A Force That Gives Us Meaning

In an interesting piece over at the US website Truthdig, former war correspondent Chris Hedges wonders whether America is ‘yearning for fascism’. It’s worth a read. Hedges wrote a book a few years back which I can recommend, entitled War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. As the title suggests, Hedges built on his decades of experience in war zones to ask questions about humanity’s proclivity for conflict, and provide answers which looked beyond the usual pieties about war being A Bad Thing to the reasons (‘war is the most potent narcotic invented by humankind’) why it starts.

In this latest piece, Hedges does the same job of asking uncomfortable questions. Though he’s writing for a website which, in the main, is a straight-down-the-line mouthpiece of the American liberal left, Hedges challenges the accepted views and values of his audience more than he challenges the Tea Partyers and angry Sarah Palin fans. Instead of simply condemning them, or laughing at them, he wants instead to listen to them.

This interests me a great deal, because I have seen, and written about, a similar kind of liberal blindness here in the UK, particularly in regards to the rise of the BNP over the last year. We are experiencing, in the UK as well as in the US (though in different forms – ours is both more ineffective and strangely more genteel) a rise in disaffection and alienation, which is birthing a new kind of ‘far right’ politics. I put ‘far right’ in quotation marks, because this kind of notation is increasingly misleading. The BNP, for example, is like many of its European sister parties in that it combines the kind of statist economic policies associated with the old manifestation of the Labour party with a racist authoritarianism. This recent interview with Nick Griffin is quite revealing on this score (as well as being amusing, to his detriment).

Situations like this are always specific, but at the root of all of this, it seems to me, is the historical big picture of the decline of the West. Our economies are tanking and our populations are ageing. Immigration is changing the face of nations, political parties are increasingly identikit and ineffectual, and post-banking crisis it is apparent to more people than ever that in any case the people who run politics are not the same people who run the economy. Flexible labour markets and demographic changes shear people away from places, hyper-capitalism sets the terms of engagement by which we live, and states become increasingly authoritarian in order to deal with the challenges posed by atomised populations.

Add all this up and you get a deep insecurity which manifests itself as a fury aimed at anyone seen to be part of an ‘elite’ which is screwing people: politicians, most obviously, and bankers, but also journalists, civil servants, businesspeople – anyone who seems to be lording it over ‘us’. This anti-elitism manifests itself in support for the BNP here, the Tea Party in the US and far right parties across Europe – they are surfing a wave of unfocused, popular anger which is only going to grow.

What confuses the liberals and the left is that this anger is also directed at them. For a socialist, anti-elitism  is supposed to lead to disaffection with capitalism and rising support for the radical left, even for revolution. For a liberal, it’s supposed to lead for a support for leftish political parties which will enact ‘reforms’ to the constitution and the economy to make things fairer for everyone. What’s happening instead is that the comfy liberal establishment is being targeted by the anti-elitists just as much as the bankers and the fat cats.  This is in part due to the fact that the left has no popular base anymore, which in turn is due to the fact that it has no clear programme after the failure of both statist Marxism and capitalist democracy.

But it’s also because the liberal left, in particular, is unwilling or unable to listen to those who express grievances it doesn’t agree with. ‘Our educated elite,’ writes Hedges, ‘wallowing in self-righteousness, wasted its time in the boutique activism of political correctness as tens of millions of workers lost their jobs.’ This is certainly the impression one gets in Europe today. Complain about homophobia or racism and you’ll get onto the front page of the Guardian. Complain about street crime, immigration, unemployment or the collapse of ‘family values’ and you’ll be written off as dinosaurs or worse. But there are a lot of dinosaurs out there now, and the demagogues know how to speak their language in a way that metrovincial progressives don’t. Witnessing the bemusement of the liberal establishment here at the rise of the BNP was grimly amusing. They really had no idea what was going on, and still don’t. It seems the same is happening in America. If you don’t listen, you won’t understand – and those who do listen will end up winning.

Where Hedges falls down, for me, is in his apparent attachment to the idea that ‘radicals’ (the Green Party, say) have any useful answers to this paralysis, or that ‘the system’ can respond to what he thinks ‘needs’ to be done (how, for example, is a near-bankrupt US expected to ‘immediately reincorporate the unemployed and the poor back into the economy, giving them jobs and relief from crippling debt’?) What is telling about these times is that no-one seems to have a programme – and that includes the far right and the populists, who know what they hate but not what to do about it (except in cartoon terms – see that Griffin interview again). This is why it’s important to be cautious about comparisons with what happened in the 1930s, when the failure of liberal democracies to deal with a crisis of capitalism led to the first wave of fascism. Fascism like that could never happen again, for the simple reason that it happened then: it’s a stark warning. Don’t expect to see jackboots and flags. On the other hand, don’t expect this to go away either.

There is plenty of time, after all, for authoritarian anti-elitists to develop a programme, and plenty of reason for them to do so. Back in the 1930s, quotes Hedges, there was ‘a yearning for fascism before fascism was invented.’  Perhaps we are again seeing a worrying yearning for something which is not yet clear but could become so, to the detriment of all of us. Clinging to daddy is a natural reaction to a fear of the dark; it may also be the reaction of many to the converging crises we face.

Those crises will only become clearer. To the decline of the West, a historical arc from which there is no escape, we need to add the decline of the fossil fuels which support our lifestyles, converging ecological disasters, a rising population, growing economic inequality and a failure of our old cultural narratives. We could also throw in a wild card: collapse in the East too. The fashionable narrative at present is that China and India are ‘rising’ as the West falls. But they are rising by following the same fossil-fuelled development path as we did, and that goes nowhere, fast.

We are already seeing a steady ramping-up of authoritarian rhetoric and a steady tightening of authoritarian politics in many ‘developed’ countries. In the UK, with our recent slew of anti-terrorist legislation, police brutality, ID cards and security cameras, this is already advanced, and I expect it to continue (and if Gordon Brown remains prime minister even after losing our forthcoming general election, we could see an explosion of popular fury: it would top even MPs’ expenses as a focus for hatred of ‘them’.) I have long believed that the authoritarianism of the right is likely to be increasingly popular as our descent becomes increasingly obvious.

Six years ago, at the height of the economic boom, I remember attending a session at the European Social Forum on ‘life after capitalism.’ It was full of hopeful young turks planning the revolution and the utopia which would follow. Up on the stage, though, a sober note was sounded by the brilliant economist Susan George who, at 70 years old, had seen more of the world than most of us. I can quote what she said because I wrote it down; it seemed so obviously worth listening to even in those halcyon days:

There is a serious possibility that this unstable global economy could actually collapse. We could then be faced with a Weimar-type situation. We could experience war, dictatorship, instability and military takeover. Remember that life after capitalism could be worse than what we have now.

I don’t think many people took this on board at the time, but today it seems prescient. We are in a period of global narrative failure: nobody’s stories have convincing plots, and none of them knows how they end. Marxism, conservatism, liberalism, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, environmentalism – none of them has legs. New stories will come, because new stories are needed. In the short term, though, I’m not sure we’re going to like what they have to tell us.

Against Global Communication

As the lazier half of the Dark Mountain team, when it comes to blogging, I’m delighted to see the richness of the conversations developing in recent comment threads – and the mixture of voices coming into dialogue.

I was particularly struck by the discussions following from Paul’s post about high-speed rail – and by the picture painted in Dan’s most recent comment:

I wonder if we’ve been set up – just at the moment where global communication might allow us to sees ourselves in enough clarity to realise our connection to each other, everything collapses and that vision disappears, leaving us all as isolated as ever.

It’s that last phrase that gets me – ‘leaving us all as isolated as ever.’

My mobile phone is now hooked up to email which keeps me connected every waking hour, unless I let the battery run out or exercise self-discipline by switching it off. I am mildly addicted to this kind of connection, and yet I also know how much good it does me to disconnect for a few days. I suffer regularly from overload at the sheer volume of unanswered messages in my inbox, even as I love the way that these technologies allow me to organise lightly with others and achieve things that a decade ago would have taken lumbering institutional structures. (Although I wonder about the newer, huger structures without which my internet connection wouldn’t exist.)

I can’t be ‘globally connected’. To connect to even a fraction of the 7 billion people on this planet is inconceivable. I’m lucky if I can keep up meaningful friendships of the week-in, week-out sort with more than a dozen or so people. I’m very lucky that, despite living in one of the world’s busiest cities, I find myself in a neighbourhood and with a role which means that most days I meet dozens of people I know by name and have time to talk to, besides my immediate colleagues.

Part of me wants to resist the whole language of ‘communication’ applied to me as if I were a node in an information network. Ivan Illich used to react passionately against this language, telling a questioner: ‘I have absolutely no desire to communicate with you. You may not interface with me, nor do I wish to be downloaded by you. I should very much like to talk to you, to stare at the tip of your nose, to embrace you. But to communicate – for that I have no desire.’

How many meaningful encounters do you have a day? How does that compare to people’s experience in other times and places?

What do I mean by a meaningful encounter? One which is enjoyed for what it is, rather than as a means to anything – or one whose practical purpose comes embedded in a ritual or a playfulness which slows you down, which is inefficient from the point of view of that purpose, which reminds you that you are here now, wherever you might be going.

I don’t buy this religion of connectivity, this worship of the global. No one has persuaded me that we have all been ‘isolated’ for ever, or that there is less isolation in the world today than there has ever been. These ways of thinking are widespread and influential, but historically very recent. I doubt they will be much help in navigating the years ahead.

Hope Beyond Hope

Following on from Sunday’s post, and the conversations beneath it, I’m going to urge everyone who can to watch the hour-long BBC documentary Requiem for Detroit, which can be seen online until this coming Saturday. Having seen it last night, I understand why people kept urging me to watch it.

I’m not going to summarise it, because this remarkable film can tell its own story. Suffice it to say that what was, a few short decades ago, the world’s biggest and most ambitious manufacturing city is now literally a ruin in many places. 40% of it has simply started to rot back into the Earth. The images are astonishing, and the statistics and interviews that go with them equally so. This, the film suggests, perhaps with some exaggeration but probably not much, is ‘the world’s first post-industrial city’, and is unlikely to be the last.

It’s probably unwise to draw too many general lessons from Detroit’s fate, as the circumstances of its fall were specific ones. Almost entirely dependent on one industry – motor manufacturing – the city simply died when globalisation pulled the rug out from under the US car industry. Add to that a history of deep and grim racial segregation and violence, and the hollowing out of the city by the flight to the suburbs which the private car enabled, and today’s picture emerges.

Nevertheless, this film provoked thoughts in me. One of them was that talk of some ‘collapse’ coming along in the near or distant future is out of whack with reality. Collapse, in places like Detroit, has come and gone, and people are already living with its consequences. It’s telling that the recent film of The Road was filmed in the US rust belt; the film-makers found all they needed there for their dystopian tale, and didn’t even need to build sets. Collapse is a process, not an event, and in parts of the world’s greatest superpower it is already advanced.

But what this film, which starts out so dark and hopeless, also reinforced was the undying ingenuity of people, and the necessity of imaginative responses to the failure of the Machine. Henry Ford built Detroit, and grew unthinkably rich from the proceeds. When the industry he created had no further need of the city and its people it simply left, leaving the residents to square miles of ruins, 30% unemployment and the highest murder rate in America.

Yet something, small still but growing, is rising from the ashes. There is the artist who grew up in the midst of the race riots and now runs a project providing both creative spaces and rehabilitation to some of the city’s hardest-hit people. There is the small company that has been set up by ex-cons to strip down and recycle materials from abandoned buildings. And there are the urban farms springing up where suburbs used to be.

This last is a surreal sight, and jarring: rows of sweetcorn and beans taking over from streets of once-neat houses. It’s a reversal of what we assume the process of development to be, and it takes me back to Robinson Jeffers poem ‘Carmel Point’, about the suburbanisation of the wild in California. ‘It has all time’ he writes of the land, ‘it knows the people are a tide.’ In Detroit, as one guy in the film puts it, the ‘high water mark’ is visible everywhere.

And here is the hope beyond hope that we talk of in the manifesto, and here too is one answer to the ‘what next? what hope?’ questions we have been considering here for the last few days. Hope has sprung up in Detroit because all hope had gone, and it has sprung up not from government (though, interestingly Detroit’s city government seems to be exploring ways of creatively bowing to the inevitable in a way I’ve not come across before on this scale) or from companies, which have fled, but from all there is left: people, trying to build new their communities after the bubble which built the old ones has burst.

Like the fate of Detroit itself, it is specific, this response, and small and scattered. But because of that, it gives me, at least, a lot more hope than our current stories do. To me, the ‘sustainability’ narrative we are presented with at present as our path to a better future, though it is intended to give us hope and something to work towards, seems quite hopeless: impossible and deeply disempowering and in some cases ugly and destructive. At least partly, I think this is because, as Alastair McIntosh suggests under our last post, it is so inhuman in its scale and ambition. It is like handing over the keys to the future to a low-carbon Henry Ford.

Nobody would wish the fate of Detroit on anyone, but versions of it are beginning to happen across the once-industrialised world. Perhaps the water has to recede before the hope can be seen clearly, above the waves.

A Period of Mourning

It’s been instructive to follow the news which has been all over the media for the last few days in Britain of the high speed rail network which the government has unveiled with a flourish – just in time for the forthcoming election. The idea is that, beginning in 2017, the UK will begin to build itself a number of high speed rail lines, carrying trains travelling up to 250mph, between our major cities. Eventually we’ll be able to get from London to Edinburgh or Glasgow in just three hours.  Smart tip, then: buy a flat in the Gorbals now; it’ll be worth a million in a decade or so once the London commuter belt extends across Hadrian’s Wall.

It has been hard to find anyone who doesn’t like this idea, which is always a bad sign. The government, represented by the wonderfully-named transport secretary, Lord Adonis, who if there were any justice would resemble a Marvel superhero rather than a solicitor from Shrewsbury, considers it to be modern and vital and competitive and other such things. Network Rail got to the heart of the matter, talking of our ‘modern, dynamic economy’ and how the new network would ‘drive economic growth and boost jobs’. The Tories like it too, thought they have complaints about the route, which will trash large parts of the rural, beautiful and very Tory Chilterns. Up north, the Scottish National Party are warning that the network had better get up to Scotland sharpish or they’ll be declaring independence even quicker than planned.

Environmentalists, of course, are creaming themselves. There’s nothing a mainstream green likes more than a massive infrastructure project designed to boost economic growth – as long as it’s a low-carbon one, of course. Thrilled by the idea that the new trains might take some people away from internal flights, NGOs have been jumping up and down with excitement.

It’s easy to get frustrated by the increasingly narrow focus of many so-called environmentalists, and I often do. The carbon-über-alles mentality that permeates everything said to be ‘green’ at present is going, if it is not challenged soon, both to destroy environmentalism as any kind of serious challenge to the status quo, and result in some very serious damage to the environment in its name. I can still remember when the greens got very excited a decade or so ago about the idea of growing fuel crops. Hard to believe now, but it was once seen as a good idea by mainstream greens to turn land over to producing the equivalent of petrol. This was because it was low carbon, supposedly, which was thought then, as it is now, to be the issue to which all other issues must be subsumed. Never mind challenging the supremacy of the car or the society which spawned it: just focus on the stuff that comes out of the exhaust: it’s ‘practical’, after all; it’s ‘realistic’.

Perhaps in ten or twenty years time, when many of our wild landscapes are slathered in turbines and barrages and mirrors, and central Africa is full of vast hydropower projects and the seas and rivers are full of technology and the forests are buried beneath palm oil plantations and global capitalism is still eating its way through our souls and our planet, and they have no words to oppose it because they have forgotten how to do anything but argue about high voltage wires and gigawatt hours and climate models, the greens will realise they were tilting at the wrong windmills. We’ll see.

But this is my personal bugbear. Maybe more interesting is to look at the high speed rail announcement as an example of wishful thinking. Two of the most important books I’ve read in the last year or so have been John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent, which we’ve mentioned here before, and James Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Both, I would suggest, are essential reading for any Dark Mountaineer. Greer writes with calm erudition about how the world is likely to pan out as fossil fuel supplies decline, while Lovelock writes with a welcome detachment about the possible consequences of climate change. These books complement each other well, and there are characteristics they share: they don’t accept any of the mainstream narratives on offer to us from either the business-as-usual or the sustainability brigades; they take a clear-eyed and sometimes quite hard-to-read look at the worst the future might bring us; and they suggest means of planning for it. Not, please note, preventing it – rather, being prepared for what it might look like.

I don’t necessarily recommend reading these two books in the same week, unless you have a lot of strong drink or sunshine to hand. Their conclusions are dark, but because they are so honest, so lacking in hysteria and so dismissive of the false hope that runs through most books of this type like words through a stick of rock, they are curiously inspiring too. I mention them because to look at things like the high speed rail announcement in the light of peak oil and climate change is to see wishful thinking in full flow.

If Lovelock and Greer, and the many sober analysts like them, are anything like correct, then this thing will probably never even be built. It is a classic example of what can seem a new idea, or a healthy development, resting on assumptions that are withering as we observe them. The idea that by 2027, when the line will be complete, our national priority will still be the kind of fuel-hungry economic growth we set up now as our national god seems staggeringly unlikely. It is unlikely to be even possible. We are going to be living in constricted times, at best. And we haven’t even discussed our astonishing national debt yet.

So why  do we make announcements like this as if it were 1960 rather than 2010? Why do we go on as if nothing were changing? Partly because it isn’t, at least in most peoples’ lives, yet, and partly because we don’t want it to, so we act as if it won’t. But there’s something else too, I think, and it didn’t crystallise until I received an email a week or two back from a Dark Mountaineer who had just come across the project and who had read what we had to say with interest.

He wrote to me to tell me he was very much in agreement with the need to tell new stories about our predicament; but he also believed we would need time to ‘mourn the old ones first.’ These underlying stories we had identified, the myths our world is built on – ideas of human supremacy and centrality and unstoppable progress – they were, he suggested, enormous and deeply embedded. He was right about that, of course. But the lesson he drew from this was that we couldn’t begin to hope for new narratives to register until the old ones had been openly mourned; accepted as dead. We were – are – in love with them, after all. They have made us all who we are. They can’t be discarded just like that.

This is a good point, and true, and perhaps one that we have not paid quite enough attention to. Sloughing off dangerous self-delusion is a long, hard process. It’s the equivalent of psychotherapy for an entire culture: long, hard, expensive, with no fixed end in sight and no guarantee of success. At present, for many people, the alternative to our failing stories seems to be despair and apathy and the contemplation of apocalypse. It doesn’t have to be, but we probably shouldn’t assume it will be easy, or quick, to move on from them. Not as quick as a high speed train, anyway.