Archive for the ‘Corporatism’ Category

In the sense that all news is local and all learning is individual, meaning that it’s only when something is individualized and particularized that it takes on context and meaning, I may finally understand (some doubt still) Sheldon Wolin’s term “inverted totalitarianism,” part of the subtitle of his 2006 book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Regrettably, this book is among the (many) dozens that await my attention, so I can’t yet claim to have done the work. (I did catch a long YouTube interview of Wolin conducted by Chris Hedges, but that’s a poor substitute for reading the book.) My process is to percolate on a topic and its ancillary ideas over time until they come together satisfactorily, and my provisional understanding of the issues is closer to “proxy tyranny” than “inverted totalitarianism.”

I daresay most of us conceptualize tyranny and totalitarianism in the bootheel versions that manifested in several 20th-century despotic regimes (and survives in several others in the 21st century, names and locations withheld) where population management is characterized by stomping people down, grinding them into dust, and treating them as an undifferentiated mass. Administrators (e.g., secret police) paid close attention to anyone who might pose a problem for the regimes, and neighbors and family members were incentivized to betray inform on anyone who might be on officialdom’s radar. The 21st-century manifestation is different in that computers do most information gathering — a dragnet thrown over everyone — and we inform on ourselves by oversharing online. Close attention is still paid, but human eyes may never see extensive dossiers (forever records?) kept on each of us until something prompts attention. A further distinction is that in bootheel totalitarianism, intense scrutiny and punishment were ubiquitous, whereas at least in 21st-century America, a sizeable portion of the population can be handily ignored, abandoned, and/or forgotten. They’re powerless, harmless, and inconsequential, not drawing attention. Additionally, there is also no bottom to how low they can sink, as the burgeoning homeless population demonstrates.

If tyranny is normally understood as emanating from the top down, it’s inversion is bottom up. Wolin’s inverted totalitarianism is not a grassroots phenomenon but rather corporate capture of government. While Wolin’s formulation may be true (especially at the time his book was published), government has relinquished none of its power so much as realigned its objectives to fit corporate profit motives, and in doing so, shifted administrative burdens to proxies. Silicon Valley corporations (of the big data type especially) are the principal water carriers, practicing surveillance capitalism and as private entities exercising censorious cancellation of dissenting opinion that no formal government could countenance. Similarly, an entire generation of miseducated social justice warriors scours social media for evidence of noncomforming behavior, usually some offense of the meme of the moment a/k/a “I support the current thing” (though racism is the perennial accusation — an original sin that can never be forgiven or assuaged), waiting to pounce in indignation and destroy lives and livelihoods. Cancel culture is a true bottom-up phenomenon, with self-appointed emissaries doing the work that the government is only too happy to hand off to compliant, brainwashed ideologues.

In the Covid era, nonconforming individuals (e.g., those who refuse the jab(s) or call bullshit on continuously shifting narratives announced by various agencies that lack legal standing to compel anything) are disenfranchised in numerous ways even while the wider culture accepts that the pandemic is indeed endemic and simply gets on with life. Yet every brick-and-mortar establishment has been authorized, deputized, and indeed required to enforce unlawful policies of the moment as proxies for government application of force. Under threat of extended closure, every restaurant, retailer, arts organization, and sports venue demanded the literal or figurative equivalent of “papers please” to enter and assemble. Like the airlines, people are increasingly regarded as dehumanized cargo, treated roughly like the famous luggage ape (and not always without good reason). In most places, restrictions have been lifted; in others they persist. But make no mistake, this instantiation of proxy tyranny — compelling others to do the dirty work so that governments can not so plausibly deny direct responsibility — is the blueprint for future mistreatment. Personally, I’m rather ashamed that fewer Americans stood up for what is right and true (according to me, obviously), echoing this famous admission of moral failure. For my own part, I’ve resisted (and paid the price for that resistance) in several instances.

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.

The major media — particularly, the elite media that set the agenda that others generally follow — are corporations “selling” privileged audiences to other businesses. It would hardly come as a surprise if the picture of the world they present were to reflect the perspectives and interests of the sellers, the buyers, and the product … Furthermore, those who occupy managerial positions in the media, or gain status within them as commentators, belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share the perceptions, aspirations, and attitudes of their associates, reflecting their own class interests as well. Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures, generally by internalizing the values; it is not easy to say one thing and believe another, and those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms.
—Noam Chomsky (Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies)

In U.S. politics, received wisdom instructs citizens to work within the system, not to challenge the system directly in protest, rebellion, or revolt. Yet it’s often paradoxically believed that only an outsider can reform or fix problems that endure generation after generation. The 2016 U.S. presidential election was emblematic of this second sentiment: an outsider who had never held political office but was unexpectedly installed in the Oval Office anyway — largely on the basis of several three-word promises to accomplish things only he, an outsider unbeholden to existing power structures, could do. Since that chief executive no longer holds office and none of his three-word promises came to fruition, one might pause to wonder why the putatively intrepid outsider is still held up in some circles as preferable to the insider. Was he beholden to existing power structures after all? Or was he transformed quickly into a faithful tool of the establishment despite antipathy toward it and his coarse, unorthodox style?

These are unanswerable questions, and one could argue that conjecture on the subject doesn’t matter, either. The reality most of us experience outside the halls of power is markedly different from that of those on the inside. Further, when a recently hired journalist or newly elected government official completes their orientation period, they reliably become insiders, too. The Chomsky quote above is directed to that process, which is a system dynamic without anyone already inside needing to twirl a mustache or roll their hands in a cliché of evil. The outsider becomes an insider simply by being hired or elected and seeing how things get done by colleagues. No need to name names. Bringing the outside inside appears to be an effective mechanism for nullifying authoritative dissent and watchdog action that used to be handled by the 4th Estate in particular. What’s appeared following journalistic abandonment of that role is a variety of citizens and breakaway journalists on alternative media. The job is getting done, sorta.

Principled dissent, not the two-party theatrics that pass for opposition, are needed to keep self-governance from falling prey to capture. Since roughly the 1990s, when the Democratic Party betrayed its working class constituency and became corporate boosters, opposition dried up and corporate was effectively added to the term military-industrial-corporate complex, an old term that drew attention to a unified chorus of pro-war military leaders and arms manufacturers that had captured government in the early days of the Cold War. Indeed, for decades now, very few prominent insiders in journalism and government have even bothered to try to steer the U.S. away from war and nonstop military escapades. Popular opposition among the citizenry unfailingly falls on deaf ears. Do insiders know things we outsiders don’t? I rather doubt it.

A quick search revealed that over 15 years of blog posts, the word macrohistory has been used only once. On reflection, macrohistory is something in which I’ve been involved for some time — mostly as a dilettante. Several book reviews and three book-blogging series (one complete, two either on hiatus or fully abandoned) concern macrohistory, and my own several multi-part blogs connect disparate dots over broader topics (if not quite history in the narrow sense). My ambition, as with macrohistory, is to tease out better (if only slightly) understandings of ourselves (since humans and human culture are obviously the most captivating thing evar). Scientists direct similar fascination to the inner workings of nonhuman systems — or at least larger systems in which humans are embedded. Thus, macrohistory can be distinguished from natural history by their objects of study. Relatedly, World-Systems Theory associated with Immanuel Wallerstein and The Fourth Turning (1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe) take similarly broad perspectives and attempt to identify historical dynamics and patterns not readily apparent. Other examples undoubtedly exist.

This is all preliminary to discussing a rather depressing article from the December 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine: Rana Dasgupta’s disquieting (ahem) essay “The Silenced Majority” (probably behind a paywall). The subtitle poses the question, “Can America still afford democracy?” This innocuous line begs the question whether the U.S. (America and the United States of America [and its initialisms U.S. and U.S.A.] being sloppily equivalent almost everywhere, whereas useful distinctions describe the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England) actually has or practices democracy anymore, to which many would answer flatly “nope.” The essay is an impressive exercise, short of book length, in macrohistory, though it’s limited to Western cultures, which is often the case with history told from inside the bubble. Indeed, if (as the aphorism goes) history is written/told primarily by the victors, one might expect to hear only of an ongoing series of victories and triumphs with all the setbacks, losses, and discontinuities excised like some censored curated Twitter or Facebook Meta discussion. One might also wonder how that same history reads when told from the perspective of non-Western countries, especially those in transitional regions such as Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, and Iran or those with histories long predating the rise of the West roughly 500 years ago, i.e., China, Japan, Egypt, and the lost cultures of Central America. Resentments of the Islamic world, having been eclipsed by the West, are a case in point. My grasp of world history is insufficient to entertain those perspectives. I note, however, that with globalism, the histories of all regions of the world are now intimately interconnected even while perspectives differ.

Dasgupta describes foundational Enlightenment innovations that animate Western thinking, even though the ideas are often poorly contextualized or understood. To wit:

In the seventeenth century, England was an emerging superpower. Supremacy would come from its invention of a world principle of property. This principle was developed following contact with the Americas, where it became possible to conjure vast new English properties “out of nothing”—in a way that was impracticable, for instance, in the militarized, mercantile societies of India. Such properties were created by a legal definition of ownership designed so that it could be applied only to the invaders. “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of,” John Locke wrote in 1689, “so much is his property.” When combined with other new legal categories such as “the savage” and “the state of nature,” this principle of property engendered societies such as Carolina, where Locke’s patron, the first earl of Shaftesbury, was a lord proprietor.

Obvious, isn’t it, that by imposing the notion of private property on indigenous inhabitants of North America, colonialists established ownership rights over territories where none had previously existed? Many consider that straightforward theft (again, begging the question) or at least fencing the commons. (Attempts to do the same in the open oceans and in space [orbit] will pick up as technology allows, I surmise.) In addition, extension of property ownership to human trafficking, i.e., slavery and its analogues still practiced today, has an exceptionally long history and was imported to the Americas, though the indigenous population proved to be poor candidates for subjugation. Accordingly, others were brought to North America in slave trade that extended across four centuries.

Dasgupta goes on:

From their pitiless opposition to the will of the people, we might imagine that British elites were dogmatic and reactionary. (Period dramas depicting stuck-up aristocrats scandalized by eccentricity and innovation flatter this version of history.) The truth is that they were open-minded radicals. They had no sentimentality about the political order, cutting the head off one king and sending another into exile. They could invent financial and legal structures (such as the Bank of England, founded in 1694) capable of releasing unprecedented market energies. Even their decision to exploit American land with African labor demonstrated their world-bending pursuit of wealth. Their mines and plantations would eventually supply the capital for the first industrial revolution. They loved fashion and technology, they believed in rationality, progress, and transparency. They were the “founding fathers” of our modern world.

And yet they presided over a political system as brutal as it was exclusive. Why? The answer is simple. They could not afford democracy, but also, crucially, they did not need it. [emphasis in original]

So much for the awe and sacred respect in which Enlightenment philosophers and the Founders are held — or used to be. Statues of these dudes (always dudes, natch) are being pulled down all the time. Moreover, association of liberal democracy with the 17th century is a fundamental mistake, though neoliberalism (another poorly defined and understood term) aims to shift backwards to a former or hybrid state of human affairs some are beginning to call digital feudalism.

The article goes on to discuss the balancing act and deals struck over the course of centuries to maintain economic and political control by the ownership class. It wasn’t until the 1930s and the postwar economic boom in the U.S. that democracy as commonly understood took root significantly. The labor movement in particular was instrumental in forcing FDR’s New Deal social programs, even though populism and socialism as political movements had been successfully beaten back. Interestingly, the hallowed American nuclear family (limited in its scope racially), an ahistorical formation that enjoyed a roughly 30-year heyday from 1945 to 1975, coincides with the rise of the American middle class and now-aged democratic institutions. They’re all connected with widely distributed wealth and prosperity. But after the oil crisis and stagflation of the middle 1970s, gains enjoyed by the middle class have steadily eroded and/or been actively beaten back (again!) so that dominant themes today are austerity imposed on the masses and inequality coughing up hundy-billionaires with increasing frequency. Estimates are that 30-40% of the American citizenry lives in poverty, bumping up against failed state territory. Inequality has returned to Gilded Age levels if not exceeded them. Dasgupta fails to cite perhaps the major underlying cause of this shift away from affordable democracy, back toward the brutal, world principal of property: falling EROI. Cheap foreign labor, productivity gains, and creation of a giant debtor society have simply not offset the disappearance of cheap energy.

Dasgupta’s further discussion of an emerging two-tier economy along with the Silicon Valley technocracy follows, but I’ll stop short here and encourage readers instead to investigate and think for themselves. Lots of guides and analyses help to illuminate the macrohistory, though I find the conclusions awful in their import. Dasgupta drives home the prognosis:

The neoliberal revolution aimed to restore the supremacy of capital after its twentieth-century subjugation by nation-states, and it has succeeded to an astonishing degree. As states compete and collude with gargantuan new private powers, a new political world arises. The principle of labor, which dominated the twentieth century—producing the industrious, democratic society we have come to regard, erroneously, as the norm—is once again being supplanted by a principle of property, the implications and consequences of which we know only too well from our history books.

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.

/rant on

Since deleting from my blogroll all doom links and turning my attention elsewhere, the lurking dread of looming collapse (all sorts) has been at low ebb at The Spiral Staircase. Despite many indicators of imminent collapse likewise purged from front-page and top-of-the-broadcast news, evidence continues to mount while citizens contend with other issues, some political and geopolitical, others day-to-day tribulations stemming from politics, economics, and the ongoing pandemic. For instance, I only just recently learned that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC — oh yeah … them) issued AR6 last month, the sixth periodic Assessment Report (maybe instead call it the State of the Union Address Planet Report). It’s long, dense reading (the full report is nearly 4,000 pp., whereas the summary for policymakers is a mere 42 pp.) and subject to nearly continuous revision and error correction. The conclusion? Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying. And although it’s true that mundane daily activities occupy center stage in the lives of average folks, there is simply no bigger story or concern for government leaders (I choke on that term) and journalists (that one, too) than climate change because it represents (oh, I dunno …) the collapse of industrial civilization and the early phase of mass extinction. Thus, all politics, geopolitics, economic warfare, class struggle, Wokeism, authoritarian seizure of power, and propaganda filling the minds of people at all levels as well as the institutions they serve amount to a serious misallocation of attention and effort. I will admit, though, that it’s both exhausting and by now futile to worry too much about collapse. Maybe that’s why the climate emergency (the new, improved term) is relegated to background noise easily tuned out.

It’s not just background noise, though, unlike the foreknowledge that death awaits decades from now if one is fortunate to persist into one’s 70s or beyond. No, it’s here now, outside (literally and figuratively), knocking on the door. Turn off your screens and pay attention! (Ironically, everyone now gets the lion’s share of information from screens, not print. So sue me.) Why am I returning to this yet again? Maybe I’ve been reviewing too many dystopian films and novels. Better answer is that those charged with managing and administering states and nations are failing so miserably. It’s not even clear that they’re trying, so pardon me, but I’m rather incensed. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of knowledgeable experts compiling data, writing scientific reports, publishing books, and offering not solutions exactly but at least better ways to manage our affairs. Among those experts, the inability to reverse the climate emergency is well enough understood though not widely acknowledged. (See Macro-Futilism on my blogroll for at least one truth teller who absolutely gets it.) Instead, some lame version of the same dire warning issues again and again: if action isn’t taken now (NOW, dammit!), it will be too late and all will be lost. The collective response is not, however, to pull back, rein in, or even prepare for something less awful than the worst imaginable hard landing where absolutely no one survives despite the existence of boltholes and underground bunkers. Instead, it’s a nearly gleeful acceleration toward doom, like a gambler happily forking over his last twenty at the blackjack table before losing and chucking himself off the top of the casino parking structure. Finally free (if fleetingly)!

Will festering public frustration over deteriorating social conditions tip over into outright revolt, revolution, civil war, and/or regime change? Doesn’t have to be just one. Why is the U.S. still developing and stockpiling armaments, maintaining hundreds of U.S. military bases abroad, and fighting costly, pointless wars of empire (defeat in withdrawal from Afghanistan notwithstanding)? Will destruction of purchasing power of the U.S. dollar continue to manifest as inflation of food and energy costs? Is the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture actually doing anything to secure food systems, or does it merely prepare reports like the AR6 that no one reads or acts upon? Will fragile supply lines be allowed to fail entirely, sparking desperation and unrest in the streets far worse than summer 2020? Famine is how some believe collapse will trigger a megadeath pulse, but I wouldn’t count out chaotic violence among the citizenry, probably exacerbated and escalated as regimes attempt (unsuccessfully) to restore social order. Are any meaningful steps being taken to stop sucking from the fossil fuel teat and return to small-scale agrarian social organization, establishing degrowth and effectively returning to the land (repatriation is my preferred term) instead of going under it? Greenwashing doesn’t count. This headline (“We Live In A World Without Consequences Where Everyone Is Corrupt“) demonstrates pretty well that garbage economics are what pass for governance, primarily preoccupied with maintaining the capitalist leviathan that has captured everything (capture ought to be the trending word of the 2021 but sadly isn’t). Under such constraint, aged institutions are flatly unable to accomplish or even address their missions anymore. And this headline (“Polls Show That The American People Are Extremely Angry – And They Are About To Get Even Angrier“) promises that things are about to get much, much worse (omitted the obvious-but-erroneous follow-on “before they get better”) — for the obvious reason that more and more people are at the ends of their ropes while the privileged few attend the Met Gala, virtue signal with their butts, and behave as though society isn’t in fact cracking up. Soon enough, we’ll get to truth-test Heinlein’s misunderstood aphorism “… an armed society is a polite society.”

Those who prophesy dates or deadlines for collapse have often been slightly embarrassed (but relieved) that collapse didn’t arrive on schedule. Against all odds, human history keeps trudging further into borrowed time, kicking cans down roads, blowing bubbles, spinning false narratives, insisting that all this is fine, and otherwise living in make-believe land. Civilization has not quite yet reached the end of all things, but developments over the last couple months feel ever more keenly like the equivalent of Frodo and Sam sitting atop Mount Doom, just outside the Cracks of Doom (a/k/a Sammath Naur), except that humanity is not on a noble, sacrificial mission to unmake the One Ring, whatever that might represent outside of fiction (for Tolkien, probably industrial machines capable of planetary destruction, either slowly and steadily or all at once; for 21st-century armchair social critics like me, capitalism). All former certainties, guarantees, sureties, continuities, and warranties are slipping away despite the current administration’s assurances that the status quo will be maintained. Or maybe it’s merely the transition of summer into fall, presaging the annual dormancy of winter looking suspiciously this year like the great dying. Whatever. From this moment on and in a fit of exuberant pique, I’m willing to call the contest: humanity is now decidedly on the down slope. The true end of history approaches, as no one will be left to tell the tale. When, precisely, the runaway train finally careens over the cliff remains unknown though entirely foreseeable. The concentration of goofy references, clichés, and catchphrases above — usually the mark of sophomoric writing — inspires in me to indulge (further) in gallows humor. Consider these metaphors (some mixed) suggesting that time is running out:

  • the show’s not over til it’s over, but the credits are rolling
  • the chickens are coming home to roost
  • the canary in the coal mine is gasping its last breath
  • the fat lady is singing her swan song
  • borrowed time is nearly up
  • time to join the great majority (I see dead people …)
  • the West fades into the west
  • kiss your babies goodnight and kiss your ass goodbye

/rant off

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.

Continuing from part 1.

So here’s the dilemma: knowing a little bit about media theory and how the medium shapes the message, I’m spectacularly unconvinced that the cheerleaders are correct and that an entirely new mediascape (a word I thought maybe I had just made up, but alas, no) promises offers to correct the flaws of the older, inherited mediascape. It’s clearly not journalists leading the charge. Rather, comedians, gadflies, and a few academics (behaving as public intellectuals) command disproportionate attention among the digital chattering classes as regular folks seek entertainment and stimulation superior to the modal TikTok video. No doubt a significant number of news junkies still dote on their favorite journalists, but almost no journalist has escaped self-imposed limitations of the chosen media to offer serious reporting. Rather, they offer “commentary” and half-assed observations on human nature (much like like comedians who believe themselves especially insightful — armchair social critics like me probably fit that bill, too). If the sheer count of aggregate followers and subscribers across social media platforms is any indication (it isn’t …), athletes, musicians (mostly teenyboppers and former pop tarts, as I call them), and the irritatingly ubiquitous Kardashian/Jenner clan are the most influential, especially among Millennials and Gen Z, whose tastes skew toward the frivolous. Good luck getting insightful analysis out of those folks. Maybe in time they’ll mature into thoughtful, engaged citizens. After all, Kim Kardashian apparently completed a law degree (but has yet to pass the bar). Don’t quite know what to think of her three failed marriages (so far). Actually, I try not to.

I’ve heard arguments that the public is voting with its attention and financial support for new media and increasingly disregarding the so-called prestige media (no such thing anymore, though legacy media is still acceptable). That may well be, but it seems vaguely ungrateful for established journalists and comedians, having enjoyed the opportunity to apprentice under seasoned professionals, to take acquired skills to emerging platforms. Good information gathering and shaping — even for jokes — doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and responsible journalism in particular can’t simply be repackaging information gathered by others (i.e., Reuters, the Associated Press, and Al Jezeera) with the aforementioned “commentary.” A frequent reason cited for jumping ship is the desire to escape editorial control and institutional attempts to distort the news itself according to some corporate agenda or ideology. Just maybe new platforms have made that possible in a serious way. However, the related desire to take a larger portion of the financial reward for one’s own work (typically as celebrities seeking to extend their 15 minutes of fame — ugh) is a surefire way to introduce subtle, new biases and distortions. The plethora of metrics available online, for instance, allows content creators to see what “hits” or goes viral, inviting service to public interest that is decidedly less than wholesome (like so much rubbernecking).

It’s also curious that, despite all the talk about engaging with one’s audience, new media is mired in broadcast mode, meaning that most content is presented to be read or heard or viewed with minimal or no audience participation. It’s all telling, and because comments sections quickly run off the rails, successful media personalities ignore them wholesale. One weird feature some have adopted during livestreams is to display viewer donations accompanied by brief comments and questions, the donation being a means of separating and promoting one’s question to the top of an otherwise undifferentiated heap. To my knowledge, none has yet tried the established talk radio gambit of taking live telephone calls, giving the public a chance to make a few (unpurchased) remarks before the host resumes control. Though I’ve never been invited (an invitation is required) and would likely decline to participate, the Clubhouse smartphone app appears to offer regular folks a venue to discuss and debate topics of the day. However, reports on the platform dynamics suggest that the number of eager participants quickly rises to an impossible number for realistic group discussion (the classroom, or better yet, graduate seminar establishes better limitations). A workable moderation mechanism has yet to emerge. Instead, participants must “raise their hand” to be called upon to speak (i.e., be unmuted) and can be kicked out of the “room” arbitrarily if the moderator(s) so decide. This is decidedly not how conversation flows face-to-face.

What strikes me is that while different broadcast modes target and/or capture different demographics, they all still package organize content around the same principle: purporting to have obtained information and expertise to be shared with or taught to audiences. Whether subject matter is news, science, psychology, comedy, politics, etc., they have something ostensibly worth telling you (and me), hopefully while enhancing fame, fortune, and influence. So it frankly doesn’t matter that much whether the package is a 3-minute news segment, a brief celebrity interview on a late night talk show, an article published in print or online, a blog post, a YouTube video of varying duration, a private subscription to a Discord Server, a Subreddit, or an Instagram or Twitter feed; they are all lures for one’s attention. Long-form conversations hosted by Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, and Lex Fridman break out of self-imposed time limitations of the typical news segment and flow more naturally, but they also meander and get seriously overlong for anyone but long-haul truckers. (How many times have I tuned out partway into Paul VanderKlay’s podcast commentary or given up on on Matt Taibbi’s SubStack (tl;dr)? Yeah, lost count.) Yet these folks enthusiastically embrace the shifting mediascape. The digital communications era is already mature enough that several generations of platforms have come and gone as well-developed media are eventually coopted or turned commercial and innovators drive out weaker competitors. Remember MySpace, Google Plus, or American Online? The list of defunct social media is actually quite long. Because public attention is a perpetually moving target, I’m confident that those now enjoying their moment in the sun will face new challenges until it all eventually goes away amidst societal collapse. What then?