Mark Lance discusses anarchism in an episode of Elucidations, a philosophy podcast from the University of Chicago. Mark Lance is a Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Justice and Peace at Georgetown University.
A brief history of the influence of the revolutionary, visionary Nestor Makhno.
Also known as the basis of Anarcho-communism. The inherent good of humankind and my personal belief and vision of the future. If it could be accomplished without revolution there would be no need for one.
Here’s 3+ hours of Anarcho Syndicalist theory. Easy to digest.
It is despair that is killing us, eating into the social fabric, rupturing social bonds, and manifesting in self-destructive pathologies.
A Talk by Chris Hedges / Video and Text
The physical and moral decay of the United States and the malaise it has spawned have predictable results. We have seen in varying forms the consequences of social and political collapse during the twilight of the Greek and Roman empires, the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, Tsarist Russia, Weimar Germany and the former Yugoslavia. Voices from the past, Aristotle, Cicero, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Roth and Milovan Djilas, warned us. But blinded by self-delusion and hubris, as if we are somehow exempt from human experience and human nature, we refuse to listen.
The United States is a shadow of itself. It squanders its resources in futile military adventurism, a symptom of all empires in decay as they attempt to restore a lost hegemony by force. Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. Libya. Tens of millions of lives wrecked. Failed states. Enraged fanatics. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, 24 percent of the global population, and we have turned virtually all of them into our enemies.
We are piling up massive deficits and neglecting our basic infrastructure, including electrical grids, roads, bridges and public transportation, to spend more on our military that all the other major powers on Earth combined. We are the world’s largest producer and exporter of arms and munitions. The virtues we argue we have a right to impose by force on others — human rights, democracy, the free market, the rule of law and personal freedoms — are mocked at home where grotesque levels of social inequality and austerity programs have impoverished most of the public, destroyed democratic institutions, including Congress, the courts and the press, and created militarized forces of internal occupation that carry out wholesale surveillance of the public, run the largest prison system in the world and gun down unarmed citizens in the streets with impunity.
The American burlesque, darkly humorous with its absurdities of Donald Trump, fake ballot boxes, conspiracy theorists who believe the deep state and Hollywood run a massive child sex trafficking ring, Christian fascists that place their faith in magic Jesus and teach creationism as science in our schools, ten hour long voting lines in states such as Georgia, militia members planning to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia and start a civil war, is also ominous, especially as we ignore the accelerating ecocide.
All of our activism, protests, lobbying, petitions, appeals to the United Nations, the work of NGOs and misguided trust in liberal politicians such as Barack Obama have been accompanied by a 60 percent rise in global carbon emissions since 1990. Estimates predict another 40 percent rise in global emissions in the next decade. We are less than a decade away from carbon dioxide levels reaching 450 parts per million, the equivalent to a 2 degree Celsius average temperature rise, a global catastrophe that will make parts of the earth uninhabitable, flood coastal cities, dramatically reduce crop yields and result in suffering and death for billions of people. This is what is coming, and we can’t wish it away.
Ispeak to you in Troy, New York, once the second largest producer of iron in the country after Pittsburgh. It was an industrial hub for the garment industry, a center for the production of shirts, shirtwaists, collars, and cuffs, and was once home to foundries that made bells to firms that crafted precision instruments. All that is gone, of course, leaving behind the post-industrial decay, the urban blight and the shattered lives and despair that are sadly familiar in most cities in the United States.
It is this despair that is killing us. It eats into the social fabric, rupturing social bonds, and manifests itself in an array of self-destructive and aggressive pathologies. It fosters what the anthropologist Roger Lancaster calls “poisoned solidarity,” the communal intoxication forged from the negative energies of fear, suspicion, envy and the lust for vengeance and violence. Nations in terminal decline embrace, as Sigmund Freud understood, the death instinct. No longer sustained by the comforting illusion of inevitable human progress, they lose the only antidote to nihilism. No longer able to build, they confuse destruction with creation. They descend into an atavistic savagery, something not only Freud but Joseph Conrad and Primo Levi knew lurks beneath the thin veneer of civilized society. Reason does not guide our lives. Reason, as Schopenhauer puts it, echoing Hume, is the hard-pressed servant of the will.
“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked,” Freud wrote. “They are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule, this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.”
Freud, like Primo Levi, got it. The moral life is a matter of circumstances. Moral consideration, as I saw in the wars I covered, largely disappears in moments of extremity. It is the luxury of the privileged. “Ten percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction,” Susan Sontag said.
To survive, it was necessary, Levi wrote of life in the death camps, “to throttle all dignity and kill all conscience, to climb down into the arena as a beast against other beasts, to let oneself be guided by those unsuspected subterranean forces which sustain families and individuals in cruel times. “It was, he wrote, “a Hobbesian life,” “a continuous war of everyone against everyone.” Varlam Shalamov, imprisoned for 25 years in Stalin’s gulags, was equally pessimistic: “All human emotions–of love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellowman, compassion, a longing for fame, honesty–had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during our long fasts. The camp was a great test of our moral strength, of our everyday morality, and 99% of us failed it…Conditions in the camps do not permit men to remain men; that is not what camps were created for.”
Social collapse will bring these latent pathologies to the surface.
But the fact that circumstances can reduce us to savagery does not negate the moral life. As our empire implodes, and with it social cohesion, as the earth increasingly punishes us for our refusal to honor and protect the systems that give us life, triggering a scramble for diminishing natural resources and huge climate migrations, we must face this darkness, not only around us, but within us.
The dance macabre is already underway. Hundreds of thousands of Americans die each year from opioid overdoes, alcoholism and suicide, what sociologists calls deaths of despair. This despair fuels high rates of morbid obesity, some 40 percent of the public, gambling addictions, the pornification of the society with the ubiquitous of images of sexual sadism along with the proliferation of armed right-wing militias and nihilistic mass shootings. As despair mounts, so will these acts of self-immolation.
Those overwhelmed by despair seek magical salvations, whether in crisis cults, such as the Christian Right, or demagogues such as Trump, or rage-filled militias that see violence as a cleansing agent. As long as these dark pathologies are allowed to fester and grow–and the Democratic Party has made it clear it will not enact the kinds of radical social reforms that will curb these pathologies–the United States will continue its march towards disintegration and social upheaval. Removing Trump will neither halt nor slow the descent.
An estimated 300,000 American will be dead from the pandemic in December, a figure that is expected to rise to 400,000 in January. Chronic underemployment and unemployment, close to 20 percent when those who have stopped looking for work, those furloughed with no prospect of being rehired and those who work part-time but are still below the poverty line, are included in the official statistic instead of being magically erased from the unemployment rolls. Our privatized health care system, which is making record profits during the pandemic, is not designed to cope with a public health emergency. It is designed to maximize profit for its owners. There are fewer than 1 million hospital beds nationally, a result of the decades-long trend of hospital mergers and closures that have reduced access to care in communities across the nation. Cities such as Milwaukee have been forced to erect field hospitals. In states such as Mississippi there are no longer any ICU beds available. The for-profit health service did not stockpile the ventilators, masks, tests or drugs to deal with COVID-19. Why should it? That is not a route to increased revenue. And there is no substantial difference between Trump and Biden’s response to the health crisis, where 1,000 people a day are dying.
Forty-eight percent of front line workers remain ineligible for sick pay. Some 43 million Americans have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. There are ten thousand bankruptcies a day, with perhaps two-thirds of them tied to exorbitant medial costs. Food banks are overrun with tens of thousands of desperate families. Roughly 10 to 14 million renter households, or 23 to 34 million people, were behind on their rent in September. That amounts to $12 to $17 billion in unpaid rent. And that figure is expected to rise to $34 billion in past due rent in January. The lifting of the moratorium on evictions and forecloses will mean that millions of families, many destitute, will be tossed onto the street. Hunger in U.S. households almost tripled between 2019 and August of this year, according to the Census Bureau and the Department of Agriculture. The proportion of American children who do not have enough to eat, the study found, is 14 times higher than it was last year. A study by Columbia University, found that since May there are eight million more Americans who can be classified as poor. Meanwhile, the 50 richest Americans hold as much wealth as half of the United States. Millennials, some 72 million people, have 4.6 percent of U.S. wealth.
Only one thing matters to the corporate state. It is not democracy. It is not truth. It is not the consent of the governed. It is not income inequality. It is not the surveillance state. It is not endless war. It is not jobs. It is not the climate crisis. It is the primacy of corporate power — which has extinguished our democracy, taken from us our most basic civil liberties and left most of the working class in misery — and the increase and consolidation of its wealth and power.
Trump and Biden are repugnant figures, doddering into old age with cognitive lapses and no moral cores. Is Trump more dangerous than Biden? Yes. Is Trump inepter and more dishonest? Yes. Is Trump more of a threat to the open society? Yes. Is Biden the solution? No.
Biden cannot plausibly offer change. He can only offer more of the same. And most Americans do not want more of the same. The country’s largest voting-age bloc, the 100 million-plus citizens who out of apathy or disgust do not vote, will once again stay home. This demoralization of the electorate is by design.
In America we are only permitted to vote against what we hate. Partisan media outlets set one group against another, a consumer version of what George Orwell in his novel 1984 called the “Two minutes of Hate.” Our opinions and prejudices are skillfully catered to and reinforced, with the aid of a detailed digital analysis of our proclivities and habits, and then sold back to us. The result, as Matt Taibbi writes, is “packaged anger just for you.” The public is unable to speak across the manufactured divide. Politics, under the assault, has atrophied into a tawdry reality show centered on manufactured political personalities. Civic discourse has been poisoned by invective and lies. Power, meanwhile, is left unexamined and unchallenged.
Political coverage is modeled, as Taibbi points out, on sports coverage. The sets look like the sets on Sunday NFL Countdown. The anchor is on one side. There are four commentators, two from each team. Graphics keep us updated on the score. Political identities are reduced to easily digestible stereotypes. Tactics, strategy, image, the monthly tallies of campaign contributions and polling are endlessly examined, while real political issues are ignored. It is the language and imagery of war.
This coverage masks the fact that on nearly all the major issues the two major political parties are in complete agreement. The deregulation of the financial industry, trade agreements, the militarization of police — the Pentagon has transferred more than $ 7.4 billion in excess military gear and hardware to nearly 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies since 1990 — the explosion in the prison population, deindustrialization, austerity, support for fracking and the fossil fuel industry, the endless wars in the Middle East, the bloated military budget, the control of elections and mass media by corporations and the wholesale government surveillance of the population–and when the government watches you 24 hours a day you cannot use the word liberty, this is the relationship of a master and a slave — all have bipartisan support. And for this reason, these issues are almost never discussed.
This goal is to set demographic against demographic. This stoking of antagonism is not news. It is entertainment, driven not by journalism but marketing strategies to increase viewership and corporate sponsors. News divisions are corporate revenue streams competing against other corporate revenue streams. The template for news, as Taibbi writes in his book Hate Inc., the cover of which has Sean Hannity on one side and Rachel Maddow on the other, is the simplified morality play used in professional wrestling. There are only two real political positions in the United States. You love Trump or you hate him, which comes from the playbook of professional wrestling.
By voting for Biden and the Democratic Party you vote for something.
You vote to endorse the humiliation of courageous women such as Anita Hill who confronted their abusers. You vote for the architects of the endless wars in the Middle East. You vote for the apartheid state in Israel. You vote for wholesale surveillance of the public by government intelligence agencies and the abolition of due process and habeas corpus. You vote for austerity programs, including the destruction of welfare and cuts to Social Security. You vote for NAFTA, free trade deals, de-industrialization, a real decline in wages, the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs and the offshoring of jobs to underpaid workers who toil in sweatshops in Mexico, China or Vietnam. You vote for the assault on teachers and public education and the transfer of federal funds to for-profit and Christian charter schools. You vote for the doubling of our prison population, the tripling and quadrupling of sentences and huge expansion of crimes meriting the death penalty. You vote for militarized police who gun down poor people of color with impunity. You vote against the Green New Deal and immigration reform. You vote for the fracking industry. You vote for limiting a woman’s right to abortion and reproductive rights. You vote for a segregated public-school system in which the wealthy receive educational opportunities and poor people of color are denied a chance. You vote for punitive levels of student debt and the inability to free yourself of those debt obligations even if file for bankruptcy. You vote for deregulating the banking industry and the abolition of Glass-Steagall. You vote for the for-profit insurance and pharmaceutical corporations and against universal health care. You vote for defense budgets that consume more than half of all discretionary spending. You vote for the use of unlimited oligarchic and corporate money to buy our elections. You vote for a politician who during his time in the Senate abjectly served the interests of MBNA, the largest independent credit card company headquartered in Delaware, which also employed Biden’s son Hunter.
Biden was one of the principle architects of the wars in the Middle East, where we have squandered upwards of $7 trillion and destroyed or extinguished the lives of millions of people. He is responsible for far more suffering and death at home and abroad than Trump. If we had a functioning judicial and legislative system, Biden, along with the other architects of our disastrous imperial wars, corporate plundering of the country and betrayal of the American working class, would be put on trial, not offered up as a solution to our political and economic debacle.
The Democrats and their liberal apologists adopt tolerant positions on issues regarding race, religion, immigration, women’s rights and sexual identity and pretend this is politics. These issues are societal or ethical issues. They are important. But they are not social or political issues. The seizure of control of the economy by a class of global speculators and corporations has ruined the lives of the very groups the Democrats pretend to lift up. When Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party, for example, destroyed the old welfare system, 70 percent of the recipients were children. Those on the right of the political spectrum — and we must never forget that the positions of the Democratic Party would make it a far-right party in Europe — demonize those on the margins of society as scapegoats. The culture wars mask the reality. Both parties are full partners in the destruction of our democratic institutions. Both parties have reconfigured American society into a mafia state. It only depends on how you want it dressed up.
The power of politicians such as Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell comes from being able to funnel corporate money to anointed candidates. In a functioning political system, one not saturated with corporate cash, they would not hold power. They have transformed what the Roman philosopher Cicero called a commonwealth, a res publica, a “public thing” or the “property of a people,” into an instrument of pillage and repression on behalf of a global corporate oligarchy. We are serfs ruled by the obscenely rich, omnipotent masters who loot the U.S. Treasury, pay little or no taxes and have perverted the judiciary, the media and the legislative branches of government to strip us of civil liberties and give them the freedom to engage in tax boycotts, financial fraud and theft.
In the midst of the pandemic crisis what did our ruling kleptocratic rulers do?
They looted $4 trillion on a scale unseen since the 2008 bailout overseen by Barack Obama and Biden. They gorged and enriched themselves at our expense, while tossing crumbs out of the windows of their private jets, yachts, penthouses and palatial estates to the suffering and despised masses.
The CARES Act handed trillions in funds or tax breaks to oil companies, the airline industry, which alone got $50 billion in stimulus money, the cruise ship industry, a $170 billion windfall for the real estate industry. It handed subsidies to private equity firms, lobbying groups, whose political action committees have given $191 million in campaign contributions to politicians in the last two decades, the meat industry and corporations that have moved offshore to avoid U.S. taxes. The act allowed the largest corporations to gobble up money that was supposed to keep small businesses solvent to pay workers. It gave 80 percent of tax breaks under the stimulus package to millionaires and allowed the wealthiest to get stimulus checks that average $1.7 million. The CARES Act also authorized $454 billion for the Treasury Department’s Exchange Stabilization Fund, a massive slush fund doled out by Trump cronies to corporations that, when leveraged 10 to 1, can be used to create a staggering $4.5 trillion in assets. The act authorized the Fed to give $1.5 trillion in loans to Wall Street, which no one expects will ever be paid back. American billionaires have gotten $434 billion richer since the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, whose corporation Amazon paid no federal taxes last year, alone added nearly $72 billion to his personal wealth since the pandemic started. During this same time period 55 million Americans lost their jobs.
The molding of the public into warring factions works commercially. It works politically. It destroys, as it is designed to do, class solidarity. But it is a recipe for social disintegration. It propels us towards the kind of Hobbesian world Primo Levi and Sigmund Freud warned us about. I watched competing ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia retreat into antagonistic tribes. They seized rival mass media outlets and used them to spew lies, mythological narratives exalting themselves, along with vitriol and hate against the ethnicities they demonized. This poisoned solidarity, which we are replicating, pumped out month after month in Yugoslavia, destroyed the capacity for empathy, perhaps the best definition of evil, and led to a savage fratricide.
The United States, awash in military-grade weaponry, is already plagued by an epidemic of mass shootings. There are death threats against critics of Trump, including Rep. Ilhan Omar. There was an aborted plot by 13 members of a right-wing militia group to kidnap and perhaps assassinate the governors of Michigan and Virginian and start a civil war. A Trump supporter mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and CNN, an effort to decapitate the hierarchy of the Democratic Party, as well as terrorize the media outlet that is the party’s principal propaganda platform.
The spark that usually sets such tinder ablaze is martyrdom. Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a supporter of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, was wearing a loaded Glock pistol in a holster and had bear spray and an expandable metal baton when he was shot dead on August 29, allegedly by Michael Forest Reinoehl, a supporter of antifa, in the streets of Portland. A woman in the crowd can be heard shouting after the shooting: “I am not sad that a fucking fascist died tonight.” Reinoehl was ambushed and killed by federal agents in Washington state in what appears to be an act of extra-judicial murder. Once people start being sacrificed for the cause, it takes little for demagogues to insist that self-preservation necessitates violence.
Political stagnation and corruption, along with economic and social misery, spawn what anthropologists call crisis cults–movements led by demagogues that prey on an unbearable psychological and financial distress and champion violence as a form of moral purification. These crisis cults, already well established among followers of the Christian Right, right-wing militia groups and many followers of Donald Trump, who look at him not as a politician but as a cult leader, peddle magical thinking and an infantilism that promises–if you surrender all autonomy–prosperity, restored national glory, a return to a mythical past, order and security. Trump is a symptom. He is not the disease. And if he leaves office far more competent and dangerous demagogues will rise, if the social conditions are not radically improved, to take his place.
I fear we are headed towards a Christianized fascism.
The greatest moral failing of the liberal Christian church was its refusal, justified in the name of tolerance and dialogue, to denounce the followers of the Christian right as heretics. By tolerating the intolerant, it ceded religious legitimacy to an array of con artists, charlatans and demagogues and their cultish supporters. It stood by as the core Gospel message–concern for the poor and the oppressed–was perverted into a magical world where God and Jesus showered believers with material wealth and power. The white race became God’s chosen agent. Imperialism and war became divine instruments for purging the world of infidels and barbarians, evil itself. Capitalism, because God blessed the righteous with wealth and power and condemned the immoral to poverty and suffering, became shorn of its inherent cruelty and exploitation. The iconography and symbols of American nationalism became intertwined with the iconography and symbols of the Christian faith.
The mega-pastors, narcissists who rule despotic, cult-like fiefdoms, make millions of dollars by using this heretical belief system to prey on the despair and desperation of their congregations, victims of neoliberalism and deindustrialization. These believers find in Trump, who preyed on this despair in his casinos and through his sham university, and these mega-pastors, champions of the unfettered greed, cult of masculinity, lust for violence, white supremacy, bigotry, American chauvinism, religious intolerance, anger, racism and conspiracy theories that are the core beliefs of the Christian Right.
When I wrote American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America I was quite serious about the term “fascists.”
Tens of millions of Americans live hermetically sealed inside the vast media and educational edifice erected by the Christian Right. In this world, miracles are real, Satan, allied with liberal secular humanists and the deep state, along with Muslims, immigrants, feminists, intellectuals, artists and a host of other internal enemies, is seeking to destroy America. Trump is God’s anointed vessel to build the Christian nation and cement into place a government that instills “biblical values.” These “biblical values” include banning abortion, protecting the traditional family, turning the Ten Commandments into secular law, crushing “infidels,” especially Muslims, indoctrinating children in schools with “biblical” teachings and thwarting sexual license, which includes any sexual relationship other than marriage between a man and a woman. Trump is routinely compared by evangelical leaders to the biblical king Cyrus, who rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and restored the Jews to the city.
Trump has filled his ideological void with Christian fascism. He has elevated members of the Christian right to prominent positions, including Mike Pence to the vice presidency, Mike Pompeo to secretary of state, Betsy DeVos to secretary of education, Ben Carson to secretary of housing and urban development, William Barr to attorney general, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the televangelist Paula White to his Faith and Opportunities Initiative. More importantly, Trump has handed the Christian right veto and appointment power over key positions in government, especially in the federal courts. He has installed 133 district court judges out of 677 total, 50 appeals court judges out of 179 total, and two U.S. Supreme Court justices, and with Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination most likely three, out of nine. This is nineteen percent of the federal trial judges currently in service. Nearly all of the extremists who make up the judicial appointees have been rated as unqualified by the American Bar Association, the country’s largest nonpartisan coalition of lawyers.
Trump has adopted the Islamophobia of the Christian fascists. He has banned Muslim immigrants and rolled back civil rights legislation. He has made war on reproductive rights by restricting abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood. He has stripped away LGBTQ rights. He has ripped down the firewall between church and state by revoking the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches, which are tax-exempt, from endorsing political candidates. His appointees, including Pence, Pompeo and DeVos, throughout the government routinely use biblical strictures to justify an array of policy decisions including environmental deregulation, war, tax cuts and the replacement of public schools with charter schools, an action that permits the transfer of federal education funds to private “Christian” schools. At the same time, they are building paramilitary organizations, not only through ad hoc militias but through mercenary groups of private contractors controlled by figures such as Erik Prince, the brother of Betsy DeVos and the former CEO of Blackwater now called Xe.
I studied ethics at Harvard Divinity School with James Luther Adams who had been in Germany in 1935 and 1936. Adams witnessed the rise there of the so-called German Christian Church which was pro-Nazi. He warned us about the disturbing parallels between the German Christian Church and the Christian right. Adolf Hitler was in the eyes of the German Christian Church a volk messiah and an instrument of God—a view similar to the one held today about Trump by many of his white evangelical supporters. Those demonized for Germany’s economic collapse, especially Jews and communists, were agents of Satan. Fascism, Adams told us, always cloaked itself in a nation’s most cherished symbols and rhetoric. Fascism would come to America not in the guise of stiff-armed, marching brownshirts and Nazi swastikas but in mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, the biblical sanctification of the state and the sacralization of American militarism. Adams was the first person I heard label the extremists of the Christian right as fascists. Liberals, he warned, as in Nazi Germany, were blind to the tragic dimension of history and radical evil. They would not react until it was too late.
Trump’s legacy will, I fear, be the empowerment of the Christian fascists. They are what comes next. Noam Chomsky, for this reason, is right when he warns that Pence is more dangerous than Trump. For decades the Christian fascists have been organizing to take power. They have built infrastructures and organizations, including lobbying groups, schools, colleges and law schools as well as media platforms, to prepare. They have seeded their cadre into positions of power. We on the left, meanwhile, have seen our institutions and organizations destroyed or corrupted by corporate power and been seduced by the boutique activism of identity politics. FRC Action, the legislative affiliate of the Family Research Council, already gives 245 members of Congress a 100 percent approval rating for supporting legislation that is backed by the Christian Right.
Christian fascism is an emotional life raft for tens of millions of Americans. It is impervious to science and verifiable fact. The Christian fascists, by choice, have severed themselves from rational thought and the secular society that almost destroyed them and their families and thrust them into deep despair. We will not placate or disarm this movement, bent on our destruction, by attempting to claim that we, too, have Christian “values.” This appeal only strengthens the legitimacy of the Christian fascists and weakens our own. These dispossessed people will either be reintegrated into the economy and the society and their shattered social bonds mended, or the movement will grow more virulent and more powerful.
The Christian Right is determined to keep the public focus on societal or ethical as opposed to economic issues. The corporate media, whether it supports or opposes the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, almost exclusively discusses her opposition to abortion and membership in People of Praise, a far-right Catholic sect that practices “speaking in tongues.” What our corporate masters, along with the Christian fascists, do not want examined is Barrett’s subservience to corporate power, her hostility to workers, civil liberties, unions and environmental regulations. Since the Democratic Party is beholden to the same donor class as the Republican Party, and since the media long ago substituted the culture wars for politics, the most ominous threat posed by Barrett and the Christian Right is ignored.
The road to despotism is always paved with righteousness.
All fascist movements paper over their squalid belief systems with the veneer of morality. They mouth pieties about restoring law and order, right and wrong, the sanctity of life, civic and family virtues, patriotism and tradition to mask their dismantling of the open society and silencing and persecution of those who dissent. The Christian Right, awash in money from corporations that understand their political intent, will use any tool, no matter how devious, from right-wing armed militias to the invalidation of ballots, to block Biden and Democratic candidates from assuming office.
Capitalism, driven by the obsession to maximizing profit and reduce the cost of production by slashing worker’s rights and wages, is antithetical to the Christian Gospel, as well as the Enlightenment ethic of Immanuel Kant. But capitalism, in the hands of the Christian fascists, has become sacralized in the form of the Prosperity Gospel, the belief that Jesus came to minister to our material needs, blessing believers with wealth and power. The Prosperity Gospel is an ideological cover for the slow-motion corporate coup d’état. This is why large corporations such as Tyson Foods, which places Christian Right chaplains in its plants, Purdue, Wal-Mart, and Sam’s Warehouse, along with many other corporations, pour money into the movement and its institutions such as Liberty University and Patrick Henry Law School. This is why corporations have given millions to groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to campaign for Barrett’s appointment to the court. Barrett has ruled to cheat gig workers out of overtime, green light fossil fuel extraction and pollution, gut Obamacare and strip consumers of protection from corporate fraud. Barrett, as a circuit court judge, heard at least 55 cases in which citizens challenged corporate abuse and fraud. She ruled in favor of corporations 76 percent of the time.
Our corporate masters do not care about abortion, gun rights or the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. But like the German industrialists who backed the Nazi Party, they know that the Christian Right will give an ideological veneer to ruthless corporate tyranny. These oligarchs view the Christian fascists the same way the German industrialists viewed the Nazis, as buffoons. They are aware that the Christian fascists will trash what is left of our anemic democracy and the natural ecosystem. But they also know they will make huge profits in the process and the rights of workers and citizens will be ruthlessly suppressed.
If you are poor, if you lack proper medical care, if you are paid substandard wages, if you are trapped in the lower class, if you are a victim of police violence, this is because, according to the Prosperity Gospel, you are not a good Christian. In this belief system you deserve what you get. There is nothing wrong, these homegrown fascists preach, with the structures or systems of power. Like all totalitarian movements, followers are seduced into calling for their own enslavement.
As the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels understood: “The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative.”
The tinder that could ignite violent conflagrations lies ominously stacked around us. It may be triggered by Trump’s defeat in the election. Millions of disenfranchised white Americans, who see no way out of their economic and social misery, struggling with an emotional void, are seething with rage against a corrupt ruling class and bankrupt liberal elite that betrayed them. They are tired of the political stagnation, grotesque, mounting social inequality and the punishing fallout from the pandemic. Millions more alienated young men and women, also locked out of the economy and with no realistic prospect for advancement or integration, gripped by the same emotional void, have harnessed their fury in the name of tearing down the governing structures and anti-fascism. These polarized extremes are inching closer and closer to violence.
There are three options: reform, which, given the decay in the American body politic, is impossible, revolution, or tyranny.
If the corporate state is not overthrown, then America will soon become a naked police state where any opposition, however tepid, will be silenced with draconian censorship or force. Police in cities around the country have already thwarted the reporting by dozens of journalists covering the protests through physical force, arrests, tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray. This will become normalized. The huge social divides, often built around race, will be used by the Christian fascists to set neighbor against neighbor. Armed Christian patriots will attack those groups blamed for social collapse. Dissent, even nonviolent dissent, will become treason.
Peter Drucker observed that Nazism succeeded not because people believed in its fantastic promises, but in spite of them. Nazi absurdities, he pointed out, had been “witnessed by a hostile press, a hostile radio, a hostile cinema, a hostile church, and a hostile government which untiringly pointed out the Nazi lies, the Nazi inconsistency, the unattainability of their promises, and the dangers and folly of their course.” Nobody, he noted, “would have been a Nazi if rational belief in the Nazi promises had been a prerequisite.” The poet, playwright and socialist revolutionary Ernst Toller, who was forced into exile and stripped of his citizenship when the Nazis took power in 1933, wrote in his autobiography: “The people are tired of reason, tired of thought and reflection. They ask, what has reason done in the last few years, what good have insights and knowledge done us.” After Toller committed suicide in 1939, W.H. Auden in his poem “In Memory of Ernst Toller” wrote:
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
Once the internal enemies are purged from the nation, we are promised, America will recover its lost glory, except that once one enemy is obliterated another takes its place. Crisis cults require a steady escalation of conflict and a steady stream of victims. Every new crisis becomes more urgent and more extreme than the last. This is what made the war in the former Yugoslavia inevitable. Once one stage of conflict reaches a crescendo it loses its efficacy. It must be replaced by ever more brutal and deadly confrontations. It is what Ernst Jünger called a “feast of death.”
These crisis cults are, as Drucker understood, irrational and schizophrenic. They have no coherent ideology. They turn morality upside down. They appeal exclusively to emotions. Burlesque and spectacle become politics. Depravity becomes morality. Atrocities and murder, as the federal marshals who wantonly gunned down the antifia activist Michael Forest Reinoehl in Washington State illustrated, becomes heroism. Crime and fraud become justice. Greed and nepotism become civic virtues.
What these crisis cults stand for today, they condemn tomorrow. There is no ideological consistency. There is only emotional consistency. At the height of the reign of terror on May 6, 1794 during the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre announced that the Committee for Public Safety now recognized the existence of God. The French revolutionaries, fanatical atheists who had desecrated churches and confiscated church property, murdered hundreds of priests and forced another 30,000 into exile, instantly reversed themselves to send to the guillotine those who disparaged religion. In the end, exhausted by the moral confusion and internal contradictions, these crisis cults yearn for self-annihilation.
The ruling elites will no more restore these ruptured social bonds and address the deep despair that grips America than they will respond to the climate emergency. As the country unravels, they will reach for the familiar tools of state repression and the ideological prop provided by Christian fascism.
It is up to us to carry out sustained acts of nonviolent, mass resistance. If we mobilize in large and small ways to fight for an open society, to create communities that, as Vaclav Havel wrote “live in truth,” we hold out the possibility of pushing back against these crisis cults, holding at bay the brutality that accompanies social upheaval, as well as slowing and disrupting the march towards ecocide. This requires us to acknowledge that our systems of governance are incapable of being reformed. No one in power will save us. No one but us will stand up for the vulnerable, the demonized and the earth itself. All we do must have the single aim of crippling the power of the ruling elites in the hopes of new systems of governance that can implement the radical reforms to save us and our world.
The most difficult existential dilemma we face is to at once acknowledge the bleakness before us and act, to refuse to succumb to cynicism and despair. And we will only do this through faith, the faith that the good draws to it the good, that all acts that nurture and protect life have an intrinsic power, even if the empirical evidence shows that things are getting worse. We will find our freedom, our autonomy, our meaning and our social bonds among those who also resist, and this will allow us to endure, and maybe even triumph.
We Survivors of Authoritarianism Have a Message America Needs to Hear: This is Exactly How it Happens, and It’s Happening Here.
Right about now, something terrible is happening in America. Society is one tiny step away from the final collapse of democracy, at the hands of a true authoritarian, and his fanatics. Meanwhile, America’s silent majority is still slumbering at the depth and gravity of the threat.
I know that strikes many of you as somehow wrong. So let me challenge you for a moment. How much experience do you really have with authoritarianism? Any? If you’re a “real” American, you have precisely none.
Take it from us survivors and scholars of authoritarianism. This is exactly how it happens. The situation could not — could not — be any worse. The odds are now very much against American democracy surviving.
If you don’t believe me, ask a friend. I invite everyone who’s lived under authoritarianism to comment. Those of us how have?
We survivors of authoritarianism have a terrible, terrible foreboding, because we are experiencing something we should never do: deja vu. Our parents fled from collapsing societies to America. And here, now, in a grim and eerie repeat of history, we see the scenes of our childhoods played out all over again. Only now, in the land that we came to. We see the stories our parents recounted to us happening before our eyes, only this time, in the place they brought us to, to escape from all those horrors, abuses, and depredations.
We survivors are experiencing this terrible feeling of deja vu right now as a group, as a class. We talk about it, how eerie and grim this sense of deja vu is. It’s happening all over again! Do you remember this part of your childhood? When the armed men roamed the streets? When the secret police disappeared opponents? When the fascist masses united — and that was enough to destroy democracy for good? We talk about it, believe me — but you don’t hear it because we have no real voice. America’s pundits are named Chris and Jake and Tucker. They are not named Eduardo and Ravi and Xiao and Umair. But Chris and Jake and Tucker can’t help you now. They don’t know what the hell they’re dealing with. They literally have no idea because they have no experience whatsoever.
The only people who do right now in America are us survivors. Let me remind you, by the way, what happens we speak out: we lose whatever credibility and status we have. The moment I began to warn of this, I lost my column in HBR, my cable news appearances, and so forth. Don’t cry for me. Understand me, my friend, know me. If we had a voice, we survivors, we would be warning you as loudly and strongly as we possibly could.
All of us. We would say:
This is not a joke. This is not a drill. When we survivors of authoritarianism experience, as a group, a class, a cohort, something that we never, ever should — the horrific deja vu that the horrors of our childhoods, that our parents knew, are happening, all over again, here, something is much, much more wrong than you know.
Now let me make all the above concrete. I am going to use the example of Kenosha to draw out things that perhaps only we survivors can see — or at least that we see first and easiest. Things that the “real” American is either still playing dumb about, or is still mum about, and both equate to the same thing: silence, which is complicity, in times like these.
When we look at Kenosha, we survivors, and you “real” Americans, do we see the same thing? Do we feel the same gravity, pain, urgency? You will have to tell me. Here is what I see, that I’m 100% sure every survivor sees — but I doubt “real” Americans fully see yet.
What happened there? A young man was radicalized by the movement that fascist President led. The fascist President spoke of hated minorities as animals and vermin. He led his faithful in chants of hate, moments that built the bond of the tribe between them. Soon enough, that President was speaking of peaceful protesters as anarchists and revolutionaries and seditionaries. And the question that the fascist raises was left hanging in the air. “My people, my flock — what do we do with traitors?”
The answer, to a young man like that, is what it was in Nazi Germany, in the Islamic World, in every fascist collapse since time began. We kill them.So off he went with his rifle — and killed innocent people. Perfectly innocent people.
There is a crucial lesson there. America already has an ISIS, a Taliban, an SS waiting to be born. A group of young men willing to do violence at the drop of a hat, because they’ve been brainwashed into hating. The demagogue has blamed hated minorities and advocates of democracy and peace for those young men’s stunted life chances, and they believe him. That’s exactly what an ISIS is, what a Taliban is, what an SS is. The only thing left to do by an authoritarian is to formalize it.
But when radicalized young men are killing people they have been taught to hate by demagogues right in the open, on the streets — a society has reached the beginnings of sectarian violence, the kind familiar in the Islamic world, and is at the end of democracy’s road.
How did the state’s law enforcement respond? In America, they’re simply called “the police.” They let him do it, and then they protected him. The killer was only brought to justice because there was a national outcry after the act was caught on video. If none of that had happened, he probably would never have been. The police were forced to act, in other words.
What do we survivors see in that tiny parable? Crucial institutions have already been captured by the extremist factions who stand against democracy. Do all those cops think of themselves as fascists? Of course they don’t. So what? Mullahs don’t think of themselves as hate preachers, either. What else do you call someone who gives a violent young man with a gun a free pass to kill people, though? Someone who tries to shield him after the murder? A good and decent person?
The police in America might not all think they are fascists. Certainly, not all of them are. But what is certain is that some significant number of them are captured. They are sympathetic to the forces which are now attacking democracy. They prioritize those forces over democracy, freedom, peace, justice.
Let me give you an example. My friend Ben is a London copper. He abhors the violence in America. His jaw is dropped by it. He rejects carrying a gun, or even a taser. Do you see how big the gap, the problem is?
If the police force is captured by the extremists — at least many police forces, it seems, then harder questions are raised. What about the armed forces?
They’re democracy’s last line of protection. What happens when a Trump, a Saddam, a Gaddafi, refuses to leave office? The military must remove them — or if it doesn’t, it becomes their plaything. That game of brinksmanship is exactly how Saddams and Gaddafis capture militaries. By daring them to, and when they don’t — bang! — their back is broken.
That’s another thing we survivors see very clearly right now, but “real” Americans might not. The capture of a police force is not just the capture of a police force. It threatens the whole fabric of a democracy. The monopoly on violence that the people’s agents should have is being transferred to the authoritarian. Why else would police forces beat people on the streets? Give hateful young men a free pass to kill people?
It all points to the beginnings of true violence, not just at the hands of the radicals — but aided and abetted by the state. That is the point at which a democracy finishes collapsing — and never comes back. Because once the state is free to do real violence — who is going to protest? Speak out? Even criticize?
Let me make that point crystal clear, by continuing my example. What happened next in Kenosha?
Trump threatened to send in “federal agents” — and then he did. Which “federal agents”? The ones he used just a few weeks ago, in Portland. The “Homeland Security” force which has become the precise equivalent of his Irani Republican Guard or SS: a paramilitary which isn’t accountable to the people, any democratic institution, wears no badges, can’t be identified, and is controlled only by the authoritarian, at his discretion and whim.
What did Trump’s stormtroopers do in Kenosha? They disappeared people, just like in Portland.They simply picked groups of people, roared up in unmarked cars, and…abducted them. To where? To jails. For what reason? For no reason — there were no warrants involved, no due process, no Constitutionality whatsoever. People were simply made to vanish. Like in the Soviet Union. Like in Saddam’s Iraq or Gaddafi’s Libya. Like in Nazi Germany.
Again, the “real” American will think I’m exaggerating at this point, so let me say it again. This is what more or less every survivor of authoritarianism thinks, not just me. The only people who don’t think, who still dismiss these comparisons as alarmist are the ones who have never experienced authoritarianism. Those of us who have? We know that abductions by paramilitaries in unmarked cars at the whim of a tyrant are really, really bad.
Why? They point to the complete breakdown of the rule of law. The rule of law only means something when an authoritarian can’t simply disappear people from the streets, ordering his paramilitary to do it, ignoring the constitution, discarding due process — with total impunity. But all that is exactly what Trump can do.
He now has the nascent powers of a Gaddafi or a Saddam. No, I’m not kidding. He doesn’t have the full powers, to be sure — but he certainly has the beginnings of them. Maybe he can’t have people tortured in jail yet — but he can have almost anyone he likes in America picked up and disappeared.
So how far away do you think even worse abuses of power are? When a tyrant can have almost anyone in a country they like disappeared, how far away do you really think torture is? Rape? Murder? I’m not being hyperbolic. I’m trying to speak to you like an adult. Will you listen?
Let me finish my story of Kenosha, then, before the reality of authoritarianism overwhelms us both.
What happened next?
There was a deafening silence. America’s intellectuals and pundits didn’t say authoritarianism, didn’t say fascism — again. America’s good cops didn’t exactly stand up for democracy. America’s generals didn’t assure the nation they’d intervene. America’s people didn’t wake up.
What happened after an authoritarian showed he had the power to have people disappeared — people who protested the killing of innocents which itself was inspired by the authoritarian, at the hands of a young radicalized man — was…
People didn’t pour into the streets of the capitol, by the millions. The nation’s intellectuals and columnists didn’t call for the head of state’s resignation. The opposition didn’t immediately start a global movement to observe these abuses of power.
And so the predictable is really what happened.
The authoritarian’s numbers rose in the polls.That is because there is always some significant number of people who respond to violence, brutality, hate. Unless they are reminded, sternly, forcefully, that there is something better. That this is not who we must be. That this is the wrong path.
In America, that is not happening. Not nearly enough to fight authoritarianism, and win. That’s not my opinion: it’s a factual reality. Trump is rising in the polls, and is now at the point where the slightest secret hate vote — all those polite soccer moms who say they’d never vote for him, and then do, in the heat of the voting booth — will give him an outright victory. He won’t even have to contest a loss, as he’s sure to do. He will just win.
And then American democracy will be over.
Because the last and final thing we survivors of democracy know is that truly terrible things are on the way then. Yes, really. Men who can put kids in cages and radicalize younger men to do real violence? They don’t want you to live in peace, freedom, harmony, and goodness. They want you to live in fear, despair, and terror. And they will begin using extreme violence to do it.
A second Trump term? It will involve all of the following. Shock troops on the streets. Disappearances becoming everyday events. Critics and dissidents being tortured in hidden jails. Expression and thought being monitored for any negative portrayal of the fascists. Hated minorities institutionally dehumanized and resegregated. It will involve levels of such horrific violence and brutality that Americans still cannot understand or grasp precisely because they have been lucky enough to have never yet personally experienced them.
So leave it to us. We survivors. We dispossessed ones. The exiles and orphans of modernity. The ones who have never felt like we belonged. The gift we always could have given you was to protect you from this. But even the good Americans never gave us room as true equals in their promised land. That is how America got here. By never letting us in, even though we were here. We could have told you how it happens, and what “it” means.
But it is not too late to listen to us.
This is your last chance to hear our warning.
It is happening here. Exactly — exactly — the way it happened there, to us. In our childhoods, to our parents, in all those distant, strange broken lands. This is how a democracy dies. This is how it all collapses. This is how the fanatics seize power for a generation or more. This is how the fascists win.
Kenosha. Portland. Washington, DC.
This is how it happens. We survivors feel a sense of deja vu right now terrible that most of us can’t sleep, can’t focus, can’t…breathe, sometimes. I want you to understand how powerful this feeling of deja vu is. It is one of the most frightening things we survivors have experienced. Where will we go now? What will we do now? America never really accepted us, and now, it’s collapsing. That leaves us in a worse place than anyone else, really. We feel the price of this implosion acutely. That is one reason we try to warn you — but the other one is that we can’t not warn you. Nobody — nobody — should live through the horrors we knew as children, as parents, as human beings.
Never again. It’s the vow every survivor makes. That’s why we are trying to warn you. It is happening all over again, here, exactly — exactly, precisely, absolutely — the way that we saw it happen before, and before, and before.
Hear our warning. None of us have the time left now for petty divisions, intellectualizations, the games pundits play, the way I lost my column when I began to warn of all this. I didn’t pay the bigger price — you did.
You don’t have another mistake left to make.
This is it, and you’re blowing it, sleepwalking into collapse, letting the fascists steal your futures.
Do not let it happen here.
[Foreward by up yours truly: This engaging article has broadened my perspective, changed some views, and enlightened. I feel less anger and more substantial hope from reading this in its entirity than making limitless satire of everyday life; as some of you know is my forte.
Please read with an open mind and do not skip to the end. Test your fortitude and willingness to explore new ideas. ]
Everybody knows the old world ended this weekend.
We better have a dialogue about what comes next.
We all know that this is the end of the line for the old vision of America. As a result, it is also the end of a particular vision of the world. We have been drawing ever closer to this cliff since the unfortunate events of 9/11, and the two decades of war which followed have strained the domestic and international order past the breaking point.
In the 1990s, we had a brief decade in a crude first approximation of world peace. The purpose of this essay is to ask how did we get there, and how can we get there again. It is imperative that we find new political and philosophical space to breathe, because all of our proposed solutions look like dystopias to so many people they will fight to stop any movement towards those futures.
We need a trans-ideological consensus to allow people with incompatible world models to tolerate each other well enough to work together to combat climate change and preserve and expand our rights as human beings.
At the end of this document, I’ll tell you what I think the foundation of that trans-ideological consensus should be, something so universal, deep and unexplored that it might give us new political perspective at a time when we are all desperately lost in hell. But first, we need to get a crystal clear understanding of what has gone wrong with our politics and governance, and why our elites are so irrational and despicable.
It’s going to be a long read. You should make a cup of tea, and wade in.
Section one: what tomorrow knows
Allow me to briefly summarise our global situation.
We now number 8 billion humans, give or take. Population is expected to rise to 10 billion over the next 20 to 30 years all things being equal, which they are not.
The total environmental impact of the human race is several times what the earth can sustain. What that means is that every year, the natural systems that sustain the world break down, leaving less resources for next year. We are living in environmental debt, and making minimum payments every month as the hole we are in deepens.
Let’s look at carbon dioxide first. CO2 is emitted, broadly speaking, by mining coal and drilling for oil, and by burning down forests. There are many other lesser sources.
Industry and agriculture kick out 36 billion tons of CO2 per year, or about 4.5 tons per person. The earth absorbs about half of that. The rest goes into the atmosphere. The more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the more sunlight heats up the earth: the greenhouse effect. So far we have warmed the world by 1C/1.8F and even if we pull out all the stops with catastrophic social and financial impacts, we will see 1.5C/2.7F of warming. Farming will basically continue to work in most places more or less as it does now in that scenario, but it is by no means certain to leave any specific place intact.
But if we continue what we are doing today, we are headed for 3C to 4C of warming (5.4F to 7.2F). This much warming is like moving a thousand miles south in a lot of climates: places go from pleasant to parched, and agriculture collapses. There are a sea of unbelievably severe and serious secondary effects as a result: melting permafrost releasing gigatons more of warming gasses, oceans become more acidic and entire ecosystems die as a result, and so on.
The “carbon buffer” — how much carbon we can emit for how much warming — is said to be anywhere from 150 gigatons to 500 gigatons. At the lower bound, given that of the 36gt we emit every year only about half is soaked up, we hit the buffer in less than ten years. Inevitablyhit the buffer. This broad outline has been known for at least 40 years by specialists, and I devoted my life to reducing the humanitarian consequences of this disaster since 2002. It has been a long, lonely struggle.
What this means personally is a lot easier to think about.
EU citizens (500m) kick out about 8 tons of CO2 per person per year, and US citizens about 15 tons. To be “sustainable” — not to be warming the earth — we would need to reduce our carbon emissions by unthinkably large amounts. Can Americans live on 20% of their current CO2 emissions?
Not if they live in Minneapolis and drive a 4×4 to handle the roads, and live in an older house that just eatsfuel oil all winter and needs air conditioning in the summer. That won’t work at all.
We are at a hard impasse here, and we have been handling it by paying attention to something, anything else. Each government says “it’s not going to hit during my 4 year elected term” and focusses on short range political impact while the world literally burns. All those forest fires etc. are not unrelated to climate change.
Sources for this climate summary are here. I welcome corrections.https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissionshttps://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC?locations=EU-US-1W-SEhttps://www.skepticalscience.com/human-co2-smaller-than-natural-emissions.htmhttps://www.theguardian.com/environment/datablog/2009/sep/02/co2-emissions-historical
Add to this our hunger situation. Broadly speaking, 10% of the world’s population eats so little they are physically ill as a result. 800 million people. The death toll varies a bit year on year, but a few million people die directly of hunger every year. And it’s not that we do not produce enough food: we grow enough food. If all the food waste in the world was eliminated, and the food saved given to the hungry, there would be no hungry. We literally waste enough food every year to feed the planet.
We could run over half a dozen other issues in much the same light: deforestation, topsoil depletion, collapse of ocean ecosystems because we ate all the fish, it just goes on.
The political situation internationally isn’t much better: a constant cycle of stupid wars and assassinations, death squads slowly turning into drone war, as various nations take turns booting the poor in the head to try and extract a few more resources for whatever cause happens to be a convenient excuse today.
A common analysis is that the root cause of all of these problems is overpopulation. I’m not going to waste your time and mine cranking through that argument, but briefly: yes, population in 1800 was 1 billion. Now it’s 8 billion. If consumption per person had stayed at 1800s levels, we would have very few environmental problems. But consumption per person in the rich world has skyrocketed to incredible levels: the total environmental impact of an American citizen is often ballpark estimated at 30x the environmental impact of a Bangladeshi. There are 8x more people, and up to 30x more consumption for one nation than another, on average. The compounding impact is gigantic. But population growth is slowing down, and consumption is rapidly accelerating: the problem we can change today is consumption. Maybe.
What’s driving consumption is the rise of the global middle class.
The very poor consume almost nothing. About half the world were “one acre farmers” who grew most of their own food on their own land, and were often near starvation in bad years. Needless to say, many of these people got jobs and urbanised as soon as the possibility arose, and as they’ve joined industrial and consumer society, their needs have risen. The result is a gigantic rise in global consumption, as people go from having negligible or even negative CO2 emissions to having a scooter and a cooker and electric light coming off a coal-fired grid. Meanwhile, those left in the villages are often becoming more and more impoverished, although great boasts are made about their progress, because the economic books are cooked when we estimate fundamental underlying poverty.
So this is our situation: the human race is destroying its future very quickly, with catastrophic impacts from climate change already visible and rapidly accelerating, in a situation where “business as usual” economic development will simply pile more and more people into the global middle class economic niche, which is at something like 2x or 5x sustainable consumption, resulting in an ever-faster ecological collapse.
Does it have to be this way? No.
Even within the model we call “progress” a different world is possible. Most of us could live in ultra well insulated houses, waste almost no food and eat mostly vegetarian diets, bicycle most places, fly a few times in a lifetime. Our nations could replace most of their electrical power with a combination of zero carbon options: hydro power, wind, solar, and a bit of nuclear maybe (a cheat). Our consumer goods — our tools — could last forever and be easily repaired, and second hand markets could be ultra-efficient at taking things and finding uses for them.
It would not be a bad lifestyle, but it is 100% achievable only if governments prevent people from living any other way, in much the same way and for much the same reasons that we prevent slavery not by allowing the free market to sort it out, but by actively prohibiting it. People will do evil if they are permitted to, and evil is often cheaper than good.
So wehave to mandate our own survival, not leave it to chance. Why do we seem to be unable to do this?
Section two: for whose advantage?
Who benefits from a world bent on self-destruction? Why can’t we get the elites to back down or change their minds?
The captains of finance are not innumerate fools. Quantitative finance employs many of the world’s best minds in physics.
The world’s militaries are not stupid organisations on the technical front. Maintaining nuclear weapons stockpiles is no joke, and even the simple logistics of maintaining groups of hundreds of thousands of soldiers represents massive logistical challenges.
Plenty of brains. But somehow they seem to be stuck, like a child’s toy trains on a track which goes straight over a cliff. But this is the real world: much worse things happen than toy railway cars bouncing down half a flight of carpeted stairs. People die!
So why are we stuck doing these things? Everybody wants to point at somebody else: politicians point at the voters, the media point at politicians, the voters point at the billionaires. This is actually the simple key to the whole mess: society is structured so that each bad actor — they’re all bad — can simply point to other people and say “I’m just a simple man, they are the ones in control.”
The billionaires fear anti-trust suits against their company, or regulations which will destroy their industry. The politicians depend the billionaires for support and funding, and so it goes, and so it goes. This snarl has its own tension, like a tangled cat’s cradle made of rubber bands: everybody enmeshed in the snarl is subject to the power of various forces which pull on them or constrain them, while at the same time having the power to pull on and constrain other actors in the system. Power is a dense weave, a black mesh, in which even the strongest are fundamentally beholden to everybody else in the system in complex, hard to define ways.
This is clearest in the symbiotic-parasitic relationship between regulators and industry which they call regulatory capture, where the only people who know enough about the industry to regulate it are former industry executives, who usually leave the regulatory post they had to work for somebody they used to regulate. And, yes, you could change the law to stop that happening, but those same corporate interests donate money to re-election campaign funds, and so the whole dirty mess slides through time, decade through decade.
Even worse is selective enforcement. Somebody breaks the rules to get ahead, and somebody else does them a favour and turns a blind eye to the event. But the knowledge of wrongdoing is now currency, a marker, a returnable favour which might be passed to a third party and delegated. On the way to the top so many of these deals get done that the person in power becomes effectively a slave to those who know their buried secrets. This corrupt economy is more or less always what makes our laws: what politician is so clean that nobody knows where the bodies are buried, because no bodies were buried?
In fact, the very structure of these games is that you have to do illicit things to win, guaranteeing that the winners will be under the control of the powerbrokers that helped them on the way up. These systems guarantee corruption: corruption is the desired product of the system, because corruption allows for stable, durable, secret extra-judicial control: to have power from the sidelines, even to rule, without any oversight.
Jeffrey Epstein is a good example of all of these phenomena: a victim and a perpetrator, when he was no longer safe to have around, somebody had him murdered in a secure jail cell, and had the surveillance camera footage of the murderers erased. But he also had strings on an unknown but vast network of the world’s elite, including many in John Brockman’s famous EDGE network, which Epstein funded. It is almost certain that nobody involved in this situation at any level experienced any degree of freedom from fear: so much dirt on so many people, so much coercion of so many women, and the whole thing likely overseen by lethal intelligence networks who could black bag anybody involved in the blink of an eye.
This is hell.
The critical insight is that Epstine likely perceived himself to be just as enslaved as the girls he pimped.
It is not even a hierarchy of terror and control, because as in politics, there are feedback loops and strange networks: all masters and all servants. As in mafias, even the boss simply serves as a neutral dispute resolver between his lieutenants: if he pisses off too many of them at once, they will simply elect new leadership and off him.
Situations in which even the most “successful” players are still essentially living in fear all the time are easily recognised as hells. Games where victory (or even survival) will cost you all of your integrity are the proto-hells which surround the deep dark pits that, for example, so many combat veterans emerge from war with. Hell and the penumbra of hell. The survivors of war, and the cheerleaders for war.
These systems have lives of their own. There are any number of stories about this, perhaps my favourite is a cage of (mostly imaginary) monkeys who get sprayed with cold water every time a monkey climbs a ladder. Pretty soon, they don’t climb the ladder any more, and stop other monkeys from doing it. After a while, they replace the monkeys one at a time, and eventually they have a set of monkeys who all stop each-other climbing the ladder, even though not a single one of them has ever seen anybody climb the ladder, or seen the monkeys get squirted. This might be thought of as a taboo, but it’s really just “the system” being imprinted on the animals.
We are all those monkeys. The fact that the monkey story is mostly nonsense is just more evidence for the pervasive power of cultural lock in.
Into these interlocking systems of systemic corruption, we now add the urgent pressure for whole systems change to limit the extent of climate change.
But all the finely balanced checks-and-balances of our corrupt political cultures come apart when the culture has to change in a hurry: everybody’s got something on everyone else, and when you start to change the system rapidly, all those invisible strings get pulled to make the puppets dance.
America still spends half a trillion dollars a year on fossil fuel subsidies, because of the quid-pro-quos attached to the oil funding: if you cut that subsidy pipeline off, bad things happen, because the oil guys are connected. And it’s like this all the way through: building codes, urban planning, tariffs and subsidies, procurement processes. The entire thing is a solid interwoven slab of graft in which doing what is expedient and keeps the system going is always going to be more valuable than a clean sweep.
This is not to say that no progress is ever made. When there is enough money on the table — such as with mobile phones or electric cars — and few enough losers with leverage, some progress is possible.
But think back to those horrifying carbon and hunger statistics. To fix those problem — to cut US oil consumption by 80% — involves making changes that nobody can possibly permit if they are to leave the current system of quid-pro-quos in place.
The power is balkanized into a million struggling, competing groups, and so nothing gets done. This problem is obviously much more severe in, for example, America than Germany, but there is not a single nation which has really put cleaning up its environmental act as a top priority which it clearly deserves to be.
So think about “the system” as an enormous web of corrupt people who have made promises to each-other to keep secrets, return favours, and grease palms.
This sticky, gory mess with all of its quid-pro-quos is what it means to be a “powerful” person in this society: you have more strings to pull than people pulling your strings, for the moment. For a temporary moment the equilibrium is tipped in your favour. But power is fleeting, even an ex-President is only an ex-President. The winners are not winners for long, with a handful of world famous exceptions like Gates or Buffet.
Imagine such a system in an expanding empire. Promises are made, deals are struck, and because the empire under the control of this system is expanding, on average those promises are kept. The system’s overall growth washes enough hands that rivalries and destructive conflicts inside of the system are kept to some kind of workable minimum. If people over-estimate what they can pull off, underlying economic growth and success in colonial endeavours like wars or colonisations generates enough wealth to make good on enough of the promises made by junior players “on the way up” that by the time they are a mature power network, everybody is basically on the same side.
But now imagine such a system in a time of recession, depression, or collapse. The web of dark obligations woven through the system puts more claims on money, position, status, valuable assets than can be cleared through the system: the quid-pro-quo back-hander favour network, the thing which buries the bodies, pays off the “mistresses”, sorts out the entirely too favourable government contracts, and makes sure that your kids get into Eton or Harvard starts to break down. Players in the elite game are defined by these interlocking webs of obligation and implicit contract.
Then it all starts unravelling. The economy starts to go south, the wars are lost, the cat is out of the bag, the wolf is on the fold, and so on.
Now we have a real problem. Because the house of cards that the elites have constructed is based on growth, on the feeling that you can kite a cheque or make a promise you might not be able to keep, but something will come along and it will all get sorted out.
The web of mutual obligation on which the elite is constructed begins to strain. This can be as simple as “musical chairs” in the financial system in 2008, where everybody tries to sit down at the same time, and Lehman Brothers is a little too slow — had to be somebody, happened to be them. Or it can be more subtle, as we see in (for example) the Epstein Incident. A series of things go wrong, we will never know which things, and at the end of that process, rather than the polite sweeping under the rug which had protected the show until that point, somebody winds up so exposed that they are willing to kill a prisoner in a locked cell, erase the tapes, and intimidate the staff into silence.
Maybe they can get away with that once, twice, three times, but make a habit of it and pretty soon the public will begin realising the ship is sunk, and what then?
Murdering Epstein in such a dramatic and obvious way is a sign that the networks of power are so over-extended that problems are slipping through their fingers, and crashing into the public eye.
As a result, the elites are more eager than ever to settle debts with hard political assets, the equivalent of cash payments, now. The faith that the system will perform well enough in future to protect elites from the consequences of their actions is starting to fray, and as the future horizon of the elites shortens and shortens, they are willing to do increasingly desperate things to keep the balloon inflated. But the pressure for immediate settlement, do this for me now instead of the more leisurely and efficient welcome to the club, dear boy creates a political liquidity crisis. The elites cannot work as an integrated mass nearly so easily when the faith in future power to cover up today’s transgressions weakens.
Now let’s take this back to the climate change story.
There’s no way forwards which continues to increase absolute consumption globally which does not wind up with a catastrophic hard crash on every level. But the elites have very minimal capability to reduce their resource intake without it causing a fraying of their web of dirty obligations, resulting in raging destructive civil wars among the elite. Those kinds of wars are inconceivably destructive to the elites: think McCarthyism as the American Cultural Elite turns on itself around the issue of communism, or the long history of Christian heretical sects getting burned at the stake. The elites have so much power, and run such big risks (Iran Contra anybody?) that if something blows out there’s nobody to Make The Problem Go Away and it slams into reality through the media or somebody presses charges or a lawsuit or a bankruptcy, entire dynasties can be destroyed in months: Lehman Brothers, or the Wall Street Journal being sold to Murdoch.
Climate change, for the elites, is a mass of big personal risks that they have taken, all detonating one after another. Everyone is a day late and a dollar short, and the whole mess unravels.
A sensible oil policy, sure, the government can do that on paper: but as the oil companies contract, the power players running that scene take their foot off the scandal pipeline, and a whole new set of bad news starts pump down that pipeline, into the ear of a brave journalist who is willing to publish.
Because, you know, those oil guys, they have to make living too, and if they had your back in Iraq, and you’re turning on them now… well obviously this is a fundamental matter of quid-pro-quos being violated. And there are always more chips on the table than cash to back the chips. The elites live highly leveraged lives, personally, politically, and economically because over-all, in the good times, risk is good. The more risks you take, the faster you climb the ladder. Power is the ability to suppress downside risks: when something goes wrong, you know you will be protected.
So you pile on the risk, and attain the meteoric rise.
The elites cannot climb down without tearing each-other to pieces. They’ve been fighting climate change awareness, starting futile wars, and looting the treasury with bailouts because a climbdown will start civil war among the elites as their promises to each-other can no longer be kept, and the political exchange of quid-pro-quos collapse.
And this is why the elites are stuck in place, unable to face reality. They’ve concentrated so much personal risk into their positions that if the system as a whole has to be cooled and basic needs reprioritized, their entire house of cards will come down.
One of the ways that the elites gain power is by making promises to the poor and working class that their lives will get better faster if a given leader is put in charge. Almost never is the promise that things will get worse more slowly, or that they’ll get worse but the worst won’t be so bad. The masses are strongly conditioned by 300 years of industrial revolution, labour unions, and colonialist extraction that life gets better year on year.
The horror of a recession is that this is suddenly no longer true. The future is worse than the past, at least for a while, and people passing through critical stages of their life during that period are going to underperform financially for the rest of their lives on average, in most models.
What we are looking at with climate change, if it is handled using existing political machinery, is managed decline. It does not have to be that way, there are much better options than managed decline, but within the existing political norms there is no way to get to that space. Managed decline is the way climate change looks to the elites, and as we’ve just discussed, theirs is a machine which has to keep growing, or tear itself apart in cascade failures and civil wars.
The people with the least power are first to get shoved off a cliff. The exploitation of most Americans working in dead end jobs for enormously powerful corporations is generally limited only by law, because they have little negotiation power and are generally not unionized. The American labour unions are strange beasts by international standards, and this may not help. But, in any case, there is a three way negotiation between the employer, the law, and the employee, and basically the law is the decider: employers will generally only offer what the law mandates they must, and employees will generally take it because the other option is even worse. Add to this the breakage in campaign finance reform, and what you are left with is people with no rights and no negotiating power — closer in the great continuum of possible lives to slaves than to, say, doctors. Plenty of fancy Marxist language (“immiseration”) but the plight is obvious.
Now, let me frame this one more time, because this is subtle. The elites can’t perform a managed descent because their entire show is an over-leveraged house of cards, both financially and especially politically. Even the best among them, who might like to do the right thing, often can’t.
What do I mean by can’t?
The rich, for the most part, are dirty and cruel. If they stop being rich and powerful, the backlash of all the people they’ve tooled over on the way up the ladder will catch up with them. Like sharks, they must keep moving.
This is a class trait, it may not apply to any given individual, but it’s a model of why things are as they are which has a lot of explanatory power. The rich could, in theory, just reduce their lifestyle expectations a bit, make some more room at the table, maybe pay some taxes.
But here we hit the enormous interwoven web of corruption, lies, and obligation. If the resource pool controlled by that system drops by 20%, the conflict and friction inside of the elite system might erupt into a slaughterhouse. You can see this in the financial markets, where an entire apparatus conspired to rip people off by selling mortgages which would likely never be paid to unsuspecting pension fund managers. The losers were the people who had made retirement nest eggs that got wipe out. Everybody else along that entire chain made money, every single day, until suddenly it all unwound in the 2008 bloodbath.
Now imagine that happening to an entire civilisation’s controlling elites. To them, it is unthinkable — the gigantic personal risks of an uncontrolled civil war, as every cut corner and dodgy court case starts unravelling at the same time. We see “they have plenty, why can’t they take a pay cut” and they see “this house of cards is all going to come down if somebody even sneezes out of turn.” Lehman Brothers collapse was like seeing somebody shot in the head at close range for the people that had sunk their entire lives into finance.
Implicitly, the condition of the elites is “no retreat, no surrender” and the gigantic concentrations of wealth and power since 2008 are “too big to fail” fortresses, hoping to force government’s hands into protecting dinosaurs from calamity.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Elon Musk. Musk rides through the skies on a great torchship of concentrated risk: famously he cashed out $300m and put $100m each into Tesla, SolarCity, and Space X, leaving himself so little personal wealth he had to borrow money from friends to pay rent. Tesla and Space X are made almost entirely of possible futures, might-becomes, and every time either one hits a roadblock, stock market bears swarm, looking to make a buck betting on a collapsing stock price. Musk is the ultimate shark: he moves forwards, towards Mars and a sustainable Earth, or he dies. He is never more than a sneeze away from the abyss, and while he’s likely relatively disconnected from the complex, interconnected cess pool which is Washington in that he’s an outsider from South Africa, never forget how many billions of dollars the Federal government put into Musk’s companies. This kind of bundling of multiple different kinds of risks — political, technical, financial — into a single huge rolling portfolio is exactly the kind of situation which pertains right across the sociotechnical frontage of our high tech society. A company like Boeing is so interwoven with US national interest, huge amounts of debt, technical risk, and dirty deals like having the NSA spy on their behalf in a Saudi plane contract negotiation.
The elites cannot surrender for fear the entire situation will unravel, making them liable for all that they did on the way up, and all the promises they can now no longer deliver on. It is a catastrophic risk all round.
There is no rational negotiation with this position. Rather, rationally, they are completely screwed by the things they did to get where they are, and only their ill-gotten gains protect them. This is not true of every individual, but this is why the stuff you see happening on TV looks the way it does most of the time.
It is horrendous. These webs of corruption are strangling our civilization.
Section three: the brave and the willing
Life goes on. How does life go on?
The answer is both sharp and subtle: the young do not know any better.
Born in a cave? That’s life. All progress forwards is measured from this set point. Born at the peak of an economic boom, same thing. Wherever you are born is the starting point, this is “normal.” Some cultures, usually old cultures, are focussed on not coming out any worse off than you went in: if the culture is stable enough that most of the people do ok, then it will tend to ossify and stratify. The famous Scandinavian conservatism: yes, these people are doing better than us, but rocking the boat to get more of our fair share is too risky. It’s a working society, why mess with it. Well, covid in Sweden might have some ideas about that, but for the most part, the Scandinavians are right: when things are good, stasis is important.
The Americans are entirely at the other pole. No stability, the entire culture is on fire, all the time. Constant sweeping change, and if you snooze, you lose. Buy a house in a great neighbourhood, wind up penniless 20 years later as the gentrification wave produces better housing cheaper half a mile away in what was once a ghetto. It’s a constant gamble, a constant struggle to stay alive.
Plenty of money in America, but it don’t sit still long. Many Americans will experience a few years of fleeting wealth, before winding up back where they started, or living in their cars, and this is not just lottery winners. Getting wealth to stick is hard, but it comes through at speed.
The young were born in good enough conditions to survive. Biologically, all they have to do is reproduce at whatever level they were at, maybe improve it a bit, and life’s core mission is accomplished: keep the fire lit, keep the light of consciousness alive. That basic story hasn’t changed since the first replicator a billion years ago, and it is the foundation so many of our human values.
How did the American slaves survive such horror? Two generations in, that was normal. Somehow, life went on, as it did for the survivors of the concentration camps, and every other atrocity in human history. Life finds a way.
Even if there were stories about other times, normal is whatever you’re born into.
This creates another bad set point problem: if you’re born in a boom, everything else feels like a bust. I use the term “born” loosely, really it’s the period of childhood and early adulthood that sets our expectations. I was born in 1972, picked up a good solid bedrock of cold war angst, then my 20s were in the 1990s economic boom, dotcom boom, early Burning Mans. You can’t imagine the sheer cultural optimism of 1996 and 1998 on the Playa as Silicon Valley started to foresee the future it would come to enjoy, then ruin, and the hippie elite looked at our peaceful, prosperous future and saw the infinite expansion of liminal space and transformative values extending before us into a utopian future.
When they say 9/11 changed everything, they weren’t kidding.
So how is life to go on, in a world where we cannot but do with less? We’ve covered the elites, it’s fratricidal warfare for them at least in the place where big business, big government, and big military meet.
What about the rest of us? People that want to have a couple of kids and a dog, and know they’ll never become billionaires. Or people who’s idea of a dream is having a refrigerator which gets cold enough in summer to keep ice cream from melting. Or people who’d like it if their kids didn’t cry from hunger towards the end of the month sometimes.
It only gets worse from there. We won’t go down that ladder further. You know what I’m saying: there are a lot of tiers of “normal.” Kids will adapt.
But the parents. What about the parents?
Yes, kids can live pretty well on not much. If they have enough food and a community, and other kids to play with, they’ll grow up into functional human beings, more so than if they grow up in palaces, in fact.
The problem here is accommodation, not just in the sense of having a place to live, but in the sense of getting used to having what you have. If you have kids and there’s a back yard, and suddenly there’s no more back yard because the job went and the new job is crappier, now there’s a problem. Resources staying about the same or expanding parents can live with, but losing resources as a parent is a total nightmare. How are parents supposed to cope in a world with this kind of uncertainty?
A lot of them aren’t. Have you seen the rates of antidepressant use in America? Precarity with kids is hell on earth.
So a future of perpetually declining resources is inevitable: either we hold on to what we have, and the collapsing environment takes it away from us as food prices go through the roof, or we cut our consumption to something which will cause the earth not to boil, fry, and kick our asses to kingdom come, and therefore at least in theory we face complaining children and neurotic children, year on year, as budgets get thinner.
I’m not kidding about this. You know how hard-screwed America has been since 2008, and everybody wants to blame wealth concentration in the elites, and the cost of the Iraq war. But right underneath that is the Long Decline, which is that America’s world class manufacturing advantage in the 1970s was unstoppable, as it had been from the 1950s, and that absolutely massive productivity edge let American workers live like kings for a generation after WW2. Turns out winning a global war is good for you.
But those advantages diluted away over time because they were products of unique circumstances. It wasn’t inherent to the American experience that they have enormous wealth while the world struggled — indeed America had been face down in the mud, so poor that slavery was considered the only way to maintain standards of living for a century, so poor that out west there was no law and seas of seamstresses, and not an honest dollar to be made except in gold mining. America 200 years ago looked more like Liberia than London, for the most part.
So how are people going to have kids?
We can’t buy our way out of this. Suppose Bill Gates had given his money away not to a foundation, but split it among Black Americans equally. It’s about $5000 each, which is enough to clear credit card debts, get the car fixed, and maybe see a dentist, but it’s not enough money to buy any kind of capital asset you can earn a living from using like machine tools, or to buy a place to live. It’s cash flow, not capital.
Split it among all the American poor and it’s maybe a thousand bucks, a little windfall. We just can’t buy our way out of this. And, let me note, the gigantic bailouts going into the banks and the big companies for the most part aren’t real money: loans they owe money on charge interest, and that money in turn was borrowed. They money which the fed is printing does essentially nothing to the real economy, it just keeps the compounding interest from bankrupting the entire world. That’s why they can keep printing money, and we don’t see inflation. Redistribution certainly takes the sting out of things, and basic income (done right) is probably a good idea, but where is the actual economic productivity going to come from?
If people aren’t making things, and the service economy is menial, low-paid, unpredictable gig economy nonsense, how is anybody going to hold their Mittelstand middle class dignity for more than a fleeting five minutes?
This is no joke: half of the western economies are being supported by American credit card debt. If America cracks under economic, social and cultural pressure, the resulting shockwaves are going to break the western world in half, and we might want to prepare some policy options for handling this.
How can we make policy with such hard economic and ecological limits in front of us? What are we really trying to achieve here?
Let me make a suggestion: within our current terms of discourse, these problems are insoluble. Growth-oriented colonialist cultures — which is all of us — cannot easily adapt to a steady state or declining standard of living. It flies in the face of hundreds of years of experience, and the aforementioned “elite swamp” problem means we cannot simply unwind things a day at a time and hope it all works out, because they’ll fight it to the teeth not just because they are greedy (money) but because they are afraid (power).
We need some new perspective here, desperately, because climate change is going to tear our societies apart. All those promises of a better future? It ain’t happening, and if you ask the kids, they’re just trying to get out of this horror show without too much pain and with their souls intact. That’s what happens when you see people asking for ambulances not to be called because they cannot afford it. Do the young expect better futures any more? Why?
And, really, it’s not a big deal to make a world that works. We could reorganise to feed all the people like tomorrow morning if we could get all the people to go along with it. But as we saw in the previous section, the swamp will not be drained.
The problem we have is one of purpose. If you ask people what is our society for? They don’t really have answers. It used to be White Man’s Burden colonialist stuff, or the US Manifest Destiny model. Sometimes you get a kind of settling in, like the Swedes and the rest of Scandinavia, into higge, a sort of homish comfort zone in which everything is kind of nice, and so life continues. And hygge is pretty close to what I’m going to propose, with certain modifications.
Of course, Sweden in particular, and Scandinavia in general can’t stand on their own feet any more than the Europeans can, if Americans stop buying. On paper it’s 8% of their economy, but it’s also 8% or more of everybody else’s economy: demand would drop across the entire global economy. The American global demand sink is huge. It’s not like American hyper consumption stops and everything else in the world stays the same, everybody’s being sustained by that economic engine, whether people like it or not. And there is Russia to consider: economic and military factors could both disrupt the Scandinavian Dream. Norway is another Saudi Arabia, and that’s a rich prize with very little protection. They better hope that solar panels and electric cars make the oil worthless long-term before Putin gets bored.
The American system is breaking: too many poor, angry people, and a swamp in Washington DC that just flooded every main street in America with troops. Something new forms in its place: hopefully the same Constitution or a better one, but that’s not the level of this situation we can see from here: it’s breaking economically, and the social contract, such as it is, is going down the toilet.
But the brave and the willing are going to continue to have kids. Parents are the economic engine: they’ll do anything for their kids, and that’s what capitalism depends on. Everybody’s kids are being held hostage by the economy: if you don’t work hard, if you are unlucky, your kids will have crappy lives. That’s the big stick which is hidden inside every handshake. Make it work or your kids will pay.
People are talking social contracts again, and we need a new one: how’s this for a start.
We’re going to stop holding each-other’s kids hostage.
Section four: destiny and commerce
Colonialism was two parts destiny to one part commerce. That destiny was in its turn made of two parts: a religious faith, Christianity, as the engine of absolution as conquest ravaged the earth and the blood flowed. The other component was Progress, the scientific and engineering conquest of poverty. The three together formed an enormously powerful extractive engine which ran directly on the willingness of parents to do whatever it takes for their kids, including turning a blind eye to why everything from abroad is so cheap. Profit, Protestantism, Progress, if you like. The predestined road to hell is paved with good intentions.
But this three part engine was The Bomb, literally. Profit, Protestantism, and Progress formed a mighty tripod: Profit was the why, Protestantism removed the guilt from expansionist wars, and Progress provided the tools and clear, permanent improvements in standards of living through advances in basic hygiene, transportation, energy and a million and one other things, most of all, medicine. How could this bloody engine of progress be anything other than god’s grace manifest on earth? Nothing else seemed to be happening. The world was moving at a crawl, apart from this fearsome engine just chewing apart the old world and remaking it in a new image, a new age of man. Toilets and vaccines and rivers of food: this was manifest destiny, people thought. Slaughter the natives, take the gold, built the lab, cure the diseases of the natives, and convert them away from their heathen religions to a nice, clean, scientific Christianity at the same time.
The whole thing makes a kind of obscene sense, which is basically how the Victorians were able to con themselves into invading 150 countries and still thought of themselves as the Good Guys.
No culture has ever performed greater military feats, or feats of mental gymnastics to justify their violent rampage. As the joke went, God gave the English an Empire on which the sun never set (literally true — land in every timezone!) because he simply could not trust them in the dark. The Americans were no better, they just had more land and so tended to keep the violent adventurism separate from their boating habits.
So this is broadly the “moral engine” which built the modern world. It’s a sort of unholy trinity, an assemblage, a war machine. It’s rolled through time consuming everything in its path, and laying down a paved road called modernity behind it. It’s taken us 200 years since the Abolitionists got started to actually begin to dismantle the intellectual and moral edifice which enabled slavery, and colonialism (mostly through multinational companies) continues unabated and unchallenged: where was your phone or laptop made anyway? Did those people have a union? The intellectual edifices are barely scratched: layers of titanium around impregnable self interest.
But in spite of all this, the machine stops. What’s happening in America isn’t just “the Americans are rioting.” It’s a near-bankrupt superpower filled with overflowing ethnic tensions, lead by a fascist who might well enjoy becoming a dictator, crushing dissent with troops in the streets, with volatile internet militias in Hawaiian shirts trying to decide whether they’re standing with the cops and the President (boring) or whether they really are agents of chaos preparing to stand with the people: the Fat Weird Line. Who do the Boogaloo lads dislike more: authority figures, or people of colour? I suspect many of them are quite torn about this.
Obviously this entire situation is just bullshit right, we all know this. The elites are sacking Rome themselves, selling out America to anybody who will buy, turning the Federal government into their own personal ATM machine, and screw the people, screw the future, and screw the long term national interest. Because their personal show is crashing, because they made too many promises and too many enemies on the way up, and now that things are getting tight they have too much to lose to let a little thing like The Law get in the way.
The People are trapped up against globalisation, climate change, and the death of the American dream. The elites are trapped between The People and all the bullshit and lies and bribes and blind eyes they turned to get where they are today. And the rubber cheques written by the elites to each-other and to us are bouncing sky high. It is over.
We better find a new way forwards, or the future is going to look like the Renaissance running in reverse, as beautiful layer by beautiful layer of western civilisation is stripped away and replaced by dumb, ignorant, ugly feudalism. It’s going to be a car crash which makes the Fall of Rome look like the invasion of Grenada. I don’t want to see that. You don’t want to see that. Your kids don’t want to see that.
People are starting to talk about the social contract again. A bad sign, it’s a garbage concept, and yet within it there is the seeds of an idea.
Here’s what I want to propose to you: I think we need a couple of structural, semantic changes to how we approach the business of running civilisation. Let’s call them reprioritizations, or insights. Little tweaks to give us some ways of stripping out the toxicity which is destroying our world and our culture, and gives us a shot as survival.
So first thing up is let’s look at this Profit, Protestantism, Progress thing. Most of the profit is world-destroying nonsense: oil companies, cow torture-murder farms that happen to emit beef, prisons of many kinds. This is all bullshit, and if government worked we would gradually raise taxes on all of this bullshit until alternatives evolved it fell out of civilization. We can’t do this because elite corruption prevents it, but bear with me: I’m talking about what we should do, and I’ll discuss how we get there presently. Profit: yes, but use taxation to shift filthy industries to clean ones, or else. Apply as much pressure over time as needed, as much as you can afford. It’s not that hard, they’re all paying tax anyways. Except the really big ones. We have to defeat the elites on this.
Protestantism: god is dead, there’s no Predestination, and the Catholic equivalent structure, Confession, stopped working after 1) we discovered psychotherapy, and 2) we discovered how many priests were fiddling with kids (to use the UK parlance.) So just as when we move out into our own apartment, we discover Your Mother Is Not Here and start to figure out why she was always so damn busy, we have to stop doing dumb, stupid, evil stuff just because we figure that God told somebody to do this and we’re still at it. In particular: the rape/torture/murder stuff which is so much a part of the colonialist trip is so often excused with ideas like the White Man’s Burden, or bringing people to Christianity so they don’t go to hell. It’s all lies, you can stop that now. If somebody does a bad, bad thing, their karma is fucked and that’s the end of it. There is no god that forgives the stuff that people do, and the recognition of that is the recognition of spiritual adulthood. There may be a God, but not one that picks up the tab for you like your mom did. We need to actually be good people now.
Progress. The key to it all. Progress on the current trajectory is no longer progress. Taking oil out of the ground and burning it was progress until 1950-something. After 1976’s oil shocks, oil was a stupid risk. After 1990s environmental awakening about global warming (yes, we’ve been worried that long, longer even) oil was a toxic habit, like smoking. In 2020 oil is like heroin: an addictive curse which is ripping our societies apart. We need a new model of what progress is, and this right here is the key.
We need to develop new objectives and aesthetics for progress.
Progress, right now, is just a mad rush of ugly engineering and ruthless evolutionary competition. Anything that can happen does happen, and some of it is profitable enough to get done again. There’s no design in progress, apart from occasional walled gardens like Apple where they take the long term vision super seriously and do great work towards that end. For the most part, we are going helter skelter, and anything which pays the bills and isn’t illegal yet is fair game: genetically engineered food butts up against eating insects butts up against “clean meat” butts up against impossible burgers, and it all sort of thrashes out in the market, and that’s all we do in terms of trying to steer progress, and that and some random government subsidies governed by bureaucrats in grey suits.
On the current trajectory, we’re on a road to nowhere. That can’t be progress.
So the UN lays out the Sustainable Development Goals. 17 priorities, because hey, that’s a round number right?
Designed by committee, self-contradictory, and without any actual unified idea of how things are going to get done. There’s no actual plan to reach these goals, there are no costed spreadsheets and draft legislation stuff. They’re working on it across ten thousand forums. It’s a grab-bag wish list of nice to haves, some of which are necessary to human survival, and some of which are just passing cultural fads. Needless to say, as a compromise product of the global elites, the SDGs are mired in quid-pro-quos two miles deep and sixty meters wide. Everything about them is filthy horse traded compromises, as bad as putting torture regimes on rights panels, a perennial UN favourite.
So what would the SDG goals look like done right? If we actually think clearly, rather than trying to gather support through an endless sequence of committees, what is the actual essential universal goal of human life that we can rally everybody around? How do we create a universal design language for working with the future, something which can allow people to come together around a table, in a new light, and solve cooperation problems which are currently insoluble. It’s not a list of 17 global todos.
We can either rebuild one disaster at a time, trying to unpick issue-by-issue, modifying existing legislation to be slightly less broken, like trying to glue a broken glass vase back together. It will take decades, time we do not have because of climate change. Or we can look at some radically different alternatives, and try to find political inspiration there.
How do we find a new framework to understand the present and change the future? I have an idea.
“We should stop exploiting each-other’s children and taking away their futures.”
Boom. Job done. That’s all there is, that’s all that’s necessary. Wasn’t that easy? Home in time for supper.
Think of the children. It’s such a cliche. But let’s think about it in terms of our ability to solve problems and work towards a better future for the world. How far can we get by putting children first? Just roll with this, we’ll do details later. If we just think in terms of what happens if we go about ensuring global child welfare, how do we do on the other global challenges?
You can look, situation by situation, rule by rule, law by law, and ask “am I harming these the children?” If the answer is yes, you don’t do that. The kids are profoundly collateral damage in the power struggles of the adults, and we’re using them like hostages all the time. But a cease fire could be arranged.
Giants like Monsanto pursue policies which drive farmers into suicide, and this is going to make their kids lives even worse. It’s not hard to draw a line between good and evil here: don’t make orphans, it infringes the human rights of the children, who are innocents in this situation and bear no moral responsibility for the actions of their parents. Thou shalt not harm a child for profit. They can’t consent to be ripped off, because they can’t sign contracts. Therefore standards of protection apply! It’s a simple logic that hangs together pretty well.
Civilisation in its deepest core is a pact between adults to make a better place to raise their children. There is no reason planetary civilisation could not work that way too.
Now, I’m not suggesting this as some hippiedippy “let’s put the children first” type nonsense. I’m not coming at this from an emotional place. I’m coming at this from a philosophical and legalistic place.
We need a different set of abstract principles for humans to make decisions: “is this profitable” and “is this legal” dominate the current landscape, and clearly that’s not enough because, well, look at the state of this place. Those principles do not work well enough on a planet of 8 billion people, where a million or three kids starve to death every year. The adults may be responsible for their poverty, from a neoliberal perspective, but the children cannot be responsible for their poverty. And from this, we can build some principles to protect them, and repair the damage we have done each-other and the world.
Let’s talk about basic income. Let’s have basic income, right now, globally if possible. Who gets paid? The kids. The adults, you can argue about welfare state policy, are they standing on their own feet enough and all of those questions, but bottom line is that no child should be so poor they can’t eat, because kids have a different set of inherent human rights. It’s not like you can blame them for gambling or drinking away their options. Likewise, they’re not responsible for they parents they were born to. All those nasty means testing social policy arguments should really go out the window right here: the kids should eat.
Let’s think about putting the rights of children at the heart of the redesign of industrial capitalism which is currently being triggered by the riots in America, the pandemic, and the global financial collapse.
It’s a simple thing: ratify the rights of the child, as beings that have no responsibilities for their living conditions. Create and ratify a duty of care, not just here and now, but also to protect planet for their future sustenance.
Let every child be fed. Let any attempt to interfere in the wellbeing of a child be treated as an act of war against the future of the species.
This is not hard to arrange conceptually: if there’s one thing that we human beings are wired for, it’s protecting our children. If we put this responsibility directly into our political thinking as a primary priority, backed by constitutional-type force, I think amazing things will happen to our world. I believe it’s a feasible cultural and legalistic structure: a Bill of Rights for children.
There is about to be an almighty crash of our old ways of seeing the world, of our old standards and values and methods. We have a chance for a profound rethink.
Nothing is straight, it’s all as crooked as a hawthorn tree.
Civilisation is the pact between adults to make a place to take better care of our children. There isn’t a person on earth that doesn’t want the world to be a better place for their kids. If we get that one thing right, we will with the rest of the fallout and still call our lives a success.
Rather than coming out of our period of crises clinging to the old political solutions as if they might work, we could try something new. We can stop, take a deep breath, and figure out what the rights of the child are and then use that absolutely clear new human rights framework to straighten out the rest of this global mess. You know the soul searching about America’s near miss with insurrection is going to be agonizing. Let’s see if we can’t turn that process to the good, in a profoundly new direction. Kids have Rights. Work out what they are, and the figure out how to enforce them.
Our existing political methods do not work: too shortsighted and too selfish. But we could put the rights of the child on the table as a new set of fundamental human rights, based on the needs of children and their non-responsibility for their own conditions, and our resulting duty of care. Kids are, after all, citizens.
But the children are not responsible for the way things are. We are responsible. We could use an explicit right framework for children as a way of forcing political and cultural change towards a better path human survival right here on this earth. We would have to acknowledge more clearly that children have rights beyond those of adults with self-determination.
I propose this as an alternative to any other pathway towards national and global political change.
It’s obvious that we need to overhaul things at a really fundamental level, and I think this approach opens up radically new moral territory without throwing out any of our pre-existing valuable human rights frameworks. It cuts far deeper into what is wrong with our society than any other approach I have been able to think of.
We can get all sides, black, white, conservative, liberal, around a table to discuss the fundamental rights of their children, and the duty of care that society owes people’s kids. Unpicking the current mess by working through the existing issues will take 40 years. We need a radically new approach to resolving our political differences, and this is it.
“What are the Rights of children?” is a conversation America knows how to have.
Appendix: a brief theory of the rights of the child
Worrying about the rights of children may seem like an odd place to start in a massive racial crisis coupled with an authoritarian power grab. But whatever trouble we face, the most vulnerable among us have it worst, and that is always the children. For all the problems that racism causes, the inability to get a decent education for your kids is one of the most painful for parents. How are we going to ensure that all the kids get a fair deal, not just today, but through the rest of their lives? It’s a better question than “how do we fix racism?” because it gets down to the core issues in a way which avoids the haggling about moral character which tends to pervade conversations about race involving adults. Why are people in the ghettos poor? Tough question. Why are the kids poor? Whatever it is, it’s not their fault, let’s just fix it. This is the direct approach. Same on the environment.
Human rights as they are conventionally constructed apply to adults. Where children are considered in rights frameworks, it is typically as an afterthought. This is a dread error because, in practice, everybody accords children a completely different set of rights to adults. Furthermore, in law (not Constitutional law, but the ordinary statues) children are considered differently in a plethora of ways. But we do not have much of a Constitutional framework for thinking about the rights of children separately from the (much more limited) rights of adults. Adults are able to do more, but they are inherently more responsible for their own actions, and less in need of constitutional protection.
What I’m suggesting is some broad outlines of a revised global constitutional framework around the rights of children. Not a single global law, but a commonly agreed framework that is useful in most places. We have pretty good implementations of the concept of “marriage” in almost all cultures: it’s not like you cross a national border and suddenly you’re no longer married. But it’s not as if marriage was defined by the UN and forced upon everybody either: a broad consensus had emerged.
Something like that, but for the rights of children.
We have, of course, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which is a pretty typical chunk of worthy UN legalese pointed at nation states and their lawyers. This is not what I think we need. What we need is a fit-for-purpose general understanding that we are going to do our agonising reappraisal of what is wrong with our societies which leads to the current horrific mess using the rights of children as a conceptual tool for thinking through what comes next and choosing less evil ways of going forwards. For that we need simple, flexible, clear general principles, not UN legalese.
The analysis of children as a completely separate category of beings from adults, with a fundamentally different set of human rights, seems distinctly under-explored at a philosophical and legal level. But it’s probably the leverage that we need for the stern environmental regulation we are going to need to mend our ways, given that the children will be the ones living in this world the longest.
So let me pull out five principles which I think are useful frameworks for this kind of analysis.
- Children are inheritors of a set of global commons, including the atmosphere, the oceans, and humanity’s common knowledge base. Any child has a right to legally claim and defend these global commons which are their birthright.
this right equally well applies to adults, but given the kids will be around a lot longer than any adult, and that they have no other property, this seems important to establish first.
- Children ordinarily have no moral status: they are not good or evil, and their rights and privileges cannot be bound to a concept of moral reward. That is to say, concepts of “deservingness” which are typically applied when considering state aid to adults cannot be applied to children. Children just are.
This makes children an excellent place to test concepts around basic income, for example. Why would one means-test benefits which flow directly to a child or their guardians?
- Children have the right to inherit the basic operating machinery of the world (i.e. the carbon and water cycles) in an operable form.
Self explanatory. May also apply to disease management in some areas, deforestation and similar geographically-located natural assets are harder to put rights to. This is an extremely powerful principle. It’s slightly different from the “global commons” principle because it’s explicitly about processes, not property. I’ll get further into that distinction in a future piece.
- Children have the right not to be constrained by the peculiarities of their culture. They should have the right to make up their own minds about the nature of reality, without constraint of the culture they find themselves in. This is to say, adults should not have the right to impose their beliefs on children by force, coercion, or infliction of ignorance by hiding or forbidding common knowledge.
Mainly targeted at political and religious indoctrination. Again, extremely powerful.
- Children are the fundamental priority of the human species, generation after generation, for millions of years. They should have the right to priority in resource allocation decisions by virtue of the fact that they are helpless to earn their own resources, vote, or otherwise lobby for their own best interests.
No aircraft carriers get budgeted until the schools are pretty much as good as they can get. Without votes, children’s rights have to be more protected than the rights of adults. They don’t have the same access to legal machinery to pressure government to represent their interests, so their interests have to be enshrined at a deeper level than the rights of adults: constitutionally.
Now, I am not a constitutional scholar. Also I don’t even have kids, which makes it a little easier to be romantic about the little bastards: no parent could write this and not be sentimental about it. What I am is a moral and philosophical pragmatist, and we need a completely new language for political debate if we are going to dig ourselves out of the hole that we have gotten ourselves in here, globally. Everybody knows we are screwing everything up, and most especially, we are stealing the future from our children in so many ways.
Whether it is national debt or climate change, we are piling up unsustainable obligations to the sky knowing that the children will be the taxpayers who pay, and the ones that suffer.
What we need is a movement akin to feminism, but which fights for the rights of the child in and of themselves. I’m not the man to start such a movement (maybe ask Greta Thunberg) but I am very clear that this approach has never been tried, and I think we need a new perspective like this to cut through our tired, sordid old political debates in which limits are set only by a some very old models of human rights, from a time when children were seen and not heard, and often disciplined extremely harshly without a second’s thought.
In short, our global rights frameworks do not adequately protect the rights of the child, and I think a model based on the rights of children would be a thousand times clearer than the SDGs, easier to apply, easier to get engagement with, and cover about half of the same territory the SDG goals do: we need both, but nobody can apply the SDGs to common every-day problem solving.
It’s very hard to get adults to reason properly about the human rights of other adults, because we always tend to say “well, their conditions are their fault.” Lot of black people wind up in jail? “That’s either bad policing, or bad behavior, or both” says the adult analysis. “Lot of black children are getting substandard educations” well, this is clearly not their fault. You can say their parents are responsible, and basically abandon these kids to the mercy of their environment, whatever random spot they were born in, or you can say “the children have fundamental rights as children and these rights require us to act on their behalf as a society” and, for example, really seriously invest in and fix education. You see what I’m saying? We can get leverage on issues like race in America by using the human rights of children, free from moral responsibility for their fates, as a universal standard by which to measure our obligations. The same kind of logic applies to the environment: “is this commons being handed over to the children, its future owners, intact, or is it being degraded in a manner that violates their rights.” That gets you concepts like natural parks protection from fracking etc. very nicely.
In short, making the rights of children fully explicit, and enshrining them in our legal systems may be the shortest path forwards to creating a world in which we, as adults, are also protected. But the children first: none of this is their fault, and they should be protected as best we can.
And a rights framework for children, something simple, reasonably universal, clear and easy to work with is certainly possible. We can do this.
We hold the following to be self-evident, that every man, woman, and child is born with certain inalienable rights…
You’ll have to fill in the rest yourselves. I look forwards to a lively debate.
What should the rights of the child be?
He does not have children.