article, which I thought made a whole lot of sense, if it was read keeping in mind the ideas of Sidanius’ and Pratto’s book, Jost’s theory, and the ideas of evolutionary psychology.

Here it is:

Hierarchy as a Learning Platform

Dr. Alex Bennet
Mountain Quest Institute, Frost, West Virginia, USA

Abstract

Purpose—The purpose of this article is to build a new frame of reference for exploring the value of hierarchy as a learning platform as organizations move away from bureaucracies and toward complex adaptive behavior.

Design/methodology/approach—Observations of the behaviors of horses and the hierarchal structure within which they function are introduced to explore the value of hierarchy as a learning platform. The concepts of bureaucracy and hierarchy are juxtaposed based on a literature review. Moving to individual learning, functioning space is introduced and then extrapolated across to organizations. Finally, these interwoven ideas are used to pose questions.

Findings— The author posits that recognition of the distinction between hierarchy and bureaucracy places us in a framework to reap the benefits of hierarchy in our thinking, talking and acting as our organizations move toward complex adaptive behavior.

Originality/value—This paper discusses important distinctions between hierarchy and bureaucracy in support of a learning framework. It also introduces the relationship of thinking, talking and acting to our functioning space.

Keywords: bureaucracy, complex adaptive behavior, functioning space, hierarchy, leaders, organizational learning, synchronicity, systems and subsystems, values and beliefs

Horses and hierarchy

Horses have a strong hierarchal social structure, one that simultaneously provides the feeling of safety while honing their periphery awareness in terms of ensuring they acquiesce to any horse higher in the pecking order. To “acquiesce” might be reactive (such as moving out of the way), or proactive (such as staying in the background or taking a later turn at the salt lick). Generally, once established they seem to be comfortable with their placement and the repetitive behaviors that come along with that placement, with the subsequent consequence of few “reactive” events and ever-increasing “proactive” behavior.

This keen awareness of “each” and “other” goes beyond the comfort of hierarchy. The other day as I watched four of our Arabians stream down our mountain pasture (different ages, different sizes, different places in the hierarchy of the herd), they matched each other’s gaits, gliding in perfect harmony through the grass, simultaneously stopping in an even line perpendicular to where I stood, turning 90 degrees to the right in unison, and arching their necks back to the right. As I stood in amazement (my first-born for a camera!) the only thing I could discover that had caught their attention was a soft breeze coming from the direction of their attention. Nostrils flaring and manes blowing, they held this pose for an unbelievable ten seconds before each moved in their own direction. Continue reading →

Social Dominance Theory

I’ve had the book, Social Dominance, by Jim Sidanius and Felecia Pratto, lying around my house for a couple of years now. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it because I wasn’t ready for the ideas that it contains, apparently.

I started this blog back in September of 2008, in reaction to the horror I felt about the candidacy of Sarah Palin for the Vice Presidency of this country. That started a long quest to re-examine and organize my thoughts about this country and its history. After my initial euphoria over the election of Obama dissipated, I began to realize that nothing had changed, after all. That led to a lot of reading and thinking about social-structural issues – issues that had fascinated me when I was completing my degree in Anthropology twenty years ago. For a time, I railed against the failure of the Democrats to “do the right thing” until I realized that the Democrats were part of the problem, too. Then, I came to the conclusion that we are all part of the problem. That led to a re-acquaintance with the ideas of anarchy, which had briefly attracted my interest many years ago. Back then, of course, there was no such thing as the Internet, so the resources to understand the philosophy of anarchy were hard (and expensive) to come by. After immersing myself in studying anarchism, I came to realize that it, too, offered no real answers.

So. I was finally ready to read what Sidanius and Pratto had to write about. Their book is an academic book, filled with statistical analysis and it is rather tough slogging at times. But it is an eye-opening body of work – ideas that have pretty neatly tied up a lot of loose strands in my thinking and experience over the years. I can’t offer a summation of their ideas (if you are interested, you could do a search on the words “social dominance theory”), but I did want to share the author’s Personal Statement, which appears at the end of the book.

“Our discussion of SDT (Social Dominance Theory – ed.) would not be complete without a discussion of the political values of its authors. We feel this is especially important because, in describing how ‘well’ group dominance works as a system and in reminding people that group dominance is one of the most predominant forms of social organization, we might also appear to be justifying social dominance. However, rather than trying to support and justify social inequality, our personal political biases are decidedly egalitarian. Continue reading →

Right Wing Authoritarians

Like most people these days, I don’t read as many blogs as I used to. But I still read some that I think are important. One of those is Ian Welsh’s blog – www.ianwelsh.net. One of his posts, on the famous Milgram experiments, led me to pick up and read, again, Robert Altemeyer’s The Authoritarian Specter. The book is quite heavy on explaining methodology and has a lot of slow-going statistical data, so if you aren’t familiar with statistics and research methodology, you might want to read one of Altemeyer’s other books, The Authoritarians, or The End of Freedom. In this post, I am re-publishing Altemeyer’s Summary of Scientific Research Findings regarding High RWAs as it appears on pages 300-302 in The Authoritarian Specter.

Keep in mind that this was written in 1996 – much has changed, for the worse, since then.

Read over this list and see how many of these items apply to politicians in this country, Democrat or Republican. Alternatively, see how many of these items apply to people that you know or have had encounters with. Right Wing Authoritarians are everywhere, not just in government. That is what makes them so dangerous. Walt Kelly, the creator of the Pogo comic strip, famously observed, on a poster created for Earth Day in 1970, that “we have met the enemy and he is us.” About 30% of a given population are Right Wing Authoritarians, according to Altemeyer, so it is critically important that we learn their characteristics and do our utmost to prevent them from dominating the conversation. We allow them to rise at our peril – just ask the survivors of the Holocaust or any other genocidal convulsion (Rwanda, Cambodia, Israel, Iraq/Iran) about that.

Here are Altemeyer’s conclusions:

Compared with others, right-wing authoritarians are significantly more likely to:

Score on the “Hitler” end of the RWA Scale.

Accept unfair and illegal abuses of power by government authorities.

Trust leaders (such as Richard Nixon) who are untrustworthy.

Weaken constitutional guarantees of liberty, such as the Bill of Rights.

Punish severely “common” criminals in a role-playing situation.

Admit that they get personal pleasure from punishing such people.

But go easy on authorities who commit crimes and people who attack minorities.

Not hold responsible the authority who caused the attacks in the “Milgram experiment.”

Attack “learners” in and “electric shock” experiment.

Be prejudiced against many racial, ethnic, nationalistic, and linguistic minorities.

Be hostile towards homosexuals.

Support “gay-bashing.”

Volunteer to help the government prosecute almost anyone. Continue reading →

The Fallacy of “There Is No Choice”

An article published on the website of The Socialist Appeal cuts to the core of my objections to Obama. There is a choice, but it does not involve voting for the lesser evil. It involves the hard work of convincing others that participating in the rotten political system that exists in this country is a dead end for every working person. Read the article and mull it over for awhile.

No Choice for Workers?

by John Peterson
Thursday, 26 April 2012 00:18

Here we go again. Four more years have passed since the last presidential election cycle, and once again, organized labor finds itself with no real options. It is clear that if he were elected president, Mitt Romney would unleash an all-out “Scott Walker on steroids” assault on the working class. But does that mean workers have no option but to vote for the Democrats? Are “political and economic death by hanging” or “political and economic death by drowning” really the only options?

Some have compared President Obama to a Rorschach test. That’s the test where subjects are shown images of ink blots and are asked to interpret them. Every subject “sees” something different in them, as everyone’s perception is influenced by his or her own worldview, experiences, hopes, fears, and aspirations. In 2008, the antiwar movement saw Obama as antiwar, even though he wasn’t; the unions saw him as being on the side of labor, even though he isn’t; environmentalists saw him as pro-clean energy; educators and parents thought he was for strong public education; and on and on. In other words, people saw, and continue to see in Obama what they want to see in him.

All scientific theories must be rigorously put to the test in the real world. Why should it be any different when it comes to politics? We must judge individuals and parties not on what they say, but on what they do. More than three years into his first term, the facts speak for themselves. No Employee Free Choice Act; no universal health care or even a public option; tens of thousands of troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the war has expanded into Pakistan; Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo has not been closed; he has not walked a single picket line in solidarity with striking workers; he has not ended the tax breaks for companies that off-shore jobs. Not to mention, no moratorium on home foreclosures, no progressive tax on the ultra wealthy; no repeal of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, the minimum wage remains lower in real terms than in 1968, etc. Continue reading →

Wisdom from Ernest Callenbach

Epistle to the Ecotopians

By Ernest Callenbach

[This document was found on the computer of Ecotopia author Ernest Callenbach (1929-2012) after his death.]

To all brothers and sisters who hold the dream in their hearts of a future world in which humans and all other beings live in harmony and mutual support — a world of sustainability, stability, and confidence. A world something like the one I described, so long ago, in Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging.

As I survey my life, which is coming near its end, I want to set down a few thoughts that might be useful to those coming after. It will soon be time for me to give back to Gaia the nutrients that I have used during a long, busy, and happy life. I am not bitter or resentful at the approaching end; I have been one of the extraordinarily lucky ones. So it behooves me here to gather together some thoughts and attitudes that may prove useful in the dark times we are facing: a century or more of exceedingly difficult times.

How will those who survive manage it? What can we teach our friends, our children, our communities? Although we may not be capable of changing history, how can we equip ourselves to survive it?

I contemplate these questions in the full consciousness of my own mortality. Being offered an actual number of likely months to live, even though the estimate is uncertain, mightily focuses the mind. On personal things, of course, on loved ones and even loved things, but also on the Big Picture.

But let us begin with last things first, for a change. The analysis will come later, for those who wish it.

Hope. Children exude hope, even under the most terrible conditions, and that must inspire us as our conditions get worse. Hopeful patients recover better. Hopeful test candidates score better. Hopeful builders construct better buildings. Hopeful parents produce secure and resilient children. In groups, an atmosphere of hope is essential to shared successful effort: “Yes, we can!” is not an empty slogan, but a mantra for people who intend to do something together — whether it is rescuing victims of hurricanes, rebuilding flood-damaged buildings on higher ground, helping wounded people through first aid, or inventing new social structures (perhaps one in which only people are “persons,” not corporations). We cannot know what threats we will face. But ingenuity against adversity is one of our species’ built-in resources. We cope, and faith in our coping capacity is perhaps our biggest resource of all.

Mutual Support. The people who do best at basic survival tasks (we know this experimentally, as well as intuitively) are cooperative, good at teamwork, often altruistic, mindful of the common good. In drastic emergencies like hurricanes or earthquakes, people surprise us by their sacrifices — of food, of shelter, even sometimes of life itself. Those who survive social or economic collapse, or wars, or pandemics, or starvation, will be those who manage scarce resources fairly; hoarders and dominators win only in the short run, and end up dead, exiled, or friendless. So, in every way we can we need to help each other, and our children, learn to be cooperative rather than competitive; to be helpful rather than hurtful; to look out for the communities of which we are a part, and on which we ultimately depend.

Practical Skills. With the movement into cities of the U.S. population, and much of the rest of the world’s people, we have had a massive de-skilling in how to do practical tasks. When I was a boy in the country, all of us knew how to build a tree house, or construct a small hut, or raise chickens, or grow beans, or screw pipes together to deliver water. It was a sexist world, of course, so when some of my chums in eighth grade said we wanted to learn girls’ “home ec” skills like making bread or boiling eggs, the teachers were shocked, but we got to do it. There was widespread competence in fixing things — impossible with most modern contrivances, of course, but still reasonable for the basic tools of survival: pots and pans, bicycles, quilts, tents, storage boxes.

We all need to learn, or relearn, how we would keep the rudiments of life going if there were no paid specialists around, or means to pay them. Every child should learn elementary carpentry, from layout and sawing to driving nails. Everybody should know how to chop wood safely, and build a fire. Everybody should know what to do if dangers appear from fire, flood, electric wires down, and the like. Taking care of each other is one practical step at a time, most of them requiring help from at least one other person; survival is a team sport.

Organize. Much of the American ideology, our shared and usually unspoken assumptions, is hyper-individualistic. We like to imagine that heroes are solitary, have super powers, and glory in violence, and that if our work lives and business lives seem tamer, underneath they are still struggles red in blood and claw. We have sought solitude on the prairies, as cowboys on the range, in our dependence on media (rather than real people), and even in our cars, armored cabins of solitude. We have an uneasy and doubting attitude about government, as if we all reserve the right to be outlaws. But of course human society, like ecological webs, is a complex dance of mutual support and restraint, and if we are lucky it operates by laws openly arrived at and approved by the populace.

If the teetering structure of corporate domination, with its monetary control of Congress and our other institutions, should collapse of its own greed, and the government be unable to rescue it, we will have to reorganize a government that suits the people. We will have to know how to organize groups, how to compromise with other groups, how to argue in public for our positions. It turns out that “brainstorming,” a totally noncritical process in which people just throw out ideas wildly, doesn’t produce workable ideas. In particular, it doesn’t work as well as groups in which ideas are proposed, critiqued, improved, debated. But like any group process, this must be protected from domination by powerful people and also over-talkative people. When the group recognizes its group power, it can limit these distortions. Thinking together is enormously creative; it has huge survival value.

Learn to Live With Contradictions. These are dark times, these are bright times. We are implacably making the planet less habitable. Every time a new oil field is discovered, the press cheers: “Hooray, there is more fuel for the self-destroying machines!” We are turning more land into deserts and parking lots. We are wiping out innumerable species that are not only wondrous and beautiful, but might be useful to us. We are multiplying to the point where our needs and our wastes outweigh the capacities of the biosphere to produce and absorb them. And yet, despite the bloody headlines and the rocketing military budgets, we are also, unbelievably, killing fewer of each other proportionately than in earlier centuries. We have mobilized enormous global intelligence and mutual curiosity, through the Internet and outside it. We have even evolved, spottily, a global understanding that democracy is better than tyranny, that love and tolerance are better than hate, that hope is better than rage and despair, that we are prone, especially in catastrophes, to be astonishingly helpful and cooperative.

We may even have begun to share an understanding that while the dark times may continue for generations, in time new growth and regeneration will begin. In the biological process called “succession,” a desolate, disturbed area is gradually, by a predictable sequence of returning plants, restored to ecological continuity and durability. When old institutions and habits break down or consume themselves, new experimental shoots begin to appear, and people explore and test and share new and better ways to survive together.

It is Never Easy or Simple. But already we see, under the crumbling surface of the conventional world, promising developments: new ways of organizing economic activity (cooperatives, worker-owned companies, nonprofits, trusts), new ways of using low-impact technology to capture solar energy, to sequester carbon dioxide, new ways of building compact, congenial cities that are low (or even self-sufficient) in energy use, low in waste production, high in recycling of almost everything. A vision of sustainability that sometimes shockingly resembles Ecotopia is tremulously coming into existence at the hands of people who never heard of the book.

___________________

Now in principle, the Big Picture seems simple enough, though devilishly complex in the details. We live in the declining years of what is still the biggest economy in the world, where a looter elite has fastened itself upon the decaying carcass of the empire. It is intent on speedily and relentlessly extracting the maximum wealth from that carcass, impoverishing our former working middle class. But this maggot class does not invest its profits here. By law and by stock-market pressures, corporations must seek their highest possible profits, no matter the social or national consequences — which means moving capital and resources abroad, wherever profit potential is larger. As Karl Marx darkly remarked, “Capital has no country,” and in the conditions of globalization his meaning has come clear.

The looter elite systematically exports jobs, skills, knowledge, technology, retaining at home chiefly financial manipulation expertise: highly profitable, but not of actual productive value. Through “productivity gains” and speedups, it extracts maximum profit from domestic employees; then, firing the surplus, it claims surprise that the great mass of people lack purchasing power to buy up what the economy can still produce (or import).

Here again Marx had a telling phrase: “Crisis of under-consumption.” When you maximize unemployment and depress wages, people have to cut back. When they cut back, businesses they formerly supported have to shrink or fail, adding their own employees to the ranks of the jobless, and depressing wages still further. End result: something like Mexico, where a small, filthy rich plutocracy rules over an impoverished mass of desperate, uneducated, and hopeless people.

Barring unprecedented revolutionary pressures, this is the actual future we face in the United States, too. As we know from history, such societies can stand a long time, supported by police and military control, manipulation of media, surveillance and dirty tricks of all kinds. It seems likely that a few parts of the world (Germany, with its worker-council variant of capitalism, New Zealand with its relative equality, Japan with its social solidarity, and some others) will remain fairly democratic.

The U.S., which has a long history of violent plutocratic rule unknown to the textbook-fed, will stand out as the best-armed Third World country, its population ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-educated, ill-cared for in health, and increasingly poverty-stricken: even Social Security may be whittled down, impoverishing tens of millions of the elderly.

As empires decline, their leaders become increasingly incompetent — petulant, ignorant, gifted only with PR skills of posturing and spinning, and prone to the appointment of loyal idiots to important government positions. Comedy thrives; indeed writers are hardly needed to invent outrageous events.

We live, then, in a dark time here on our tiny precious planet. Ecological devastation, political and economic collapse, irreconcilable ideological and religious conflict, poverty, famine: the end of the overshoot of cheap-oil-based consumer capitalist expansionism.

If you don’t know where you’ve been, you have small chance of understanding where you might be headed. So let me offer a capsule history for those who, like most of us, got little help from textbook history.

At 82, my life has included a surprisingly substantial slice of American history. In the century or so up until my boyhood in Appalachian central Pennsylvania, the vast majority of Americans subsisted as farmers on the land. Most, like people elsewhere in the world, were poor, barely literate, ill-informed, short-lived. Millions had been slaves. Meanwhile in the cities, vast immigrant armies were mobilized by ruthless and often violent “robber baron” capitalists to build vast industries that made things: steel, railroads, ships, cars, skyscrapers.

Then, when I was in grade school, came World War II. America built the greatest armaments industry the world had ever seen, and when the war ended with most other industrial countries in ruins, we had a run of unprecedented productivity and prosperity. Thanks to strong unions and a sympathetic government, this prosperity was widely shared: a huge working middle class evolved — tens of millions of people could afford (on one wage) a modest house, a car, perhaps sending a child to college. This era peaked around 1973, when wages stagnated, the Vietnam War took a terrible toll in blood and money, and the country began sliding rightward.

In the next epoch, which we are still in and which may be our last as a great nation, capitalists who grew rich and powerful by making things gave way to a new breed: financiers who grasped that you could make even more money by manipulating money. (And by persuading Congress to subsidize them — the system should have been called Subsidism, not Capitalism.) They had no concern for the productivity of the nation or the welfare of its people; with religious fervor, they believed in maximizing profit as the absolute economic goal. They recognized that, by capturing the government through the election finance system and removing government regulation, they could turn the financial system into a giant casino.

Little by little, they hollowed the country out, until it was helplessly dependent on other nations for almost all its necessities. We had to import significant steel components from China or Japan. We came to pay for our oil imports by exporting food (i.e., our soil). Our media and our educational system withered. Our wars became chronic and endless and stupefyingly expensive. Our diets became suicidal, and our medical system faltered; life expectancies began to fall.

And so we have returned, in a sort of terrible circle, to something like my boyhood years, when President Roosevelt spoke in anger of “one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-fed, ill-clothed.” A large and militant contingent of white, mostly elderly, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant right wingers, mortally threatened by their impending minority status and pretending to be liberty-lovers, desperately seek to return us still further back.

Americans like to think of ours as an exceptional country, immune through geographical isolation and some kind of special virtue to the tides of history. Through the distorted lens of our corporate media, we possess only a distorted view of what the country is really like now. In the next decades, we shall see whether we indeed possess the intelligence, the strength, and the mutual courage to break through to another positive era.

No futurist can foresee the possibilities. As empires decay, their civilian leaderships become increasingly crazed, corrupt, and incompetent, and often the military (which is after all a parasite of the whole nation, and has no independent financial base like the looter class) takes over. Another possible scenario is that if the theocratic red center of the country prevails in Washington, the relatively progressive and prosperous coastal areas will secede in self-defense.

Ecotopia is a novel, and secession was its dominant metaphor: how would a relatively rational part of the country save itself ecologically if it was on its own? As Ecotopia Emerging puts it, Ecotopia aspired to be a beacon for the rest of the world. And so it may prove, in the very, very long run, because the general outlines of Ecotopia are those of any possible future sustainable society.

The “ecology in one country” argument was an echo of an actual early Soviet argument, as to whether “socialism in one country” was possible. In both cases, it now seems to me, the answer must be no. We are now fatally interconnected, in climate change, ocean impoverishment, agricultural soil loss, etc., etc., etc. International consumer capitalism is a self-destroying machine, and as long as it remains the dominant social form, we are headed for catastrophe; indeed, like rafters first entering the “tongue” of a great rapid, we are already embarked on it.

When disasters strike and institutions falter, as at the end of empires, it does not mean that the buildings all fall down and everybody dies. Life goes on, and in particular, the remaining people fashion new institutions that they hope will better ensure their survival.

So I look to a long-term process of “succession,” as the biological concept has it, where “disturbances” kill off an ecosystem, but little by little new plants colonize the devastated area, prepare the soil for larger and more complex plants (and the other beings who depend on them), and finally the process achieves a flourishing, resilient, complex state — not necessarily what was there before, but durable and richly productive. In a similar way, experiments under way now, all over the world, are exploring how sustainability can in fact be achieved locally. Technically, socially, economically — since it is quite true, as ecologists know, that everything is connected to everything else, and you can never just do one thing by itself.

Since I wrote Ecotopia, I have become less confident of humans’ political ability to act on commonsense, shared values. Our era has become one of spectacular polarization, with folly multiplying on every hand. That is the way empires crumble: they are taken over by looter elites, who sooner or later cause collapse. But then new games become possible, and with luck Ecotopia might be among them.

Humans tend to try to manage things: land, structures, even rivers. We spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and treasure in imposing our will on nature, on preexisting or inherited structures, dreaming of permanent solutions, monuments to our ambitions and dreams. But in periods of slack, decline, or collapse, our abilities no longer suffice for all this management. We have to let things go.

All things “go” somewhere: they evolve, with or without us, into new forms. So as the decades pass, we should try not always to futilely fight these transformations. As the Japanese know, there is much unnoticed beauty in wabi-sabi — the old, the worn, the tumble-down, those things beginning their transformation into something else. We can embrace this process of devolution: embellish it when strength avails, learn to love it.

There is beauty in weathered and unpainted wood, in orchards overgrown, even in abandoned cars being incorporated into the earth. Let us learn, like the Forest Service sometimes does, to put unwise or unneeded roads “to bed,” help a little in the healing of the natural contours, the re-vegetation by native plants. Let us embrace decay, for it is the source of all new life and growth.

Ernest Callenbach, author of the classic environmental novel Ecotopia, among other works, founded and edited the internationally known journal Film Quarterly. He died at 83 on April 16, 2012, leaving behind this document on his computer.

Copyright Ernest Callenbach 2012

Wisdom From Albert Camus

In these difficult times, wisdom comes from an unexpected source: Albert Camus. These words jumped out at me:

“… I must state that I will never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder…” Exactly right, and one of the many reasons I won’t vote for Obama.

Camus wrote this essay, of which the following is an excerpt, in the fall of 1946 and it was first published in the July-August 1947 issue of the journal Politics.

Neither Victims Nor Executioners

by Albert Camus

Yes, we must raise our voices. Up to this point, I have refrained from appealing to emotion. We are being torn apart by a logic of history which we have elaborated in every detail–a net which threatens to strangle us. It is not emotion which can cut through the web of a logic which has gone to irrational lengths, but only reason which can meet logic on its own ground. But I should not want to leave the impression… that any program for the future can get along without our powers of love and indignation. I am well aware that it takes a powerful prime mover to get men into motion and that it is hard to throw one’s self into a struggle whose objectives are so modest and where hope has only a rational basis– and hardly even that. But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that they be made to understand clearly what they are doing.

To save what can be saved so as to open up some kind of future–that is the prime mover, the passion and the sacrifice that is required. It demands only that we reflect and then decide, clearly, whether humanity’s lot must be made still more miserable in order to achieve far-off and shadowy ends, whether we should accept a world bristling with arms where brother kills brother; or whether, on the contrary, we should avoid bloodshed and misery as much as possible so that we give a chance for survival to later generations better equipped than we are. Continue reading →