Human societies are addicted to their ruling ideas and their received way of life, and they are fanatical in their defence. Hence they are extraordinarily reluctant to reform. “To admit error and cut losses,” said [Barbara] Tuchman, “is rare among individuals, unknown among states.” Instead of changing their minds, leaders redouble their efforts to do what no longer works, wooden-headedly persisting in error until the bitter end.
William Ophuls, 2012
I saw the above quote at Naked Capitalism the other day, was struck by it and am now reading the book it is taken from (Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail). The quote struck me because it echoes my thinking on the state. As such I felt inspired to repeat myself here in a new-ish formulation, suspecting – for a change – that my Cassandra Compulsion to share with anyone who’ll listen is not the deluded raving of a loon. Ah, sweet, brief relief.
(A quick note on terminology: where Ophuls uses “civilisation” I use “state” or the more generic “system”. For my purposes here, these terms are sufficiently interchangeable. I see the dynamic they designate as a manifestation or surface presentation of Eisensteinian Ascent, or better, a vehicle/vessel for its manifestation and development.)
Civilisation’s “leaders redouble their efforts to do what no longer works” – Einstein’s definition of madness. We should expect nothing less during collapse; how could leaders lead a system and also purposefully and publically bring about its demise? The danger for humanity today is that civilisation – composed of the nation state and corporation as value-extracting dynamics – has become truly global. It has crushed perceived threats wherever they emerged. If a group were able to get a tentative alternative up and running – as visibly as possible so as to attract more people to their cause – the current system would annihilate that alternative with violent thoroughness, as it has done across the centuries of its ascent and now as zenith has tipped into collapse. The more viable, the more hopeful the alternative to it, the more violent is the system’s opposition. It sees alternatives as viruses that could spread if left unchecked. (Don’t we all?)
Once we have woken up to this, we appear to be confronted with an unpalatable, binary choice: 1. Try to survive and develop alternatives with others on behalf of humanity and risk social exclusion or even annihilation. 2. Stay in lockstep with the mainstream and knowingly participate in the self-wrought extinction of our species.
Is there a middle way? Yes and no. Let’s start by grubbing around in some dark stuff:
- Living systems – humans, rabbits, spiders, coral reefs, political parties, football clubs, states and so on – are characterised in part by some sort of ‘will’ to survive, however this manifests (living systems theory). A living system like the nation state (which we are concerned with here), with its subsidiary the corporation and its current flavour, capitalism, is no exception. It will therefore do what it must to survive. That its continued survival is a threat to its survival cannot compute.
- Leaders are representatives, promoters and defenders of the system they lead. They are thus ‘congenitally’ constrained to act in the interests of that system come what may. If they fail to do so, the system will replace them with someone more loyal. All sorts of gymnastic rationalising is performed to justify whatever behaviours are adopted (mainstream media and academia), something humans do very well indeed, individually and collectively, deliberately and autonomically. Leaders’ lack of freedom in this regard is clearer during times of collapse when decadence and criminality run wild. Even ‘good’ leaders fall in line as wiggle-room evaporates.
- Nation states plus corporations etc. represent a global system. One of this system’s defining characteristics is perpetual economic growth, which is perhaps the main reason this system is global; it can’t stop growing. As a defining characteristic, it cannot be relinquished without causing the death of the system. This is a controversial point, but I’m fairly convinced by it. “As a process, civilization resembles a long-running economic bubble. Civilizations convert found (or conquered) ecological wealth into economic goods and population growth.” (W. Ophuls, 2012.) This dynamic is a positive feedback loop. I repeat, its continued survival is a threat to its survival. Quite the Catch 22.
- Nation states plus corporations etc. also comprise all those humans born and living in them. In other words, you, me, and almost everyone else on earth are part of the problem, are necessarily dependent on the survival of that which threatens our survival. Our habits of thought and living have been shaped and are sustained by the system we/they constitute.
- There is no thus escape. On the one hand, we cannot escape ourselves; wherever we go to conduct experiments in establishing new systems, we bring our habits of thought and living with us. Starting from scratch is impossible. On the other hand and as mentioned above, where radical and successful alternatives do start to bloom despite the odds against them, they can only be perceived as threats to the current dominant system, which has the power to crush them. Lastly, even collapse is not escape. Collapse is terrible and cannot wipe the slate of our conditioning completely clean. The new always emerges from the old. This time, that emergence looks like being very painful and troubled indeed, due to the global nature of the crises.
- Because the system is global, its collapse is global too. How rapid it becomes is anyone’s guess, but what is important to bear in mind is how devastating – psychically, physically, spiritually, environmentally and emotionally – it must be. Cultural disorientation will pervade. Indeed, we see it more and more today.
- Taken together, all of the above means that present cultural denial about impending or currently unravelling collapse will be / is especially visceral and determined. Expect no meaningful change at all from appointed leaders or from the moral majority any time soon.
But I write none of this to spread despair. We cannot durably prepare ourselves for what is upon us (or rather, what we are generating) unless we appreciate some of the scale of the challenge; knowing all effects is impossible. Hopefulness is important, even naïve hopefulness, as stories like Hans im Glück or those involving an ingénue or fool tell us. Indeed, many groups are ‘foolishly’ engaged in building different aspects of the new and are doing sterling work. Velcrow Ripper even talks of the emergence of a movement of movements and has traced its contours in his wonderful films (I know of and recommend Occupy Love and Fierce Light).
Personally, I do not write this stuff in the belief that all hope is lost. I passionately believe that those of us who see various aspects of the end of this version of civilisation are obliged to add their perspective to the mix. However, this cannot be an act that seeks fame and fortune, in any of their guises. It is an act of service which cannot know what good it is sowing, or what harm.
We will despair. Much of what we attempt, as individuals and groups, will ‘fail’. We cannot know fully what is bathwater and what is baby, nor which parts of what we think we are cutting out are being reintroduced in our shadows, nor the long term effects of our continual experimentation. But a mature approach to this work of renewal should, I feel, keep firmly in mind the points I’ve listed above (and others). To allow a radically different system to emerge from the fertile soil of the old requires, paradoxically, that its very newness be a bloom on the old. Of course, the old must first become fecund ruin for this to happen, but that’s ok: “Systems prepare their own overthrow by a preliminary period of petrification.” (R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.)
Know thine enemy. Know thyself. It’s not about you. Out of the very contradiction of this trinity, the middle way begins.