Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Dawn of the Cthulhucene: A Retrospective

"This year’s Earth Day in Ashland, Oregon, where I live, featured an interfaith service at the local Unitarian church, and I wasn’t too surprised to get a call inviting me to be one of the presenters.”

That was the opening sentence of the first post ever to appear on The Archdruid Report, Real Druids, which went up ten years ago this Friday. When I typed those words, I had no clear idea of what I was going to do with the blog I’d just started. The end of the publishing industry I wrote for in those days was just then waking up to the marketing potential of author blogs; I was also in the third year of my unpaid day job as head of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a small and old-fashioned Druid order distinctly out of step with the pop-culture Neopaganism of the time, and hoped to use a blog to bring the order to the attention of anyone out there who might be interested in something so unfashionable.

So I sat down at the computer, logged into my Blogger account, clicked on the button marked new post, and stared blankly at it for a while before I started to type. That, as they say, is how it all began.

In terms of the perspectives with which this blog deals—the grand sweep of human history, and the much vaster sweep of geological and evolutionary deep time—ten years is less than an eyeblink. In terms of a single human life, though, it’s a considerable span. Over that period I’ve moved from Ashland to Cumberland, Maryland, the red-brick mill town in the north central Appalachians where I now live. My writing career has burgeoned since then, too, helped along considerably by the two novels and nine nonfiction books that started out as sequences of blog posts.

My other career, the unpaid one mentioned above, also went through plenty of changes—if any of my readers ever have the opportunity to become the presiding officer of a nearly defunct Druid order and help it get back on its feet, I certainly recommend the experience! Still, twelve years in the hot seat was enough, and at the winter solstice just past I stepped down as Grand Archdruid of AODA with a sigh of relief, and handed the management of the order over to my successor Gordon Cooper.

There have been plenty of other changes over the last ten years, of course, and quite a few of them also affected The Archdruid Report. One that had a particularly significant impact was the rise, fall, and resurgence of the peak oil scene. Most of a decade before that first post, a handful of people—most of them petroleum geologists and the like—noticed that oil was being pumped much more quickly than new oilfields were being discovered. Now of course this turn of events had been predicted in quite a bit of detail well before then; back in the 1970s, in particular, when the phrase “limits to growth” hadn’t yet become taboo in polite company, plenty of people noticed that trying to extract an infinite supply of oil from a finite planet was guaranteed to end badly. 

That awareness didn’t survive the coming of the Reagan counterrevolution. More precisely, it survived only on the far fringes of the collective conversation of our time, where the few of us who refused to drink Ronnie’s koolaid spent most of two decades trying to figure out how to live in a civilization that, for all intents and purposes, seemed to have succumbed to a collective death wish. Still, our time in exile didn’t last forever.  It was 1998, as I recall, when I found the original Running On Empty email list—one of the first online meeting places for people concerned about peak oil—and I stayed with the movement thereafter as it slowly grew, and the rising tide of data made the case for imminent peak oil harder and harder to dismiss out of hand. 

Two books published in the early 2000s—Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over and James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency—helped launch the peak oil movement into public awareness. Not incidentally, those were also the books that convinced me that it might just be possible to talk frankly about the predicament of industrial society: not just peak oil, but the broader collision between the economic ideology of limitless growth and the hard realities of a fragile planet. The Archdruid Report came out of that recognition, though I thought at first that its audience would be limited to the Druid community; I figured that people who had embraced Druid nature spirituality might be more open to the kind of intellectual heresy I had in mind. The blog turned out to have a much broader audience than that, but it took me quite a while to realize that, and longer still to recognize its implications.

Meanwhile the peak oil movement hit its own peak between 2008 and 2010, and began skidding down the far side of its own Hubbert curve. That’s standard for movements for social change, though it was probably worsened by the premature triumphalism that convinced many peakniks that once they’d proved their case, governments had to do something about the impending crisis, and that also led some large peak oil organizations to spend money they didn’t have trying to run with the big dogs. At this point, as the fracking bubble falters and the economy misbehaves in ways that conventional economic theory can’t account for but peak oil theory can, the bottom has likely been reached, and a much shorter period of exile is duly ending.  Talk about peak oil in the media and the political sphere is picking up again, and will accelerate as the consequences of another decade of malign neglect bear down with increasing force on the industrial world.

One of the things I find most interesting about this trajectory is that it didn’t impact The Archdruid Report in the way I would have expected. During the years when the peak oil movement was all over large portions of the internet, my monthly page views and other site stats remained fairly modest. It wasn’t until 2010, when the peak oil scene was beginning to falter, that my stats started to climb steadily; my first breakout all-over-the-internet post came in 2011, and thereafter readership has remained high, wobbling up and down around an average of a quarter million page views a month. All ten of my top ten posts, in terms of total unique page views, appeared between 2011 and this year. On the off chance my readers are interested, here they are:

4. How Not to Play the Game, June 29, 2011
5. An Elegy for the Age of Space, August 24, 2011
6. The Next Ten Billion Years, September 4, 2013
7. Into an Unknown Country, January 2, 2013
9. The Recovery of the Human, February 1, 2012

(I discovered in the process of making this list, by the way, that the Blogger gizmo for tracking all time top posts doesn’t actually do what it’s supposed to do. Like so much of the internet, it provides the illusion of exact data but not the reality, and I had to go back over the raw numbers to get an accurate list. My readers may draw their own conclusions about the future of a society that increasingly relies on internet-filtered information as a source of guidance.)

None of these posts are only about peak oil, or even about peak energy.  You’ll find references to the hard physical and geological limits of the energy resources available to our species in most of them, to be sure, and quite a few detailed discussions of those limits and their implications among the other 489 posts that have appeared here in the last decade. That said, those limits aren’t quite central to this blog’s project. They derive, like the other common themes here, from something else.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted that his treatise The World as Will and Representation, massive though it is, was simply the working out of a single idea in all its ramifications. The same is true of this blog, though I’m an essayist and novelist rather than an analytical philosopher, and thus my pursuit of the idea I’m trying to pin down has been somewhat more discursive and rambling than his. (I make no apologies for that fact; I write the way I like to write, for those who like to read it.) Not all ideas can be summed up in a few words or a snappy slogan.  In particular, the more thoroughly an idea challenges our basic preconceptions about the nature of things, and the more stark the gap between its implications and those of the conventional wisdom, the more thoroughly and patiently it must be explored if it’s going to be understood at all.

Even so, there are times when an unexpected turn of phrase can be used, if not to sum up a challenging idea, at least to point in its direction forcefully enough to break through some of the barriers to understanding. Thanks to one of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Mgalimba—I encountered such a turn of phrase last week. That came via a 2014 talk by cutting-edge thinker Donna Haraway, in which she challenged a currently popular label for the geological period we’re entering, the Anthropocene, and proposed her own coinage: the Cthulhucene.

She had specific reasons for the proposal, and I’d encourage my readers to see what she had to say about those, but I have somewhat different reasons for adopting the term. H.P. Lovecraft, who invented the squid-faced, dragon-winged, monster-clawed devil-god Cthulhu for one of his best stories, used that being and the other tentacled horrors of his imaginary pantheon to represent a concept as alien to the conventional thought of industrial society as the Great Old Ones themselves. The term Lovecraft used for that concept was “indifferentism”—the recognition that the universe is utterly indifferent to human beings, not sympathetic, not hostile, not anything, and that it’s really rather silly of us, all things considered, to expect it to conform to our wishes, expectations, or sense of entitlement.

Does this seem embarrassingly obvious? The irony, and it’s a rich one, is that most people nowadays who insist that the universe is indifferent to humanity turn around and make claims about the future that presuppose exactly the opposite. I’ve long since lost track of the number of committed atheists I’ve met, for example, who readily agreed that the universe is indifferent to our desires, but then insisted there has to be some other energy resource out there at least as cheap, concentrated, and abundant as the ones we’re currently using up. That claim only makes sense if you assume that the supplies of matter and energy in the cosmos have somehow been arranged for our benefit; otherwise, no, there doesn’t have to be any other resource out there. We could simply use up what we’ve got, and then have to get by without concentrated energy sources for the rest of the time our species happens to exist.

That’s far from the only example of stealth anthropocentrism I’ve encountered in the same context. I’ve also long since lost track of the number of committed atheists who reject the idea of a caring cosmos out of hand, but then go on to claim that technological progress of the kind we’ve made is irreversible. That claim only makes sense if you assume that history is somehow arranged for our benefit, so that we don’t have to worry about sliding back down the long slope we climbed so laboriously over the last five centuries or so.  If history is indifferent to our preferences, by contrast, the way down is just as easy as the way up, and decline and fall waits for us as it did for all those dead civilizations in the past.

Then there’s the most embarrassing claim of all, the devout insistence that humanity’s destiny lies out there in space. “Destiny” is a theological concept, and it’s frankly risible to find it being tossed around so freely by people who insist they’ve rejected theology, but let’s go a step further here. If the universe is in fact indifferent to our wishes and desires, the mere fact that a certain number of people have gotten worked up over science-fiction visions of zooming off toward the stars does not oblige the universe to make space travel a viable option for our species. There are in fact very good reasons to think that it’s not a viable option, but you won’t get many people to admit that these days. We (or, rather, some of us) dream of going to the stars, therefore it must be possible for us to go to the stars—and before you claim that human beings can achieve anything they can imagine, dear reader, I encourage you to read up on the long history of attempts to build a working perpetual motion machine.

I’ve picked on atheists in these three examples, and to some extent that’s unfair. It’s true that most of the really flagrant examples of stealth anthropocentrism I’ve encountered over the last ten years came from people who made quite a point of their atheism, but of course there’s no shortage of overt toxic anthropocentrism over on the religious side of things—I’m thinking here of those Christian fundamentalists who claim that Christ is coming soon and therefore it doesn’t matter how savagely we lay waste a world they themselves claim that God made and called good. I’ve met atheists, to be fair, who recognize that their belief in the absence of purpose in the cosmos implies that no providence will protect us from the consequences of our own stupidity. I’ve also met religious people who recognize that the universe defined by their beliefs is theocentric, not anthropocentric, and that human beings might therefore want to cultivate the virtue of humility and attend to the purposes that God or the gods might have in mind, rather than assuming in blithe arrogance that whatever humanity thinks it wants, it ought to get.

The dawn of the Cthulhucene represents the arrival of a geological period in which those latter ways of understanding the world will be impossible to ignore any longer. We are beginning to learn no matter how hard we scrunch our eyes shut and plug our ears and shout “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” to the rest of the universe, the universe is not going to give us what we want just because we want it:  that the resources we waste so cluelessly will not be replaced for our benefit, and we will have to face every one of the consequences of the damage we do to the planetary biosphere that keeps us alive. In place of the megalomaniacal fantasy of Man the Conqueror of Nature, striding boldly from star to star in search of new worlds to plunder, we are beginning to see a vast and alien shape rising before us out of the mists of the future, a shape we might as well call Cthulhu: winged, scaled, tentacled, clawed, like a summary of life on earth, regarding us with utterly indifferent eyes.

In those eyes, we balding social primates are of no more importance in the great scheme of things than the trilobites or the dinosaurs, or for that matter the countless species—intelligent or otherwise—that will come into being long after the last human being has gone to join the trilobites and dinosaurs in Earth’s library of fossil beds.  The sooner we grasp that, the easier it will be for us to drop the misguided anthropocentric delusions that blind us to our situation, wake up to the mess we’ve made of things, and get to work trying to save as many of the best achievements of the last three hundred years or so before the long night of the deindustrial dark ages closes in around us.

Given that the universe is simply not interested in pandering to the fantasies of omnipotence currently fashionable among influential members of our species—given that no special providence is going to rescue us from the consequences of our assorted stupidities, no resource fairy is going to give us a shiny new energy source to make up for the resources we now squander so recklessly, and the laws of nature are already sending the results of our frankly brainless maltreatment of the biosphere back in our faces with an utter lack of concern for our feelings and interests—how should we then live? That’s the theme that I’ve been trying to explore, in one way or another, since this blog got under way. It’s a vast theme, and one that I haven’t even begun to exhaust yet. I have no idea if I’m still going to be blogging here ten years from now, but if not, it won’t be due to lack of things to talk about.

One more thing deserves to be said here, though. All along the journey that brought me from that first tentative post to this week’s retrospective, one of the things that’s made the way easier and a good deal more enjoyable has been the enthusiasm, understanding, and critical insight that’s been shown by so many of my readers. Time after time, faced with the choice of backing away from a controversial subject or plunging ahead, I’ve taken the plunge, and discovered that my readers were more than ready to jump with me. Time after time, too, when I’ve offered a rough sketch of some part of the landscape I’m trying to explore, my readers have asked questions and posed challenges that helped me immeasurably in clarifying my thinking and discarding approximations that didn’t work. As this blog begins its eleventh year, I’d like to thank everyone who’s made a comment here—and also everyone who’s made a donation to the tip jar and thus helped me afford the hours each week that go into these blog posts. My gratitude goes with each of you; I hope you’ve found the journey so far as rewarding as I have.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Where On The Titanic Would You Like Your Deck Chair, Ma’am?

Last week I had the enticing experience of being denounced as a racist on one blog and castigated as a social justice warrior on another. As my regular readers know, such entertainments have been anything but rare since I launched The Archdruid Report just under ten years ago. The odd belief that there are only two possible ways to think about any issue pervades modern American society; contradict that habit of thought, break with the conventional wisdom, and propose a third alternative, and you can count on both sides insisting that you belong to whichever point of view they like least.

If this week’s post fields a similar response, I won’t be surprised. Over the last month, we’ve been talking about the convoluted landscape of privilege in American society, and the way that the preferred rhetoric of both ends of the acceptable political spectrum falsifies the actual complexities of privilege that exist in contemporary American life. Some of my readers have wondered aloud, though, what that theme has to do with the broader issues at the heart of this blog’s project—the increasingly bleak future that modern industrial society is building for itself, the particular shape that future is taking in the United States, and the possibilities for constructive action that are still available this late in the day.

In this week’s post, I propose to start tying those threads back together.

One of the things that’s determined by privilege, after all, is which members of a society have a voice in making that society’s collective decisions. When George W. Bush sent American troops surging over the Iraqi border in 2003 and plunged the Middle East into its current state of chaos, for example, that decision was not made by all Americans equally. A small group of ideologues in the inner circles of the Bush administration made that decision, and got it rubberstamped by the President.  A larger circle of politicians, representing an assortment of power centers toward the upper end of the nation’s political and economic hierarchy, either supported the move or chose not to oppose it.

The few million Americans whose wealth and influence give them the ability to make themselves heard by the political system, in turn, either went along with the plan, or contented themselves with the kind of pro forma protests that the establishment has learned it can safely ignore. The rest of the American people, to say nothing of the people in Iraq and elsewhere who ended up bearing the brunt of the Bush regime’s squeaky-voiced machismo, had nothing to say in the matter.

This is normal. Every human society without exception gives some members more say in making decisions than others.  Since human beings are what they are, in turn, every human society without exception hands out those decision-making roles in ways that can reasonably be called unfair. That’s true of all other species of social primates, too, so odds are it’s as thoroughly hardwired into our behavioral repertoire as, say, sex.

I mentioned a little earlier the common American habit of insisting that there are two and only two ways to think about any issue. This is another example. The conventional wisdom on the Left holds that it’s not only possible but mandatory to create a society with no inequality at all, where everyone has the same privileges as affluent American liberals have today. The conventional wisdom on the right holds that existing inequalities are good and right and proper, and reflect the actual worth of the more or less privileged. Both of them are wrong, but they’re wrong in different ways.

The Left’s faith in the possibility of a society of perfect equality, where no one is more or less privileged than anybody else, has deep roots. Christian heretics in the Middle Ages roughed out the idea of a society in which perfect love would erase social divisions and everyone would share freely in all of life’s blessings; most had the great good sense to place this utopian vision on the far side of the Second Coming, when divine omnipotence could be counted on to take care of the practical difficulties of such a system. With the waning of Christian faith, Enlightenment philosophes such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau transposed the old vision into a new key, but lacked the perspicacity to find some existential barrier to shield the dream of a world of perfect equality from the fraught realities of human nature.

The result has been a long string of societies that proclaimed that they had abolished all privilege and made everyone equal. In every case, without exception, what happened instead was that an overt system of privilege was destroyed, and promptly replaced with a covert system of privilege—and since this latter was covert, it was much less subject to checks and balances. That’s why, from the Terror of revolutionary France to the killing fields of Cambodia, utopias of perfect equality quite reliably end up awash in rivers of blood. The American left, though, remains immune to the lessons of history, and once you get beyond the affluent end of the left, you can readily find utopian fantasies of the same kind that drove Robespierre, Stalin, and Pol Pot to their destinies being loudly proclaimed as the next great step in human history.

On the affluent end of the American left, by contrast, the blindness to history takes on a different shape. From the standpoint of the privileged liberal, the only reason everyone in today’s America isn’t equal is the machinations of the Evil Ists—that is, racists, sexists, fascists, and the like, who hold down all of American society’s underprivileged groups out of sheer evil evilness.  Theirs is the logic of the Rescue Game discussed in an earlier post this month; the idea that privilege is structural and systemic, and that they’ve benefited from it all their lives without having to take an active role in the process is right outside their grasp of the world. Suggest it, and they’ll assume that you must mean that they’re Evil Ists and leap up in outrage shouting, "No, no, we’re the good guys!"

Of course there’s another massive problem with the particular form that the dream of a perfectly equal society has taken on the contemporary American left. Most versions of that dream imagine dragging the privileged down to the level of the poor; the current American version, as already noted, dreams of bringing everyone else up to the level of the affluent. It’s a more generous vision but also a far more clueless one, because the privileges, perquisites, and comforts that make the life of an affluent American what it is today are made possible, first, by the breakneck consumption of irreplaceable natural resources at wildly unsustainable rates, and second, by a distorted global economic system that until very recently allowed the five per cent or so of humanity that lives in the United States to consume around a third of the products of the global economy.

I’ve already discussed at length, here and in several of my books as well, the impossibility of keeping America’s affluent in the style to which they have become accustomed. (The short form was summed up memorably by Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”)  Factor in the cost of giving everyone else those  lifestyles and the impossibility factor soars to Himalayan heights. Understandably, a great many affluent American liberals don’t want to hear this, but facts of this kind are like cats—the more strictly you ignore them, the more they persist in wreathing around your ankles and jumping up into your lap.

The Right’s faith in the fairness of existing inequalities has more flexible roots, as shifts in intellectual fashion have sent the rhetoric of privilege careening all over a broad landscape of ideas. Back in the Middle Ages, the usual argument was that God had assigned each person his or her station in life, and asking questions about privilege was tantamount to questioning God’s good intentions. The collapse of Christian faith in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sent the apologists of privilege scrambling for other options; theories of racial superiority and Social Darwinism put fake biology in place of religion. More recently, the insistence that modern industrial societies are meritocracies, where each person naturally gravitates to a place consistent with his or her abilities, fill the same dubious role.

That said, the American right remains just as closed to the lessons of history as their equal and opposite counterparts on the left. Track the individuals and families that populate the upper reaches of privilege in any modern industrial society, and you’ll see something that resembles nothing so much as a pot of spaghetti sauce at a slow rolling boil. Individuals and families rise up from lower in the pot, linger on the upper surface for a while, and sink back into the depths. No one formula explains the churning; for every person who climbs into the upper ranks of privilege on the basis of talent, there’s at least one who bullied and bluffed his way there and another who got there by sheer dumb luck—and there are many others just as talented who never succeeded in climbing the social ladder as far, or at all.

The way down is a little more predictable than the way up, not least because it used to be a favorite theme for novelists. I’m thinking here among many others of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which follows a wealthy German family from the zenith of privilege through decline and extinction over the course of the nineteenth century. The lesson to be learned here is that a life of privilege doesn’t foster the habits that conduce to the preservation of privilege. Within a few generations, the descendants of the talented, the blustering, and the just plain lucky who clawed their way to the top become clueless and cosseted, unable to deal with the ordinary hurly-burly of life outside their bubble of privilege, and when something disrupts that bubble, down they go.

In ordinary times, as the spaghetti-sauce metaphor suggests, the turnover in the privileged classes is relatively steady and goes on without causing any particular disruption to the pot as a whole. To extend the metaphor, though, there are times when history turns up the heat suddenly under the sauce, a great bubble of steam rises to the surface, and the entire upper surface of the sauce is replaced in a single convulsive blorp. When that happens with spaghetti sauce, the result is usually quite a mess, and the same is just as true of the social phenomenon.

Here a different novel by Thomas Mann is a useful guide—the most famous of his works, The Magic Mountain. What it’s about, if I may sum up an extraordinarily multilayered tale far too crudely, is the world of European privilege in the years just before the First World War. There were plenty of novels written about that theme in the 1920s, when the memory of that vanished era was still fresh enough to be painful, but Mann went about telling his story in a typically unorthodox way. The slice of prewar life he chose, half metaphor and half microcosm, was a tuberculosis sanitarium in the Swiss Alps.

Back before the development of effective treatments, tuberculosis was a death sentence for the poor. Those who didn’t have to work for a living, though, could seek a cure in sanitariums in mountainous regions, where the clear dry air might give their immune systems enough of an edge to overcome the infection. There, with nothing to distract them but conversation and romance, the patients go round the narrow circles of their well-ordered lives, their every need taken care of by swarms of servants. Far below the magic mountain, on the crowded plains of Europe, things were happening and pressures were building toward an explosion, but the feckless viewpoint character Hans Castorp and his fellow-patients—Lodovico Settembrini, Clavdia Chauchat, and the rest—drift aimlessly along until the explosion arrives, the trance shatters, and Castorp is flung, or flings himself, down from the magic mountain and onto the killing fields of the First World War.

It’s a heck of a read and I recommend it to anyone who has the patience—not that common these days—to take in a long, thoughtful, and richly ironic novel. That said, Mann’s take also places the current state of affairs in the United States and the rest of the industrial world in mordant focus. History paid Mann an elegant compliment, because the Swiss town where the International Sanitarium Berghof was located in Mann’s novel is famous today for a slightly different gathering of the coddled and cosseted rich. Yes, that would be Davos, where the self-proclaimed masters of the world gather every year to take in speeches by movers, shakers, and tame intellectuals, and issue oh-so-serious  rehashes of whatever vacuous brand of conventional wisdom is in fashion just then. Look at pictures of the the last few Davos gatherings, and I’m quite sure that you’ll be able to spot Hans Castorp among the crowd, blinking owlishly at the camera. 

Castorp’s vague cluelessness, certainly, is much on display these days, and not merely at Davos. I’ve discussed a great many aspects of that cluelessness in previous posts, but the one that’s relevant here is the way that people high up on America’s social ladder understand their own privilege. By and large, as already noted, the affluent on the leftward end don’t think they have any privilege at all, while their counterparts on the rightward end think that their privilege is a straightforward reflection of their own superior talent, intelligence, and so on.

Here again, the reality is a bit different. The affluent classes in America, as already noted, have the privileges, the benefits, and the comforts they have for two reasons.  The first is that the world’s industrial societies are consuming irreplaceable natural resources at unsustainable rates in order to keep the global economy churning out the goods and services needed to prop up the lifestyles of the affluent. The second is that wildly unbalanced patterns of exchange concentrate the lion’s share of the benefits of that orgy of environmental destruction in the hands of a small percentage of our species. If you want to talk about the 1%, I’m fine with that, so long as it’s applied globally: to the top 1% by income of Homo sapiens. If you live in America and have an annual household income above $38,000 or so, in case you were wondering, you belong to that category.

This is the magic mountain of our era—a mountain of privilege whose inmates either have no idea that they’re privileged, or have convinced themselves that they deserve whatever they have and that those who don’t have the same things don’t deserve them. Far below the magic mountain, in the rest of the world, things are happening and pressures are building toward an explosion, but most of those up there in the heights haven’t noticed. It does not occur to them that there’s anything unusual about their lives, much less that some sudden turn of events could fling them down from the mountain and into a chaotic future for which most of them have made no preparations at all.

What they don’t see, in brief, is that both of the pillars propping up their lives—the breakneck exploitation of finite natural resources and the arrangements that funnel an oversized share of the proceeds to a small minority—are running up against hard limits right now. In upcoming posts I’ll be going into much more detail about how that’s playing out. For the time being, I want to talk about what this means for the structures of privilege we’ve been discussing for the last month.

Let’s take the two pillars one at a time.  A nation that supports itself by exploiting the rest of the world has a very different economic structure from a nation that supports itself by its own efforts. In the latter, the economy tends to be dominated by productive labor, on the one hand, and investment on the other, and the sort of conflict that Karl Marx liked to talk about—in terms of the analysis I’ve been using in these essays, the conflict between the wage class and the investment class—determines the distribution of wealth and privilege in society. In the former, by contrast, it makes more economic sense to offshore the production of goods and services to other countries, and to use the profits of global exploitation rather than domestic savings to provide capital for industry; thus the wage class and the investment class both suffer, while the salary class—the class of managers, marketers, bankers, bureaucrats, and corporate flunkies, all those professions that make their livings by manipulating the wealth produced by others—prospers as never before.

The transition from an economy focused on domestic production to an economy focused on global exploitation takes plenty of time.  In the case of the United States, it took a hundred years, from the first wave of American imperial expansion in 1898 to the temporary triumph of globalization in the 1980s.  The transition the other way, though, happens a good deal more quickly, as a faltering hegemon generally gets shoved aside by rising powers rather than being allowed to decay slowly in peace. The aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse is a good working model here: once the Soviet system imploded, Russia suddenly had to do without the large subsidies it received from the rest of the Eastern bloc, and most of a decade of raw economic chaos followed as the Russian economy struggled to adapt to the task of meeting its own needs domestically. Soviet Russia, it bears noting, was much less dependent on overseas imports for goods and services than today’s America, so the post-Soviet experience should be considered a lower bound for what we’re in for.

The other pillar has similar implications. An economy based on the breakneck consumption of natural resources tends to concentrate influence in the hands of those who control resource flows directly or indirectly, and in today’s America, once again, these tend to be disproportionately members of the salary class. An economy based on the conservation of natural resources tends to concentrate influence instead in the hands of those who own sustainable resources such as land, or those who work directly with those resources; again, the conflict between owners and laborers determines the distribution of wealth and privilege in such societies. Transitioning from a conserver economy to a consumer economy takes plenty of time—in the case of the United States, the better part of two hundred years—while the transition the other way tends, once more, to be much more rapid once the resources run short.

It’s in this context, finally, that we can understand the unexpected revolt of the wage class that’s having so dramatic a role in shaping this years US presidential race. Hillary Clinton, like her already-forgotten Republican equivalents, is a perfect salary class candidate; she speaks for the privileged, and her entire campaign consists of waving around sound bites that signal to the privileged that they don’t need to worry about significant change if she moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders, are appealing instead to the wage class. I doubt either one expected to get anything like as far as he has, but both seem perfectly willing to ride the wave of popular discontent just as far as it will take them—and in Trump’s case, it seems likely to take him straight to the White House this autumn.

That is to say, what was supposed to be an ordinary contest among the champions of the affluent has suddenly taken on a very different shape. To shift metaphors a bit, the affluent are beginning to notice that their jockeying for position resembles nothing so much as bickering over the arrangement of deck chairs aboard the Titanic. The revolt of the wage class shows that the structure of power and privilege in today’s America is already beginning to shift, and two weeks from now we’ll take a hard look at some of the ways that shift is unfolding and some of the factors that are driving it.

First, though, comes something a little different. Next week marks the tenth anniversary of The Archdruid Report, and I plan on a bit of retrospective—and a bit of celebration. After that’s done, we can roll up our sleeves and get in under the hood of a society and a civilization in terminal disarray.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Starhawking the Privilege Game

The last two posts here on The Archdruid Report, with their focus on America’s class system and the dysfunctional narratives that support it, fielded an intriguing response from readers. I expected a fair number to be uncomfortable with the subject I was discussing; I didn’t expect them to post comments and emails asking me, in so many words, to please talk about something else instead.

Straight talk about uncomfortable subjects has been this blog’s bread and butter since I first started posting just shy of ten years ago, so I’ve had some experience with the way that blog readers squirm. Normally, when I touch on a hot-button issue, readers who find that subject too uncomfortable go out of their way to act as though I haven’t mentioned it at all. I’m thinking here especially, but not only, of the times I’ve noted that the future of the internet depends on whether it can pay for itself, not on whether it’s technically feasible.  Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve gotten comments that rabbited on endlessly about technical feasibility as a way to avoid talking about the economic reasons why the internet won’t be able to cover its own operating costs in the future of resource depletion and environmental blowback we’re busy making for ourselves.

It’s not just hard questions about the future of the internet that attracts that strategy of avoidance, mind you. I’ve learned to expect it whenever some post of mine touches on any topic that contradicts the conventional wisdom of our time. That’s why the different response I got to the last two posts was so fascinating. The fact that people who were made uncomfortable by a frank discussion of class privilege actually admitted that, rather than trying to pretend that no subject so shocking had been mentioned at all, says to me that we may be approaching a historical inflection point of some importance.

Mind you, frank discussion of class privilege still gets plenty of avoidance maneuvers outside the fringe territory where archdruids lurk. I’m thinking here, of course, of the way that affluent liberals right now are responding to Donald Trump’s straightforward talk about class issues by yelling that he and his followers must be motivated by racism and nothing else. That’s partly a standard bit of liberal rhetoric—I’ve discussed the way that the word “racist,” when uttered by the privileged, normally functions as a dog whistle for “wage class”—but it’s also an attempt to drag the conversation away from what policies that benefit the affluent have done to everyone else in this country.

In some parts of the current Neopagan community, that evasive maneuver has acquired a helpful moniker: “Starhawking.”  With apologies to those of my readers who may find the behavior of one of America’s smaller minority religious communities uninteresting, I’d like to recount the story behind the label.  Here as so often, a small example helps clarify things; the reduced scale of a social microcosm makes it easier to observe patterns that can be harder to see at a glance on the macrocosmic scale.

Those who haven’t had any contact with the Neopagan scene may not know that it isn’t one religion, or even a group of closely related religions; rather, it’s a grab-bag of profoundly diverse faiths, some of which have less in common with one another than Christianity has with Shinto.  Their association in a common subculture comes not from shared beliefs or practices, but solely from a shared history of exclusion from the religious and cultural mainstream of American society.  These days, something like half of American Neopagans participate in some flavor of eclectic Paganism, which emerged out of the older British traditional witchcraft in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most of the rest fall into two broad categories: one consists of older initiatiory traditions such as the British traditional witchcraft just named, while the other consists of recently revived polytheist faiths worshipping the gods and goddesses of various historic pantheons—Norse, Greek, Egyptian, and so on.

There’s a great deal of talk about inclusiveness in the Neopagan scene, but those of my readers who know their way around small American subcultures will have no trouble figuring out that what this means is that eclectic Paganism is the default option almost everywhere, and people from other traditions are welcome to show up and participate, on terms defined by eclectic Paganism, so long as they don’t offend the sensibilities of the eclectic Pagan majority. For a variety of reasons, most of which are more relevant to my other blog than this one, those sensibilities seem to be getting more easily offended of late, and people from the minority traditions have responded in a variety of ways.  Some have simply walked away from the Neopagan scene, while others have tried, in an assortment of forums, to start a conversation about what has been awkwardly termed “Wiccanate privilege.”

One such discussion was under way at a large San Francisco-area Neopagan event in 2014 when Starhawk put in a belated appearance. For those who aren’t familiar with her, she’s one of the few genuine celebrities to come out of the US Neopagan scene, the author of The Spiral Dance, one of the two books that basically launched eclectic Paganism—the other is Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon—and a notable political figure over on the leftward end of the spectrum. According to people I know who were there, she proceeded to insist that the conversation should not even be happening, because all Pagans need to unite to save the Earth.

Mind you, there were plenty of other conversations going on at that event that had nothing to do with saving the Earth, and neither she nor anyone else seemed to feel any need to try to silence those conversations—just the conversation about privilege.  That’s Starhawking: the rhetorical tactic of insisting that some other issue is so important that the privilege of the speaker must not be discussed. To be fair to Starhawk, she didn’t invent it; it’s all over contemporary discourse in America, quite often in contexts where the stakes are considerably higher than they will ever be in the Neopagan scene. 

Madeleine Albright’s recent insistence that every woman in America should vote for Hillary Clinton or fry in hell comes out of exactly the same logic. Issue A in this case is the so-called “glass ceiling,” the habit of excluding women of the privileged classes from the upper reaches of power and wealth. Issue B in this case is the fact that putting Hillary Clinton into the White House will only benefit those women who belong to the top end of America’s class structure, since the policies Clinton has supported throughout her political life have brought impoverishment and immiseration to the vast majority of American women, i.e., those who belong to the wage class and the lower half or so of the salary class.

When Starhawking comes from the leftward end of the affluent class, it’s almost always framed in terms of another kind of bias—racism, sexism, or what have you—which can be used, along the lines detailed last week, to blame the sufferings of one underprivileged group on another underprivileged group. When it takes place on the other end of the political spectrum, as of course it does all the time, other issues are used to drown out any discussion of privilege; among the favorites are crime, Christian moral theology, and the alleged laziness and greed of people on public assistance. The excuse differs but the rhetorical gimmick is the same.

One of the things that makes that gimmick viable is the ambiguous nature of the language that’s used to talk about the various candidates for Issue A. “Crime,” for example, is a nice vague abstraction that everyone can agree to oppose. Once that agreement has been obtained, on the other hand, it descends from the airy realm of abstraction into some very questionable specifics—to note a relevant example, none of the politicians who boast about being “tough on crime” have shown any interest in locking up the kleptomaniacs of Wall Street, whose billion-dollar swindles have done far more damage to the nation than any number of muggings on the mean streets of our inner cities.

In the same way, words like “racism” and “sexism” are abstractions with a great deal of ambiguity built into them. There are at least three things conflated in labels of this kind. I’d like to unpack those for a moment, in the hope of getting a clearer view of the convoluted landscape of American inequality.

The things I want to pull out of these portmanteau words, and others like them, are privilege, prejudice, and acts of injustice. Let’s start with the last. Police officers in America, for example, routinely gun down black teenagers in response to actions that do not get white teenagers shot; a woman who gets hired for a job in the US today can expect to get, on average, roughly three-quarters the pay that a man can expect to get for doing exactly the same job; two people who love each other and want to get married have to run a gauntlet of difficulties if they happen to be the same gender that they would not face if they were different genders. Those are acts of injustice.

Prejudice is a matter of attitudes rather than actions. The word literally means pre-judgments, the judgments we all make about people and situations before we encounter them. Everybody has them, every culture teaches them, but some people are more prejudiced—more committed to their pre-judgments, and less willing to reassess them in the face of disconfirming evidence—and some are less so.  Acts of injustice are usually motivated by prejudice, and prejudice very often results in acts of injustice, but neither of these equations are exact. I’ve known people who were profoundly prejudiced but refused to act on their prejudices because some other belief or commitment forbade that; I’ve also known people who participated repeatedly in acts of injustice, who were just following orders or going along with friends, and didn’t care in the least one way or the other.

Then there’s privilege. Where prejudice and acts of injustice are individual, privilege is collective; you have privilege, or don’t have it, because of the categories you belong to, not because of what you do or don’t do. I’ll use myself as a source of examples here. I can walk through the well-to-do neighborhoods of the town where I live, for instance, without being hassled by the police; black people don’t have that privilege. I can publish controversial essays like this one without being bombarded with rape and death threats by trolls; women don’t have that privilege. I can kiss my spouse in public without having some moron yell insults at me out of the window of a passing car; gay people don’t have that privilege.

I could fill the next ten posts on this blog with a listing of similar privileges I have, and not even come close to running out of examples. It’s important, though, to recognize that my condition of privilege isn’t assigned to me for any one reason. It’s not just that I’m white, or male, or heterosexual, or grew up in a family on the lower end of the salary class, or was born able-bodied, or what have you; it’s all of these things and a great many more, taken together, that assign me my place in the hierarchy of privilege. This is equally true of you, dear reader, and of everyone else. What differentiates my position from yours, and yours from everyone else’s, is that every station on the ladder has a different proportion between the number of people above it and the number of people below.  There are, for example, plenty of people in today’s America who have more privilege than I do, but there are vastly more people who have much, much less.

Note also that I don’t have to do anything to get the privileges I have, nor can I get rid of them.  As a white heterosexual man from a salary class background, and the rest of it, I got assigned nearly all of my privileges the moment I was born, and no matter what I do or don’t do, I’ll keep the vast majority of them until I die. Ths is also true of you, dear reader, and of everyone else: the vast majority of what places you on whatever rung you occupy in the long ladder of privilege is yours simply for being born. Thus you’re not responsible for the fact that you have whatever level of privilege you do—though you are responsible, of course, for what you choose to do with it.

You can, after all, convince yourself that you deserve your privilege, and the people who don’t share your privilege deserve their inferior status—that is to say, you can choose to be prejudiced.  You can exploit your privilege to benefit yourself at the expense of the less privileged—that is to say, you can engage in acts of injustice. The more privilege you have, the more your prejudices affect other people’s lives and the more powerful your acts of injustice become. Thus advocates for the less privileged are quite correct to point out that the prejudices and injustices of the privileged matter more than those of the unprivileged.

On the other hand, privilege does not automatically equate to prejudice, or to acts of injustice. It’s entirely possible for the privileged—who, as already noted, did not choose their privilege and can’t get rid of it—to refuse to exploit their privilege in this way. It’s even possible, crashingly unfashionable as the concept is these days, for them to take up the old principle of noblesse oblige: the concept, widely accepted (though not always acted on) in eras where privilege was more openly recognized, that those who are born to privilege also inherit definite responsibilities toward the less privileged. I suppose it’s even possible that they might do this and not expect lavish praise for it, though that’s kind of a stretch, American culture today being what it is.

These days, though, most white heterosexual men from salary class backgrounds don’t think of themselves as privileged, and don’t see the things I enumerated earlier as privileges. This is one of the most crucial points about privilege in today’s America: to the privileged, privilege is invisible. That’s not just a matter of personal cluelessness, or of personal isolation from the less privileged, though these can of course be involved. It’s a matter of enculturation. The mass media and every other aspect of mainstream American culture constantly present the experience of privileged people as normal, and just as constantly feed any departure from that experience through an utterly predictable set of filters.

First, of course, the experience of the unprivileged is erased—“That sort of thing doesn’t actually happen.” When that fails, it’s dismissed as unimportant—”Well, maybe it does happen, but it’s no big deal.” When it becomes clear that it is a big deal to those who have to cope with it, it’s treated as an occasional anomaly—“You can’t generalize from one or two bad examples.” When that breaks down, finally, the experience of the unprivileged is blamed on the unprivileged—“It’s their own fault that they get treated like that.”  If you know your way around America’s collective nonconversation about privilege, in the mass media or in everyday conversation, you’ve seen each one of these filters deployed a thousand times or more.

What makes this interesting is that the invisibility of privilege in modern America isn’t shared by that many other human societies. There are plenty of cultures, past and present, in which privilege is right out there in the open, written into laws, and openly discussed by the privileged as well as the unprivileged. The United States used to be like that as recently as the 1950s. It wasn’t just that there were Jim Crow laws in those days formally assigning black Americans the status of second-class citizens, and laws in many states that gave women second-class status when it came to a galaxy of legal and financial rights; it was all over the media and popular culture, too. Open any daily newspaper, and the society pages splashed around the difference in privilege between those people who belonged to the elite and those who didn’t.

For a complex series of reasons rooted in the cultural convulsions of the Sixties, though, frank talk about privilege stopped being socially acceptable in America over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. That didn’t make privilege go away, of course. It did mean that certain formal expressions of privilege, such as the Jim Crow laws just mentioned, had to be scrapped, and in that process, some real injustices did get fixed. The downside was the rise of a culture of doubletalk in which the very real disparities in privilege in American society got fed repeatedly through the filters described above, and one of the most important sources of those disparities—class differences—were shoved completely out of the collective conversation of our time.

The habit of Starhawking is one of the major rhetorical tools by which open discussion of privilege, and above all of class privilege, got thrust out of sight. It’s been used with equal verve at all points along the political spectrum from the far left straight across to the far right. Whether it’s affluent liberals insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege in order to get on with the task of saving the Earth, affluent conservatives insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege in order to get on with the task of returning America to its Christian roots, or—and this is increasingly the standard line—affluent people on both sides insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege because fighting those horrible people on the other side of the political spectrum is the only thing that matters, what all these utterances mean in practice is “don’t talk about my privilege.”

That sort of evasion is what I expected to field from readers when I started talking about issues surrounding class privilege earlier this year. I got a certain amount of it, to be sure, but as already mentioned, I also got comments by people who acknowledged that they were uncomfortable with the discussion and wanted me to stop. What this says to me is that the wall of denial and doubletalk that has closed down open discussion of privilege in today’s America—and especially of class privilege—may be cracking at last. Granted, The Archdruid Report is well out there on the cultural fringes of American society, but it’s very often the fringes that show signs of major social changes well before the mainstream ever hears about them.

If it’s true that the suppression of talk about privilege in general, and class privilege in particular, is in the process of breaking down, it’s not a minute too soon. The United States just now stands in the path of a tidal wave of drastic change, and current patterns of privilege are among the many things that bid fair to be upended once it hits. We’ll talk about that next week.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

American Narratives: The Rescue Game

Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, with its analysis of the way that affluent white liberals use accusations of racism as a dog whistle for their own bigotry toward wage-earning Americans, got a flurry of emails and attempted comments trying to push the discussion back into the officially approved narrative of race in the United States. That came as no surprise, at least to me. Every society has a set of acceptable narratives that frame public discourse on any controversial subject, and trying to get past the narrow confines of any such narrative inevitably brings some form of pushback.

Depending on the society and the era, the pushback can quite readily include such entertainments as being burnt at the stake for heresy, so I don’t feel any need to complain about the really rather mild response I got. At the same time, though, I don’t propose to back down. Every society, as just noted, has a set of narratives that confine discourse on controversial subjects to approved channels, but tolerably often those approved channels exclude crucial details and head off necessary questions. In today’s United States, in particular, the facts concerning nearly every significant crisis we face can be divided up neatly into two entirely separate categories. The facts that most Americans are willing to talk about belong to one of these categories; the facts that matter most belong to the other.

Thus one of the things I plan on doing over the months ahead is talking about some of the narratives that keep most people in today’s America from discussing, or for that matter noticing, the most crucial forces dragging this country down to ruin. Such an examination could as well start with any of those narratives—as Charles Fort pointed out, one traces a circle starting anywhere—but given the response to last week’s post, we might as well start with the accepted narrative about race.

It’s probably necessary to reiterate that this discussion is about narratives, not about the things that the narratives are supposed to describe. If you want to hear about the realities of racial privilege, racial prejudice, and racial injustice in the United States, you need to talk to the people of color who have to deal with those things day in and day out, not to a middle-aged white intellectual like me, who’s by and large been sheltered from that dimension of the American experience. People of color, on the other hand, have had very little influence on the officially approved narrative of race in the United States.  Like most of the narratives that shape our collective discourse, that’s been crafted primarily by middle-aged white intellectuals with college educations and salary-class backgrounds: that is, people like me. If I sing you some of the songs of my people, in other words, I hope you won’t mind.

I’m going to approach the opening notes of this first song by what may seem like a roundabout route. There’s a school of psychology called transactional analysis, which focuses on interactions between people rather than the vagaries of the individual psyche. Transactional analysis covers a lot of ground, but I want to focus on just one of its themes here: the theory of interpersonal games.

An interpersonal game, like most other games, has a set of rules and some kind of prizes for winners. In a healthy interpersonal game, the rules and the prizes are overt: that is, if you ask the players what they are, you can pretty much count on an honest answer. As this stops being true—as more of the rules and prizes become covert—the game becomes more and more dysfunctional. At the far end of the spectrum are those wholly dysfunctional games in which straight talk about the rules and payoffs is utterly taboo.

The accepted mainstream narrative about race in America today can best be described as one of those latter category of wholly dysfunctional games. Fortunately, it’s a game that was explored in quite a bit of detail by transactional analysts in the 1960s and 1970s, so it won’t be particularly difficult to break the taboo and speak about the unspeakable. Its name?  The Rescue Game.

Here’s how it works. Each group of players is assigned one of three roles: Victim, Persecutor, or Rescuer. The first two roles are allowed one move each: the Victim’s move is to suffer, and the Persecutor’s move is to make the Victim suffer. The Rescuer is allowed two moves: to sympathize with the Victim and to punish the Persecutor. No other moves are allowed, and no player is allowed to make a move that belongs to a different role.

That may seem unduly limited. It’s not, because when a group of people is assigned a role, all their actions are redefined as the move or moves allotted to that role.  In the Rescue Game, in other words, whatever a Victim does must be interpreted as a cry of pain. Whatever a Persecutor does is treated as something that’s intended to cause pain to a Victim, and whatever a Rescuer does, by definition, either expresses sympathy for a Victim or inflicts well-deserved punishment on a Persecutor. This is true even when the actions performed by the three people in question happen to be identical. In a well-played Rescue Game, quite a bit of ingenuity can go into assigning every action its proper meaning as a move.

What’s more, the roles are collective, not individual. Each Victim is equal to every other Victim, and is expected to feel and resent all the suffering ever inflicted on every other Victim in the same game. Each Persecutor is equal to every other Persecutor, and so is personally to blame for every suffering inflicted by every other Persecutor in the same game. Each Rescuer, in turn, is equal to every other Rescuer, and so may take personal credit for the actions of every other Rescuer in the same game. This allows the range of potential moves to expand to infinity without ever leaving the narrow confines of the game.

There’s one other rule: the game must go on forever. The Victim must continue to suffer, the Persecutor must continue to persecute, and the Rescuer must continue to sympathize and punish. Anything that might end the game—for example, any actual change in the condition of the Victim, or any actual change in the behavior of the Persecutor—is therefore out of bounds. The Rescuer also functions as a referee, and so it’s primarily his or her job to see that nothing gets in the way of the continuation of the game, but all players are expected to help out if that should be necessary.

Got it? Now we’ll go to an example—and no, it’s not the one you’re thinking of. The example I have in mind is the standard narrative of race in the deep South for the century or so after the Civil War.

The players were rich white people, poor white people, and black people—this latter category, in the jargon of the time, included anyone with any publicly admitted trace of African ancestry.  The roles were assigned as follows: poor white people were Victims, black people were Persecutors, and rich white people were Rescuers. The rest of the game followed from there.

Anything that poor white people did to black people was thus justified, under the rules of the game, as a cry of pain elicited by their suffering at the hands of Yankees, carpetbaggers, former slaves, etc., etc. etc.  Anything rich white people did to black people was justified by their assigned role as Rescuers. Meanwhile, anything and everything that was done, or not done, by black people was defined as a persecution—if black people pursued an education, for example, they were trying to steal jobs from white folk, while if they didn’t, that just proved that they were an inferior element corrupting the South by their very presence, and so on through all the classic doublebinds of bigotry.

A variant of that game still goes on in the pseudoconservative end of American politics. When Hillary Clinton went out of her way to characterize African-American youth as “superpredators” not that many years ago, she was playing a version of that same game, in which law-abiding white citizens were the Victims, black youth were the Persecutors, and white politicians were the Rescuers. On the other end of the political spectrum, of course, the roles are reversed; in games played on that field, people of color are the Victims, working class white people are the Persecutors, and affluent white liberals are the Rescuers. The players have changed places but the game’s otherwise identical.

Yes, I’m aware that people of color on the one hand, and working class white people on the other, occupy radically different places in the hierarchy of privilege in today’s America. More precisely, members of each of these heterogeneous groups occupy a range of sharply differing positions in that hierarchy, and these two ranges have very little overlap. What’s come to be called intersectionality—the way that social divisions according to gender, race, class, ethnicity, physical disability, and a bubbling cauldron of other factors, intersect with one another to produce the convoluted landscape of American inequality—is a massive factor all through contemporary life in the United States. So is the wretchedly common human habit of “paying it downwards,” in which an abused and exploited group responds by seeking some other group to abuse and exploit in turn.

All these considerations, though, belong to the real world. They are excluded from the artificial world of the Rescue Game, and from the officially approved narrative about race that derives from that game. In the Rescue Game, all members of the group assigned the role of Victim are always, only, and equally Victims, all members of the group assigned the role of Persecutor are always, only, and equally Persecutors, and the maltreatment of the Victims by the Persecutors is the only thing that matters. If anyone tries to bring anyone else’s treatment of anyone else into the game, it’s either dismissed as an irrelevance or denounced as a deliberate, malicious attempt to distract attention from the maltreatment of the Victims by the Persecutors.

The assignment of roles to different categories of people takes place in the opening phase of the Rescue Game. Like most games, this one has an opening phase, a middle period of play, and an endgame, and the opening phase is called “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor.” In this initial phase, teams of Victims bid for the attention of Rescuers by displaying their suffering and denouncing their Persecutors, and the winners are those who attract enough Rescuers to make up a full team. In today’s America, this phase of the game is ongoing, and a great deal of rivalry tends to spring up between teams of Victims who compete for the attention of the same Rescuers. When that rivalry breaks out into open hostilities, as it often does, the result has been called the Oppression Olympics—the bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred struggle over which group of people gets to have its sufferings privileged over everyone else’s.

Once the roles have been assigned and an adequate team of Rescuers attracted, the game moves into its central phase, which is called “Show Trial.” This has two requirements, which are not always met. The first is an audience willing to applaud the Victims, shout catcalls at the Persecutors, and cheer for the Rescuers on cue. The second is a supply of Persecutors who can be convinced or coerced into showing up to play the game. A Rescue Game in which the Persecutors don’t show quickly enters the endgame, with disadvantages that will be described shortly, and so getting the Persecutors to appear is crucial.

This can be done in several ways. If the game is being played with live ammunition—for example, Stalin’s Russia or the deep South after the Civil War—people who have been assigned the role of Persecutors can simply be rounded up at gunpoint and forced to participate. If the people playing the game have some less drastic form of institutional power—for example, in American universities today—participation in the game can be enforced by incentives such as curriculum requirements. Lacking these options, the usual strategies these days are to invite the Persecutors to a supposedly honest dialogue, on the one hand, and to taunt them until they show up to defend themselves, on the other.

However their presence is arranged, once the Persecutors arrive, the action of the game is stereotyped. The Victims accuse the Persecutors of maltreating them, the Persecutors try to defend themselves, and then the Victims and the Rescuers get to bully the Persecutors into silence, using whatever means are allowed by local law and custom. If the game is being played with live ammunition, each round ends with the messy death of one or more Persecutors; the surviving players take a break of varying length, and then the next Persecutor or group of Persecutors is brought in. In less gory forms of the game, the Persecutors are shouted down rather than shot down, but the emotional tone is much the same.

This phase of the game continues until there are no more Persecutors willing or able to act out their assigned role, or until the audience gets bored and wanders away. At this point the action shifts to the endgame, which is called “Circular Firing Squad.” In this final phase of the game, the need for a steady supply of Persecutors is met by identifying individual Victims or Rescuers as covert Persecutors. Since players thus accused typically try to defend themselves against the accusation, the game can go on as before—the Victims bring their accusations, the newly identified Persecutors defend themselves, and then the Victims and Rescuers get to bully them into silence.

The one difficulty with this phase is that each round of the game diminishes the supply of players and makes continuing the game harder and harder. Toward the end, in order to keep the game going, the players commonly make heroic attempts to convince or coerce more people into joining the game, so that they can be “outed” as Persecutors, and the range of things used to identify covert Persecutors can become impressively baroque.  The difficulty, of course, is that very few people are interested in playing a game in which the only role open to them is being accused of violating a code of rules that becomes steadily more subtle, elaborate, and covert with each round of the game, and getting bullied into silence thereafter. Once word gets out, as a result, the game usually grinds to a halt in short order due to a shortage of players. At that point, it’s back to “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor,” and on we go.

There’s plenty more that could be said here about the details of the Rescue Game and the narrative of race derived from it, but at this point I’d like to consider three broader issues. The first is the relation between the game and the narrative, on the one hand, and the realities of racism in today’s America. I don’t doubt that some readers of this essay will insist that by questioning the narrative, I’m trying to erase the reality.  Not so. Racial privilege, racial prejudice, and racial injustice are pervasive factors in American life today.  The fact that the approved narrative of race in today’s America is deceptive and dysfunctional doesn’t make racism any less real; on the other hand, the fact that American racism is a stark reality doesn’t make the narrative any less deceptive and dysfunctional.

The second issue I’d like to consider is whether the same game is played on other playing fields, and the answer is yes. I first encountered the concept of the Rescue Game, in fact, by way of a pamphlet lent to my wife by her therapist sister-in-law, which used it as the basis for an edgy analysis of class conflicts within the lesbian community. From there to the literature on transactional analysis was a short step, and of course it didn’t hurt that I lived in Seattle in those years, where every conceivable form of the Rescue Game could be found in full swing. (The most lively games of “Circular Firing Squad” in town were in the Marxist splinter parties, which I followed via their monthly newspapers; the sheer wallowing in ideological minutiae that went into identifying this or that party member as a deviationist would have impressed the stuffing out of medieval scholastic theologians.)

With impressive inevitability, in fact, every question concerning privilege in today’s America gets turned into a game of “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor,” in which one underprivileged group is blamed for the problems affecting another underprivileged group, and some group of affluent white people show up to claim the Rescuer’s role.  That, in turn, leads to the third issue I want to consider here, which is the question of who benefits most from the habit of forcing all discussion of privilege in today’s America into the straitjacket of the Rescue Game.

It’s only fair to note that each of the three roles gets certain benefits, though these are distributed in a very unequal fashion. The only thing the people who are assigned the role of Persecutor get out of it is plenty of negative attention. Sometimes that’s enough—it’s a curious fact that hating and being hated can function as an intoxicant for some people—but this is rarely enough of an incentive to keep those assigned the Persecutor’s role willing to play the game for long.

The benefits that go to people who are assigned the role of Victim are somewhat more substantial. Victims get to air their grievances in public, which is a rare event for the underprivileged, and they also get to engage in socially sanctioned bullying of people they don’t like, which is an equally rare treat. That’s all they get, though. In particular, despite reams of the usual rhetoric about redressing injustices and the like, the Victims are not supposed to do anything, or to expect the Rescuers to do anything, to change the conditions under which they live. The opportunities to air grievances and bully others are substitutes for substantive change, not—as they’re usually billed—steps toward substantive change.

The vast majority of the benefits of the game, rather, go to the Rescuers. They’re the ones who decide which team of Victims will get enough attention from Rescuers to be able to start a game.  They’re the ones who enforce the rules, and thus see to it that Victims keep on being victimized and Persecutors keep on persecuting.  Nor is it accidental that in every Rescue Game, the people who get the role of Rescuers are considerably higher on the ladder of social privilege than the people who get given the roles of Victims and Persecutors.

Step back and look at the whole picture, and it’s not hard to see why this should be so. At any given time, after all, there are many different Rescue Games in play, with affluent white people always in the role of Rescuers and an assortment of less privileged groups alternating in the roles of Victims and Persecutors. Perhaps, dear reader, you find it hard to imagine why affluent white people would want to keep everyone else so busy fighting one another that they never notice who benefits most from that state of affairs. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that giving the underprivileged the chance to air their grievances and engage in a little socially sanctioned bullying is a great deal less inconvenient for the affluent than actually taking action to improve the lives of the underprivileged would be. Such thoughts seemingly never enter the minds of most Americans; I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.

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On an unrelated note, I’m pleased to announce that the latest After Oil anthology, After Oil 4: The Future’s Distant Shores, is now available for sale. Like previous volumes in the series, this one’s packed with first-rate stories about the postpetroleum future, written by Archdruid Report readers; the one wrinkle this time around is that all the stories are set at least one thousand years in the future.

Founders House Publishing is also offering the e-book edition of the first volume in the series, After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future, for $2.99 just now. Those of my readers who haven’t yet read the original anthology, and like e-books, might want to give this one a try; if you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The End of Ordinary Politics

Archdruids may take vacations but politics never sleeps, and during the month that’s elapsed since the last post here on The Archdruid Report, quite a number of things relevant to this blog’s project have gone spinning past the startled eyes of those who pay attention to the US political scene. I’ll get to some of the others in upcoming weeks; the one that caught my attention most forcefully, for reasons I trust my readers will find understandable, was the reaction to a post of mine from a few months back titled Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment.

It’s not uncommon for a post of mine on a controversial subject to get picked up by other blogs and attract a fair amount of discussion and commentary. On the other hand, when something I write takes not much more than a week to become the most-read post in the history of The Archdruid Report, goes on to attract more than half again as many page views as the nearest runner-up, and gets nearly twice as many comments as the most comment-heavy previous post, it’s fair to say that something remarkable has happened. When a follow-up post, The Decline and Fall of Hillary Clinton, promptly became the second most-read post in this blog’s history and attracted even more comments—well, here again, it seems tolerably clear that I managed to hit an exquisitely sensitive nerve.

It may not be an accident, either, that starting about a week after that first post went up, two things relevant to it have started to percolate through the mass media. The first, and to my mind the most promising, is that a few journalists have managed to get past the usual crass stereotypes, and talk about the actual reasons why so many voters have decided to back Donald Trump’s aspirations this year. I was startled to see a thoughtful article by Peggy Noonan along those lines in the Wall Street Journal, and even more astonished to see pieces making similar points in other media outlets—here’s an example,, and here’s another.

Mind you, none of the articles that I saw quite managed to grapple with the raw reality of the situation that’s driving so many wage-earning Americans to place their last remaining hopes for the future on Donald Trump. Even Noonan’s piece, though it’s better than most and makes an important point we’ll examine later, falls short.  In her analysis, what’s wrong is that a privileged subset of Americans have been protected from the impacts of the last few decades of public policy, while the rest of us haven’t had that luxury.  This is true, of course, but it considerably understates things. The class she’s talking about—the more affluent half or so of the salary class, to use the taxonomy I suggested in my post—hasn’t simply been protected from the troubles affecting other Americans.  They’ve profited, directly and indirectly, from the policies that have plunged much of the wage class into impoverishment and misery, and their reliable response to any attempt to discuss that awkward detail shows tolerably clearly that a good many of them are well aware of it.

I’m thinking here, among many other examples along the same lines, of a revealing article earlier this year from a reporter who attended a feminist conference on sexism in the workplace. All the talk there was about how women in the salary class could improve their own prospects for promotion and the like. It so happened that the reporter’s sister works in a wage-class job, and she quite sensibly inquired whether the conference might spare a little time to discuss ways to improve prospects for women who don’t happen to belong to the salary class. Those of my readers who have seen discussions of this kind know exactly what happened next: a bit of visible discomfort, a few vaguely approving comments, and then a resumption of the previous subjects as though no one had made so embarrassing a suggestion.

It’s typical of the taboo that surrounds class prejudice in today’s industrial nations that not even the reporter mentioned the two most obvious points about this interchange. The first, of course, is that the line the feminists at the event drew between those women whose troubles with sexism were of interest to them, and those whose problems didn’t concern them in the least, was a class line. The second is that the women at the event had perfectly valid, if perfectly selfish, reasons for drawing that line. In order to improve the conditions of workers in those wage class industries that employ large numbers of women, after all, the women at the conference would themselves have had to pay more each month for daycare, hairstyling, fashionable clothing, and the like. Sisterhood may be powerful, as the slogans of an earlier era liked to claim, but it’s clearly not powerful enough to convince women in the salary class to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of women who don’t happen to share their privileged status.

To give the women at the conference credit, though, at least they didn’t start shouting about some other hot-button issue in the hope of distracting attention from an awkward question. That was the second thing relevant to my post that started happening the week after it went up. All at once, much of the American left responded to the rise of Donald Trump by insisting at the top of their lungs that the only reason, the only possible reason, that anyone at all supports the Trump campaign is that Trump is a racist and so are all his supporters.

It’s probably necessary to start by unpacking the dubious logic here, so that we can get past that and see what’s actually being said. Does Trump have racial prejudices? No doubt; most white Americans do. Do his followers share these same prejudices? Again, no doubt some of them do—not all his followers are white, after all, a point that the leftward end of the media has been desperately trying to obscure in recent weeks. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that Trump and his followers do indeed share an assortment of racial bigotries. Does that fact, if it is a fact, prove that racism must by definition be the only thing that makes Trump appeal to his followers?

Of course it proves nothing of the kind. You could use the same flagrant illogic to insist that since Trump enjoys steak, and many of his followers share that taste, the people who follow him must be entirely motivated by hatred for vegetarians. Something that white Americans generally don’t discuss, though I’m told that most people of color are acutely aware of it, is that racial issues simply aren’t that important to white people in this country nowadays.  The frantic and passionate defense of racial bigotry that typified the Jim Crow era is rare these days outside of the white-supremacist fringe.  What has replaced it, by and large, are habits of thought and action that most white people consider to be no big deal—and you don’t get a mass movement going in the teeth of the political establishment by appealing to attitudes that the people who hold them consider to be no big deal.

Behind the shouts of “Racist!” directed at the Trump campaign by a great many affluent white liberals, rather, lies a rather different reality. Accusations of racism play a great many roles in contemporary American discourse—and of course the identification of actual racism is among these. When affluent white liberals make that accusation, on the other hand, far more often than not, it’s a dog whistle.

I should probably explain that last phrase for the benefit of those of my readers who don’t speak fluent Internet. A dog whistle, in online jargon, is a turn of phrase or a trope that expresses some form of bigotry while giving the bigot plausible deniability. During the civil rights movement, for example, the phrase “states’ rights” was a classic dog whistle; the rights actually under discussion amounted to the right of white Southerners to impose racial discrimination on their black neighbors, but the White Citizens Council spokesmen who waxed rhapsodic about states’ rights never had to say that in so many words. That there were, and are, serious issues about the balance of power between states and the federal government that have nothing do with race, and thus got roundly ignored by both sides of the struggle, is just one more irony in a situation that had no shortage of them already.

In the same way, the word “racist” in the mouths of the pundits and politicians who have been applying it so liberally to the Trump campaign is a dog whistle for something they don’t want to talk about in so many words. What they mean by it, of course, is “wage class American.”

That’s extremely common. Consider the recent standoff in Oregon between militia members and federal officials. While that was ongoing, wags in the blogosphere and the hip end of the media started referring to the militia members as “Y’all-Qaeda.” Attentive readers may have noted that none of the militia members came from the South—the only part of the United States where “y’all” is the usual second person plural pronoun. To the best of my knowledge, all of them came from the dryland West, where “y’all” is no more common than it is on the streets of Manhattan or Vancouver. Why, then, did the label catch on so quickly and get the predictable sneering laughter of the salary class?

It spread so quickly and got that laugh because most members of the salary class in the United States love to apply a specific stereotype to the entire American wage class. You know that stereotype as well as I do, dear reader. It’s a fat, pink-faced, gap-toothed Southern good ol’ boy in jeans and a greasy T-shirt, watching a NASCAR race on television from a broken-down sofa, with one hand stuffed elbow deep into a bag of Cheez Doodles, the other fondling a shotgun, a Confederate flag patch on his baseball cap and a Klan outfit in the bedroom closet. As a description of wage-earning Americans in general, that stereotype is as crass, as bigoted, and as politically motivated as any of the racial and sexual stereotypes that so many people these days are ready to denounce—but if you mention this, the kind of affluent white liberals who would sooner impale themselves on their own designer corkscrews than mention African-Americans and watermelons in the same paragraph will insist at the top of their lungs that it’s not a stereotype, it’s the way “those people” really are.

Those of my readers who don’t happen to know any people from the salary class, and so haven’t had the opportunity to hear the kind of hate speech they like to use for the wage class, might want to pick up the latest edition of the National Review, and read a really remarkable diatribe by Kevin Williamson—it’s behind a paywall, but here’s a sample.  The motive force behind this tantrum was the fact that many people in the Republican party’s grassroots base are voting in their own best interests, and thus for Trump, rather than falling into line and doing what they’re told by their soi-disant betters. The very idea!  It’s a fine display of over-the-top classist bigotry, as well as a first-rate example of the way that so many people in the salary class like to insist that poverty is always and only the fault of the poor.

May I please be frank? The reason that millions of Americans have had their standard of living hammered for forty years, while the most affluent twenty per cent have become even more affluent, is no mystery. What happened was that corporate interests in this country, aided and abetted by a bipartisan consensus in government and cheered on by the great majority of the salary class, stripped the US economy of living wage jobs by offshoring most of America’s industrial economy, on the one hand, and flooding the domestic job market with millions of legal and illegal immigrants on the other.

That’s why a family living on one average full-time wage in 1966 could afford a home, a car, three square meals a day, and the other necessities and comforts of an ordinary American lifestyle, while a family with one average full time wage in most US cities today is living on the street. None of that happened by accident; no acts of God were responsible; no inexplicable moral collapse swept over the American wage class and made them incapable of embracing all those imaginary opportunities that salary class pundits like to babble about. That change was brought about, rather, by specific, easily identifiable policies. As a result, all things considered, blaming the American poor for the poverty that has been imposed on them by policies promoted by the affluent is the precise economic equivalent of blaming rape victims for the actions of rapists.

In both cases, please note, blaming the victim makes a convenient substitute for talking about who’s actually responsible, who benefits from the current state of affairs, and what the real issues are. When that conversation is one that people who have a privileged role in shaping public discourse desperately don’t want to have, blaming the victim is an effective diversionary tactic, and accordingly it gets much use in the US media these days. There are, after all, plenty of things that the people who shape public discourse in today’s America don’t want to talk about. The fact that the policies pushed by those same shapers of opinion have driven millions of American families into poverty and misery isn’t the most unmentionable of these things, as it happens. The most unmentionable of the things that don’t get discussed is the fact that those policies have failed.

It really is as simple as that. The policies we’re talking about—lavish handouts for corporations and the rich, punitive austerity schemes for the poor, endless wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, malign neglect of domestic infrastructure, and deer-in-the-headlights blank looks or vacuous sound bites in response to climate change and the other consequences of our frankly moronic maltreatment of the biosphere that keeps us all alive—were supposed to bring prosperity to the United States and its allies and stability to the world. They haven’t done that, they won’t do that, and with whatever respect is due to the supporters of Hillary Clinton, four more years of those same policies won’t change that fact. The difficulty here is simply that no one in the political establishment, and precious few in the salary class in general, are willing to recognize that failure, much less learn its obvious lessons or notice the ghastly burdens that those policies have imposed on the majorities who have been forced to carry the costs.

Here, though, we’re in territory that has been well mapped out in advance by one of the historians who have helped guide the project of this blog since its inception. In his magisterial twelve-volume A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee explored in unforgiving detail the processes by which societies fail. Some civilizations, he notes, are overwhelmed by forces outside their control, but this isn’t the usual cause of death marked on history’s obituaries. Far more often than not, rather, societies that go skidding down the well-worn route marked “Decline and Fall” still have plenty of resources available to meet the crises that overwhelm them and plenty of options that could have saved the day—but those resources aren’t put to constructive use and those options never get considered.

This happens, in turn, because the political elites of those failed societies lose the ability to notice that the policies they want to follow don’t happen to work. The leadership of a rising civilization pays close attention to the outcomes of its policies and discards those that don’t work.  The leadership of a falling civilization prefers to redefine “success” as “following the approved policies” rather than “yielding the preferred outcomes,” and concentrates on insulating itself from the consequences of its mistakes rather than recognizing the mistakes and dealing with their consequences. The lessons of failure are never learned, and so the costs of failure mount up until they can no longer be ignored.

This is where Peggy Noonan’s division of the current population into “protected” and “unprotected” classes has something useful to offer. Members of the protected class—in today’s America, as already noted, this is above all the more affluent half or so of the salary class—live within a bubble that screens them from any contact with the increasingly impoverished and immiserated majority. As far as they can see, everything’s fine; all their friends are prospering, and so are they; spin-doctored news stories and carefully massaged statistics churned out by government offices insist that nothing could possibly be wrong. They go from gated residential community to office tower to exclusive restaurant to high-end resort and back again, and the thought that it might be useful once in a while to step outside the bubble and go see what conditions are like in the rest of the country would scare the bejesus out of them if it ever occurred to them at all.

In a rising civilization, as Toynbee points out, the political elite wins the loyalty and respect of the rest of the population by recognizing problems and then solving them. In a falling civilization, by contrast, the political elite forfeits the loyalty and respect of the rest of the population by creating problems and then ignoring them. That’s what lies behind the crisis of legitimacy that occurs so often in the twilight years of a society in decline—and that, in turn, is the deeper phenomenon that lies behind the meteoric rise of Donald Trump.  If a society’s officially sanctioned leaders can’t lead, won’t follow, and aren’t willing to get out of the way, sooner or later people are going to start looking for a way to shove them through history’s exit turnstile, by whatever means turn out to be necessary.

Thus if Trump loses the election in November, that doesn’t mean that the threat to the status quo is over—far from it.  If Hillary Clinton becomes president, we can count on four more years of the same failed and feckless policies, which she’s backed to the hilt throughout her political career, and thus four more years in which millions of Americans outside the narrow circle of affluence will be driven deeper into poverty and misery, while being told by the grinning scarecrows of officialdom that everything is just fine. That’s not a recipe for social stability; those who make peaceful change impossible, it’s been pointed out, make violent change inevitable. What’s more, Trump has already shown every ambitious demagogue in the country exactly how to build a mass following, and he’s also shown a great many wage-earning Americans that there can be alternatives to an intolerable status quo.

No matter how loudly today’s establishment insists that the policies it favors are the only thinkable options, the spiraling failure of those policies, and the appalling costs they impose on people outside the bubble of privilege, guarantee that sooner or later the unthinkable will become the inescapable. That’s the real news of this election season:  the end of ordinary politics, and the first stirrings of an era of convulsive change that will leave little of today’s conventional wisdom intact.

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On a not unrelated theme, I’m delighted to announce that my next book from New Society Publishers, Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead, is now available for preorder. Readers who favor the sort of feel-good pablum for the overprivileged marketed by Yes! Magazine and its equivalents will want to give this one a pass. (It’s been suggested to me more than once that if I ran a magazine, it would have to be titled Probably Not! Magazine: A Journal of Realistic Futures.) On the other hand, those who are looking for a sober assessment of the mess into which we’ve collectively backed ourselves, and the likely consequences of that mess over the next five centuries or so, may find it just their cup of astringent tea.