If there’s one thing humans love, it’s war. Even those of us who pretend we don’t like war: really, we love it. We can’t get away from it. Even the pacifists are at it. Even the vegans. The anarchists enjoy it more than the marine corps, at least if they can hide their faces. In my years in the green movement – supposedly a fluffy, caring, co-operative kind of environment – I saw, heard and used more military metaphors than you could shake a stick grenade at. It was always the bad rich guys screwing the planet and the heroic, Earth-loving masses opposing them. When I was a young Earth First!er, back in the nineties, there was a slogan we used all the time. We would scrawl it in oil on the sides of earth-moving machinery when the security guards weren’t looking: The Earth is not dying, it is being killed. And those who are killing it have names and addresses. Yeah! This was exciting and heroic. The names and addresses, of course, were never ours.
Look at any movement for political or social change and you’ll see the war stories proliferating like Japanese knotweed. The 99% must rise up against the 1%! Donald Trump is a fascist and we are the resistance! Ordinary working people must stop the globalist elites! Corporations are causing climate change, and we must fight them! Black versus white, men versus women, elites versus masses, people versus planet: whatever your favoured battle, your choice commits you to fighting. Of course, your team are the goodies. Right is on your side, and the other lot are deluded haters. You are always Luke Skywalker, never Darth Vader.
War metaphors and enemy narratives are the first thing we turn to when we identify a problem, because they eliminate complexity and nuance, they allow us to be heroes in our own story, and they frame our personal aggression and anger in noble terms. The alternative is much harder: it’s to accept our own complicity. The alternative is an environmental campaigner accepting that they are as much a cause of climate change as the CEO of Exxon. It’s a progressive supporter of open borders accepting that they prepared the ground for Trumpism. It’s a European nationalist accepting that their wealth is built on globalisation. We don’t want to deal with this kind of thing. It stops us in our tracks, and the war machine runs on without us. We feel lonely out here on our own. Much easier to run on and catch up.
My favourite war metaphor is the one which pits modern humanity against the Earth itself. I think that civilised, post-Enlightenment humanity has been, and remains, a dark and destructive force. In only a few hundred years we have precipitated a planetary crisis, the details of which readers of this blog will be depressingly familiar with. We have destroyed wildness and beauty and meaning. We have eaten life itself. There is a black magic about our civilisation, I think. If you want me to build a case, I can build a case easily enough. I’ve done it before. But right now I’m more interested in what happens if I don’t.
If it’s not a war, what is it? If we’re not warriors, what are we? Are we monks or hermits? Are we nihilists or hedonists? The thing about war metaphors is that they suck you right in, like wars themselves. If you won’t enroll, you can easily be condemned as a coward: handed white feathers in pubs and spat at on the street. Still, we don’t want a world at war, do we? We want something else. But what? And how?
At the moment, I’m thinking that a trial might be a better metaphor and guide than a war. ‘You might see the situation we are in as an emergency,’ says Wendell Berry, ‘and your task is to learn to be patient in an emergency’. Being patient in an emergency seems harder and more worthwhile than playing soldiers. If I attempt to transmute my favourite war story – people versus planet – into a trial story instead, what do I get? I get a long story of patience and hard work and attention to nature; a story that will outlive me and my children. The poet Gary Snyder has suggested that we are in the early stages of what may be a 5000 year journey towards living well with ourselves and the Earth. All of us, whatever our tribe or team, are on the same journey. That’s a trial: a long, complicated test.
If it is a trial, a long emergency, an intergenerational test of patience, what qualities would we need to undertake it? They would be very different qualities to those – anger, aggression, might, tactical cunning – needed by a warrior. We might need to drop back into the past for a moment and explore some of the non-martial virtues that defined our culture before it was overtaken and half drowned by the siren song of commerce.
Community and religious life in pre-modern Europe – as in more traditional parts of the world even now – pointed people towards two notions. The first was that we were not primarily individuals but were members of a community: tribe, family, village, county, nation. Our work should not be for ourselves, but for this community. The second was that humans did not stand at the pinnacle of life, and should remember to bow their heads before something greater than themselves; some mystery within which our lives resided.
It’s hard to think of two ideas more likely to get you spluttered at in the West today. But take them seriously and they lead us towards some equally unfashionable, and therefore radical, values: humility, stillness, forbearance, discipline, honour. If these were not always not adhered to in the real lives of our ancestors, they were at least held up as aspirations. We could do worse than to aspire to them again. They seem less likely to set the world on fire in the name of saving it.
How could we re-cultivate values like these? How could we pay obeisance to our inner wildness and to the outer wildness? What happens if we look inwards rather than outwards? What happens if we are not the goodies? What happens if there are no goodies, and no baddies either? What is the work now?
As I’ve watched the political and cultural temperature hot up in the West over the last year, as I have watched people divide into opposing factions and come out swinging, these questions have seemed to me increasingly urgent. I don’t really know how to answer them. I suppose it might take 5000 years. I suppose the answers will be changing all the time. But I like the questions better than the one I used to ask: who is the enemy, and how can we beat him? Because, of course, we can’t beat him. We strike him down and take off his mask and he turns out to be part of the family. That’s the point at which the hard work begins, and the wisdom becomes available.
Over the next year, I plan to explore these questions more, here on this blog and in the outside world. Starting in May, I’m going to be one of the teachers and guides on an experimental programme which Dark Mountain is running with our friends over at Way of Nature. We’ve worked together before, taking people out into wild areas and focusing on the big questions in our lives and in the world. This year we’re experimenting with an eight month programme, which we’re calling Fire and Shadow.
We’re putting together a group of people – reminiscent of one of those tribes or communities, perhaps – which will start to explore the work of transmuting war into trial, and asking how we might take the first steps in that 5000 year journey. What values do we need? How should we live? How do we step back from the battle and still remain engaged in the world? What do we see when we look into the darkness? In the course of two week-long retreats in wild parts of Scotland and Romania, connected by online and ongoing conversations over eight months, we’re hoping to begin coming up with the answers to these questions and others.
We’ve filled up more than half of the places on this course already, but there are still spaces available for those who are interested. You can read more about it here. It’s a big commitment of time and money, and it won’t be for everyone. What I plan to do though, is bring some thoughts, feedback and perhaps the beginning of some tentative conclusions from the programme over to this blog at various points over the next year. I hope this will make up something of a resource pack for those who can’t come on the programme itself or wouldn’t want to. I can’t, of course, know yet what we will find. But I have a sense that this is a good path to explore, however winding it turns out to be.
In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here.
You could rake leaves while the glaciers melt
and horses stand somewhere in a field
with the sound of wind blowing rain into their manes
you could go to a job you don’t love
and live in a house you don’t want
and sit in traffic and feel trapped watching
the eagles dive above the light posts and power lines
or you could stop raking and lay down in the dirt
with the leaves scattering around you
smelling like the coming snow
and the rattling ghosts of summer lightning
you could pick up a river and hold it to your eye
watch a turtle crawl through it
the light turbulent out of the sky beyond the bluffs.
Instead of serving these mad corporations and law makers
oblivious to the dew on the pigs hindquarters at morning
or the effort it takes ducks to find food after such a wet summer
you could sit round a fire next to the lake and
listen as the water carries voices from a canoe
out somewhere near the middle
back to your camp along the stony shore
and as the fire licks at the red pines
you could uncover a memory that
smells like moose hooves and orchids
wild rice hulls and trumpeter swans
and helps you to remember the millions
of invisible miracles which must occur within the sky
so that a blizzard can become a blizzard.
This memory is what the mad kings and architects
of the anthropomorphic rivers want you to forget
because if you do not remember the smell or feel of the land
then you will believe anything they tell you about it
including that it is just another body to exploit.
But if you remember the sound of waves
pulling back through the hair of beaches
or the ring of wind among icicles and sparrow caves
you have not forfeited all of your freedom and power
to the ruthlessness of modern convenience
and if you remember otters sliding across the lake at dusk
or a bear rushing back into the alder
then you also remember
that you are among the millions of tiny miracles within the sky
that allow a blizzard to become a blizzard
and if you can remember this
then you can speak sing and dream loud as thunder
for every quiet piece of land and water on this earth
because you have not forgotten
not the mad kings
are the one with power.
Ben Weaver is a songwriter and poet who travels by bicycle using relationships of all kinds to help awaken greater reciprocity between people and the land. Recent human-powered expeditions have taken him down the Mississippi River, around Lake Superior, across the Kenai Watershed in Alaska and throughout the Netherlands. Given the choice he will side with the animals, lakes, rivers and the trees. For more info please visit benweaver.net
In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here.
About 18 months ago, out of the blue, I was offered something of a dream assignment. Penguin, the publisher, was looking to put together the first British collection of essays by the now-venerable American writer Wendell Berry, and they thought I would be a good person to make the selection, and write an introduction. Would I be interested? Of course, they would understand if I was too busy.
Needless to say, I was not too busy. I have been reading Wendell Berry for over 20 years, on and off, and have found him a constant source of nourishment and inspiration. It’s always difficult to explain exactly what you like about a writer, but Berry combines an earthy wisdom, an unashamed traditionalism, a love of his fellow man and passionate resistance to those who would desecrate the Earth which is his subject. It’s a combination I like. Also, to adopt his idiom, he has a damn fine way with words. I’d say he’s a writer who should be read by anyone wanting to find their place, or even figure out how to think about it, in an ever-churning age.
To cut a long story short, I sat down for two months with every collection of essays that Wendell Berry has written over the last fifty years, and I whittled them down to about 300 pages of what I think it is his finest work. That work was published last month by Penguin as The World-Ending Fire, and I feel I can openly boast about the quality of the book, because most of the writing isn’t mine. If you’re an admirer of Berry, or – especially – if you have never read before, I recommend reading him now. It would be the equivalent of reading Thoreau or Emerson when they were still alive and writing.
As a taster, we’re publishing here my introduction to the book, followed by one of my favourite essays from it, ‘Damage’. To find out more about the book, you can visit the Penguin website.
The World-Ending Fire: an introduction
In tribute to Wendell Berry, I am writing this introduction longhand, in pen, in a small hardback notebook. It seems appropriate. Berry has never upgraded his writing tools from a pencil even to a typewriter, let alone to anything more complex, as he explained in his short but high-impact 1987 essay ‘Why I am not going to buy a computer’. As with all his decisions, this one seems to have been taken after a good deal of thinking. In his writing, as in his farming, Wendell Berry’s readers get the impression that this man does not do anything lightly, and that he chooses his words as carefully as his actions.
With that in mind, and now that I think about it, I see that he would probably take issue with the way I have just lazily used the word ‘upgraded’. Not just because of the word’s
ugliness, but because of its implication: that a pen is a lesser tool than a laptop, simply because it is older and less complex. Older and less complex, in Berry’s world, are often virtues. Now in his eighties, he still uses horses to work his Kentucky farm, not for the nostalgia value but because horses do a better job than tractors, and are more satisfying to work with.
As with all thinkers who choose to set their face against both fashion and power, Wendell Berry is regularly caricatured for the crime of thinking things through – accused of ‘living in the past’, ‘wanting to turn the clock back’ and various other predictable insults grabbed at random from the progressive toolbag. From one angle he can certainly appear, as he acknowledges himself, a relic from the past. Born at the height of the Great Depression into a farming family which, like all its neighbours, still worked their land the preindustrial way, he is a unique figure in modern American letters. Brought up as a farmer, he left the land as a young man to study and travel, eventually moving to New York City to ‘be a writer’. Writers, then as now, in the long shadow of Modernism, were supposed to ensconce themselves in the metropolis and live as placeless chroniclers of its unease.
But it wasn’t long before Berry felt drawn back to rural Kentucky, where he had grown up. The place was pulling him. Places, in my experience, often do that. I think that some places want writers to tell their stories. Wendell Berry was never meant to tell the stories of New York City; there were quite enough people doing that already. So, as his fellow scribes looked at him aghast, some of them trying to persuade him of his foolishness, he left the city and went back to the land, buying a farm five miles from where he had grown up, in the area where both his mother and father had grown up before him. This is the place in which he has lived, worked and written for the last half-century. This is the place whose story he has told, and through it he has told the story of America, and through that the story of modern humanity as it turns its back on the land and lays waste to the soil.
Soil is the recurring image in these essays. Again and again, Berry worries away at the question of topsoil. This is both a writer’s metaphor and a farmer’s reality, and for Wendell Berry, metaphors always come second to reality. ‘No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul’, he wrote to his friend, the poet Gary Snyder, in 1980, ‘if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.’ Over the last century, by some estimates, over half the world’s topsoil has been washed away by the war on nature which we call industrial farming. We may have perhaps fifty or sixty years of topsoil left if we continue to erode, poison and lay waste to it at this rate. As the human population continues to burgeon, the topsoil in which it grows its food continues to collapse. It is perhaps the least sexy environmental issue in the world, but for the future of human civilisation, which continues to depend upon farmers whether it knows it or not, it may be the most important.
Wendell Berry knows this, because he sees it every day, and because he works with it. I have spent the last several months reading every book of essays he has ever published, and the image which has stayed with me above all others comes at the beginning of his 1988 essay ‘The work of local culture’. An old galvanised bucket hangs on a fence post near a hollow, in a wood on what was once his grandfather’s farm. In the bucket, slowly and over many decades, soil is being born:
The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings and perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus. I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognise there an artistry and farming far superior to mine, or to that of any human.
In patience, in slowness, there is hope. In the places where we often deposit our hopes, meanwhile, there is less. Berry’s questing thoughtfulness challenges traditional political categories; challenges notions of activism, of movements, of politics itself on a national and global scale. All this makes liberating reading for those who enjoy thinking for themselves. To the ‘right’ he shows the consequences of a love of money and markets, of government by corporation, of an economic growth unmoored from place, which eats through nature and culture and leaves ruins. To the ‘left’ he shows the consequences of a rootless individualism, of rights without rites, of the rejection of family and tradition, of the championing of the cosmopolitan over the rooted and the urban over the rural.
In place of these tired labels, and for those who still insist on categories, Berry suggests two alternatives, originally coined by his mentor, the writer Wallace Stegner: ‘boomers’ and ‘stickers’. ‘Boomers’ are those who rush through and past, chasing the green grass or concreting it for money, the acolytes of growth-n-progressTM. ‘Stickers’ are those who find a place and make it home, stay in it and try to leave it a little better than they found it. Wendell Berry’s formula for a good life and a good community is simple and pleasingly unoriginal. Slow down. Pay attention. Do good work. Love your neighbours. Love your place. Stay in your place. Settle for less, enjoy it more.
I have a steep wooded hillside that I wanted to be able to pasture occasionally, but it had no permanent water supply.
About halfway to the top of the slope there is a narrow bench, on which I thought I could make a small pond. I hired a man with a bulldozer to dig one. He cleared away the trees and then formed the pond, cutting into the hill on the upper side, piling the loosened dirt in a curving earthwork on the lower.
The pond appeared to be a success. Before the bulldozer quit work, water had already begun to seep in. Soon there was enough to support a few head of stock. To heal the exposed ground, I fertilized it and sowed it with grass and clover.
We had an extremely wet fall and winter, with the usual freezing and thawing. The ground grew heavy with water, and soft. The earthwork slumped; a large slice of the woods floor on the upper side slipped down into the pond.
The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge. The fault was mine.
I was careful to get expert advice. But this only exemplifies what I already knew. No expert knows everything about every place, not even everything about any place. If one’s knowledge of one’s whereabouts is insufficient, if one’s judgment is unsound, then expert advice is of little use.
In general, I have used my farm carefully. It could be said, I think, that I have improved it more than I have damaged it.
My aim has been to go against its history and to repair the damage of other people. But now a part of its damage is my own.
The pond was a modest piece of work, and so the damage is not extensive. In the course of time and nature it will heal.
And yet there is damage – to my place, and to me. I have carried out, before my own eyes and against my intention, a part of the modern tragedy: I have made a lasting flaw in the face of the earth, for no lasting good.
Until that wound in the hillside, my place, is healed, there will be something impaired in my mind. My peace is damaged. I will not be able to forget it.
It used to be that I could think of art as a refuge from such troubles. From the imperfections of life, one could take refuge in the perfections of art. One could read a good poem – or better, write one.
Art was what was truly permanent, therefore what truly mattered. The rest was ‘but a spume that plays / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.’
I am no longer able to think that way. That is because I now live in my subject. My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place.
There is a sense in which I no longer ‘go to work.’ If I live in my place, which is my subject, then I am ‘at’ my work even when I am not working. It is ‘my’ work because I cannot escape it.
If I live in my subject, then writing about it cannot ‘free’ me of it or ‘get it out of my system.’ When I am finished writing, I can only return to what I have been writing about.
While I have been writing about it, time will have changed it. Over longer stretches of time, I will change it. Ultimately, it will be changed by what I write, inasmuch as I, who change my subject, am changed by what I write about it.
If I have damaged my subject, then I have damaged my art. What aspired to be whole has met damage face to face, and has come away wounded. And so it loses interest both in the anesthetic and in the purely aesthetic.
It accepts the clarification of pain, and concerns itself with healing. It cultivates the scar that is the course of time and nature over damage: the landmark and mindmark that is the notation of a limit.
To lose the scar of knowledge is to renew the wound.
An art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars.
‘You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.’
I used to think of Blake’s sentence as a justification of youthful excess. By now I know that it describes the peculiar condemnation of our species. When the road of excess has reached the palace of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.
Culture preserves the map and the records of past journeys so that no generation will permanently destroy the route.
The more local and settled the culture, the better it stays put, the less the damage. It is the foreigner whose road of excess leads to a desert.
Blake gives the just proportion or control in another proverb: ‘No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.’ Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.
It was no thought or word that called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon. After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect – and so to describe the limits, to say what can be done without damage.
The use only of our bodies for work or love or pleasure, or even for combat, sets us free again in the wilderness, and we exult.
But a man with a machine and inadequate culture – such as I was when I made my pond – is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold.
Paul Kingsnorth is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. His latest book, Beast, is published by Faber and Faber. His personal website is here.
In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here.
The greater part of my life happens to have been spent in and about Bastar and its Abujhmad (literally ‘inscrutable land’) region in central India — just looking at life and its affairs there; it is too overwhelming to be not looked at. There I accumulated some field notes, reflections and observations about the region and its people.
For the past 59 months I have written field dispatches on the region — one a month — some of which have been published in past issues of Dark Mountain. They are short, usually three to four pages. Abujhmad’s dialect does not have too many words. People do not say much. Mostly they are a culture of silence. Counting goes up to only five. ‘We don’t need more than that.’
To my mind this dispatch, the 60th, wishes to communicate the quintessential Bastar and its Abujhmad — its mystique, rhythms and flows; and its smallness.Having written 59, I feel may be there is nothing more to write about a people and region so discreet and reticent. Let this, the 60th, be the last. Maybe it’s time for farewell. I wish to thank you for reading them for 60 months. .
Dispatch Sixty Abujhmad is a Metaphor: Random Musings
A village, town or region as much likes or dislikes a person as the person may like or dislike it. Places have personas, dispositions, likes and dislikes. They are alive.
It is not always that one goes to a place. Many a time the place calls one and, when the time comes, sends one off too. When I first went to Bastar in 1979 I had neither heard of it nor knew it on the map — nor who tribal people are. A year later I began staying in Abujhmad which did not have even a map; was unheard of even 50 km away in either direction in Bastar. Soon enough it felt like homecoming. I could not have thought of staying away from it till it finally bid good bye in 2013. Ostensive reasons can be many, and each plausible — bloodshed by the Maoists, administrative ruthlessness, police killings, Bastar becoming somewhat of an out-of-bounds region, a land of distrust, its loss of self, a nowhere region… and endlessly more.
Humans and wilds are not at cross purposes; both live and wander without aim or thought.
The immeasurable darkness of nights is for nocturnal beings to erase human presence outside the tiny village limits and revitalise the powers of the wilds. In the wilds humans endeavour no more than the token and essential. If the endeavour be greater — axing a tree for shifting cultivation or blocking a stream for fishing — spirits, ancestors, gods and goddesses, bushes, vines, and insects cause humans to be feeble, weary and disoriented. Hence humans do not practise shifting cultivation in a big way or hinder streams as such. Bushes, vines, insects, animals, winds, earth, rivers, ancestors, spirits and humans are allies and lend vitalities unto each other.
I went there on a research project of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi-based institute. Till a year ago I had not known that places, too, call one. Many a time a place also contrives and rids itself of one soon enough. When one goes uninvited it makes living difficult. For about the first six months I roamed and rejected many a village. I had my reasons: ‘wet or watery, of too many flies and pigs, distance from a stream, huts too far from each other, the village much too interior for my daring and endurance, or my own moods and temperament’ etc. I did not know those villages, by thus presenting themselves, were rejecting me as much; nor could I know that Garpa’s nice-looking little plateau was not a piece of topography but an invitation to settle down and partake of its companionship. For reasons that may never be known, we liked each other. There was a felt conviviality, as between instant friends.
In the first six months I had been through many villages. I was becoming somewhat of a familiar face and people were no longer running away to the forest. Garpa was the first one that offered me residence; its chatter and laughter, distant fires of the darkest nights, landscape and contours. The ‘rejected’ or ‘rejecting’ villages had not made an offer. When there is innate — and not of human making — reciprocity, both come alive and pulsate as companions. Both become a place for intimacies in ever pristine infinity. Places, too, wish for allies.
If the vitals do not coincide and one settles down uninvited, they devour one’s spirit. They cause inattention to details and hide much. The contemporary mind, in any case, is much too broken to know what lives in a village or region. It can know only its location, longitudes and latitudes, space of only an apparent kind, and ‘diminished’ lives. The village disguises and reduces itself to cartography. It withholds the province of spaces and skies, gods and ancestors, mysteries and unknowns…
Much like the demons of yore, cities only devour their dwellers — they live off them; soak up their energies and hardly share their own. There is a relentless assault on the senses. Hence the strain, exhaustion, despair, fear, lingering psycho-physical illnesses; the complaints against life and its overwhelming arrangements. The village gives its energies, conviviality and companionship to its dwellers. A person and a village, living well and living fulsomely, seek neither rest nor change, neither progress nor dream; pursuing neither dharma nor adharma.
Rarely is a place where it is. It alludes.
By its very disposition Abujhmad cannot be where it is. Like a metaphor it faintly intimates; as though it has come here from some non-here. Its beyondness is innate and of the unknown, yet immediate and tangible. There is nothing that is ‘here’ here. Dense wilds intermingled with vegetation in some indeterminate arrangements mile after mile; people; rivers and hills; animals; still spaces and fairy-like winds; fear and awe — all seem mythical and imaginary. But Abujhmad is not unreal; it is very much there. It sits by itself, in utter restfulness; as though about to gently rise and weave into the non-here. Only the restfuls rise. That is Abujhmad’s deep disposition. Nothing ever happens here. Something about it that is changeless, still, resolute, motionless, irrefutable and incontestable. As though impregnable — and yet most fragile, tender and vulnerable. A people and region that temperamentally seem ever prepared to lose. Such elemental and untroubled restfulness reflects in its sparseness, words and dialect, counting, and an almost stable population of estimated 13,000, imperishable tentativeness of its thatch huts, village layout, stories of no more than four to five lines, one-line songs of varying pitches, very few facial expressions and the absence of details in daily life. All convey dispassion and non-doing.
Though indivisible from his wild yet never claims as his own. He listens to it as one does to the bard; there is much communion. As though it always was like this. Change and variations are the mind’s. Wild remains still and same.
Non-doing revitalises quiet and stillness. Just as the wild overtakes a hill-face shorn for shifting cultivation, its denizens are ever in wait to overtake the towns and cities surrounding it.
I doubt whether it was anywhere easy to penetrate to any great distance through that impenetrable screen of foliage to that mysterious, magical substance.
Wild is always looked upon as wasteland. To look upon Abujhmad with the ‘realism’ of longitudes, latitudes, and the contemporary sensibility — the cartographic worldview — is attributable to both bad judgement and inattention.
Waste is an unavoidable part of a production process — an inheritance of guilt and shame. Bulki (an elderly lady of Garpa) used to say, ‘No sin lives in Abujhmad’. Waste comes of God-forsakenness and infertility. Waste comes only from waste. That of which waste comes — the product — is for the Abujhmadia as much a waste. Abujhmad — and folk societies at large — dissolves conditions of ‘productive living’; it refuses to address contemporary conditions of living sainted by the outside world; neither food, clothing and shelter, nor livelihood or ownership, neither doing nor non-doing, neither knowledge nor ignorance etc. It repudiates the hitherto-held final grounds; and leaves no premise to educate itself into such living. Naked, the Abujhmadias have for generations crisscrossed — mingled and stayed overnight when necessary — the Halba village of Sonepur with its settled agriculture and domesticated cattle, tiled huts and wells, yet have never taken to Sonepur way of life. When grounds dissolve; then there is nothing to do, nothing to know. There is stillness. Knowing or doing become superfluous. The modern world creates conditions — specific conditions — for living; and in turn effects knowing and doing; and aspirations that lie beyond its station. It creates societies, languages, institutions, worldviews, practises and skills — such that reinforce its own productive behaviours. For the Abujhmadia, life and all its conditions come from the non-here, and ought not be produced here. He seems to intuitively know the place and extent beyond which everything, and he, must cease. There is an incommunicability to it beyond verbal shapes and forms. Abujhmad is a space for beyond; a space for dissolving conditions and making productivity infertile. It renders the productive to the unproductive — as that which is insufferable and undesirable.
The Adivasi sentiment and nebulousness towards life has been universally shared across human communities in one way or the other. This is the ‘stranger’ that modern civilisation does not dare itself to face. For it forecloses possibilities of existing in its own situation. It calls for referents other than modernity itself — and modernity may never be willing. It is the ‘stranger’ in whose presence modernity is unable to comprehend how to unfold itself or how to handle its own bypassed questions.
Abujhmad is a metaphor for communion. It continues to teach and live its metaphor. It intuitively lives without changing itself. It is neither striving to acquire the ‘other’, nor afraid of losing itself. In its strange, mystical way it is both the self and the ‘stranger’. Abujhmad comes from an unsullied poise and undisturbed inheritance. It has still not blocked its unknown.
Whereas the question, by sheer power and repressiveness of its discourse, remains ‘legitimate’, the answer, when fetched from another discourse, becomes illicit, laughable, ludicrous and without longevity. The answer has to fetch its legitimacy — a burden not shared by the question or the discourse it comes from. There are no questions in Abujhmad. They belong to the outside and carry a certain conceptual apparatus and infrastructure. The sheer volume of their apparatus and infrastructure is overwhelming. They come with implications and affiliations and thwart the Adivasi.
How can one answer a question when its object, the Adivasi, carries a certain nebulousness, if not obscurity, a certain dimness bereft of the ‘exact’, and a certain indeterminate, inconclusive disposition? Questions are unfair.
How does one evolve a consensual discourse between Abujhmad and the outside? The inability to comprehend as such creates distances which in their essential nature seem un-bridgeable. How does one arrive at consensuality between the ambiguous, obscure and dim on one hand, and the exact and certain on the other? Is such arrival desirable?
It is said the people earlier had a natural power to them. Rao Pen is Bastar’s territorial god and lives at its geographical boundary. He protects and looks over the region. Each village has its Rao Pen. Village boundaries or hut fences do not depict ownership and control. They depict areas wherein well-being is assured for all. According to folklore Rao Pen once prevented the British from crossing the Indravati river… he created a dust storm over the waters once, and a fire on another occasion, forcing the British to turn back. There are stories about how, through his devices, he materialised food and drink for himself and those accompanying him.
It is often said in primitive societies that the individual does not count, the community is everything. What if it were said that there is neither a notion of the individual nor community! It is plainly an issue of increased vocabulary.
Abujhmad’s wild is a place of ‘static motion’ where the human and the wild converge in a non-secular web of myth, ritual, stories, fear, reverence and worship. It has a way of unsettling the ‘known’ of modern man. Outside the boundaries of society lie the wilds, beyond the periphery of reason and its modes of engaging and understanding. The established goes astray and conventional distinctions collapse. They confuse clear distinctions and certainties, but in that confusion profound learning and ascertainment occurs. That is Abujhmadia wisdom.
Much clarity and certitude for my comfort. I would always want to feel a little ‘lost’; there ought to remain a wilds to life, where the human both remains in and outside human grasp. Some kind of Universe-human interplay where joy leads to pain, and pain to joy. The alternation and their playfulness; when seeming opposites become the same and same seem opposites: life-death, man-woman, animate-inanimate.
Much of the modern/scientific/capitalist/feminist/Marxist impulse is to well define things in (and about) life, and forever remove the wild; the ambiguous, nebulous, the ‘ill-defined’, the uncertain and chaotic; and evolve patterns and settings that can be fixed and determined; foreclosed possibilities in pursuit of ‘orderliness’; primarily an approach to overcoming fear of the wilds within (and without — hence fellings and creation of infrastructures), fear of the uncertain, the innate death-wish and celebration of life: in essence the automation and corporatisation of life’s hitherto unknown (and undiscoverable??) impulse. The above ‘isms’ differ in details; the basic impulse is commonly shared. Hence my distrust, and desire of many years to steer clear and be in hiding. I cannot say with even the remotest certainty whether life entails discovering its ‘truths’. It is a stage to be lived through and may be not to discover the ‘truths’.
Not so much — but still enough — of western science and eastern dogmas are about discernment; sifting the chaff from the wheat, whereafter neither wheat remains wheat nor chaff chaff: as though it is all some human mission. There is some immense, self-invited misery and victimhood.
‘Ko jani?’ (‘Who knows?’) will resonate forever in the ears; faintly touching a core I long for. This could have come only from a people who celebrate their uncertainty and nebulousness. They insist on uncertainty, un-clarity; lest they never dance again.
Images (from top to bottom): Fishing net, village congregation, Muria Gond
Narendra‘s association with indigenous communities, their rhythms, flows and languages/silences of everyday livingin Bastar goes back over 30 years. He has lived with and observed indigenous worldview, the non-doing communities, questionability of knowledge and knowing, ecological practices and sustainable lives, non-profit economy, traditional healing, forests and wilds.
Some of his field dispatches were published by Dark Mountain in June 2013, and 2015. Others have been translated and published in Finnish.
In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here.
‘As things stand, I don’t believe we will get a story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.’ Martin Shaw, Dark Mountain: Issue 7
The regular mechanisms of political narration are breaking down. The pollsters lose confidence in their methods, the pundits struggle to offer authoritative explanations for events that they laughed off as wild improbabilities only months before.
It’s a measure of how badly things have broken that, over the past year or two, members of the strange crew that meets around Dark Mountain have found ourselves filling the gap. I’m thinking of posts we’ve written in our various corners of the internet that were read and shared far more widely than most of us are used to, seemingly because they helped readers find their bearings in a time of deepening disorientation.
There’s a role for this kind of writing now that seems clearer than it did eight years ago, when we started this project. That’s why, today, we are launching a fundraising campaign – asking for your help to build and launch a new online publication. It won’t replace the Dark Mountain books, but it will run alongside them and provide an online home for writing that seeks – as my co-founder, Paul Kingsnorth put it at the start of this series – ‘to make sense of things, and to examine our stories in their proper perspective.’
Also from this series, Charlotte Du Cann’s‘The Reveal’: ‘When I switch off the machine and the headlines recede, I realise we are not in a political crisis; we are in a spiritual crisis, an existential crisis.’
And finally, a couple of pieces of my own, both written into the raw aftermath of recent elections – first‘The Only Way Is Down’, the morning after the UK general election of 2015 – and then‘When the Maps Run Out’, a letter written in the days after Trump’s victory.
These are posts that got shared and reblogged and quoted and seemed to travel halfway around the internet. Mostly, they were written for our personal blogs or websites – but the authors are editors or regular contributors here at Dark Mountain. You can see places where we spark off each other’s ideas, as well as significant differences in perspective. If you read them all, you’ll probably find some that jive with you and others that jar. But I want to point to some common ground.
For one thing, while we draw on different political traditions, this is writing that starts a couple of steps back from the familiar terrain of political debate and analysis. I’m reminded of an answer I gave, years ago, when asked if Dark Mountain was a political project: ‘I think there may be times when it is necessary to withdraw from today’s politics, in order to do the thinking that could make it possible for there to be a politics the day after tomorrow.’ Or as Paul put it at the opening of this series, ‘Sometimes you have to go to the edges to get some perspective on the turmoil at the heart of things. Doing so is not an abnegation of public responsibility: it is a form of it.’
If you start exploring the work of any of these writers, you’ll find that mythology is a recurring reference point, a deep element in how we make sense of things. At the end ofhis post from the morning after the Brexit vote, Martin Shaw wrote, ‘Television, radio and internet will be able to tell you all the above-ground implications of what’s just taken place.’ When these surface accounts fail to satisfy, though, there’s a hunger that is fed by the underground currents of old stories.
One of the things that marks out this writing, then, is a willingness to enter territory that we could call ‘liminal’. It’s a term that comes from the study of ritual, given to the middle phase of a right of passage: the preliminaries are over, you have shed the skin of an old reality, but not yet acquired the new skin that would allow you to return to the everyday world. The liminal is the space of the threshold, with all the vulnerability and potential of transition: the costliness of letting go, with no guarantee of what will come after. The liminal phase of a ritual is the moment of greatest danger – or rather, ritual is a safety apparatus built around the liminal. Whichever, the liminal is where the work gets done, where the change happens.
So here’s the first suggestion I want to make: if this writing is filling a gap left by the failure of more conventional kinds of political narration, it’s because it is able to operate in the territory of the liminal, and these are liminal times.
* * *
It’s not just the broadening audience for this writing that points to its timeliness. The past year also saw more conventional voices getting drawn into the territory that Dark Mountain has been exploring.
Take Alex Evans, a former advisor to the UK government and the United Nations, who just wrote a book called ‘The Myth Gap’. After a career based on belief in the power of ‘evidence, data and policy proposals’, his experience of global climate negotiations brought him to a crisis, and to a sense of the need for something more than facts and reasoned arguments. ‘We’ve lost the old stories that used to help us make sense of the world,’ he says, ‘but without coming up with new ones.’ And he quotes Jung: ‘The man who thinks he can live without a myth is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or the ancestral life within him, or yet with contemporary society.’
There’s lots to say about these examples, but for now I just want to take a couple of points from them. First, that the call of the liminal is making itself felt ‘above ground’. But then, that there is a danger of wanting to jump straight to rebirth, to promise bright visions and new positive narratives. Evans draws on Jung, but I’m not clear how much room there is here for the shadow – nor for the loss and uncertainty, the darkness and disorientation that are the price for entering the liminal.
Then again, by the end of 2016, others were ready to make the descent. I once spent an hour on stage with George Monbiot pounding me over the pessimism of Dark Mountain, so it was striking to read his list of ‘The 13 impossible crises humanity now faces’. Then you had John Harris discovering Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. Watching experienced journalistic commentators move in the terrain that Dark Mountain has been exploring for the best part of a decade, it strikes me that there is another danger. To navigate at these depths, you need a different kind of equipment. Facts alone don’t cut it down here.
This brings me to the other aspect of Dark Mountain which may be crucial to finding our bearings within the liminal – the centrality of art and culture to the work of this project.
* * *
A man is whispering in your ears, disorienting you, playing tricks with your perception, even as you watch him alone on stage with little more than a few bottles of water and a cast of microphones. This is Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, one of the most staggering pieces of theatre I witnessed in 2016: a show that leads you into the story of a meeting between a photographer lost in the Amazon and a tribe whose world is under threat. Their response to this threat takes the form of a ritual, a journey to ‘the beginning’, which is also a deliberate bringing to an end of their culture in its current form.
The concept of liminality was first used to describe the structure of rituals like the one at the centre of The Encounter, but its application as a term for thinking about modern societies is connected to the study of theatre and performance. The anthropologist who made the connection, Victor Turner, distinguished the ‘liminal’ experiences of tribal cultures – in which ritual is a collective process for navigating moments of change – from the ‘liminoid’ experiences available in modern societies, which resemble the liminal, but are choices we opt into as individuals, like a night out at the theatre. This distinction comes with a suggestion that true liminality, the collective entry into the liminal, is not available within a complex industrial society.
Now, perhaps this has been true – but here’s my next wild suggestion. The consequences of that very complex industrial society are now bringing us to a point where we get reacquainted with true liminality. To take seriously not just what Dark Mountain has been talking about, but what Monbiot and Harris are touching on, is to recognise that we now face a crisis which has no outside. The planetary scale of our predicament makes it as much a collective experience as anything faced by the tribal cultures studied by Turner and his colleagues.
If this is the case, then where within our existing cultures do we go for knowledge about how to navigate the terrain of liminality? Not to the sources of factual authority, much as we need them, but to the places where liminoid practices have endured – to the arts, especially those forms in which people gather and share a live experience, and also (Turner would tell us) to those traditions and institutions that deal with the sacred.
In 2016, I came to the end of two years working as leader of artistic development with Riksteatern, Sweden’s touring national theatre. The collaboration came about because their artistic director had been strongly influenced by the Dark Mountain manifesto. In the workshops we ran together, writers, directors and performers met around the question of what art can do, in the face of all that we know and fear about the depth of the mess the world is in.
The answers that emerged began with a rejection of the usual invitation to put our art to use as a communications tool to deliver a message on behalf of scientists, policy-makers or activists – not out of some misplaced sense of ‘art for art’s sake’ purity, but because this isn’t how art works.
Instead, many of the possibilities I caught sight of during this work had to do with the liminal. Art can hold a space in which we move from the arm’s-length knowledge of facts, figures and projections, to the kind of knowledge that we let inside us, taking the risk that it may change us. Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down. Like the bronze shield given to Perseus by Athena, art and its indirect ways of knowing can allow us to approach realities which, if looked at directly, turn something inside us to stone. Art can call us back from strategic calculations about which message will play best with which target group, insisting on the tricky need for honesty – there’s a line I kept coming back to, from the playwright Mark Ravenhill, that your responsibility when you walk on stage is to be ‘the most truthful person in the room’. Art can teach us to live with uncertainty, to let go of our dreams of control. And art can hold open a space of ambiguity, refusing the binary choices with which we are often presented – not least, the choice between forced optimism and simple despair.
These are strange answers. For anyone in search of solutions, they will sound unsatisfying. But I don’t think it’s possible to endure the knowledge of the crises we face, unless you are able to draw on this other kind of knowledge and practice, whether you find it in art or religion or any other domain in which people have taken the liminal seriously, generation after generation. Because the role of ritual is not just to get you into the liminal, but to give you a chance of finding your way back.
Among the messages of the liminal is that endings are also beginnings, that sometimes we need to ‘give up’, that despair is not a thing to be avoided at all costs – nor a thing to be mistaken for an end state.
* * *
Somewhere in the tumbling days that followed the US election, I saw it go by in the stream of social media. ‘It’s basically Breitbart vs Dark Mountain now, isn’t it?’ someone wrote, like we’re the last ones left whose worldviews aren’t in smithereens after the year that just happened. And like a few things in 2016, it had the taste of a bad joke that might have more truth in it than you’d want to be the case.
In the last weeks of the year, as we were putting together this series of reflections, a discussion got started among the Dark Mountain editors about what the role of this project should be, in the years ahead. Bad jokes aside, it’s clear that the work we’ve been doing has taken on a new relevance, and with that comes a sense of responsibility.
A couple of things are clear. The books we publish will always be at the heart of this project – and the work of artists, the makers of culture, will always be our starting point.
Every year, thousands of copies of our books go out to readers around the world. By the standards of an independent literary journal, it’s an achievement, and it’s through the sale of our books that we’re able to pay for some of the work that goes into Dark Mountain. (The rest of the work, as you can imagine, is a labour of love.)
A sobering realisation this autumn, though, was that the audience coming to this website each year is a hundred times the size of the number of people ordering the books. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – but over the years, we’ve given only a fraction of the attention to this site that goes into each of our print issues.
So we came to the conclusion that it’s time to do something online that comes closer to the richness of the books we publish (and will go on publishing). Exactly what form this takes, we’re still working on – but it’s going to be an online publication, something more and different to a blog – and a site that reflects more of the web of activity of the writers, thinkers, artists, musicians, makers and doers who have taken up the challenges of the Dark Mountain manifesto.
How ambitious we can be with the next phase of Dark Mountain depends on the level of support we get, so at this stage we’re not setting a fundraising target or a deadline – but we’ll tell you more as we go along.
Meanwhile, thank you for reading and sharing the work we publish. From the crowdfunding of the manifesto onwards, everything Dark Mountain has done over the years has been made possible by the support of friends, collaborators and readers. We don’t take that for granted – and wherever things go next, however dark it gets, we’re thankful for the journey we’ve been on with you.
Dougald Hine is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. He lives in Västerås, Sweden.
Image: Still from Attempt at the ocean / not-to-touch-the-ground Fårö, Sweden by Patrik Qvist, featured in Dark Mountain: Issue 7. Patrik was one of fourteen artists, writers, directors and performers based in Sweden who took part in the Dark Mountain Workshop with Riksteatern, led by Dougald Hine, between October 2015 and May 2016.
Please check out our fundraising page and consider making a donation to support the next phase of the work of Dark Mountain.
2016 was a year of turbulence, revolt and change, especially in the West. Over the past month we’ve been publishing a series of blogs by different writers, stepping outside the bubble of instant opinion to reflect on the wider significance of these changes. Following on from Anne Tagonist’s2016: The Year Magic Broke Into Politics, today we turn from the past to the (deep) future, with an essay by the prolific and provocative John Michael Greer.
Artist’s impression of Paris in the year 2000, by Albert Robida (1883)
One of the oddest features of contemporary industrial society, it seems to me, is the profound ambivalence it displays toward the future. It’s hard to think of any society in human history that has made so much noise about the future, or used images and ideas of the future so relentlessly as rhetorical ammunition in its political and cultural controversies. In all the tumult and shouting about alternative tomorrows, though, one rarely encounters the sense that the future might be different from the present in any way that genuinely matters.
That wasn’t always the case. As recently as the 1970s, imaginary tomorrows that went zooming off at right angles to the conventional wisdom were commonplace. In the decades since then, however, a curious sort of conformism has squeezed the collective imagination of our era into an increasingly narrow rut. Take any randomly chosen portrayal of the future nowadays, and rather more often than not, you’ll find two and only two differences from the present: on the one hand, technology extends its current trajectory straight out to the horizon; on the other, the attitudes and customs of this or that affluent group in today’s industrial societies become more generally accepted. Nothing else is allowed to change.
So narrow a view of the future isn’t limited to the vague mumblings of politicians and pundits, or for that matter such bargain-basement pop culture phenomena as the Star Trek franchise. It’s pervasive even in science fiction, which used to be far more open to alternative tomorrows. I’m thinking here, among other examples, of Neal Stephenson’s otherwise intriguing 2008 novel Anathem, which is set on an alternate Earth some 3,400 years after the equivalent of our time.
Mind you, Stephenson is better at pushing the boundaries than most. His alternate world features an intriguing scientific monasticism that invites comparison with the scholarly monasticism of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass BeadGame, to the extent that I’ve wondered more than once if some of Stephenson’s inspiration might have come from the subtle ambiguities of Hesse’s novel. Yet the inhabitants of his alternate world, living in the equivalent of 5400AD, wear t-shirts, eat energy bars, and text each other and access the internet on what, despite a change in name, are pretty obviously iPhones. Worse, they talk, think, and act in ways indistinguishable from their t-shirt-wearing, energy-bar-ingesting, iPhone-using equivalents in 2016.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Stephenson could have taken his entire story — plot, characters, dialogue, and all — and set it in an upscale San Francisco neighbourhood of today without the least sense of incongruity. It’s very much as though an ancient Roman science-fiction writer penned an adventure set in the twentieth century, in which everyone still wore togas, ate stuffed dormice, wrote on wax tablets, and had the same interests, attitudes, and habits as intellectuals at the court of Augustus Caesar — as though the future had no other options to draw on.
At that, as already noted, Stephenson’s vision goes further than most. A great deal of science fiction these days is still stuck rehashing the shopworn trope of Man’s Future in Space, ringing changes on a handful of imagined futures that were already old hat in the 1960s. Year after year, the technologies become more elaborate but the underlying ideas become more tightly focused on the concerns of the present moment, and tales that span entire universes fail to conjure up the rush of strangeness and wonder that authors once achieved with a trip to the Moon.
I submit that something has gone far astray here. It’s the same thing that leads Pentagon officials to publish projections of the military environment in 2035 based on the assumption that the only significant change between then and now will be the arrival of new technologies, and convinces affluent liberals that their carbon-intensive lifestyles don’t conflict with their environmentalist beliefs in any way that really matters. A great many people these days have lost track of the fact that the future really can be different from the present.
There’s a tremendous irony here, in that modern industrial society belongs to the minority of societies that pays attention to the reality of historical change. Far more common among human cultures is the belief that the true order of things was set forth once and for all at some point in the past, and any departure from that true order is an error waiting for correction. That’s very widespread among those peoples sufficiently comfortable with their environments that they don’t need to insert complex technological suites between themselves and the natural world — yes, that’s pronounced ‘primitive societies’ in our tribal jargon — but it’s not only found there; ancient Egypt and classical Japan, among many other complex literate civilisations, revered narratives that explained how the principles of right living were set out at the beginning of time.
Among the minority of human cultures that have seen history as a dynamic process, rather than a continual reaching back to the First Time, far and away the most common vision of time is cyclic rather than linear. From within the traditional Hindu or the classic Maya worldview, for instance. the future is the past; all things have happened before and will happen again, and while historical change takes place, there’s nothing genuinely new about it. That’s one of many reasons why the people who pinned their hopes of Utopia, apocalypse, or some fusion of the two on a nonexistent Mayan prophecy four years ago were barking up the wrong stump. The classic Mayan vision of time has no room for such things, since in that worldview, the rollover of the thirteenth baktun has happened and will happen countless times in the spinning circles of eternity.
It’s interesting to speculate on why it was that tribal peoples in one corner of the long peninsula stuck on the western end of Asia — yes, that would be Europe — broke away from those standard options and began to think about time as a straight line. The curious thing is that while the straight lines of history that dominate the imagination of our time lead ever upwards, the oldest-known version pointed the other way. We know that because a bitter old man named Hesiod, who lived on a hardscrabble farm in Boeotia during the last century or so of the Greek dark ages, put the tale into one of the oldest surviving works of Greek literature.
There had been a golden age in the past, Hesiod tells us, when people lived without labour and suffering, and the gods walked among men. There had been a silver age of harmless folly after that, and then a bronze age of war. Then had come the time of heroes, and finally the iron age of suffering and destitution, in which Hesiod believed he lived — and not without good reason. Eventually infants would be born with their hair already grey, and then inscrutable Zeus would send the last wretched remnants of humanity tumbling down into darkness and silence forever.
Christianity, Islam, and a baker’s dozen or so of their mostly forgotten rivals rebelled against that vision without actually changing it. Their solution to the terrible vision of a world in permanent decline involved the prophecy of a deus ex machina at the end of the tale, to lift up the faithful remnant to inscrutable heights. It was only after the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and the first stirrings of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth, to give rise to the modern vision of history as a process of perpetual improvement, a vast journey up from the darkness and squalor of the prehistoric past to the luminous possibilities of an imagined future.
For a good long time, too, ‘imagined’ was the operative world. Once the idea of progress found its initial foothold among eighteenth-century intellectuals, imagining the future that progress would bring became a growth industry. The resulting images extended from the highly practical to the highly absurd — I’m thinking here especially of Charles Fourier, who predicted (and apparently believed) that when humanity passed beyond Civilisation to the supreme state of Harmony, the oceans would turn to lemonade and wars between communities would be replaced by competitive orgies — but the most popular visions provided anchors for the hopes of millions.
Not so long ago, this was still true. The question I want to raise is why that was replaced with the present habit of thinking of the future as just like the present, only a little more so. I have an answer to propose, too: the reason so few people spend their time imagining a future of perpetual progress is that so few people actually believe in it any more.
Gregory Bateson, one of the twentieth century’s most versatile intellects, pointed out many years ago the role of double-binds in the origins of schizophrenia. The pattern he traced out works like this. Imagine a child growing up in a family in which there’s one set of overt, verbally expressed rules for behaviour, and another, covert set of rules that contradict the first. If the child breaks the overt rules by obeying the covert ones, he gets a negative verbal response, but a covert emotional reward; if the child breaks the covert rules by obeying the overt ones, he gets punished on some other pretext. If the child attempts to bring the contradiction out into the open, finally, he gets a reaction intended to terrify him into never mentioning the matter again.
It’s the last element, Bateson found, that makes the double-bind so lethal. If the child can talk to one other person who understands what’s happening, and can thereby get some confirmation of the fact that there really is something profoundly tangled going on, the double-bind breaks down and the child can shrug and say, ‘I guess mom and dad are just kind of crazy.’ It’s when the child has no such option — when he has to confront an apparently crazy pattern of behaviour without any way of knowing whether the craziness is in his family or in himself — that he’s likely to give up on reality altogether, and take refuge in madness.
Bateson’s theory of the double-bind has been on my mind of late, because much the same pattern has taken shape in modern industrial society in relation to technological progress. The overt, verbally expressed rules concerning progress can be summed up in a straightforward way as ‘whatever’s newer is by definition better.’ Listen to media pundits and the chattering classes generally, and you can count on hearing words like ‘innovative’, ‘advanced’, ‘progressive’, and their countless equivalents constantly being deployed as synonyms for ‘good’.
The problem with this habit is that rather more often than not these days, the innovative, the advanced, the progressive, and so on are no longer good in any sense that matters. Calvin Trillin got a nervous general laugh recently with an essay suggesting that the most frightening word in the English language is ‘upgrade’. Less humorous and more pervasive are the innovative pharmaceuticals and medical treatments that have side effects worse than the conditions they are supposed to treat, the advanced technologies that never quite do what they’re supposed to do, the progressive political and economic policies that routinely hurt far more people than they help. Every time a new round of products hits the shelves labelled ‘new and improved’, the odds go up that if they’re actually new, they won’t have been improved.
It could be that the political shifts of 2016 marked the point where the automatic equation of progress with improvement is starting to fray even in public. Recent discussions of driverless trucks and artificial intelligence in the media have admitted up front that these technologies, once they reach the market, will cause tens of millions of people to lose their jobs — this at a time when a soaring number of people across the industrial world have already been pushed out of the workforce with next to no provision for their survival, and the reaction has sparked a populist backlash that already has political establishments running for cover. The Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, and the Italian referendum are straws in the wind; if the mindless pursuit of progress continues on its present track, as I expect, that wind will likely become a hurricane.
The core of the crisis of our time is that technological progress, which was once industrial society’s principal source of solutions, has become its principal source of problems. It’s not at all hard to see why this should be so. The law of diminishing returns applies just as forcefully to technological innovation as it does to so many other things; as time goes on, on average, each new generation of technology requires more resources, produces more waste, and yields fewer benefits than the ones that came before it. Keep going, and you inevitably get to the point at which the burdens of each new generation of technology outweigh the benefits. A case could be made that industrial society passed that point some years ago.
The difficulty here is that until recently, you couldn’t mention this in public — not without fielding much the same sort of response a child in a dysfunctional family gets if he tries to bring up the double-bind that’s literally driving him insane. As it becomes increasingly common to challenge the equation of progress with improvement, a good many of us may finally be able to have the conversations that let us know that there really is something profoundly tangled going on, and get to the point of shrugging and saying, ‘I guess our society is kind of crazy.’
Our society prides itself on its sense of deep time — its slowly earned recognition of the sheer shattering immensity of the prehuman past. The pride’s not misplaced, but it’s one-sided. A vast number of people today who think they’re comfortable with the abysses of the past turn pale and talk about something else when it comes time to look out on the abysses of the future.
As I’ve suggested, that’s largely driven by the dawning recognition that the future is not going to be anything like the grand upward journey to the stars we thought we were going to get. The thinner the rhetoric of progress has become, and the more obvious it is that the future ahead of us isn’t going to fulfil the promises loaded upon it, the more two-dimensional the collective image of the future has become. At this point it’s simply a placeholder, a cheery and increasingly flimsy image meant to give people something to look at, so they don’t have to notice the future that’s actually looming up in front of us.
Comforting though that placeholder is, I don’t think it’s wise, or for that matter psychologically healthy, to keep staring at it. To the contrary, it’s past time to take down the painted screen that shows people like us living lives like ours in a future that’s still stocked with its familiar quota of t-shirts, energy bars, iPhones, and contemporary chatter, hang it somewhere else as a memento of a departing age, and lift our eyes toward the deep future.
The truism that we can’t actually know anything about the future, like most thoughtstoppers of the same kind, doesn’t happen to be true. Just as an astronomer can observe a newly discovered exoplanet and, after a few observations, predict where it’s going to be found a day, a week, or a thousand years later, enough is known about the behaviour of civilisations, species, and planets to be able to predict with some certainty the trend of events in the deep future.
Among the things that aren’t subject to doubt are certain impossibilities. We’re not going to colonise deep space or the other worlds in the solar system, for example, because the Earth is the only rocky planet this side of Proxima Centauri with a magnetic field strong enough to ward off the streams of hard radiation pouring off the vast unshielded fusion reactor 93 million miles away from us. Space scientists have known about this for decades, and have been trying with an increasing sense of panic to find some way around it, without result; human beings simply didn’t evolve in a high-radiation environment like space, and it’s not a suitable habitat for us.
The grandiose mythic vision of humanity’s future in space, in other words, is going to have to be folded up and put away in whatever museum awaits our society’s dead dreams. It’s popular these days to insist that human beings can accomplish anything they can imagine, but this is another truism that doesn’t happen to be true; anyone who wants to make that claim, it seems to me, is obliged to present the world with a working perpetual motion machine. Some things just aren’t physically possible; some aren’t practically workable; some aren’t economically viable — and those are constraints that our species is going to have to learn to live with for the rest of whatever time-span we have ahead of us.
Then there are the constraints that follow from the choices we’ve already made. Our immediate descendants, for example, are going to inherit a planet stripped of nearly all its fossil fuels and most of its nonrenewable resources, and wracked by a wildly unstable climate. Until the coming thermal maximum peaks and levels off, maybe five centuries from now, we can expect wild swings in rainfall and temperature over most of the planet, and sudden upward surges in sea level — when ice caps break up, as glaciologists have learned in recent decades, much of the melting takes place in massive meltwater pulses that can send sea level up five meters or more in a decade or two. It’s going to be a very rough half millennium, and I don’t imagine it will be any consolation to the survivors to reflect on the fact that we did it to ourselves.
On the far side of the era of climatic chaos, to judge by the evidence from previous greenhouse events and global temperature spikes, the climate will stabilise again, following patterns sharply different from the ones that shape it today. Plants will recover fastest, as they always do after extinction crises, sprouting from buried seeds and spreading in the usual ways from sheltered refugia. The generalist animal species that get through the bottleneck of the current extinction crisis — rats, cats, feral pigs, crows, and many others — will begin expanding into new ecological niches, launching a burst of speciation that will populate the biosphere with a new fauna.
And human beings? We’re also a generalist species, and a highly adaptable one. Even before the industrial revolution, humans spread to every continent except Antarctica, adjusting without too much difficulty to environments as varied as the Arctic tundra, the Sahara desert, the great inland steppes and prairies of the Old and New World, and the island chains of the Pacific. That said, we have a bottleneck to get through, too, and the global population at the bottom of the coming decline will thus likely be only a few per cent of current figures.
Beyond that lies territory that’s rarely been explored, even in the pages of science fiction. I’ve suggested elsewhere that modern industrial society will likely turn out to be merely the first, not to mention the most primitive and wasteful, of a kind of human ecology we can call technic societies — that is to say, societies that get a majority of their energy supply from sources other than human and animal muscle. The technic societies of the deep future won’t have fossil fuels to draw on, but they will have renewable energy resources: sun, wind, water, biomass, and perhaps others that we haven’t though of yet. They won’t have the nonrenewable raw materials we waste so freely, except to the extent that they can extract them for a while from our landfills and ruins, but they will have renewable materials in abundance. The technologies they create using these resources will not be like ours, and will very likely be put to uses we can’t even imagine today.
The technic societies of the future will likely be more geographically restricted than today’s industrial society. Even today there are regions of the planet that are arguably better suited for hunting and gathering, for nomadic herding, and for village agriculture than they are for the kinds of settlement and economy that we’ve imposed on them. In the deep future, that’s likely to be even more true — as true, for example, as it was back at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when fossil fuels still provided a negligible share of the world’s energy. In human terms, the Earth will be a bigger planet than it is today, and far bigger and more diverse than the galactic monocultures so often portrayed by today’s science fiction authors.
The technic societies of the deep future, furthermore, will be no more eternal than our society is turning out to be. Some of them, for that matter, may manage to mess up the planetary biosphere the way we’ve done, and pay something like the same dire cost, though I suspect that our fate will be discussed in hushed tones for centuries to come, and that this may provide a certain degree of immunisation against a repeat. Other societies will rise and fall according to the normal life cycle of civilisations, and to judge by the evidence of history, each of those future societies will be as different from one another as they are from us, exploring realms of human possibility that, again, we can’t even imagine today.
Though we’re not going to the stars, in other words, our species will nonetheless be journeying to worlds stranger than any of our dreams. Instead of travelling through space, humanity has launched itself on a journey through time at the dizzying speed of sixty seconds every minute, and the destinations ahead will more than likely be entirely free of t-shirts, energy bars, iPhones, or the increasingly dreary and dysfunctional conventional wisdom of our age. To me, at least, that’s an enticing prospect; while none of us can expect to see the worlds of deep time that await our species, we are at least free to dream — and perhaps even to take steps to see that as many of the useful legacies of our time make it through the impending crises of our age to the waiting hands of the deep future.
John Michael Greer is the author of The Archdruid Report, a weekly blog on peak oil and current affairs, as well as more than forty books on subjects ranging from nature spirituality to the future of industrial society. He lives in an old mill town in the Appalachians with his wife Sara.
2016 has been a year of turbulence, revolt and change, especially in the West. As one year turns into the next, Dark Mountain is publishing seven blogs by seven different writers, stepping outside the bubble of instant opinion to reflect on the wider significance of these changes. Following on from Chris Smaje’s 2016: A Sheep’s Vigil, the series continues with blogger Anne Tagonist.
We are used to being unwelcome, hunted, blamed, raped, tortured, dispossessed, disappeared. Now we are an irrelevance, a harmless eccentricity, a fairy ball sporting stick on ears dressing up box deviance, a social joke. Yet as witchcraft is filled with the spirit of the age we will become dangerous again, because witchcraft will have rooted meaning.
Peter Grey, ‘Apocalyptic Witchcraft’
The mythopoesis of a pre-Romantic Scots witch story is straightforward: a witch or sorcerer has foresworn the church and enjoys great power in the world. Her land is green. Her enemies fear her. She should be happy, but in fact she is beholden to the devil to torment her neighbours so that they, too, will foreswear the church. The hero, brought to agony by the loss of family, land, or freedom, is tempted in a moment of wild rage to call on the devil, but does not. This forebearance kills the witch malefactor, though since this is Scotland nothing improves the lot of the broken hero, whose only consolation is the firm possession of his or her soul. The Romantics prettied it up with ancient ruins and mysterious rituals, but the underlying narrative remains ugly and revolting. Magic, in these tales, is a contagious evil narrowly avoided at the final minute.
But then, history is written by the victors.
In 1890 Edinburgh-born folklorist David MacRitchie noticed something odd — where Britain was colonising and exterminating in Africa, the remaining indigenous population, though driven to hide in marginal lands and raid settlements, acquired a magical aura in the imaginations of the settlers. The Khoikhoi, the San, people who had previously been formidable opponents in colonial wars began cropping up in settler stories as magical helpers, genii locii, carriers of obscure but valuable knowledge. From this he made an interesting intuitive leap to his own magical imagination: in a series of books he speculated that legends of the faeries in Scotland were similarly the echoes of an invasion and genocide, committed by the Gauls, or the Dalriata, or someone else, against an earlier indigenous populations of Great Britain. This he called the ‘Euhemeric Theory of Fairies‘ after a Greek philosopher who proposed that the gods were in fact long-dead kings to whom magical powers had been attributed.
MacRitchie identified several interesting parallels: the fairies lived under hills; the pre-Brythonic inhabitants of Britain lived in round sod houses. The fairies were afraid of iron; ironworking was brought to England as late as the 6th century BCE, probably by the conquering Celts. The faeries lived on mountains and in bogs; agriculture and agrarian colonists spread most rapidly over plains and river valleys. He even makes a claim that the diminutive ‘fairy herds’ were reindeer — far smaller than cattle or horses, domesticated in Scandinavia and Siberia for millennia, extinct in Britain since 6300BCE. The attribution of magic and the need to leave certain tokens for the fairies mirrors what he observed in South Africa, too.
Being a Victorian, he went on to propose that ‘Lapps’ had cross-bred with ‘Pygmies’ or the Ainu, and that’s why the fairies were so short. This part of his thesis is so ridiculous that it pretty much sunk the Euhemeric idea for good, but let’s pretend that the connection between magic and the knife-edge of annihilation can be extracted, like a bauble, from the matrix of silly racialism. In fact, lets pretend, for a moment, that magic and cultures in crisis are, in fact, natural companions. Let us consider that 2016 was the year that magic returned to politics.
The rock, the rock,
I am standing upon it,
I am standing upon it,
By its means I saw our father,
By its means I saw our father,
Arapaho Ghost Dance song, collected in James Mooney’s ‘The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890’
As I write this, several hundred native people and supporters are huddled around whatever improvised heat they can manage, trying to push away cold, fear, and the threats of the Army Corps of Engineers to remove them, again, from treaty lands in North Dakota. Its three hundred miles and 126 years from the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, but really, its not that far at all. Sometimes called ‘the last battle of the Indian wars’ Wounded Knee wasn’t really a battle. On the one side 500 soldiers from the 7th Cavalry, fourteen years past their loss at Little Bighorn, mounted on horseback and armed with rifles and Hotchkiss guns. On the other side, about 400 Indians, of various nations, some armed, some not. The final casualties were 25 cavalrymen, and all but 51 of the Indians; roughly half of the Indian casualties were women and children. If you notice, I’m being ambiguous about numbers, and that’s because nobody at the time bothered to count the Indian dead.
The activity for which the Indians were killed was known as ‘Ghost Dancing’. If like me you learned your history in the US school system, you probably learned that a ‘medicine man’ named Wovoka made shirts that he said would repel bullets but they didn’t; on to the next chapter. In fact, the Ghost Dance was a long lived and well-documented religious movement founded by a Paiute ranch hand who had an ecstatic vision in which he saw all the Indian nations dancing together to bring about a resurrection of the pre-colonial world. The Ghost Dance spread like a revival movement, with different nations holding great, days-long dances across the American West, and singing sad and hopeful songs about the coming age. Many of the lyrics were collected at the time, in different languages, and they range from cheerfully nostalgic recollections of playing shinny-stick (a lacrosse-like game) and eating pemmican, to spooky visions of dead relatives and lost children beckoning the dancers on into a new world.
Ghost Dancing, in short, was a millenarian movement. In fact, Ghost Dancing was such a prototypical millenarian movement that it’s not uncommon to hear any movement in which large groups ritually assemble and dance or sing towards the end of bringing about a sudden and magical new world described as ‘ghost dancing’. The scholarship of millenarianism is extensive and I won’t pretend an exhaustive summary here, but some definition seems necessary. Occasionally — and this seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon par excellence — a charismatic spirit seizes people in an age of instability and anxiety and grants them visions of a movement capable of overtaking history. The spirits promise that ritual activity, almost always involving rhythmic dancing and singing, often including self-deprivation, trance states and invulnerability, will bring about a great change and free them from their alienated tribulation. In the words of historian Mark Lilla ‘Since the continuity of time has already been broken, they begin to dream of making a second break and escaping from the present.’
The term ‘millenarian’ is often misunderstood to mean ‘relating to the year 1000, or 2000’. In fact, it derives from the Christian belief in The Millennium, the thousand-year rule of Jesus that will allegedly come about at some time in the near future. Similar golden eras have been invoked by other millenarians – Wovoka said that Europeans would disappear; the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist said that, well, that Europeans would disappear; the ‘Yellow Turbans‘ who flit by in the first chapter of the Sanguozhi believed that the Han would leave them alone; the Cathars believed that through ‘Perfection’ they would destroy the rule of the demiurge; the Münsterites saw their city on the verge of becoming the New Jerusalem in New Zion; the True Levellers anticipated an England free of the ‘Norman Yoke’, etc. etc. etc. It is this belief — that of a coming rupture, achievable through belief and motion — that defines millenarianism.
Are millenarian movements magical? More properly, does the dominant culture surrounding a millenarian movement attribute to practitioners magical powers? I began this essay with witchcraft, and perhaps no history quite epitomises this ambiguity better: were the witches, as Jules Michelet suggests, a millenarian peasant uprising? Or, as Anne Barstow and Silvia Federici (separately) argue, were they victims of a wave of consolidation by the powerful, embodied as a moral panic? Norman Cohn, a highly regarded historian of millenarian movements, has argued that those persecuted as witches, whoever they were, were ensnared in a persistent European fantasy that small, secret organisations rule via occult powers and disgusting rituals, and must be stopped with force majeure.
Certainly, a large number of millenarianisms have ended, like the Ghost Dancers, in rivers of blood, victims of a response that seems in retrospect entirely out of scale to the actual danger the movements posed. Often millenarians, dwelling as they do in the penumbra of no-time, cast off the rules of the world they are leaving in a mass act of iconoclasm and break things — churches, laws, marriages — but rarely do they seem capable of forming any real danger to the status quo. Instead, the status quo response is justified by the supernatural – the unreal – danger practitioners pose to those who must be protected, including millenarians’ ability to ‘radicalise’ new followers: to convince good people, like Scottish heroes, to sell their souls in a moment of weakness, to drink from the barilotto, to leave the true church, to let their fields lie fallow and follow the saviour to the city.
And after the killing’s done there is, it seems, a strange echo of magical powers that hovers around the ghosts of these massacres. The Cathars and the Templars, for instance, show up in fiction as mystics and illuminati. Magical Indian counselors and guides are a horrible cliche linking Tom Brown Jr. to Barbara Kingsolver to Carlos Castaneda. The Euhemeric theory that colonial victims of a pre-Celtic genocide were resurrected as magical fairies and giants is not without plausibility. Certainly MacRitchie’s Khoikhoi were only seen as magical after they had been slaughtered to the point of near-irrelevance.
‘Journeymen and unskilled workers, peasants without land or with too little land to support them, beggars and vagabonds, the unemployed and those threatened with unemployment, the many who for one reason or another could find no assured and recognised place- such people, living in a state of chronic frustration and anxiety, formed the most impulsive and unstable elements in medieval society. Any disturbing, frightening or exciting event- any kind of revolt or revolution, a summons to a crusade, an interregnum, a plague or a famine, anything in fact which disrupted the normal routine of social life- acted on these people with peculiar sharpness and called forth reactions of peculiar violence. And the way in which they attempted to deal with their common plight was to form a salvationist group under the leadership of some man whom they regarded as extraordinarily holy.’
Norman Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements
So let’s get down to business: is the rise of Donald Trump a millenarian movement? If so, what the hell does that mean? The similarities are striking: the continuing rallies, the chanting, the iconoclasm and the coming golden age are textbook. So too is the moral panic that has animated his detractors. There are already oddly explicit references to magic or destiny in the emergent nebula of cultural productions that surround the campaign proper. Australian magic writer Gordon White has described ‘Make America Great Again’ as a spell or incantation. Alt-right writer Greg Johnson included ‘neo-paganism‘ on his list of founding principles, alongside ‘race realism’ and ‘anti-feminism’. And why is Richard Spencer writing about paganism at all?
Certainly an atmosphere of great rupture roils and burns above the heartland of America right now, and many of the manifestations seem folkloric, if not outright magical. Lets start with those scary clowns: suddenly over a few months in the fall of 2016, people all across the world were seeing clowns in the woods, clowns near schools, clowns running through the centre of cities threatening… something. Clowns with knives. Clowns with machetes. Clowns with axes. Clowns beating hikers with whisky bottles. A few people were arrested wearing clown masks, but a lot of clown sightings were, as they say, unsubstantiated. Even those who were actually arrested demand further explanation — there are plenty of items one can wear as a disguise when robbing a taco bell, why was it suddenly clown season? A reddit user who goes by the pseudonym -triggerexpert- pointed out a number of resonances to earlier trickster legends: the creepy clowns were ‘magical people that live in the forest and frighten our children,’ either hallucinations springing from a minds that need to witness a true monster — albeit in this case an attenuated, rationalist, scary-person-in-a-costume monster — or a strange spirit that ‘possesses’ people and ‘drives [them] to buy a clown suit and lurk in the forest.’
You might have seen the curious intrusion into the presidential campaign of a long-standing internet cartoon meme called Pepe the Frog. This essay by the possibly-pseudonymous A.T.L. Carver explains that Pepe the Frog isn’t a cartoon character at all, but rather an avatar of Kekuit, a frog-headed Egyptian chaos-god accidentally summoned by a Korean onomatopoeia and manifested primarily on 4Chan. That would be a weird enough claim for a single essay (or, a series of three essays) but apparently this has been an understanding among these people since long before the election. In other words, whatever you may think Pepe the Frog is or represents, or whatever Matt Furie thinks Pepe the Frog is or represents, this is what the people who made Pepe a thing believe. I simply can’t do justice to the phenomenon here, you’re going to have to go read it yourself. Well, read the first link in this paragraph. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go read 4Chan.
But lets get back to the Trump campaign. Wrapped up in the question of whether Trumpism is millenarian is the obvious corollary — is the despair of rural America enough to create a millenarian movement? Certainly compared to a medieval peasant, or a nineteenth century Indian, even the unnecessariat are doing okay. But here’s the estimable Chris Hedges on his Trump-loving Maine relatives:
They live in towns and villages that have been ravaged by deindustrialization. The bank in Mechanic Falls, where my grandparents lived, is boarded up, along with nearly every downtown store. The paper mill closed decades ago. There is a strip club in the center of the town. The jobs, at least the good ones, are gone. Many of my relatives and their neighbors work up to 70 hours a week at three minimum-wage jobs, without benefits, to make perhaps $35,000 a year. Or they have no jobs. They cannot afford adequate health coverage under the scam of Obamacare. Alcoholism is rampant in the region. Heroin addiction is an epidemic. Labs producing the street drug methamphetamine make up a cottage industry. Suicide is common. Domestic abuse and sexual assault destroy families. Despair and rage among the population have fueled an inchoate racism, homophobia and Islamophobia and feed the latent and ever present poison of white supremacy.
Significantly, the remainder of that essay explores the search for ‘magical thinking’ Hedges sees in his family: ‘Those who are cast aside as human refuse often have a psychological need for illusions and scapegoats. They desperately seek the promise of divine intervention. They unplug from a reality that is too hard to bear.’
Hedges blames the Christian right, but not as an unsympathetic outsider. For the past few years, Hedges, Truthdig columnist and author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning has also been serving as a Presbyterian minister — he has an M.Div from Harvard — in New Jersey. Something needs to give us meaning after all. Why shouldn’t the incantation of an America Great Again, ushered in by memes, smash the idols of an America Too Hard To Bear? Why should the ritual mechanisms that consolidate collective action — dancing, singing, rhythm, unison, trance and vision — not stand in for divine intervention?
If Trumpism is apocalyptic, we should be careful. The charming idea that Trump’s more outlandish proclamations have been cynical maneuvers to profit from the rage and unplugging of his movement can be rejected out of hand. Whatever else they may be, the charismatic leaders of millenarian movements are always the truest of true believers; typically they perish in the final bloodbath seemingly amazed that their vision has not, even in its ultimate crisis, manifested in their favor. Similarly, it is not true that millenarian movements always fail without collateral damage. Christianity began as a Jewish heresy after all, a movement among the colonised subjects of Roman Judaea that promised a new age with the return of the dead prophet. It didn’t go well for Judea’s — the Zealots were crushed and the Temple destroyed — but Christianity went on to be a world-altering force.
I have tried, desperately, to avoid breaking Godwin’s law throughout this essay and not mention the obvious millenarian overtones of the Nazis, but the chanting and marching, the thousand-year golden era, the invocations of blood and soil make that impossible. The world indeed does sometimes break to the will of the perfected, even if, like the Batenburgers or the Flagellant Brethren of the Cross, the perfected sometimes paint themselves with the entrails of the damned. Magic and the magical have once again become forces in our era. It is tempting to treat them ironically – Ivan Stang is surely spinning in his grave, except that he’s not dead — but we play with them lightly, or dismiss them entirely, at our peril.
There are going to be people for whom this entire direction of inquiry is anathema. There are those who believe in a political version of Homo economics — that humans are rational actors, and the best possible policies, developed by the smartest people and explained in the clearest terms, will win support from the masses who will consider both their own best interests and the degree to which the expected outcomes are congruent with shared values. These people are feeling utterly shocked and confused right now. There are those who believe that any reference to magic or social egregores is anti-scientific and hence, prima facie wrong. These people are feeling disgusted right now. There are those who feel that they must limit themselves to only those predictions that lead from our present predicament to a glorious, peaceful and enlightened future, and if they ever change the channel the ghosts will get them. These people are terrified.
But to all these people I say — you are living in a world that bends. To pass through the storm, it will be necessary to discuss matters plainly with the wind. If you cannot imagine such a conversation perhaps you would do well to learn from those who already float like leaves…
Notes: Since I wrote the first draft of this, the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to delay permitting one mile of the Dakota Access Pipeline until an environmental impact statement is completed. I would like to thank Ran Prieur and my professor friend for reading (and not necessarily agreeing with) this essay, and to acknowledge my conversations about millenarian movements with Heathen Chinese. Now, for the list of topics that didn’t make it into this essay:
The Mandela Effect– sadly, I think this can be attributed to people confusing Mandela with Steve Biko, whose death in prison was the subject of an Oscar-nominated early-eighties film (about a heroic white guy, natch)
The context for the Mark Lilla quote is a description of the millenarianism of the Islamic State, who actually are pretty bad people and the subjects of a full-scale moral panic.
It is too simple to say that cultures in crisis breed millenarian movements, which provoke moral panics, which lead to eradication and posthumous allegations of special powers. Many people have been destroyed quietly offstage throughout history after all.
2016 has been a year of turbulence, revolt and change, especially in the West. As one year turns into the next, Dark Mountain is publishing seven blogs by seven different writers, stepping outside the bubble of instant opinion to reflect on the wider significance of these changes. Following on from Charlotte Du Cann’s 2016: The Reveal, the series continues with farmer and blogger Chris Smaje.
Humans are symbolic creatures. We look for the signs in passing details that make sense of larger patterns – news stories, politics, natural events stitched into the narrative of our lives by small, local things. And always, perhaps, a reading of the portents for a prickling sense of threat, dulled but not dismissed by the comfort of the modern.
The farm I help to work is a good place for such reflections. Just recently I took two pigs to slaughter. People say that pigs are the smartest of farm animals, but there are different kinds of intelligence. Meatheads blind to the deceit of the bucket, they trotted obediently after it into the trailer for their final journey. Sheep rarely make the same mistake, endlessly watchful, and always with an eye on the best escape. Getting them where I want is usually a comedy of errors, full of pratfalls and missteps. But in the end I always succeed.
Not everything succeeds on the farm, though. I stump around it most days, talking to myself like a high street mutterer. ‘The lambs’ll need fresh hay; better check that water pipe; when should I coppice those willows; Christ, that shed’s a mess.’ Work gets done or it doesn’t. Nature brings her own designs, full of gifts and challenges. The seasons swing around and the farm year takes shape out of all those little monologues – the things that did or didn’t work, the produce sold or lost, the home, the family, and the comfort that while time moves on, tide washes clean. It’ll all be here next year, refreshed in spring, ready for another cycle – different from how it was before, and yet comfortably the same.
As I stump around the events of the wider world this year, I’m not so sure I can see the bigger patterns from the work that was done, or feel the comfort of renewal. But here, at any rate, are some things I noticed, and an effort to make sense of them.
1. From Blairism to Mairism. On 16 June, Thomas Mair murdered MP Jo Cox. When asked his name in court he said ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. He subsequently entered no plea and gave no evidence at his trial, instead jotting in a pad the names of well-known people he recognised in court. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he asked to address the court, a request refused by the judge on the grounds that he’d already had opportunities to explain himself.
A week after Cox’s death, the British electorate voted to leave the European Union by a narrow margin. I can’t help thinking of the Mair case as a kind of twisted microcosm of the vote, to which it formed a ghastly prelude – not because I think the Brexit voters were all far-right fanatics, but because the referendum gave us a similar opportunity to exercise our sense of everyman self-importance, but with no chance to explain what we’d meant when the vote was done and dusted.
Still, there were plenty of interpretations. On the left, an outpouring of anguish that Brexit represented a seismic shift to the political right, and on the right a gleeful appropriation along the same lines. But if it was a turn to the right, what kind of right? Many of the Conservative politicians at the forefront of the Leave campaign were neoliberal free marketeers feeling shackled by EU membership. They sought a ‘freedom for Britain’ indeed, to double down on its status as a trading nation. Much of the noise in the Leave camp, however, was anti-neoliberal – for local jobs, against immigration and austerity. With the gigantic target of Conservative Party disarray in its sights, the Labour Party chose to shoot itself in the foot instead, possibly signalling its end as a serious electoral force.
Thus, the Conservative government somehow parlayed the failure of its neoliberal politics into a retrenchment of its power. The various pretenders who had gathered around the corpse of the exiting prime minister fell away, leaving Theresa May as the only candidate with the apparent gravitas and bipartisan support to occupy the throne. But with her refusal to stake out a negotiating position, compounded by such mystifying pronouncements as the need for a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’, it soon became apparent that her crown was empty and May was the Captain Pouch of the Brexit putsch, with none of the magic powers needed to resolve its contradictions. The political blood-letting on the right is not yet over.
Meanwhile, three senior judges determined that, legally, the Brexit decision had to go before the parliament whose supreme sovereignty the Leave campaign had so vociferously championed. The Daily Mail branded their decision a ‘war on democracy’ waged by judges who were ‘enemies of the people’. Around the same time, a Conservative councillor in Guildford initiated a petition to extend the Treason Felony Act 1848 to include the offence of imagining the UK becoming part of the EU, with a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
Margaret Thatcher once said that Tony Blair’s Labour government was her greatest success. Blairism, Thatcherism, the ‘third way’ between left and right, the ‘Cool Britannia’ of Blair’s early premiership: it all seemed like a different geological age.
2. Lily goes to Calais. On 24 October, French police cleared the Calais refugee and migrant camp known as ‘The Jungle’. Not long before, pop singer Lily Allen broke down while interviewing an Afghan resident of the camp for a BBC documentary. ‘I apologise on behalf of my country for what we’ve put you through’, she said. Scanning the almost entirely abusive comments beneath the YouTube clip of Allen’s tearful moment, I was struck by one that expressed the hope Allen would be sexually violated and then have her throat cut, concluding ‘White, liberal elites…so fucking out of touch with reality yet making reality miserable for the rest of us.’
Out of touch liberal elites was indeed a major theme of 2016, a year characterised as a ‘revolt against the elites’ by commentators across the political spectrum, albeit not usually accompanied by dreams of rape and murder. It was a year for self-styled ‘silent majorities’ – though they weren’t always that silent, or indeed in the majority. It was, at any rate, a year in which ‘silent majorities’ called time on political correctness, which had gone even madder than usual. And a year in which it became impossible for many of us to agree on what reality is and who’s in touch with it.
But, for the time being, international agreements still require governments to protect unaccompanied child migrants. So just as the 1990s gave us arguments over bogus asylum-seekers, 2016 gave us arguments over bogus children. Conservative MP David Davies called for dental checks to verify the ages of Calais migrants, saying ‘I would like to see genuine children being brought in, but I think we have got a right to raise this question. If we don’t raise this question we allow ourselves to be carried along on a tide of emotion, Lily Allen-style with tears in our eyes. What we are going to end up doing is very quickly exhausting the well of hospitality that exists in Britain.’
The well was already wholly dry for controversialist Katie Hopkins in her response to Allen’s Calais theatrics: ‘Do not apologise for this country Allen, you cretin. This great country prefers to look after its own’.
Three teenage migrants who’d been in the camp spent a morning working on my farm as part of a local programme. They cleared a neglected, weedy plot with astonishing speed. One of them picked up a handful of soil and squeezed it in his hand.
‘Good humus,’ he said, before nodding at the clover ley with distant recognition, and asking ‘Alfalfa?’
It struck me that most UK teenagers would have little idea of how to identify soil humus content or the members of the family Fabaceae, and that maybe we’d be doing a better job of ‘looking after our own’ if they did. Meanwhile, new statistics showed that more than 19,000 UK children received hospital treatment for self-harm in 2015, a 14% increase from 2012.
3. Scary Clowns. In October, there was a brief flurry of news stories in the USA and the UK about scary clowns causing trouble on the streets. The panic ended almost as soon as it began, and I wondered where the scary clowns had gone. When Donald Trump was elected US president and started picking his White House team, it all became clear.
That’s the kind of joke that was widely declared off limits in 2016. For Trump opponents, it played into his hands; for his supporters, it confirmed the sneering superiority of the ‘elites’ that needed taking down. Thus, a new political correctness began to take shape – Trump was the champion of the neglected white working class, which was not to be mocked.
4. Ressentiment.I’m not much persuaded that Trump’s victory was delivered by this class that has so suddenly exploded into the consciousness of political commentators, and I’m not at all persuaded that his presidency will deliver it any benefits. But what’s commanded my attention more is the way the populist turn has meshed with the thinking of my own tribe, which for want of lengthier definition I might label the radical greens.
That voters in the world’s largest economy elected a president on a protectionist platform surely signals neoliberalism and its globalising project turning full circle and beginning to ingest itself. Hardly a surprise to many of us: we knew it wasn’t sustainable, we knew its rhetoric of enrichment for all was at best ill-founded if not a downright lie, we knew the ‘Washington consensus’ and the inherited global order would someday start unravelling. Had Britons voted remain and the US elected Clinton, these things would still be true. So there’s been a certain shrugging of the shoulders in the green movement, perhaps expressed most eloquently by Paul Kingsnorth in the first instalment of this series. The old certainties are broken beyond repair – better to embrace the chaos of the moment and try to wrest the new from it. Others have gone further and seen in the new populism an outline of the politics they seek: local jobs and industries, a turn away from dangerous global power politics towards more workaday concerns, a boost to localism as the centralising grip of the traditional political class weakens.
I can see the logic, but don’t feel it in my bones. Instead I mostly feel that prickling sense of threat, partly because it already seems clear from the early moves of the president-elect – the baiting of China and the Arab world, the cosying with Russia, the oligarchic economics – that it’s unlikely his administration will deliver even any backdoor gifts to an agenda of peaceful, sustainable localism. But mostly because the political momentum behind the new populism in truth has very little in common with anything peaceful, local or sustainable. The nineteenth century thinkers who witnessed the birth of modern mass class society had a name for the kind of politics we’ve seen in the UK and the US in 2016: ressentiment – a resentment or hostility about one’s lot projected onto other groups who are inferiorised as scapegoats. There can be leftist forms of ressentiment, directed at such figures as the kulaks or the capitalists, and some of these shadows have stirred in recent Western politics: Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos, Syriza. But the dominant strand has been of the right, targeting immigrants, liberal intelligentsias, and the ‘swamp’ of Washington rather than Wall Street.
One feature of this ressentiment in the west is a sense that neoliberal globalisation has made losers of us. The truth is the exact opposite – though the west’s global power is palpably waning, the majority of its citizens continue to enjoy levels of material prosperity that far exceed those in other countries, and are entirely unsustainable. In Britain, more than half of those who voted Brexit indicated an unwillingness to be worse off as a result. They’re destined to be disappointed, as will those in the US who voted for Trump expecting local jobs, a return to ‘greatness’ or the draining of the swamp. The question that troubles me is what will happen then.
The answer I’d like to give is that there’ll be a moment of high opportunity for the politics of left-wing agrarian populism that I espouse. People will realise that the global capitalist money pump is exhausting, and that they’ll have to look to the resources of their own landscapes and communities to furnish their needs. Those ‘needs’ will suddenly seem more modest, and the satisfaction of them more rewarding than the wage drudgery of recent history. To meet them, there will have to be a socially egalitarian redistribution of land, and it will be land that provides the measure of the human ‘needs’ that can be satisfied. There will be little ressentiment, because everyone will be in the same boat, and there’s no point scapegoating the fields. It will be a struggle. People will need each other’s help. Politicians will genuinely be able to talk about ‘strong communities’.
But such a vision has virtually no traction in western politics today. It’s more likely that the failures of right-wing populism will be blamed on the fact it wasn’t right-wing or populist enough. The flow of immigrants wasn’t sufficiently stemmed; the judges, journalists and intellectuals were enemies within, impeding the government’s progress; the craven bankers, Euro politicians and international business classes proved a tougher nut to crack than we’d thought. So we need a stronger government to push the programme through. Sacrifices will be needed, certain liberties curtailed in pursuit of the wider interest, but this is the will of the real people of the country.
The word for this is fascism. Perhaps it gets bandied around too much by left-wingers like me, a wolf-cry from reading too many below-the-line comments on social media and articles in the Daily Mail. Certainly, the political noise of the moment isn’t fascism, but it may be the phoney war preceding it. Sociologists used to say that fascism was a pathology on the route to modernisation. But we now know that modernisation isn’t a realised state but an unstable process with pathologies of its own, and fascism is a permanent possibility within it. I watch the screws tighten in Putin’s Russia, Erdoğan’s Turkey, Orbán’s Hungary. What do we expect the collapse we’ve so long predicted to look like if not like this? The Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran writes that where we are now in the UK and the US is where Turkish civil society was 15 years ago: ‘For 15 years we played chess with the pigeon in Turkey, but now we don’t even have the chessboard. Some of you still have time to shape your future. Use it’.
The shrill, pre-emptive tone of failure and ressentiment already hangs around the Brexit camp and the Trump presidency before they’ve even started trying to deliver on their impossible promises. Already, for the Daily Mail, the judiciary and parliament are the ‘enemies of the people’. I read a lot about ‘getting our country back’ or making it ‘great’. I feel the force of those swelling emotional appeals – so much more stirring than appeals to get back to the farm and grow potatoes. And I find no comfort in the fact that, like many others, I’ve long seen it coming. I agree with Paul Kingsnorth: ‘we write new stories because the old ones are half-dead now’. But I fear that our stories will have the weakness of new-borns facing the muscled narratives of these fascist and nationalist zombies. We’d better tell them well.
I’ve seen more clearly in 2016 how currents of radical green thinking can connive or even align with the alarming political drift. I won’t mention names, but here are some ideas I’ve seen passing largely unchallenged this year from influential ‘green’ writers:
Liberalism is a failed and divisive political project.
Class struggle is a luxury of open societies.
Cultural communities are unities inciting emotional allegiance – identities to ‘give your heart to’.
Identities are place-based.
The nation is a cultural community.
In previous times I’d probably have gone along at least with the first of these – so long as it was widened to include not just liberalism but the gamut of modernist political doctrines from conservatism to socialism. What I’d now say is that, for all its faults, liberalism takes political division and its healing more seriously than just about any other doctrine, certainly more so than the easy unities often sought through notions of place, identity, culture, community and nation. I understand why green thinkers might want to re-enchant them, but such ideas are supremely vulnerable to malign political transformation. Let us remember that almost any story can divide as well as unite, sicken as well as heal, and ponder what elements of the ‘open society’ we might rescue from the past for the benefit of the future. Whatever the defects of liberalism, I’ve come to see how much I and many others who dispute its politics rely on a liberal public sphere.
Doubtless, the dispiriting choice of London/Brussels or Trump/Clinton tempts a focus on more important things. But after this year, I see it differently. The further we progress towards fascism or other points on the compass of authoritarian nationalism the less traction we will have to do anything else that matters. I fear that in the past I’ve spent too much time worrying about climate change, energy crisis and the grand ecological realignments facing humanity, too much time embracing the certain end of the existing order in the abstract, and not enough on giving myself to basic decencies that might see us through to somewhere else. Lofty disinterest made sense while our political economy reached the wild heights of its stalling point, but it won’t serve for the fall.
Some new year’s resolutions:
I will give my heart only to people or places I know, or to stories or songs that move me. I won’t give it to abstractions – the people, the nation, our culture, the community, nature, democracy.
I will lower my gaze. Wolfgang Streeck, author of How Will Capitalism End? said in an interview ‘I am thankful for every passing year that is good and peaceful. And I hope for another one. Very short-term, I know, but those are my horizons’. Like him, I will be thankful for the year. I hope.
I will work for renewal. Farmers can just wait for the spring, but you can’t do that in politics. So I will lend my weight to the grand contradiction of liberalism: trying to be decent in response to other people’s views, while fighting the view that some people’s views or lives don’t matter.
I will try to make my farm a better one, embracing the populist doctrine that there are some kinds of work, like farm work, that are real work. I won’t embrace the populist doctrine that there are only some kinds of people who are real people.
I will be watchful, like the sheep. I fear that some of us will soon turn from the shepherds into the shepherded, and that once the clowning is over we’ll have no control over where we’re going. I’m not sure I can avert that fate, but I can at least remain alert for escape routes.
Chris Smaje works a small mixed farm in Somerset and blogs at smallfarmfuture.org.uk. He’s written on environmental and agricultural issues for publications like The Land, Permaculture Magazine and Dark Mountain, and also in academic journals (Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems; the Journal of Consumer Culture; the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture). Trained in anthropology and social science, he previously worked at the Universities of Surrey and London.
2016 has been a year of turbulence, revolt and change, especially in the West. As one year turns into the next, Dark Mountain is publishing seven blogs by seven different writers, stepping outside the bubble of instant opinion to reflect on the wider significance of these changes. Following on from Hal Niedzviecki’s ‘2016: Donald Trump Ushers in the Anti-Future Age’, the series continues with writer Charlotte Du Cann.
‘I used to care but things have changed’ – Bob Dylan
‘The dead lie in layers beneath us,’ said Tony Dias, ‘and influence all our actions.’ We were in a schoolroom in Ry in northern Denmark, and I was teaching a class about deep time. The students were sitting in a circle, each taking up position in the calendar of the year, discussing how each station affected them. It is the end of October and the writer and philosopher is sitting in the position of the ancestors, also known as Samhain or Halloween. I am at winter solstice. We are holding a conversation about the end of things, which makes sense as people who met through Dark Mountain and as the oldest people in the room. I talk about restoration and composting the past and he talks about the oceans, how oil has come out of an anaerobic process, so doesn’t break down and feed life. ‘It is a zombie fuel,’ he says.
Afterwards we will climb into canoes and silently cross the lake to the woods where the class will fan out and encounter the wild spaces on their own. The copper leaves of the beech trees will shower down on our endeavour to connect with the living, breathing planet. A lot of the students will have problems getting beyond the whirl of their technology-driven minds.
‘Everything is hitting against that zenith of the summer solstice and resisting the fall,’ remarks Tony. ‘The violence and destruction happens, so everyone can jump the process and begin again.’
For the last two weeks I have switched off the computer, and tried to look back at this tumultuous year from the perspective of where I live, a small lane in East Anglia on the edge of England. Most of my working and social life is done via this machine, so when I go offline the world and its headlines vanish. The physical place comes closer, and with it a depth of perception that all the buzzy discussion about politics and celebrity, about money, about the end of globalisation, never allow in. You get a sense of the mood of the times.
One thing is clear: you can’t skip the fall, no matter how much you try.
The growing year came and went down the lane. The machines thundered past our windows, wresting commodities of peas, sugar beet, maize and wheat from the clay. The hawthorns and wild roses put on a beautiful show in the hedgerows, though the cold spring meant many of the growers’ roadside stalls would be closed by September. On May morning Mark, Josiah and I went to a tiny meadow of frosted green-winged orchids, marooned in an industrial prairie of barley. When the sun rose a hare bounded past and the skylarks sang above us. We realised that none of us could call ourselves community activists anymore. Our attention was on other things, but the place still connected us, in ways we had no words for.
The lane is one of a series of lanes behind the village church, skirting reed beds and broads that were shaped by the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. It houses a few indigenous Suffolk families who have lived here for generations, but mostly well-off incomers who live in converted barns and cottages and have a penchant for lacquered willow fencing. This year the suburbanisation continues its mission creep, replacing bird-singing scrub with ponies and crunchy driveways. Delivery trucks chew up the verges. The outdoor lights flare a ghoulish green into the night, on the once elegant Queen Anne facade of the big house on the corner, now owned by a multi-millionaire clothing entrepreneur from Jamaica. The field opposite our house, known as Hare Field, has been enclosed with a rabbit-proof fence, so now we look at meshed wire where once we caught sight of the wild creatures bounding past. The big ash trees have begun to die back.
It is not what it was when we came. It has devolved, said Mark.
I don’t like to think about that much and keep my eyes up into the sky, tracking the geese coming in from Siberia, the fly past of jackdaws at dawn, the light which reflects amber and gold on the trunks of the oaks as the sun goes down. But I can’t not look. The lane is part of brutal Britain, the rabbit-proof fence is all fences in Europe that keep out the unwanted, the pesticide-wrecked soil, every industrialised arable field in the world, the felled and dying trees, all forests killed to maintain our zombie lifestyle.
And he is right. It was more beautiful. There were more creatures – hedgehogs and stoats and hares. You could hear nightingales singing in May. Butterflies once covered the buddleia in August. David Moyse, the village’s history man and steeple keeper, would wave to us as we cycled by and give us green tomatoes for chutney. It was wilder, more country, sweeter.
It was still feudal though. You still had to deal with a frequency loaded with ancient snobbery and hostility. Us, the landowners with our gamekeepers and huge cars and you, renters, with your second-hand boots and pesky questions about RoundUp. Some things don’t change. Some things haven’t changed in England for a thousand years or more.
There was a period in the community activist years when there was a kind of bridge with some of the people in the lane, where I could be enthusiastic about non-threatening subjects like give and take days and community gardens and share jars of foraged damson jam, so long as I didn’t push the climate change, fossil fuel dependence thing, or talk about factory farming or flying. So long as I could say how calm and blue the sea was this year, the best swimming year in a decade, and not mention the sandy cliffs at Easton Bavents that continued to fall into the waves.
But in 2016 that bridge fell down. What do you do? had became a conversational mine-field:
‘Oh, an editor, how interesting, and what’s the Dark Mountain Project?’
‘We’re a network of artists and writers looking at social and environmental collapse…’
Not a great opener over the canapés and Chardonnay.
Which is why I can’t really tell you what is being discussed this season down the lane. I have to travel elsewhere to have those conversations.
Here I am today in Colchester in early November meeting Christian Brett for the first time. For three years we’ve worked together shaping and producing the Dark Mountain books via the telephone, long conversations between a tower block in Rochdale and a tied cottage in East Anglia. He is setting up an installation called ‘The Sound of Stones in the Glasshouse’, a work he conceived with the artist Gee Vaucher whose ‘Introspective’ is about to open at the town’s modern art gallery. It’s a bold, uncompromising work: a glasshouse made of panels engraved with the names of every intervention the US military has made in the last 100 years. Around the walls are excerpts of presidential inaugural speeches talking about freedom and democracy and the numbers of the dead caused by wars on their watch. In the centre of the glasshouse a video of soldiers emerging out of a trench plays on a loop, and a patch of bare earth.
We go for lunch and talk and it feels the same as it does on the phone, except we’re not looking at computer screens, we’re looking at each other. The rain falls down on the capital of Roman Britain, now a nexus for the modern Armed Forces. The show was opening on the 11th.
If you are an artist, or a writer, you have to see differently from the conventional world that appears to own and control everything. You have to look outside the echo chambers, beyond the burning issues of the day, beyond the headlines, into something deeper, more intrinsic, not bound in time. You have to see what Sebald once called the ‘Rings of Saturn’, as he walked down the Suffolk coastline, the machine of history that crushes us in its talons.
‘Have you got Mr Trump in the wings?’ I ask.
‘We have them both ready,’ he replies.
In the space of a year two people I used to be close to took their own lives. What struck me when I remembered them wasn’t to do with their brilliance as editors and designers, or their long struggles with mental illness. It was about their presence and their intensity, a certain kind of intimacy you rarely experience with people. It felt as if their spirits had burned out of control, like a forest fire, and no-one knew how to deal with the blaze. It felt that whenever you leave out what you most love about people, our deep feeling natures, what used to be called the soul, something always crashes. It crashes in individuals and in collectives and in nations. The spirit of this trauma lives in all of us by virtue of being born into the system. No one escapes that, not the rich, not the poor, not the powerful, nor the meek. The question we face as Rome falls is: how can we speak with each other and get out of the cycle?
When I switch off the machine and the headlines recede, I realise we are not in a political crisis; we are in a spiritual crisis, an existential crisis. We don’t know what it means to be human anymore. We have lost contact with the meaning of time, our presence here. How can we be human in a collapsing world? How can I be female outside the patriarchy? How can I matter in a community where I am one of the unnecessariat, the precariat, part of the low-income, left behind, just about managing, tax credited, zero-contract gig economy?
When I switch off the machine, I step out into the lane and walk into the twilight. You can feel everything more closely in the dark, especially the trees, your senses open up, your feet feel the ground, the wind coming from the south. Venus outshines the glow of the brewery distribution centre on the horizon. That’s when I realise that to this place, I matter. My presence, my intense engagement matters. To the dead, to the ancestors I matter. To consciousness, to the fabric of life I matter. We matter. That is no small thing.
What we need is a new social contract.
In the spiritual years – I guess that was mostly the ’90s – I slept in moon lodges and dreamed of medicine people and Cathars and Indian gods, and I sang and danced alongside a band of fellow seekers moving through the great landscapes of the Americas. We were searching for a deeper relationship with the world and our ‘hard yoga for the earth’, as Gary Snyder once described it, pushed us into some very difficult corners, not least among ourselves. We spent a lot of time dealing with the karma of our families and connecting with indigenous medicine plants. We all thought, foolishly, that the collective shift of consciousness we yearned for would somehow just happen. We were coming from the future and had been born into the past. We thought we could travel forever and live in bamboo huts on the sides of sacred mountains, but history or destiny dragged us back to our home countries. The ancestors told us: those who caused the problem have to deal with it. And then they disappeared.
The problem, we knew, wasn’t going to have a neat solution, like a mindfulness class you could do every Tuesday. I am another yourself was not a mantra: it meant going through all the files your cultural history threw at you, being treated like an exile, losing most of your dignity and your spending power, and then having to start over again. Few of us wanted to go through the emotional mangle that would make us human. Most of us resisted the fall in our own ways and stalled.
When we said we were looking for a new narrative, we meant we were looking for a new language. At some point we knew the theory would have to become practice. We were waiting for something to move.
‘Strange attractors’ are so called because they make a particular shape in phase space which radically alters the dynamics of a system, sometimes called the shape of uncertainty. Strange attractors allow chaos to break up rigid forms and create new ones. Civilisations by their design are fixed systems living within vast non-linear systems. Fatal attractions are their undoing.
Strange attractors, as we might have noticed in 2016, don’t always look like the pleasing butterfly shapes you see in chaos theory manuals. They have bad haircuts and bad attitude and send shockwaves through social media. Their chief characteristic is that they hold all the missing information, so when they exert their influence they challenge the order that is dependant on certain things kept out of the picture.
In 2016 a lot of missing people suddenly appeared in the picture that had excluded them for aeons and did the only thing that the Establishment allowed them to do: they voted. For decades the dispossessed of North America’s Rust Belt and England’s factory towns have held the collective shadow of the classes above them, so the multicultural hi-tech uberfolk of the metropolis could shop and tweet and travel with impunity.
In 2016 a lot of those ’90s words like transformation and chaos became a way to look at the string of political events that had crashed the world views of the privileged. The shadow had reeled into the open. Nigredo is the first stage of alchemy, bringing to light the dark materia that needs to be transformed. The nigredo is a scary moment. You have to know how to negotiate it. When the hidden rage of millions is unleashed – generations of people humiliated, derided, told they are worthless and have no future – you have to hold fast to your humanity. Here be dragons. You can’t be righteous and float above this scary territory, because that fury is in you and me. No-one in the system escapes its hostility. You can refuse to carry the shadow of your culture, only if you have dealt with it yourself, only if you are not still blaming mummy and daddy and your first boyfriend and that prick in HR who doesn’t recognise your true value. Only the system wins in the system.
Nigredo is all about the reveal. When the US election result is announced it feels less scary than 2008 when everyone was whooping with joy and hope about the future. Trump entered stage right, the pantomime villain, the bad cop, to loud hisses from the gallery, but the exiting good cop with his suave saviour style had been less easy to discern. However, as the Glasshouse reminds us, all cops are cops when it comes to ‘full spectrum dominance’. The Empire is the Empire whatever country you now live in. We are all Romans and all slaves.
This alchemical moment has nothing to do with social justice, or environmentalism or any of the grassrootsy stuff I have found myself advocating during last decade. There are initiatives and networks around the world focussing on these worthy things, but none of this transforms anything if we are the same people inside, if we haven’t dealt with our stuff – as we used to say in the ’90s – if we haven’t uncivilised ourselves, made contact with the layers of dead under our feet, in the sky, in the rivers. If we haven’t stood with the Lakota, or with the yew trees, with the rainbow serpent, with the glacier, with the tawny owl. If we haven’t found a way to dismantle the belief systems that keep us trapped in the cycles of history, if we haven’t dealt with our insatiable desire for power and attention and found ways to live more lightly on the planet, we are not going to make it through this stage. And it is a ‘we’ because, in England at least, we are on a very crowded island and no matter how much we say we don’t like our neighbours, they live next door.
In 2016 I am 60 years old and do not collect my bus pass.
‘In the old days we would be putting our feet up by now Ellen,’ I say, hauling another sack of Issue 10 into the Post Office.
‘Don’t get me started,’ says Ellen.
On my birthday I go in search of foxgloves on Walberswick Common. It has been a peerless year for bluebells and primroses and seakale, the wild flowers I track each year. But foxgloves are nowhere to be seen. I curse as I stumble over burned gorse and birch tree stumps. Bloody management systems! If I had been more attentive I would have remembered that foxglove is a heart medicine and this was the site of a brutal enclosure in 1624 and known as Bloody Marsh. I hear their strangulated voices first, and then I see the group, walking down the old railway track as if they owned the whole planet, and before I know it a fury surges through my chest: why don’t you people fuck off back to London!
‘It wasn’t just me,’ I say when I find Mark again. It’s not just the repressed violence inside ourselves that roars out of our mouth in the nigredo, it is the rage of the dead. We have a task to recognise that. Take notice.
That night I watch moon daisies swaying under the starlight, under the influence of the tiny English liberty cap. The silver sea is breathing in and out, you can taste the salt on the night air. It’s summer solstice and everything is peaking, reaching its ultimate growing moment. The 12-foot hogweed at the end of the garden lifts its giant head to the full moon. Hooligan flower, outlaw flower, shining with light. En-ger-land En-ger-land!
‘What?’ says Mark.
‘Something is revving up!’ I say, laughing. Something is shifting gear.
I can’t say we felt the shock about the referendum vote to leave Europe in the lane a few days afterwards. Nor about the result of the US election later in the year. No-one spoke about it. People were no more racist than before, nor any less fond of French wine or Danish crime thrillers, or Ravi the baker, or Señor Vila the dentist, or the Polish bus driver whose name we don’t know on the 99 bus to Lowestoft. The white and blue postcard town carried on serving the rich weekenders from the city. The day-trippers kept eating the disappearing cod and chips down by the pier. The small shops, hammered with higher rents and rates, continued to be replaced by chains and boutiques selling high-end sailor tops and children’s clothes manufactured in China. The hospital and the police station remained closed. The Post Office lost its crown status and the staff had to wear corporate-style uniforms and work on Sundays. The delivery drivers looked more and more harassed as they took our boxes of books from the door. The Library held sales to keep open. Nothing was secure.
In May the asparagus, once picked by the women from the surrounding villages, was gathered by bands of young Eastern Europeans. They pick and sort fast and are gone when the season is over, carrying home pay packets that are worth more in their own countries – a scenario that is played out across the flinty vegetable fields of the Eastern seaboard, in Norfolk and Lincolnshire. No one knows where this will end. If you have been to the jobseeker centre recently in Lowestoft you might guess who will be picking asparagus in the future and for whom. No-one will care however if this person is you.
When I boarded the boat train at Harwich I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a moment of homecoming that I never had when I was a traveller, when England was a country I wanted to get away from. The carriage was shabbier than any in IKEA Europe, and air on the platform smelled of winter, of salt and rain and green. The conductor walked down the passageway and three men who were travelling together and drinking beers laughed out loud. No-one had laughed on those Dutch and German trains and no-one had made an entrance like that, a deliberate music hall swagger down the aisle, like a rolling English road, like the curve of the Oxfordshire hills, almost, you could say, hobbity. Not of this time, nor of this dimension.
A door that seemed shut in the schoolroom in Denmark suddenly swung open. A joy ripped through me. The mythos was still here!
You can look at nature, the writer Richard Mabey once wrote, as a tragedy or a comedy. It depends on your point of view. The character of a people is not the same as a society hamstrung by a corporate global economy. As the curtain closes on 2016, it’s worth bearing in mind that the drama changes tack the moment we give up our high tragic roles and become ordinary players. It’s true, comedy is used to paper over the dark things, to make light of serious matters; the Empire has used entertainment to distract people forever. Strictly Britain is not very militaristic, as George Orwell once noted. We’re more interested in theatrics which is why we are such dismal suckers for Punch and Judy politics and royal parades, even as the joke is so often on us. That’s the way to do it!
However comedy is not just about laughing, or poking fun, it is seeing life from a certain perspective, with heart. It gives an agency to situations where tragedy can only offer a solitary death, it reminds us above all that life is an ensemble act that brings affection, even in the hardest times. We are in this show together. Tickets please, ladies and gentlemen.
In spite of everything, I realised I wanted to go home to the lane. Though the Empire will keep telling me I do not belong, I know that I do. And no kind of politics will take that relationship away. I am not going anywhere else. I am not a nationalist, a flag waver, a patriot, I don’t know what ‘British values’ are, I can’t tell you the names of any football players or newscasters or the kinds of questions aspiring UK citizens are tested on. But I can love this place, these marsh birds, these oaks. I can cohere in a fragmenting time, I can remember in a forgetting time. We don’t need a grand vision, another story right now, we need to get through the nigredo, the seismic shaking of the jar, and allow the seeds we hold inside us to break open their coats.
Afterwards will come the albedo, the deep memory of water, and the rubedo, the solarising forces, the warmth and light of the sun. We will unfurl ourselves then. All is good, all is return, all is regeneration in alchemy. We just have to have the stomach for the work. We have to trust that whatever happens in our small lives, whatever move we make to undo the unkindness of centuries will affect the whole picture, that we are not on our own. Everything matters. The ancestors are behind us: all good comedies end in a dance, they say.
Pictures: ‘Midsummer Eve Bonfire’, after c.1917, by Nikolai Astrup (from Painting Norway at Dulwich Picture Gallery); ‘The Stones in the Glasshouse’ by Christian Brett and Gee Vaucher (photo: Douglas Atfield/Firstsite’ ); feather at Base Camp, Dark Mountain gathering at Embecombe, Devon (photo: Warren Draper); excerpt from the documentary, Human by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
Charlotte Du Cann writes about mythology, metaphysics and cultural change. She is the author of52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth and other books. charlotteducann.blogspot.co.uk
2016 has been a year of turbulence, revolt and change, especially in the West. Over the next month Dark Mountain is publishing seven blogs by seven different writers, stepping outside the bubble of instant opinion to reflect on the wider significance of these changes. Following on from Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘2016: The Year of the Serpent’, the series continues with novelist and cultural critic Hal Niedzviecki.
During the 2016 presidential campaign in the USA, and during the primary season which preceded it, the eventual winner Donald Trump was the only candidate to come out as hostile to that darling of both traditional parties and their corporate pals, the technology sector. Asked about his thoughts on the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in an interview, he said: ‘I have always been concerned about the social breakdown of our culture caused by technology. I think the increased dependence and addiction to electronic devices is unhealthy.’
When US high-tech industry CEOs started a lobbying and education group to advance the cause of expanding the H-1B visa programme, which they rely on to bring foreign computer programmers and engineers into the country, Trump was unmoved. In fact, one of his few clear policy pronouncements was to oppose the H-1B visa programme altogether. Trump also said he would initiate anti-trust action against Amazon and promised to force Apple to make its products in the United States – later calling for a boycott of the company when it declined to unlock the iPhone of a suspected terrorist. And sure, Trump used social media in his campaigns, but not the way the other candidates did. As one commentator noted, candidates were ‘dropping $5,000 to $10,000 per month’ on social media management and delivery systems like Sprinklr or Hootsuite, ‘with the exception of Mr. Trump who definitely’ managed ‘all his accounts by hand.’
While Trump was trashing or ignoring the techno standard bearers, his opponents were eagerly deploying slick social media and analytics technologies and kowtowing to the new gods of so-called innovation. Blackberry-bearing Jeb Bush hailed an Uber to the San Francisco startup Thumbtack where he praised the digital economy to the skies. Hillary Clinton travelled to San Jose, CA, in Santa Clara County, the centre of Silicon Valley, national leader in average wages despite a poverty rate higher than 10 percent. Clinton called San Jose ‘a city that’s all about the future: the future of our economy, the future of our society, of how we’re all going to be stronger together.’ During his presidency Barack Obama visited an Amazon factory and compared the workers there to Santa’s Elves, completely ignoring Amazon’s reputation for mistreating perpetually precarious workers, shuttering stores on Main Street and soaking up state tax breaks for the privilege; his White House website featured a whole section dedicated to innovation and ‘winning the race to the future’. Back when Trump was perceived as just an annoyance, Hilary Clinton was giving speeches talking about the ‘on demand or so called “gig” economy … creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation.’
Trump rejected the prevailing ideology of future-first both in words and in symbol. His campaign slogan – Make America Great Again – evoked not the future or even the present, but the past. Trump conjured up a fantasy era when America was (mostly) white and mostly just one union job on the assembly line away from a car and a house and a wife who stayed home and took care of the kids. His signature campaign policy was also very instructional: a wall separating the US from Mexico. A wall. Not lasers or satellites or big data or colonising Mars or getting to the future first. Trump constantly talked about his real estate holdings, his wealth. During the primaries and presidential campaign, he took time out to cut the ribbon on a new Trump hotel in Washington DC. He visited his Scottish golf course. He held forth on his net worth and his ability to outfox creditors and evade the taxman. Trump embodied his rhetoric – make real things, cut through the crap, get rich and get away with whatever you can.
These thoughts whirled through my mind throughout the campaign. I found myself fascinated with the highly ironic fact that of all the candidates, only Trump seemed to be able to signal (if not actually say) that, as I and others have argued, many of the so-called advances in technology over the last twenty years have been harnessed to create efficiencies that significantly reduce employment and compensation. Only Trump was able to repeatedly signal agreement with the conviction that, as one journalist wrote in the aftermath of the election, Silicon Valley ‘is out of step with [a] national and global mood’ beset with ‘social and economic anxieties’ at least partly caused ‘by the products the industry devises.’ For Trump, this was just a part of his overall bricks-and-mortar-build-the-wall rhetoric; but it was a terribly important part, a core element of his spiel’s appeal.
Still, though Trump, as with Bernie Sanders, sensed the intense anxiety around technological displacement and precarious labour, though he seized on it, he didn’t – and doesn’t – have any meaningful course of action to resist or rebut it. It’s not like he was out garnering votes in small-town Ohio by telling the unemployed that that the virtual Eden perpetually promised by the demi-gods of future is a dangerous chimera that needs to replaced by pragmatic action to replace consumption with community. As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes: ‘Clinton didn’t lose to Donald Trump because he had a more serious set of policies for revitalizing working-class America.’ Trump’s election, like his anti-future campaign, is a rebuttal, but not an answer.
Instead we should think of Trump’s win as the sudden swoon from flight into lifelessness for the canary in the coalmine. It’s as evocative a sign as the relentless California drought and the looming extinction of most of the planet’s largest mammals. The ascendance of Trump signifies that we’ve moved past the point of conventional politics, past, in some ways, the point of return. It signifies, if nothing else, that progress is hard to sell in a world that is literally getting hotter and more unlivable every year. Though many reject man-made climate change (a Chinese conspiracy, blusters Trump), and many more of us refuse to give up the luxuries that might avert the worst, the spiritual emptiness of living, powerless, in a time of perceptible decline, is our primary common value. We all find ourselves emotionally emptied with noticeably fewer prospects than our parents and even their parents.
In response, more and more of us are rightly rejecting technology-as-saviour and future neoliberalism (from both the right and left). But with no better option being offered to us, into the void the strongman is promising to return us to ancient ritual, the sword and the scythe, blood dripping onto land. With Trumpites pumping nostalgia direct to our veins, far-right conspiracy theory preppers round the circle with far left anti-vax dropouts. This is what a Trump win signifies: the post-political void at the end of the capitalist fantasy. Guess what? The world was burning while we looked for meaning in our Netflix echo chamber of StrangerThings and Celebrity Apprentice reruns, neato plans to terraform other planets and social media campaigns to save the species of the month.
Like a lot of people, I stuck my head in the sand during the campaign and said to myself: not yet; it’s too soon; I’m with her. I second-guessed myself, talked myself into believing that we hadn’t yet gotten to the point at which all we had was rejection, was void. But like everyone else, I was wrong. It happened. It is happening. Into the vacuum of contemporary politics voided by technological displacement, rapacious capital and the existential threat of climate change arrives Donald Trump, Brexit, Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan and the Phillipines’ Rodrigo Duterte – anti-future emblems of an unquenchable thirst for simplified belief systems, circles of life, the easy path back to the idyllic pre-literate past.
These yearnings are not solutions or ends. They are, instead, impulses and desires, angry fires burning our brittle principles right down to their foundations. In the anti-future we build walls. We fall back upon primal impulses. We turn inward, turn tribal. We rage impotently against the machine’s virtual reality rainbow and seek an impossible return to a real which doesn’t exist, which never existed. We vote Trump for president because, if nothing else, he was the only one; the only one who told us he loved us; the only one who promised to save us from the future and make us great again.
Hal Niedzviecki is an author of fiction and nonfiction including Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future.
The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We produce and seek out writing, art and culture rooted in place, time and nature.
Dark Mountain: Issue 10 – Uncivilised Poetics – is now available! Order your copy from our online shop.
There’s now a waiting list in case any further places become available for ‘Art At The End Of The World (As We Know It)’, a five-day course with Dark Mountain co-founders Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, which takes place at Schumacher College, Devon, England, 20-24 March, 2017. More information is available here.