Archive for the ‘Consumerism’ Category

I’ve quoted Caitlin Johnstone numerous times, usually her clever aphorisms. Her takes on geopolitics also ring fundamentally true to me, but then, I find it simple and obvious to be against empire, needless war, and wanton destruction just as she is. That’s not the position of most warmongers important decision makers driving cultural and political narratives, who are reflexively imperial, excited by war, self-aggrandizing, and reckless in their pursuits no matter who suffers (it’s rarely them). Anyway, I had not checked her blog for a while, which for me is too much like staring at the sun. Indeed, that same reason is why I stopped reading TomDispatch and have mostly backed away from Bracing Views. Geopolitics is just too ugly, too incoherent, too raving insane to be believed. However, these paragraphs (from here) caught my attention:

Humanity’s major problems arise from the impulse to control. Ecocide arises from the impulse to control nature. Empire arises from the impulse to control civilizations. Oligarchy arises from the impulse to control political outcomes. Ego arises from the impulse to control life.

A healthy humanity would be free of the impulse to manipulate and exert control: over life, over people, over nature. But it would be so different from the humanity we know now that falling into that way of functioning would be a kind of death. And it would feel like a death.

Sometimes it seems like people want the world to end, want humanity to go extinct. I’d suggest that this may be a confused expression of an intuited truth: that there’s something good on the other side of ending all this. But it’s the end of our dysfunction, not of our species.

I initially misread the first sentence as “Humanity’s major problems arise from lack of impulse control.” Self-restraint (also self-abnegation?) is the quality I find most lacking in everyone, especially our species-level consumption, whether for nourishment, enrichment, or meaningless status. Writ large, we just can’t seem to stop our gluttony, or put another way, suffer the inability to recognize when enough is enough. Johnstone’s remarks that giving up control feels like death echo others who have described the leaders of industrial civilization, politicians and corporate CEOs alike, as members of a global death cult driving everyone ineluctably toward early extinction. While safety, security, and profit are ostensible near-term goals, mechanisms developed to achieve those goals involve no small amount of death dealing. And because civilizational dynamics (observed many times over by those who study such things) demonstrate ebb and flow over time (centuries and millennia) — e.g., the inevitable collapse of industrial civilization and knowing destruction of the planet (specifically, the biosphere habitable by humans and other species) — the willingness to pursue and perpetuate a destructive way of life is maniacal and insane. Whereas Johnstone believes giving up (illusory) control passes as eventual release from earthly torments or at least an opportunity to create something smarter, wiser, and perhaps more restrained than the outright energy binge we’ve been on for the past two centuries, my expectation is that self-annihilation will be total and complete. No one gets out alive; there is nothing beyond.

Here’s a deal many people would take: you get to live in the First World and enjoy the ample albeit temporary benefits of a modern, post-industrial economy, but to enable you, people in the Third World must be brutally exploited, mostly out of sight and out of mind. (Dunno what to say about the Second World; comparisons are typically hi-lo. And besides, that Cold War nomenclature is probably badly out of date.) There no need to say “would take,” of course, because that’s already the default in the First World. Increasingly, that’s also the raw deal experienced by the lower/working class in the United States, which now resembles other failed states. People without means are driven into cycles of poverty or channeled into the prison-industrial complex to labor for a pittance. That’s not enough, though. The entirety of public health must be gamed as a profit center for Big Pharma, which wrings profit out of suffering just like the U.S. prison system. That’s one of the principal takeaways from the last two years of pandemic. Indeed, from a capitalist perspective, that’s what people are for: to feed the beast (i.e., produce profit for the ownership class). For this very reason — the inhumanity of exploiting and subjugating people — critics of capitalism believe the ruthlessness of the profit motive cannot be tempered and the economic system is ripe for replacement.

Arguments that, “yeah, sure, it’s a flawed system but it’s still the best one on offer” are unconvincing. Rather, they’re a rationalization for lack of imagination how a better, more equitable system might be developed and tried. Human nature, frankly as “animal” as any other animal, also discourages anyone from rising above social conditioning or breaking from the herd. Instead, history forces fundamental change only when decrepit systems no longer function. Late-stage capitalism, having reached nearly the full extent of easily exploitable resources (materials and labor), is creaking and groaning under the weight of its inbuilt perpetual growth imperative. The dynamic is nonnegotiable, as measures of gross national product (GNP) are only acceptable if a positive index, the higher the better. Whereas previous social/economic systems failed in fits and starts, transitioning gradually from one to the next, it’s doubtful capitalism can morph gracefully into a new system given its momentum and totalizing character.

For many millennia, slavery was the solution to labor needs, which became morally intolerable especially in the 19th century but was really only driven underground, never truly extinguished. That’s the point of the first paragraph above. Terminology and mechanisms have sometimes been swapped out, but the end result is scarcely less disagreeable for those on the bottom rungs. Globalization brought practically the entire world population into the money economy, which had been irrelevant to peasant and subsistence societies. Apologists often say that the spread of capitalism enabled those peoples to be lifted out of poverty. That’s a ridiculous claim while wealth/income inequality continues to launch the ultrarich into the stratosphere (literally in the infamous case of at least a couple billionaires) compared to the masses. Yes, refrigerators and cell phones are now commonplace, but those are hardly the best measures of human wellbeing.

So what’s person of conscience to do? Born into a socioeconomic system from which there is no escape — at least until it all collapses — is there any way not to be evil, to not exploit others? Hard to say, considering we all consume (in varying degrees) products and services obtained and provided through the machinations of large corporations exploiting humans and nature on our behalf. When it all does collapse in a heap of death and destruction, don’t look for high-minded reexamination of the dynamics that led to that endgame. Rather, it will be everyone for themselves in a futile attempt to preserve life against all odds.

After a hiatus due to health issues, Jordan Peterson has reappeared in the public sphere. Good for him. I find him one of the most stimulating public intellectuals to appear thus far into the 21st century, though several others (unnamed) spring to mind who have a stronger claims on my attention. Yet I’m wary of Peterson as an effective evaluator of every development coughed up for public consideration. It’s simply not necessary or warranted for him to opine recklessly about every last damn thing. (Other podcasters are doing the same, and although I don’t want to instruct anyone to stay in their lane, I also recognize that Joe “Talkity-Talk” Blow’s hot take or rehash on this, that, and every other thing really isn’t worth my time.) With the inordinate volume of text in his books, video on his YouTube channel (classroom lectures, podcasts, interviews) and as a guest on others’ podcasts, and third-party writing about him (like mine), it’s inevitable that Peterson will run afoul of far better analysis than he himself can bring to bear. However, he declares his opinions forcefully and with overbearing confidence then decamps to obfuscation and reframing whenever someone pushes back effectively (which isn’t often, at least when in direct communication). With exasperation, I observe that he’s basically up to his old rhetorical tricks.

In a wide-ranging discussion on The Joe Rogan Experience from January 2022 (found exclusively on Spotify for anyone somehow unaware of Rogan’s influence in the public sphere), the thing that most irked me was Peterson’s take on the climate emergency. He described climate as too complex, with too many variable and unknowns, to embody in scientific models over extended periods of time. Seems to me Peterson has that entirely backwards. Weather (and extreme weather events) on the short term can’t be predicted too accurately, so daily/weekly/monthly forecasts give wide ranges of, say, cloud cover, temperature, and precipitation. But over substantial time (let’s start with a few decades, which is still a blink in geological time), trends and boundaries reveal themselves pretty reliably, which is why disturbances — such as burning enough fossil fuels to alter the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere — that upset the climate steady-state known as Garden Earth are not merely cause for serious concern but harbingers of doom. And then, as others often do, Peterson reframed the climate emergency largely in terms of economics (same thing happened with the pandemic, though not by Peterson so far as I know), suggesting that the problem is characterized by inefficiencies and grass-roots policy that would be magically different if more people were raised out of poverty and could advocate for solutions rather than simply struggle to survive. Dude apparently hasn’t grasped that wealth in the modern world is an outgrowth of the very thing — fossil fuels — that is the root of the problem. Further, industrial civilization is a heat engine that binds us to a warming trend. That’s a thermodynamic principle flatly immune to half-baked economic theories and ecological advocacy. Peterson also gives no indication of ever having acknowledged Jevons Paradox.

So let me state somewhat emphatically: the climate emergency is in fact an existential crisis on several fronts (e.g., resource depletion and scarcity, ecological despoliation, extreme weather events, and loss of habitat, all resulting in civilizational collapse). The rate of species extinction — before human population has begun to collapse in earnest, 8 Billion Day looms near — is several orders of magnitude greater than historical examples. Humans are unlikely to survive to the end of the century even if we refrain from blowing ourselves up over pointless geopolitical squabbles. I’ll defer to Peterson in his area of expertise: personality inventories. I’ll also grant him space to explore myth and symbolism in Western culture. But speaking on climate, he sounds like an ignoramus — the dangerous sort who leads others astray. And when challenged by someone armed with knowledge of governing principles, grasp of detail, and thus analysis superior to what he can muster (such as when debating Richard Wolff about Marxism), Peterson frequently resorts to a series of motte-and-bailey assertions that confound inexpert interlocutors. “Well, that depends on what you mean by ….” His retreat to faux safety is sometimes so astonishingly complete that he resorts to questioning the foundation of reality: “Why the sun? Why this sky? Why these stars? Why not something else completely?” Also, Peterson’s penchant for pointing out that the future is contingent and unknown despite, for instance, all indicators positively screaming to stop destroying our own habitat, as though no predictions or models can be made that have more than a whisper of accuracy in future outcomes, is mere rhetoric to forestall losing an argument.

As I’ve asserted repeatedly, sufficiency is the crucible on which all decisions are formed because earnest information gathering cannot persist interminably. Tipping points (ecological ones, sure, but more importantly, psychological ones) actually exist, where one must act despite incomplete knowledge and unclear prognosis. Accordingly, every decision is on some level a leap into the unknown and/or an act of faith. That doesn’t mean every decision is a wild, reckless foray based on nothing. Rather, when the propitious moment arrives (if one has the wherewithal to recognize it), one has to go with what one’s got, knowing that mistakes will be made and corrections will be needed.

Peterson’s improvisational speaking style is both impressive and inscrutable. I’m sometimes reminded of Marshall McLuhan, whose purported Asperger’s Syndrome (low-grade autism, perhaps, I’m unsure) awarded him unique insights into the emerging field of media theory that were not easily distilled in speech. Greta Thunberg is another more recent public figure whose cognitive character allows her to recognize rather acutely how human institutions have completely botched the job of keeping industrial civilization from consuming itself. Indeed, people from many diverse backgrounds, not hemmed in by the rigid dictates of politics, economics, and science, intuit through diverse ways of knowing (e.g., kinesthetic, aesthetic, artistic, religious, psychedelic) what I’ve written about repeatedly under the title “Life Out of Balance.” I’ve begun to understand Peterson as a mystic overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of existence but simultaneously horrified by unspeakably awful evils humans perpetrate on each other. Glimpses of both (and humor, a bit unexpectedly) often provoke cracks in his voice, sniffles, and tears as he speaks, clearly choking back emotions to keep his composure. Peterson’s essential message (if I can be so bold), like other mystics, is aspirational, transcendental, and charismatic. Such messages are impossible to express fully and are frankly ill-suited to 21st-century Western culture. That we’re severely out of balance, unable to regain an upright and righteous orientation, is plain to nearly everyone not already lost in the thrall of mass media and social media, but so long as the dominant culture remains preoccupied with wealth, consumption, celebrity, geopolitical violence, spectacle, and trash entertainment, I can’t envision any sort of return to piety and self-restraint. Plus, we can’t outrun the climate emergency bearing down on us.

/rant on

The ongoing epistemological crisis is getting no aid or relief from the chattering classes. Case in point: the Feb. 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine has a special supplement devoted to “Life after Trump,” which divides recent history neatly into reality and unreality commencing from either the announcement of Trump’s candidacy, his unexpected success in the Republican primaries, his even less expected election (and inauguration), or now his removal from office following electoral defeat in Nov. 2020. Take your pick which signals the greatest deflection from history’s “proper” course before being derailed into a false trajectory. Charles Yu and Olivia Laing adopt the reality/unreality dichotomy in their contributions to the special supplement. Yu divides (as do many others) the nation into us and them: supporters of a supposed departure from reality/sanity and those whose clear perception penetrates the illusion. Laing bemoans the inability to distinguish fiction and fantasy from truth, unreality masquerading as your truth, my truth, anyone’s truth given repetition and persuasion sufficient to make it stick. Despite familiarity with these forced, unoriginal metaphors, I don’t believe them for a moment. Worse, they do more to encourage siloed thinking and congratulate the “Resistance” for being on the putative correct side of the glaringly obvious schism in the voting populace. Their arguments support a false binary, perpetuating and reinforcing a distorted and decidedly unhelpful interpretation of recent history. Much better analyses than theirs are available.

So let me state emphatically: like the universe, infinity, and oddly enough consciousness, reality is all-encompassing and unitary. Sure, different aspects can be examined separately, but the whole is nonetheless indivisible. Reality is a complete surround, not something one can opt into or out of. That doesn’t mean one’s mind can’t go elsewhere, either temporarily or permanently, but that does not create or constitute an alternate reality. It’s merely dissociation. Considering the rather extreme limitations of human perceptual apparatuses, it’s frankly inevitable that each of us occupies a unique position, an individual perspective, within a much, much (much, much …) larger reality. Add just a couple more axes to the graph below for time (from nanoseconds to eons) and physical scale (from subatomic to cosmic), and the available portion of reality anyone can grasp is clearly infinitesimally small, yet that tiny, tiny portion is utterly everything for each individual. It’s a weird kind of solipsism.

I get that Harper’s is a literary magazine and that writers/contributors take advantage of the opportunity to flex for whatever diminishing readership has the patience to actually finish their articles. Indeed, in the course of the special supplement, more than a few felicitous concepts and turns of phase appeared. However, despite commonplace protestations, the new chief executive at the helm of the ship of state has not in fact returned the American scene to normal reality after an awful but limited interregnum.

Aside: Citizens are asked to swallow the whopper that the current president, an elder statesman, the so-called leader of the free world, is in full control of this faculties. Funny how his handlers repeatedly erupt like a murder of crows at the first suggestion that a difficult, unvetted question might be posed, inviting the poor fellow to veer even slightly off the teleprompter script. Nope. Lest yet another foot-in-mouth PR disaster occur (too many already to count), he’s whisked away, out of range of cameras and mics before any lasting damage can be done. Everyone is supposed to pretend this charade is somehow normal. On the other hand, considering how many past presidents were plainly puppets, spokespersons, or charlatans (or at least denied the opportunity to enact an agenda), one could argue that the façade is normal. “Pay no attention to the man [or men] behind the curtain. I am the great and powerful Wizard of Oz!”

With some dismay, I admit that the tiny sliver of reality to which many attend incessantly is an even smaller subset of reality, served up via small, handheld devices that fit neatly in one’s pocket. One could say theirs is a pocket reality, mostly mass media controlled by Silicon Valley platforms and their censorious algorithms. Constrained by all things digital, and despite voluminous ephemera, that reality bears little resemblance to what digital refuseniks experience without the blue glare of screens washing all the color from their faces and their own authentic thoughts out of their heads. Instead, I recommend getting outside, into the open air and under the warm glow of the yellow sun, to experience life as an embodied being, not as a mere processor of yet someone else’s pocket reality. That’s how we all start out as children before getting sucked into the machine.

Weirdly, only when the screen size ramps up to 30 feet tall do consumers grow skeptical and critical of storytelling. At just the moment cinema audiences are invited to suspend disbelief, the Reality Principle and logic are applied to character, dialogue, plotting, and make-believe gadgetry, which often fail to ring true. Why does fiction come under such careful scrutiny while reality skates right on by, allowing the credulous to believe whatever they’re fed?

/rant off

With each successive election cycle, I become more cynical (how is that even possible?) about the candidates and their supposed earnest mission to actually serve the public interest. The last couple cycles have produced a new meme that attempts to shift blame for poor governance to the masses: the low-information voter. Ironically, considering the fact that airwaves, magazines, books, public addresses, online venues, and even dinner conversations (such as they still exist if diners aren’t face-planted in their screens) are positively awash in political commentary and pointless debate and strategizing, there is no lack of information available. However, being buried under a déluge of information is akin to a defense attorney hiding damning discovery in an ocean of irrelevance, so I have some sympathy for voters who are thwarted in attempts to make even modestly informed decisions about political issues.

Multiply this basic relationship across many facets of ordinary life and the end result is the low-information citizen (also low-information consumer). Some parties (largely sellers of things, including ideas) possess a profusion of information, whereas useful, actionable information is hidden from the citizen/consumer by an information avalanche. For example, onerous terms of an insurance contract, debt instrument, liability waiver, or even routine license agreement are almost never read prior to signing or otherwise consenting; the acronym tl;dr (stands for “too long; didn’t read”) applies. In other situations, information is withheld entirely, such as pricing comparisons one might undertake if high-pressure sales tactics were not deployed to force potential buyers in decisions right here, right now, dammit! Or citizens are disempowered from exercising any critical judgment by erecting secrecy around a subject, national security being the utility excuse for everything the government doesn’t want people to know.

Add to this the concerted effort (plain enough to see if one bothers to look) to keep the population uneducated, without options and alternatives, scrambling just to get through the day/week/month (handily blocking information gathering), and thus trapped in a condition of low information. Such downward pressure (survival pressure, one might say when considering the burgeoning homeless population) is affecting a greater portion of the population than ever. The American Dream that energized and buoyed the lives of many generations of people (including immigrants) has morphed into the American Nightmare. Weirdly, the immigrant influx has not abated but rather intensified. However, I consider most of those folks (political, economic, and ecological) refugees, not immigrants.

So those are the options available to powers players, where knowledge is power: (1) withhold information, (2) if information can’t be withheld, then bury it as a proverbial needle in a haystack, and (3) render a large percentage of the public unable to process and evaluate information by keeping them undereducated. Oh, here’s another: (4) produce a mountain of mis- and disinformation that bewilders everyone. This last one is arguably the same as (2) except that the intent is propaganda or psyop. One could also argue that miseducating the public (e.g., various grievance studies blown into critical race theory now being taught throughout the educational system) is the same as undereducating. Again, intent matters. Turning someone’s head and radicalizing them with a highly specialized toolkit (mostly rhetorical) for destabilizing social relations is tantamount to making them completely deranged (if not merely bewildered).

These are elements of the ongoing epistemological crisis I’ve been observing for some time now, with the side effect of a quick descent into social madness being used to justify authoritarian (read: fascist) concentration of power and rollback of individual rights and freedoms. The trending term sensemaking also applies, referring to reality checks needed to keep oneself aligned with truth, which is not the same as consensus. Groups are forming up precisely for that purpose, centered on evidentiary rigor as well as skepticism toward the obvious disinformation issuing from government agencies and journalists who shape information according to rather transparent brazen agendas. I won’t point to any particular trusted source but instead recommend everyone do their best (no passivity!) to keep their wits about them and think for themselves. Not an easy task when the information environment is so thoroughly polluted — one might even say weaponized — that it requires special workarounds to navigate effectively.

Watched Soylent Green (1973) a few days ago for the first time since boyhood. The movie is based on a book by Richard Fleischer (which I haven’t read) and oddly enough has not yet been remade. How to categorize the film within familiar genres is tricky. Science fiction? Disaster? Dystopia? Police procedural? It checks all those boxes. Chief messages, considering its early 70s origin, are pollution and overpopulation, though global warming is also mentioned less pressingly. The opening montage looks surprisingly like what Godfrey Reggio did much better with Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

Soylent Green is set in 2022 — only a few months away now but a relatively remote future in 1973 — and the Earth is badly overpopulated, environmentally degraded, overheated, and struggling to support teeming billions mostly jammed into cities. Details are sketchy, and only old people can remember a time when the biosphere remained intact; whatever disaster had occurred was already long ago. Science fiction and futuristic films are often judged improperly by how correct prophecies turn out in reality, as though enjoyment were based on fidelity to reality. Soylent Green fares well in that respect despite its clunky, dated, 70s production design. Vehicles, computer screens, phones, wardrobe, and décor are all, shall we say, quaintly vintage. But consider this: had collapse occurred in the 70s, who’s to say that cellphones, flat screens, and the Internet would ever have been developed? Maybe the U.S. (and the world) would have been stalled in the 70s much the way Cuba is stuck in the 50s (when the monumentally dumb, ongoing U.S. embargo commenced).

The film’s star is Charlton Heston, who had established himself as a handsomely bankable lead in science fiction, disaster, and dystopian films (e.g., The Omega Man and The Planet of the Apes series). Though serviceable, his portrayal is remarkably plain, revealing Heston as a poor man’s Sean Connery or John Wayne (both far more charismatic contemporaries of Heston’s even in lousy films). In Soylent Green, Heston plays Detective Robert Thorn, though he’s mostly called “Thorn” onscreen. Other characters below the age of 65 or so also go by only one name. They all grew up after real foodstuffs (the titular Soylent Green being a synthetic wafer reputedly made out of plankton — the most palatable of three colors) and creature comforts became exceedingly scarce and expensive. Oldsters are given the respect of first and last names. Thorn investigates the assassination of a high-ranking industrialist to its well-known conspiratorial conclusion (hardly a spoiler anymore) in that iconic line at the very end of the film: “Soylent Green is people!” Seems industrialists, to keep people fed, are making food of human corpses. That eventual revelation drives the investigation and the film forward, a device far tamer than today’s amped up action thrillers where, for instance, a mere snap of the fingers can magically wipe out or restore half of the universe. Once the truth is proclaimed by Thorn (after first being teased whispered into a couple ears), the movie ends rather abruptly. That’s also what makes it a police procedural set in a disastrous, dystopic, science-fiction future stuck distinctively in the past: once the crime/riddle is solved, the story and film are over with no dénouement whatsoever.

Some of the details of the film, entirely pedestrian to modern audiences, are modestly enjoyable throwbacks. For instance, today’s penchant for memes and slang renaming of commonplace things is employed in Soylent Green. The catchphrase “Tuesday is Soylent Green Day” appears but is not overdriven. A jar of strawberries costs “150D,” which I first thought might be future currency in the form of debits or demerits but is probably just short for dollars. Front end loaders used for crowd control are called “scoops.” High-end apartment building rentals come furnished with live-in girls (prostitutes or gold-diggers, really) known as Furniture Girls. OTOH, decidedly 70s-era trash trucks (design hasn’t really changed much) are not emblazoned with the corporate name or logo of the Soylent Corporation (why not?). Similarly, (1) dressing the proles in dull, gray work clothes and brimless caps, (2) having them sleep on stairways or church refuges piled on top of each other so that characters have to step gingerly through them, (3) being so crammed together in protest when the Tuesday ration of Soylent Green runs short that they can’t avoid the scoops, (4) dripped blood clearly made of thick, oversaturated paint (at least on the DVD), and (5) a sepia haze covering daytime outdoor scenes are fairly lazy nods to world building on a low budget. None of this is particularly high-concept filmmaking, though the restraint is appreciated. The sole meme (entirely unprepared) that should have been better deployed is “going home,” a euphemism for reporting voluntarily to a processing plant (into Soylent Green, of course) at the end of one’s suffering life. Those who volunteer are shown 30 minutes of scenes, projected on a 360-degree theater that envelops the viewer, depicting the beauty and grandeur of nature before it had disappeared. This final grace offered to people (rather needlessly) serves the environmental message of the film well and could have been “driven home” a bit harder.

Like other aspects of the film’s back story, how agriculture systems collapsed is largely omitted. Perhaps such details (conjecture) are in the book. The film suggests persistent heat (no seasons), and accordingly, character are made to look like they never stop sweating. Scientific projections of how global warming will manifest do in fact point to hothouse Earth, though seasons will still occur in temperate latitudes. Because such changes normally occur in geological time, it’s an exceedingly slow process compared to human history and activity. Expert inquiry into the subject prophesied long ago that human activity would trigger and accelerate the transition. How long it will take is still unknown, but industrial civilization is definitely on that trajectory and human have done little since the 70s to curb self-destructive appetites or behaviors — except of course talk, which in the end is just more hot air. Moreover, dystopian science fiction has shifted over the decades away from self-recrimination to a long, seemingly endless stream of superheros fighting crime (and sometimes aliens). Considering film is entertainment meant to be enjoyed, the self-serious messages embedded in so many 70s-era disaster films warning us of human hubris are out of fashion. Instead, superpowers and supersuits rule cinema, transforming formerly uplifting science-fiction properties such as Star Trek into hypermilitaristic stories of interstellar social collapse. Soylent Green is a grim reminder that we once knew better, even in our entertainments.

Guy McPherson used to say in his presentations that we’re all born into bondage, meaning that there is no escape from Western civilization and its imperatives, including especially participation in the money economy. The oblique reference to chattel slavery is clumsy, perhaps, but the point is nonetheless clear. For all but a very few, civilization functions like Tolkien’s One Ring, bringing everyone ineluctably under its dominion. Enlightenment cheerleaders celebrate that circumstance and the undisputed material and technological (same thing, really) bounties of the industrial age, but Counter-Enlightenment thinkers recognize reasons for profound discontent. Having blogged at intervals about the emerging Counter-Enlightenment and what’s missing from modern technocratic society, my gnawing guilt by virtue of forced participation in the planet-killing enterprise of industrial civilization is growing intolerable. Skipping past the conclusion drawn by many doomers that collapse and ecocide due to unrestrained human consumption of resources (and the waste stream that follows) have already launched a mass extinction that will extirpate most species (including large mammals such as humans), let me focus instead on gross dysfunction occurring at levels falling more readily within human control.

An Empire of War

Long overdue U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has already yielded Taliban resurgence, which was a foregone conclusion at whatever point U.S. troops left (and before them, Soviets). After all, the Taliban lives there and had only to wait. Distasteful and inhumane as it may be to Westerners, a powerful faction (religious fanatics) truly wants to live under a 7th-century style of patriarchy. Considering how long the U.S. occupied the country, a new generation of wannabe patriarchs came to adulthood — an unbroken intergenerational descent. Of course, the U.S. (and others) keeps arming them. Indeed, I heard that the U.S. military is considering bombing raids to destroy the war machines left behind as positions were so swiftly abandoned. Oops, too late! This is the handiest example how failed U.S. military escapades extending over decades net nothing of value to anyone besides weapons and ordnance manufacturers and miserable careerists within various government branches and agencies. The costs (e.g., money, lives, honor, sanity) are incalculable and spread with each country where the American Empire engages. Indeed, the military-industrial complex chooses intervention and war over peace at nearly every opportunity (though careful not to poke them bears too hard). And although the American public’s inability to affect policy (unlike the Vietnam War era) doesn’t equate with participation, the notion that it’s a government of the people deposits some of the blame on our heads anyway. My frustration is that nothing is learned and the same war crimes mistakes keep being committed by maniacs who ought to know better.

Crony and Vulture Capitalism

Critics of capitalism are being proven correct far more often than are apologists and earnest capitalists. The two subcategories I most deplore are crony capitalism and vulture capitalism, both of which typically accrue to the benefit of those in no real need of financial assistance. Crony capitalism is deeply embedded within our political system and tilts the economic playing field heavily in favor of those willing to both pay for and grant favors rather than let markets sort themselves out. Vulture capitalism extracts value out of dead hosts vulnerable resource pools by attacking and often killing them off (e.g., Microsoft, Walmart, Amazon), or more charitably, absorbing them to create monopolies, often by hostile takeover at steep discounts. Distressed mortgage holders forced into short sales, default, and eviction is the contemporary example. Rationalizing predatory behavior as competition is deployed regularly.

Other historical economic systems had similarly skewed hierarchies, but none have reached quite the same heartless, absurd levels of inequality as late-stage capitalism. Pointing to competing systems and the rising tide that lifts all boats misdirects people to make ahistorical comparisons. Human psychology normally restricts one’s points of comparison to contemporaries in the same country/region. Under such narrow comparison, the rank injustice of hundred-billionaires (or even simply billionaires) existing at the same time as giant populations of political/economic/climate refugees and the unhoused (the new, glossy euphemism for homelessness) demonstrates the soul-forfeiting callousness of the top quintile and/or 1% — an ancient lesson never learned. Indeed, aspirational nonsense repackages suffering and sells it back to the underclass, which as a matter of definition will always exist but need not have to live as though on an entirely different planet from Richistan.

Human Development

Though I’ve never been a big fan of behaviorism, the idea that a hypercomplex stew of influences, inputs, and stimuli leads to better or worse individual human development, especially in critical childhood years but also throughout life, is pretty undeniable. As individuals aggregate into societies, the health and wellbeing of a given society is linked to the health and wellbeing of those very individuals who are understood metaphorically as the masses. Behaviorism would aim to optimize conditions (as if such a thing were possible), but because American institutions and social systems have been so completely subordinated to capitalism and its distortions, society has stumbled and fumbled from one brand of dysfunction to another, barely staying ahead of revolution or civil war (except that one time …). Indeed, as the decades have worn on from, say, the 1950s (a nearly idyllic postwar reset that looms large in the memories of today’s patrician octogenarians), it’s difficult to imaging how conditions could have deteriorated any worse other than a third world war.

Look no further than the U.S. educational system, both K–12 and higher ed. As with other institutions, education has had its peaks and valleys. However, the crazy, snowballing race to the bottom witnessed in the last few decades is utterly astounding. Stick a pin in it: it’s done. Obviously, some individuals manage to get educated (some doing quite well, even) despite the minefield that must be navigated, but the exception does not prove the rule. Countries that value quality education (e.g., Finland, China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea) in deed, not just in empty words trotted out predictably by every presidential campaign, routinely trounce decidedly middling results in the U.S. and reveal that dysfunctional U.S. political systems and agencies (Federal, state, municipal) just can’t get the job done properly anymore. (Exceptions are always tony suburbs populated by high-earning and -achieving parents who create opportunities and unimpeded pathways for their kids.) Indeed, the giant babysitting project that morphs into underclass school-to-prison and school-to-military service (cannon fodder) pipelines are what education has actually become for many. The opportunity cost of failing to invest in education (or by proxy, American youth) is already having follow-on effects. The low-information voter is not a fiction, and it extends to every American institution that requires clarity to see through the fog machine operated by the mainstream media.

As an armchair social critic, I often struggle to reconcile how history unfolds without a plan, and similarly, how society self-organizes without a plan. Social engineering gets a bad rap for reasons: it doesn’t work (small exceptions exist) and subverts the rights and freedoms of individuals. However, the rank failure to achieve progress (in human terms, not technological terms) does not suggest stasis. By many measures, the conditions in which we live are cratering. For instance, Dr. Gabor Maté discusses the relationship of stress to addiction in a startling interview at Democracy Now! Just how bad is it for most people?

… it never used to be that children grew up in a stressed nuclear family. That wasn’t the normal basis for child development. The normal basis for child development has always been the clan, the tribe, the community, the neighborhood, the extended family. Essentially, post-industrial capitalism has completely destroyed those conditions. People no longer live in communities which are still connected to one another. People don’t work where they live. They don’t shop where they live. The kids don’t go to school, necessarily, where they live. The parents are away most of the day. For the first time in history, children are not spending most of their time around the nurturing adults in their lives. And they’re spending their lives away from the nurturing adults, which is what they need for healthy brain development.

Does that not sound like self-hobbling? A similar argument can be made about human estrangement from the natural world, considering how rural-to-urban migration (largely completed in the U.S. but accelerating in the developing world) has rendered many Americans flatly unable to cope with, say, bugs and dirt and labor (or indeed most any discomfort). Instead, we’ve trapped ourselves within a society that is, as a result of its organizing principles, slowly grinding down everyone and everything. How can any of us (at least those of us without independent wealth) choose not to participate in this wretched concatenation? Nope, we’re all guilty.

Something in an online discussion brought me back to my days as a Boy Scout. (No, not that, with your nasty, nasty assumptions.) It was one of the first merit badges I earned: Citizenship in the Community (link to PDF). I can’t remember any of the content anymore (haven’t yet consulted the PDF), and indeed, looking back with the advantage of several decades of hindsight, I have a hard time imagining any of the (morality? ethics?) lessons learned back then having had much durable impact despite remembering an emerging confidence and awareness (a commonplace delusion of youth) of my position within the community. Still, I appreciate having had many Boy Scout character-building experiences, which led to simple and enduring understandings of ideals such as honor, duty, preparedness, service, forbearance, shouldering hardships, and perhaps most of all, accepting responsibility for others, particularly those younger and weaker. (I’m not claiming to be any sort of paragon of virtue. Cynicism and misanthropy may have wrecked that aspiration.) I never served in the military, but I surmise others learn similar lessons slightly later in life when more readily absorbed and not so easily forgotten. In the past decade plus, some may seek these lessons through participation in endurance sports or martial arts (if not distorted by bad instruction like in Cobra Kai), though the focus outward (i.e., toward community and mutual reliance) may not be as strong.

The subject came up in a discussion of participants in small-scale democracy, something I’ve always known is messy, unrewarding, thankless, and sometimes costly yet still necessary to be a good citizen contributing to one’s community. Many adults get their first taste of local democratic groups (read: self-governing) through parent groups like the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). Or maybe it’s a performing arts organization, home owner’s association, church council, social work hotline, self-help group, or cooperative. Doesn’t matter which. (Political activism and organizing might be something quite different. Hard to say.) Groups run on the good will and dedication of volunteered time and skills for the benefit of members of the community. As with any population, there are always free riders: those who contribute nothing but enjoy and/or extract benefits. In fact, if everyone were integrally involved, organizational complexity would become unmanageable. If activities of such groups seem like a piece of cake or vaguely utopian, just join one and see how different character types behave. Lotta dead wood in such organization. Moreover, power mongers and self-aggrandizers often take over small-scale democracies and run them like private fiefdoms. Or difficult policy and finance discussions divide otherwise like-minded groups into antagonists. As I said, it’s a decidedly messy undertaking.

Members of the community outside of the executive group (typically a board of directors) also have legitimate interests. Maybe community members attend meetings to keep informed or weigh in online with unconstructive complaints and criticisms (or even mockery and trolling) but then refuse to contribute anything worthwhile. Indeed, boards often have difficulty recruiting new officers or participants because no one wants to take on responsibility and face potential criticism directed at them. I’ve also seen boards settle into the same few folks year after year whose opinions and leadership grow stale and calcifies.

Writ large, leadership skills learned through citizenship in the community rise to the equivalents of Boy Scout merit badges Citizenship in the Nation and Citizenship in the World (no links but searchable). Skills deployed at those strata would arguably require even greater wherewithal and wisdom, with stakes potentially being much higher. Regrettably, having just passed through an election cycle and change of leadership in the U.S., my dour assessment is that leadership has failed miserably at multiple issues. The two most significant involve how we fail to organize society for the benefit of all, namely, economic equality and resource sustainability. Once market forces came to bear on social organization and corporate entities grew too large to be rooted in community service anymore, greed and corruption destroyed high-minded ideals. More self-aggrandizers and careerists than ever (no names, fill in the blanks, they’re all famous — or infamous) rose to the tops of organizations and administrations, especially politics, news media, and the punditry. Their logical antidotes are routinely and ruthlessly disenfranchised and/or ignored. The lasting results are financial inequality run amok and unsustainable resource addictions (energy mostly) that are toxifying the environment and reducing the landscape to ruin and inhabitability. (Perpetual war is a third institutional failure that could be halted almost immediately if moral clarity were somehow to appear.) It’s all out there, plain to see, yet continues to mount because of execrable leadership. Some argue it’s really a problem with human nature, a kind of original stain on our souls that can never be erased and so should be forgiven or at least understood (and rationalized away) within a large context. I’m not yet ready to excuse national and world leaders. Their culpability is criminal.

I simply can’t keep up with all the reading, viewing, and listening in my queue. Waking hours are too few, and concentration dissipates long before sleep overtakes. Accordingly, it’s much easier to settle into couch-potato mode and watch some mindless drivel, such as the Netflix hit Bridgerton binged in two sittings. (Unlike cinema critics, I’m not bothered especially by continuity errors, plot holes, clunky dialogue, weak character motivation, gaps of logic, or glossy decadence of the fictional worlds. I am bothered by the Kafka trap sprung on anyone who notices casting decisions that defy time and place — an ill-advised but now commonplace historical revisionism like editing Mark Twain.) As a result, blog posts are less frequent than they might perhaps be as I pronounce upon American (or more broadly, Western) culture, trying vainly to absorb it as a continuously moving target. Calls to mind the phrase Après moi, le déluge, except that there is no need to wait. A deluge of entertainment, news, analysis, punditry, and trolling has buried everyone already. So rather than the more careful consideration I prefer to post, here are some hot takes.

The Irregular Aphorist. Caitlin Johnstone offers many trenchant observations in the form of aphorisms (some of which I’ve quoted before), all gathered under the subtitle Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix. The modifier irregular only means that aphorisms are a regular but not constant feature. Her site doesn’t have a tag to that effect but probably ought to. Here’s one in particular that caught my attention:

Everything our species has tried has led us to a dying world and a society that is stark raving mad, so nobody is in any position to tell you that you are wrong.

Twin truths here are (1) the dying world and (2) societal madness, both of which I’ve been describing for some time. Glad when others recognize them, too.

Piling on. Though few still are willing to admit it, nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs, e.g., distancing, masks, and lockdowns) to stall or reduce the spread of the virus failed to achieve their objectives according to this study. Instead, NPIs piled on suffering no one could forestall. I read somewhere (no link) that the world is approaching half of total, cumulative deaths/infections predicted had nothing been done to impede the pandemic running its course. Adding in deaths of despair (numbers not entirely up to date), we’re using the wrong tools to fight the wrong battle. Of course, interventions opened up giant opportunities for power grabs and vulture capitalism, so the cynic in me shrugs and wonders half aloud “what did you expect, really?”

Growth of the Managerial Bureaucracy. A blog called Easily Distracted by Timothy Burke (never on my blogroll) publishes only a few times per year, but his analysis is terrific — at least when it doesn’t wind up being overlong and inconclusive. Since a student debt jubilee is back in the news (plenty of arguments pro and con), unintended consequences are anticipated in this quote:

When you set out to create elaborate tiers that segregate the deserving poor from the comfortable middle-class and the truly wealthy, you create a system that requires a massive bureaucracy to administer and a process that forces people into petitionary humiliation in order to verify their eligibility. You create byzantine cutoff points that become business opportunities for predatory rentiers.

Something similar may well be occurring with stimulus checks being issued pro rata (has anyone actually gotten one?), but at least we’re spared any petitionary humiliations. We get whatever the algorithms (byzantine cutoff points) dictate. How those funds will be gamed and attached is not yet clear. Stay alert.

No Defense of Free Speech. Alan Jacobs often recommends deleting, unsubscribing, and/or ignoring social media accounts (after his own long love-hate relationship with them) considering how they have become wholly toxic to a balanced psyche as well as principal enablers of surveillance capitalism and narrative control. However, in an article about the manorial elite, he’s completely lost the plot that absolutism is required in defense of free speech. It’s not sufficient to be blasé or even relieved when 45 is kicked off Twitter permanently or when multiple parties conspire to kill Parler. Establishing your own turf beyond the reach of Silicon Valley censors is a nice idea but frankly impractical. Isn’t that what whoever ran Parler (or posted there) must have thought? And besides, fencing off the digital commons these very entities created has catapulted them into the unenviable position of undemocratic, unelected wielders of monopolistic power and co-conspirators to boot. That’s what needs to be curtailed, not free speech.

The Taxonomic Apocalypse. Although drawn from fiction and thus largely hypothetical, a new book (coming late 2021) by Adam Roberts called It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? surveys doomsday stories and categorizes different versions of how it all ends. Alan Jacobs (yeah, him again — must have an advance copy of the manuscript) recommends it as “a delightful and provocative little book” but fails to grok two things: (1) these stories are rehearsals-cum-preparations for the real thing, and (2) the real thing really is bearing down on us implacably and so is no longer a mere hypothetical to contemplate and categorize for shits and grins. Despite acceptance of the eventualities that await all of us, reading Roberts’ taxonomy is not something I would expect to find delightful. Skip.

Narrative Collapse. Ran Prier (no link) sometimes makes statements revealing an unexpected god’s-eye view:

[45] is a mean rich kid who figured out that if he does a good Archie Bunker impression, every lost soul with an authoritarian father will think he’s the messiah. We’re lucky that he cares only about himself, instead of having some crazy utopian agenda. But the power, and the agency, is with the disaffected citizens of a declining empire, tasting barbarism.

This is all about people wanting to be part of a group that’s part of a story. Lately, some of the big group-stories have been dying: sky father religion, American supremacy, the conquest of nature, the virtue of wealth-seeking. In their place, young and clumsy group-stories struggle and rise.

Collapse of certain fundamental stories that animate our thinking is at the core of The Spiral Staircase (see About Brutus at top), though it’s often couched in terms of consciousness in transition. Getting through the transition (only temporarily, see previous item in list) probably means completion of the Counter-Enlightenment historical arc, which necessarily includes further descent into barbarism.

Hail Mary for Individualism. I always take special notice when someone cites Allan Bloom. Alan Jacobs (um, yeah, he’s prolific and I’m using his ideas again — sue me) cites Bloom to argue that individualism or the sovereign self, a product of the Enlightenment, is already dead. No doubt, the thought-world described so ably by Bloom no longer exists, but individualism has not yet died out by attrition or been fully dissolved in nonduality. Many of us born before the advent of the Internet retain selfhood and authenticity not yet coopted by or incorporated into mass mind. Moreover, ongoing struggles over identity (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, and race that are often used improperly to define the self) result from an inchoate sense that individualism is eroding precipitously, not that it’s already passé. Defiant attempts to (re)establish an authentic self (contravening all logic and becoming critical theory of one sort or another) in the face of this loss may well be a last-ditch effort to save the self, but it’s failing.

Unlike turtles, humans do not have protective shells into which we can withdraw when danger presents. Nor can we lift off, fly away, and elude danger the way birds do. These days, we’re sorely beset by an invisible pandemic spread by exposure to carriers (read: other people) and so asked or forced to submit to being locked down and socially distanced. Thus, we are withdrawn into the protective shell of the home in cycles of varying intensity and obeisance to maintain health and safety. Yet life goes on, and with it, numerous physical requirements (ignoring psychological needs) that can’t be met virtually demand we venture out into the public sphere to gather resources, risking exposure to the scourge. Accordingly, the conduct of business has adapted to enable folks to remain in the protective shells of their vehicles, taking delivery through the car window and rarely if ever entering a brick-and-mortar establishment except in defiance or at the option of acceptable risk. In effect, we’re being driven into our cars ever more, and the vehicle is readily understood as a proxy for its inhabitant(s). Take note of pictures of people in bread lines during the Great Depression having been replaced by pictures of cars lined up for miles during the pandemic to get packaged meals from charitable organizations.

Reflecting on this aspect of modern life, I realized that it’s not exactly novel. The widespread adoption of the individual vehicle in the 1940s and 50s, as distinguished from mass transit, and the construction of the interstate highway system promised (and delivered) flexibility and freedom of tremendous appeal. While the shift into cars (along with air travel) doomed now moribund passenger rail (except intracity in the few American cities with effective rail systems), it enabled the buildout of suburbs and exurbs now recognized as urban sprawl. And like all those packages now clogging delivery systems as we shift even more heavily during the holiday season to online shopping, a loss of efficiency was inevitable. All those individual cars and boxes create congestion that cry out for solutions.

Among the solutions (really a nonsolution) were the first drive-through banks of the 1970s. Is doing one’s banking without leaving the vehicle’s protective shell really an efficiency? Or is it merely an early acknowledgement and enabling of antisocial individualism? Pneumatic tubes that permitted drive-through banking did not speed up transactions appreciably, but the novel mechanism undoubtedly reinforced the psychological attachment Americans felt with their cars. That growing attachment was already apparent in the 1950s, with two bits of Americana from that decade still resonating: the drive-in theater and the drive-in restaurant. The drive-in theater was a low-fidelity efficiency and alternative to the grand movie houses built in the 1920s and 30s seating a few thousand people in one cavernous space. (A different sort of efficiency enabling choice later transformed most cinema establishments into multiplexes able to show 8–10 titles instead of one, handily diminishing audiences of thousands to hundreds or even tens and robbing the group experience of much of its inherent power. Now that premium streaming content is delivered to screens at home and we are disallowed assembly into large audiences, we have instead become something far more inert — viewers — with fully anticipatable degradation of the entertainment experience notwithstanding the handsome technologies found within the comforts of the home.) I’ve heard that drive-ins are experiencing a renaissance of sorts in 2020, with Walmart parking lots converted into showplaces, at least temporarily, to resemble (poorly) group experience and social cohesion connection. The drive-in restaurant of the 1950s, with their iconic carhops (sometimes on roller skates), is a further example of enabling car culture to proliferate. Never mind that eating in the car is actually kinda sad and maybe a little disgusting as odors and refuse collect in that confined space. One might suspect that drive-ins were directed toward teenyboppers and cruisers of the 1950s exploring newfound freedom, mobility, and the illusion of privacy in their cars, parked in neat rows at drive-ins (and Lookout Points for smooch sessions) all across the country. However, my childhood memory was that it was also a family affair.

Inevitably, fast food restaurants followed the banks in the 1970s and quickly established drive-through lanes, reinforcing the degradation of the food experience into mere feeding (often on one’s lonesome) rather than dining in community. Curiously, the pandemic has made every restaurant still operating, even the upscale ones, a drive-through and forced those with and without dedicated drive-through lanes to bring back the anachronistic carhop to serve the congestion. A trip to a local burger joint in Chicago last week revealed 40+ cars in queue and a dozen or so carhops on the exterior directing traffic and making deliveries through the car window (briefly penetrating the protective shell) so that no one would have to enter the building and expose oneself to virus carriers. I’ve yet to see a 2020 carhop wearing roller skates (now roller blades) or a poodle skirt.

Such arrangements are probably effective at minimizing pandemic risk and have become one of several new normals (discussion of political dysfunction deferred). Who can say how long they will persist? Still, it’s strange to observe the psychology of our response, even if only superficially and preliminarily. Car culture has been a curious phenomenon since at least the middle of the 20th century. New dynamics reinforcing our commitment to cars are surprising, perhaps, but a little unsurprising, too, considering how we made ourselves so dependent on them as the foundation of personal transportation infrastructure. As a doomer, I had rather expected that Peak Oil occurring around 2006 or so would spell the gradual (or sudden) end of happy motoring as prices at the pump, refusal to elevate standard fuel efficiency above 50 mph, and climbing average cost of new vehicles placed individual options beyond the reach of average folks. However, I’ve been genuinely surprised by fuel costs sinking to new lows (below the cost of production, even bizarrely inverting to the point that producers paid buyers to take inventory) and continued attempts to engineer (only partially) around the limitations of Peak Oil, if not indeed Peak Energy. I continue to believe these are mirages, like the record-setting bull market of 2020 occurring in the midst of simultaneous economic, social, and health crises.