December 03, 2011

La longue durée

La longue durée is an expression used by the Annales School of French historians to indicate an approach that gives priority to long-term historical structures over short-term events. The phrase was coined by Fernand Braudel in an article he published in 1958. Basically, the Annales historians held that the short-term time-scale is the domain of the chronicler and the journalist, whereas la longue durée concentrates on all-but-permanent or slowly evolving structures. Thus beneath the twists and turns of any economic system, wrote Braudel, which can seem like major changes to the people living through them, lie "old attitudes of thought and action, resistant frameworks dying hard, at times against all logic." An important derivative of the Annales research is the work of the World Systems Analysis school, including Immanuel Wallerstein and Christopher Chase-Dunn, which similarly focuses on long-term structures: capitalism, in particular.

The “arc” of capitalism, according to WSA, is about 600 years long, from 1500 to 2100. It is our particular (mis)fortune to be living through the beginning of the end, the disintegration of capitalism as a world system. It was mostly commercial capital in the sixteenth century, evolving into industrial capital in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and then moving on to financial capital—money created by money itself, and by speculation in currency—in the twentieth and twenty-first. In dialectical fashion, it will be the very success of the system that eventually does it in.

The last time a change of this magnitude occurred was during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during which time the medieval world began to come apart and be replaced by the modern one. In the classic study of the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga depicted the time as one of depression and cultural exhaustion—like our own age, not much fun to live through. One reason for this is that the world is literally perched over an abyss (brilliantly depicted at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest). What is on deck, so to speak, is largely unknown, and to have to hover over the unknown for a long time is, to put it colloquially, a bit of a drag. The same thing was true at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire as well (on the ruins of which the feudal system slowly arose).

I was musing on all of this stuff last week when I happened to run across a remarkable essay by Naomi Klein, “Capitalism vs. the Climate” (The Nation, 28 November 2011). In what appears to be something of a radical shift for her, she chastises the Left for not understanding what the Right does correctly perceive: that the whole climate change debate is a serious threat to capitalism. The Left, she says, wants to soft-pedal the implications; it wants to say that environmental protection is compatible with economic growth, that it is not a threat to capital or labor. It wants to get everyone to buy a hybrid car, for example (which I have personally compared to diet cheesecake), or use more efficient light bulbs, or recycle, as if these things were adequate to the crisis at hand. But the Right is not fooled: it sees Green as a Trojan horse for Red, the attempt “to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism.” It believes—correctly—that the politics of global warming is inevitably an attack on the American Dream, on the whole capitalist structure. Thus Larry Bell, in Climate of Corruption, argues that environmental politics is essentially about “transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth distribution”; and British blogger James Delinpole notes that “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, [and] regulation.”

What Naomi is saying to the Left, in effect, is: Why fight it? These nervous nellies on the Right are—right! Those of us on the Left can’t keep talking about compatibility of limits-to-growth and unrestrained greed, or claiming that climate action is “just one issue on a laundry list of worthy causes vying for progressive attention,” or urging everyone to buy a Prius. Folks like Thomas Friedman or Al Gore, who “assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying ‘green’ products and creating clever markets in pollution”—corporate green capitalism, in a word—are simply living in denial. “The real solutions to the climate crisis,” she writes, “are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate power.”

In one of the essays in A Question of Values (“conspiracy vs. Conspiracy in American History”), I lay out some of the “unconscious programs” buried in the American psyche from our earliest days, programs that account for most of our so-called conscious behavior. These include the notion of an endless frontier—a world without limits—and the ideal of extreme individualism—you do not need, and should not need, anyone’s help to “make it” in the world. Combined, the two of these provide a formula for enormous capitalist power and inevitable capitalist collapse (hence, the dialectical dimension of it all). Of this, Naomi writes:

“The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits....These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress.” (This is exactly what I argued in The Reenchantment of the World; nice to see it all coming around again.) “Real climate solutions,” she continues, “are ones that steer [government] interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.” Hence, she concludes, the powers that be have reason to be afraid, and to deny the data on global warming, for what is really required at this point is the end of the free-market ideology. And, I would add, the end of the arc of capitalism referred to above. It’s going to be (is) a colossal fight, not only because the powers that be want to hang on to their power, but because the arc and all its ramifications have given their class Meaning with a capital M for 500+ years. This is what the OWS protesters need to tell the 1%: Your lives are a mistake. This is what “a new civilizational paradigm” finally means.

Naomi then provides us with a list of six changes that must occur for this new paradigm to come into being, including Reining in Corporations, Ending the Cult of Shopping, and Taxing the Rich and Filthy. I found myself writing “good luck” in the margins of much of this discussion. These things are not going to happen (think Wal-Mart on Black Friday), and what we probably need instead is a series of major conferences on why they won’t happen. Although the answer is already embedded in her essay: vested interests, in both the economic and psychological sense, have every reason to maintain the status quo. After all, no one wants to have to admit that their lives are a mistake.

In terms of recommendations, then, the essay is rather weak. But it offers something very important by way of analysis, and also by implication: Everything is related to everything else. Psychology, the economy, the environmental crisis, our daily mode of living, the dumbing down of America, the pathetic fetish over cell phones and electronic gadgets, the crushing debt of student loans, the inanities (and popularity) of Ann Coulter and Ayn Rand, the farce of electoral politics, the box office sales of violent movies, the epidemics of depression and obesity—these are ultimately not separate spheres of human or natural activity. They are interconnected, and this means that things will not get fixed piecemeal. “New civilizational paradigm” means it’s all or nothing; there really is no in-between, no diet cheesecake to be had. As Naomi says, it’s not about single “issues” anymore.

What then, can we expect, as the arc of capitalism comes to a close? This is where Naomi shifts from unlikely recommendations to hard-nosed reality:

“The corporate quest for scarce resources will become more rapacious, more violent. Arable land in Africa will continue to be grabbed to provide food and fuel to wealthier nations. Drought and famine will continue to be used as a pretext to push genetically modified seeds, driving farmers further into debt. We will attempt to transcend peak oil and gas by using increasingly risky technologies to extract the last drops, turning ever larger swaths of our globe into sacrifice zones. We will fortress our borders and intervene in foreign conflicts over resources, or start those conflicts ourselves. ‘Free-market climate solutions,’ as they are called, will be a magnet for speculation, fraud and crony capitalism, as we are already seeing with carbon trading and the use of forests as carbon offsets. And as climate change begins to affect not just the poor but the wealthy as well, we will increasingly look for techno-fixes to turn down the temperature, with massive and unknowable risks.

“As the world warms, the reigning ideology that tells us it’s everyone for themselves, that victims deserve their fate, that we can master nature, will take us to a very cold place indeed.”

To put it bluntly, the scale of change required cannot happen without a massive implosion of the system. This was true at the end of the Roman Empire, at the end of the Middle Ages, and it is true today. In the case of the Roman Empire, as I discuss in The Twilight of American Culture, there was the emergence of monastic orders that began to preserve the treasures of Graeco-Roman civilization. My question in that book was: Can something similar happen today? Naomi writes:

“The only wild card is whether some countervailing popular movement will step up to provide a viable alternative to this grim future. That means not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—this time, embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance and cooperation rather than hierarchy.” She believes that the OWS movement embodies this; that they have taken “aim at the underlying values of rampant greed and individualism that created the economic crisis, while embodying...radically different ways to treat one another and relate to the natural world.”

Is this true? Three things to consider at this pt:

1. I personally haven’t been down (actually, up) to Zuccotti Park, but most of what I see on the Web, including very favorable reportage of OWS, seems to suggest that the goal is a more equitable American Dream, not the abolition of the American Dream. The desire is that the pie be cut up more fairly. I don’t have the impression that the protesters are saying that the pie, tout court, is rotten. But I could be wrong.

2. The Annales historians, along with the World Systems Analysis folks, have been accused of projecting an image of “history without people.” In other words, these schools tend to see individuals as somewhat irrelevant to the historical process, which they analyze in terms of “historical forces.” There is some truth to this, but “historical forces” can become a bit mystical. Just as it is forces that motivate people, so it is people that enact or manifest those forces. I mean, someone has to do something for history to occur, and at least the OWS crowd is doing just that. My own prediction is that the protest movement will probably melt into a kind of permanent teach-in, where Americans can go to learn about a “new civilizational paradigm,” if that is indeed being taught, and if there are a sufficient number of people interested in learning about it. This is basically the “new monastic option” I talk about in the Twilight book, and it reinforces the history of the marginalized alternative tradition discussed in Why America Failed. Innocuous, perhaps...but in the fullness of time, maybe not. After all, as the system collapses, alternatives are going to become increasingly attractive; and just as 2008 is not the last crash we are going to live through, so OWS is not the last protest movement we are going to witness. The two sides go hand in hand, and ultimately—I’m talking thirty to fifty years, but maybe less—the weight of the arc of capitalism will be too onerous to sustain itself. In la longue durée, one is far smarter betting on the alternative worldview than on capitalism.

3. That being said (ceci dit, in French), the WSA folks are probably right in their argument that historically speaking, effective revolt tends to emerge from the periphery rather than the core. The core countries are the ones that dominate the globe with their power, economy, and ideology. They are crumbling from within, again because of the very pursuit of that power etc.; but it remains very hard to confront them directly—they’ve got the guns, and the police and military are not likely to defect. Thus WSA claims that the most effective counterattack is at the edges of the empire, not at the center of it. Mexico, for example, has no clout vs. the US because it is too close; 80% of its manufactured goods are sold to the US market. But resistance to the World Bank and the IMF is rife at greater geographical distances: Ecuador, for example, or Bolivia. According to the core-periphery argument, we should be expecting protest movements to emerge in places like these, where sympathy for the US is not exactly great. Some of it might come in the form of terrorism; that’s what 9/11 was all about, after all. (“If you terrorize other people, eventually they are going to terrorize you back.”—Rev. Jeremiah Wright) But some of it might just consist of pursuing the alternative, the new civilizational paradigm; just living in a different way, along the lines Naomi Klein suggests. And as the old way of life dies, a new way of life comes into being.

(c)Morris Berman, 2011