May 10, 2013

Immoderate Greatness

Immoderate Greatnessis the name of a very short, very brilliant book by William Ophuls, published last year. The subtitle is "Why Civilizations Fail," and it contains a lot of ideas similar to my Twilight of American Culture.Nevertheless, his target is not America but the entire industrial-capitalist system, and his argument is that it's Game Over, largely because, as he writes, civilization is effectively hard wired for self-destruction. In what follows, I'm going to provide excerpts from the text, without quotes, except when Ophuls is quoting another author. Tighten your seat belts, Wafers; things are about to get a tad rocky.

New programs within the old paradigm will simply recreate the old problems in a new guise. Moreover, my analysis suggests that there is very little we can do. Most of the trends I identify are inexorable, and complex adaptive systems are ultimately unamangeable. To the extent that we can do something, the required measures are far outside the bounds of what is feasible or even thinkaable today....A genuine cure would require a revolution in human thought greater than the one that created the modern world. Such momentous changes do not occur by acts of human will. "Cultural solutions," says Wendell Berry, "are organisms, not machines, and they cannot be invented deliberately or imposed by prescription."

Democratic institutions...exacerbate almost all the problems described below. Mass democracy is also in large part a sham. To be meaningful, democracy requires settings that allow direct knowledge of persons and issues.

Those afflicted by hubris [immoderate greatness] become the agents of their own destruction. Like a tragic hero, a civilization comes to a ruinous end due to intrinsic flaws that are the shadow side of its very virtues....Indeed, civilization is a kind of Moloch whose demands for material and human sacrifice grow in proportion to its greatness.

One of the greatest traps of all is fanaticism: refusing to reconsider the values and goals of the system, even though they have now become perverse or even disastrous.

In Day of EmpireAmy Chua argues that growing multicultural tolerance and openness dissolves the social "glue" that makes empires cohere and thereby vitiates the elan that makes them great.....[In addition], thanks to the demolition job performed by the intellectuals, the society is increasingly "value free"--that is, it no longer believes in much of anything or takes anything seriously. The original elan, the moral core, and the guiding ideal of the civilization are now a distant memory.

An Age of Decadence inevitably follows. Frivolity, aestheticism, hedonism, cynicism, pessimism, narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fatalism, fanaticism, and other negative attributes, attitudes, and behaviors suffuse the population. Politics is increasingly corrupt, life increasingly unjust. A cabal of insiders accrues wealth and power at the expense of the citizenry, fostering a fatal opposition of interests between haves and have-nots. Mental and physical illness proliferates. The majority lives for bread and circuses; worships celebrities instead of divinities; takes its bearings from below rather than above; throws off social and moral restraints, especially on sexuality; shirks duties but insists on entitlements; and so forth. The society's original vigor, virtue, and morale have been entirely effaced. Rotten to the core, the society awaits collapse, with only the date remaining to be determined.

With its ways of thinking and acting set in concrete, increasingly blind to reality and to alternative possibilities, an ossified civilization descends into a terminal stagnation that prepares its demise....The civilization's elites may understand that the system is dysfunctional, but fundamental reform would require major sacrifice on their part, so they fight to preserve their privilege and power....Bluntly put, human societies are addicted to their ruling ideas and their received way of life, and they are fanatical in their defense. Hence they are extraordinarily reluctant to reform. "To admit error and cut losses," said [Barbara] Tuchman, "is rare among individuals, unknown among states." Instead of changing their minds, leaders redouble their efforts to do what no longer works, wooden-headedly persisting in error until the bitter end.

They resort to stupidity--doing what has never worked in the past, what cannot succeed in the present, and what will destroy the future both morally and practically. First, by engaging in unnecessary wars or imperial ventures that drain the civilization of blood and treasure. Second, by buying off the populace with bread, circuses, and entitlements, thereby promising more than can be delivered in the long term.

A gradual and gentle transition to a viable agrarian civilization capable of supporting large numbers of people and a reasonable level of complexity is extremely unlikely....We must recognize that the deep structural problems elucidated above have no feasible solutions....Hence...the task is not to forestall a foreordained collapse but, rather, to salvage as much as possible from it, lest the fall precipitate a dark age in which the arts and adornments of civilization are partially or completely lost.

If preparations for collapse are made at all, they are likely to be too little and too late. Modern civilization is therefore bound for a worse fate than the Titanic....[The only way out] would require a fundamentl change in the ethos of civilization--to wit, the deliberate renunciation in favor of simplicity, frugality, and fraternity....In The Long Descent, [John Michael] Greer argues...that we will experience a more gradual (but still quite traumatic) "catabolic" collapse....Future generations will feed off the corpse of industrial civilization until the bones have been picked clean and humanity subsists once again on nothing but solar energy. However, this need not entail a hand-to-mouth existence. He envisions a relatively rich agrarian economy resembling that of Tokugawa Japan.

[But as for now, the problem, says Ronald Wright, is that] "As we climbed the ladder of progress, we kicked out the rungs below," leaving ourselves with no non-catastrophic way back to a less complex mode of existence....except among a few rural relicts, chicken coops and vegetable gardens are a distant memory; everyone else depends on supermarkets. Thus the survival skills that saw many through the Great Depression in the US...are virtually extinct.