May 16, 2016

Dual Process: The Only Game in Town


Below, the lecture I gave at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, On May 13.

Dual Process: The Only Game in Town

The realization that we are in a dead-end situation, and that some very basic things are going to have to change if we are going to survive, will not come as a revelation to anyone attending this conference. Most of us have been thinking about this for the last 30 or 40 years, I’m guessing, and in general, this is a perception that millions of people in Europe and North America have as well, if only on an unconscious level. Literature on the subject has been with us since the 1960s. I’m thinking of texts that were very influential or even famous, perhaps starting with Paul Goodman’s classic work, Growing Up Absurd, which appeared in 1960, followed by Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man in 1964. Ted Roszak’s Making of a Counter Culture came out in 1969, Andrew Hacker’s End of the American Empire in 1970, and the famous Limits to Growth study in 1972. Hovering over all of these, of course, were the works of Mashall McLuhan, beginning with The Gutenberg Galaxy in 1962, which drove home the point that technology was not neutral, was not value-free—a crucial argument in making the West transparent to itself. Basically, a whole way of life came under attack, largely associated with the American Dream, but also with the dominating presence of science and technology in our lives, which is inevitably part of that dream . But exactly what it is that has to change, and how that change might be accomplished, never really got clarified in terms of any large consensus.

How social change occurs, of course, has been the subject of debate among sociologists for at least 150 years now. A lot of the answer depends on the scale of the change we are talking about. In terms of what I want to address in this lecture, my focus is on massive social change, the kind that occurred with the collapse of the Roman Empire, or with the rise of feudal Europe, or with the replacement of feudalism by capitalism. For events of this magnitude, the usual bromides about change—a better educational system, for example, or electoral politics, or even armed revolution—really won’t do. The changes I’m talking about are practically geological; they require centuries to play themselves out. They are about what the great French historian, Fernand Braudel, referred to as la longue durée, the long run.

Braudel was the leader of a group of scholars known as the Annales School, and the basic argument of this school was that the proper concern of historians should be the analysis of structures that lie at the base of contemporary events. Underneath short-term events such as individual cycles of economic boom and bust, said Braudel, we can discern the persistence of “old attitudes of thought and action, resistant frameworks dying hard, at times against all logic.” (Does this sound familiar?) 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 this school, is about 600 years long, from 1500 to 2100. It is our particular fortune or misfortune 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. Of course, Marx in particular argued that a dialectical process was at work, by means of which capitalism produced its own gravediggers, as he put it—the proletariat, which would eventually rise up and replace capitalism with socialism. But that never really happened, and in any case, socialism has not proven to be very successful, as we all know. In addition, it’s not all that different from capitalism. To be sure, it is different in calling for an equitable distribution of wealth, and I personally find it hard to disagree with that. In January of this year it was revealed that the 62 richest people on the planet have as much as the bottom 50% of the world’s entire population. This is not merely grotesque; it is surreal, and as far as I am concerned, anything done to correct this situation would be all to the good. But beyond the matter of distribution, the two systems are defined by identical parameters, in particular, economic and technological expansion. Neither system really cares about environmental fallout, or the quality of work, or the psychological pressures that accompany the expansionist way of life, or the spiritual dimension of life—the meaning of all of this. In that sense, as I suggested earlier, wider access to education, or electing Justin Trudeau or Bernie Sanders, or storming the Winter Palace, is not really going to change very much. If we are talking about the rise and fall of civilizations, or large-scale socioeconomic formations, something much more profound is needed.

Why civilizations fall apart has been studied by numerous thinkers, including Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Joseph Tainter, and others, each of them coming up with a key factor that, say, led to the downfall of Rome, or whatever. And all of them are right, as far as I’m concerned; the answers are not mutually exclusive. For Tainter, for example, the root of the decline is economic: every civilization hits a point of diminishing returns, when it can no longer support itself. In the case of the United States, China holds something like $1.4 trillion of the national debt in the form of securities like treasury bills, and Japan $1 trillion. These countries could pull the plug on the entire show, if they wanted to; they don’t because they prefer to keep collecting the huge interest on these loans. For Spengler, the crucial factor was spiritual: every civilization, he wrote, embodies a central Idea or Platonic ideal, and when the faith in that evaporates, so does the civilization. Again, to turn to the US, the Idea has always been the American Dream, the dream of unlimited expansion. (Comedian George Carlin used to say that they call it the American Dream because you’ve got to be asleep to believe it.) But millions of Americans now know that they will never retire, that their kids will have a worse time of it than they had, and—young or old—that they really don’t have anything meaningful to look forward to in their lives. The recent film by Tim Blake Nelson, Anesthesia, portrays this very well, that American life is so empty that everyone is running around trying to stuff the Void, fill the hole in their souls. One result has been a homicide rate that is now through the roof, with a massacre—defined as the killing or maiming of 4 or more people—occurring more frequently than once a day. Hard to believe, but it’s true. And the police are busy mowing down people in the street—more than 5,000 unarmed civilians were killed by the cops between 2001 and 2011, and the murder rate is rising. Freak attacks occur out of ordinary frustration now, oddly enough around fast-food restaurants. A woman doesn’t get her Chicken McNuggets or whatever, so she returns to McDonald’s with a semi-automatic rifle and shells the place down. One might suspect brain damage here, but I think it also reflects the frustration of no longer being able to have whatever you want whenever you want it. Rage against the failed American Dream, in short, and there is plenty of that to go around these days.

This loss of spirit is discussed by Nicole Aschoff in her very astute and entertaining little book, The New Prophets of Capital. She points out that capitalist society is especially in need of stories, because the micro-events of our lives all take place within larger structures whose purpose it is to make a profit. The vast majority of jobs are not created to meet human needs, but only to accumulate more and more money for the owners or investors. Echoing Erich Fromm from many years back, she says that coercion is not enough to get people to work at these jobs; rather, “Large swaths of the population must…believe that capitalist society is worth their creativity, energy, and passion, that it will provide a sense of meaning.” The problem is that there is nothing intrinsically meaningful to the logic of endless economic expansion. As a result, stories—which are really fairy tales—become indispensable to the system. These include Horatio Alger novels, for example—the saga of the self-made man; or Benjamin Franklin’s tales about frugality and thrift; or the stories provided by the great captains of industry about vision and perseverance, and how competition will supposedly advance the human race. “These work-as-virtue, profit-as-virtue stories have been remarkably successful,” she concludes. My own feeling is that this snow job—I call it “the greatest story ever sold”—is now running out of steam, as more and more people are finding their lives worthless and aren’t exactly happy about it. The consequences of this development, I believe, will be long-range and very powerful.

As for Toynbee, his argument was that it is not external invasions—whether by the Visigoths in the 5th century or the Islamic jihadists in the 21st—that bring an empire down. Rather, he said, by the time of the invasion, the civilization in question has already committed suicide—so weakened itself by self-destructive acts that an invasion was merely icing on the cake, so to speak. That this is true of the US, which brought 9/11 on by nearly a century of meddling in the Middle East, such that blowback became inevitable, is too obvious to warrant comment. In fact, “blowback” is a term coined by the CIA; they have not been ignorant of the consequences of US foreign policy. As Mr. Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pointedly stated, “If you are going to terrorize people, eventually they are going to terrorize you back.” Duh!

In any case, the last time a change of this magnitude, i.e. a civilizational shift, occurred in the West 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 his classic study of the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages, the 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 was literally perched over an abyss, something that emerges very clearly at the end of The Tempest, by Shakespeare, written as late as 1610. What lay ahead was largely unknown, and to have to hover over an abyss for a long time is, to put it mildly, a bit of a drag. The same thing was true of the collapse of the Roman Empire, on the ruins of which the feudal system slowly arose. It is also true of our situation today, which is why the “solutions” proposed by political figures are little more than bad jokes. These people have no vision because they can’t grasp what is happening, and therefore what is required. For some reason I don’t understand, they refuse to take my recommendations; it’s really quite annoying. Let me give you just one example of this.

Four years ago I was invited to give some lectures in Spain, during the course of which I did a few TV and newspaper interviews. The prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was facing a huge economic crisis and sought to solve it by borrowing 100 billion euros from the European Union. When I was asked what I thought of this, I said, literally every time I was interviewed, “Señor Rajoy es un idiota,” and I added that this would solve nothing at all, because the money was going to bail out banks, not create jobs or rescue the poor. I predicted that in 6 months time, Rajoy would be back in Brussels with his hat in hand, asking for another 100 billion euros. Of course, Rajoy got the money, distributed it to all his rich friends, austerity in Spain reached intolerable levels, people rioted in the streets, and practically to the day, Rajoy returned to Brussels 6 months later to ask for another bailout. Again, one suspects some type of brain damage at work, but the larger picture is that the folks in charge are trying to manage a system that is no longer manageable, with bankrupt neoliberal strategies that can’t possibly work.

Well, Rajoy is a moron, but electing a socialist—as happened in Spain prior to Rajoy, with José Zapatero—didn’t work either. The folks who have the real answer to this austerity mess, which is a crisis of the entire neoliberal model, are not in the government. They are the folks at the grass-roots level, pursuing a form of Dual Process, as I’ll indicate shortly.

Dual Process consists of two parts, as the name would indicate. The first part is the collapse of the reigning socioeconomic formation; the second part is the concomitant emergence of alternatives, what could well amount to the latter’s replacement. As far as collapse is concerned, I’ve already indicated how the system is doing itself in politically, economically, and spiritually; and as I suggested 16 years ago, in The Twilight of American Culture, these processes are going to continue unabated—a prediction that proved to be true. In fact, they actually accelerated. The truth is that no system lasts forever; change is the only constant we find in the historical record. As one social critic argued a few years ago (Peter Frase), “humanity has never before managed to craft an eternal social system…and capitalism is a notably more precarious and volatile order than most of those that preceded it.” Wolfgang Streeck, in an article he published in 2014 in the New Left Review, wrote that “What we are seeing today…appears in retrospect to be a continuous process of gradual decay, protracted but apparently all the more inexorable.” Whatever stability capitalism had in the past, he goes on to say, was dependent on the presence of countervailing forces (e.g., labor unions). Today, no force is on hand to check capitalist expansion, balance it out; which suggests that it may undermine itself by being too successful. Everyone in these societies is mesmerized by consumerism, and thus dysfunctions in the system continue to accumulate, because there is not enough structural variety to cope with change. In a word, he concludes, “victorious capitalism has become its own worst enemy”; it is “dying…from an overdose of itself.”

As an example of this, Streeck points out that consumerist culture is absolutely vital for the reproduction of contemporary capitalism. The problem is that producers and consumers tend to be the same people. So when consumers hunt for the best bargain, they defeat themselves as producers, because they drive their own jobs abroad. In addition, corruption is now inherent in the system; it’s hardly a case of a few bad apples. Consider what came to light after the crash of 2008, and which is probably still going on. Streeck writes:

“Rating agencies being paid by the producers of toxic securities to award them top grades; offshore shadow banking, money laundering and assistance in large-scale tax evasion as the normal business of the biggest banks with the best addresses; the sale to unsuspecting customers of securities constructed so that other customers could bet against them; the leading banks worldwide fraudulently fixing interest rates and the gold price, and so on.”

It’s not clear how long this type of systemic violence can sustain itself.

Let me now turn to the other part of Dual Process, the emergence of alternatives concomitant with the disintegration of the dominant system. Well, this is one reason I’m happy to be here today: from what I gather, that’s what most of you are exploring in your professional lives. Before I talk about today’s alternatives, however, let me give you an illustrative example from the Middle Ages. Capitalism was effectively launched by 1500, but much before this, ca. 1250, some smart Italian merchant came up with the idea of double-entry bookkeeping. This system is central to any capitalist enterprise, because without it you can’t really calculate profit and loss, and hence can’t really function very well. So in the midst of a feudal system slowly starting to fray at the edges, we have the opening salvo of an alternative emerging economy, 250 years in advance. The “habits” of capitalism, the tools and behaviors that made the new system possible, developed side by side with the old system and eventually eclipsed it. What we need to explore, of course, are the contemporary equivalents of double-entry bookkeeping.

To return to the 21st century, then, I think we can say that as capitalism continues to fray at the edges, the alternatives to it—I’m thinking of alternative currency systems, for example, or alternative energy sources—are going to become increasingly attractive, and you can be sure that 2008 is not the last crash we are going to live through. It’s no accident that the countries with the severest austerity, such as Greece or Spain or Portugal, are the most creative with respect to these alternatives. Indeed, as of 2012 there were no less than 325 alternative currency experiments operating in Spain, barter included, and I’m guessing that figure must be much higher today. Barcelona, it turns out, has more than 100 “time banks” involving thousands of customers, that allow people to trade services without the use of money—what has been called a “parallel economy.” Catalonia is particularly strong in this regard, and I suspect that with the breakup of capitalism, we are also going to see the breakup of the nation-state, and the emergence of very strong secessionist movements. All of this might be only 30 or 40 years away, but a vague outline already exists, and those countries caught in the pincers of austerity are especially engaged in networks of cooperatives, credit unions, time banks, organic farms, and the like. As the biologist David Ehrenfeld has written, “Our first task is to create a shadow economic, social, and even technological structure that will be ready to take over as the existing system fails.” This is, to my mind, a pretty good definition of what I mean by Dual Process, and it is very likely to be the central story of the rest of the 21st century.

Let me give you some more specifics, in particular the case of Japan. This is from the final chapter of my book on Japan, which was released last year, entitled Neurotic Beauty, in which I speculate about the possibility of Japan becoming the first post-capitalist society. It is perhaps the most schizophrenic of nations, having gone hog wild, since the postwar American occupation, for consumer goods and the hi-tech life, while having had the historical experience of the Tokugawa Era, roughly 1600 to 1850, of a tradition of austerity and eco-sustainability. As one Japan-watcher notes, the nation “is the leading-edge of the crumbling model of advanced neoliberal capitalism”; and yet, for 250 years prior to the hectic growth initiated by the Meiji Restoration in 1868, it got by with very limited economic expansion, and did extremely well. It cultivated organic farming, forestry management, commercial fishing, cottage industries, and a vigorous culture of recycling. Townsend Harris, who was the first US Consul General to Japan (1856-61), wrote in his diary that what he saw all around him was real happiness: “It is more like the golden age of simplicity and honesty than I have seen in any other country.” This was a society of urban gardens, community interaction, cheap public baths, itinerant repairmen, and craft work of very high quality, all proof that a steady-state economy can generate a vibrant culture. Beauty and luxury were found in simplicity and elegant design, rather than in endless abundance. This is practically part of the Japanese genetic makeup.

As for contemporary Japan, I was surprised to discover that Japan has more of what are called “complementary currency” programs—more than 600 of them—than any other country in the world. Some of these programs date from the seventies, and the number shot up dramatically as of 1995, when the effects of severe economic recession began to be permeate the country. Essentially, these are agreements within a community to accept something other than legal tender as a means of payment. They don’t replace the yen, as it turns out, they just run parallel to it as a kind of barter system, similar to what I described for Barcelona. Lifestyles among the youth have also begun to move in new directions, with a strong decline of interest in luxury goods. This is the so-called “satori generation,” the youth who prefer to keep things small, and who embrace sustainability rather than consumption. Many young adults have begun to explore careers in rural agriculture, for example, and the Japan Organization for Internal Migration runs a web site that assists them in resettling in rural communities and starting to live sustainably. These folks have rejected the rat race of Toyota and Mitsubishi in favor of “careers” in fishing, or making jam, and Japanese magazines occasionally run feature articles on how they are involved in organic food-growing, or crafts, or something outside the dominant capitalist framework.

I did have a discussion with one young man who was himself not part of this movement, but told me that his parents’ generation was. He guessed that overall, the percentage of Japanese who have gone in this direction was small, but that there was nevertheless a large unofficial network of people who had turned their backs on mainstream consumer society. “They believe that capitalism is a dead end,” he told me, “and that as it continues to fail, alternative lifestyles will become increasingly attractive, as well as necessary”—a good summary of what I am calling Dual Process. Even at the official level, Japan has much to its credit, ecologically speaking. The domestic solar power market in Japan reached something like 20 billion US dollars in 2013; and the nation’s “ecological footprint,” defined as the per-person resource demand, is comparatively light. Whereas the United States placed fifth-highest on the list of the Global Footprint Network for 2007, Japan ranked thirty-sixth. There is some awareness, writes Azby Brown in his book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, that “sustainable society will come because the alternative is no society at all.” Thus social critic James Howard Kunstler was led to make what he called “one flat-out prediction,” just a few years ago, namely that

“Japan will be the first society to consciously opt out of being an advanced industrial economy. They have no other apparent choice, really, having next-to-zero oil, gas, or coal reserves of their own, and having lost faith in nuclear power [not enough, unfortunately—they continue to remain schizophrenic about this, even after Fukushima]. They will be the first country to enter a world made by hand. They were very good at it before about 1850 and had a pre-industrial culture of high artistry and grace.”

Well, time will tell.

In The Reenchantment of the World I argued for the central importance of coming up with a new paradigm for civilization. Thirty years later, in Why America Failed, I laid out, unsurprisingly enough, the reasons for why America failed, and said that it was primarily because throughout American history we marginalized or ignored the voices that argued against the dominant culture, which is based on hustling, aggrandizement, and economic and technological expansion. This alternative tradition can be traced from John Smith in 1616 to Jimmy Carter in 1979, and includes folks such as Emerson, Thoreau, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Vance Packard, and John Kenneth Galbraith, among many others. In England it is particularly associated with John Ruskin and William Morris, who argued for the need for organic communities with a spiritual purpose, for work that was meaningful rather than mind-numbing, and who did manage to acquire a large number of North American disciples. In The Approaching Great Transformation, Joel Magnuson states that we need concrete models of a post-carbon economy, ones that break with the profit model of capitalism—and not in cosmetic or rhetorical ways. He gives a number of examples of experiments in this vein, ones that I would term elements of a steady-state or homeostatic economy: no-growth, or de-growth, as some have called it. This does not, it seems to me, necessarily mean a return to some type of feudalism; in this regard, I see history resembling a spiral rather than a circle. A more immediate danger is what has been called “greenwashing,” in which you adopt the language of the environmental movement while retaining the principle of unlimited economic expansion. The apostles of green capitalism, such as Al Gore or Thomas Friedman, have gotten very wealthy from peddling this type of hip baloney; and Magnuson, when he was doing the research for his book, toured the United States only to find that there were a good number of enterprises that billed themselves as committed to environmental protection and community service, but which in reality were about capital accumulation and little else. This is a danger that serious promoters of Dual Process will need to be on guard against.

Let me conclude on a larger note. What we are finally talking about is the passing not only of capitalism, but of modernity in general—the waning of the modern ages, in effect. Shadia Drury, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at the University of Regina, put it this way:

“Modernity’s inception and its decline are like those of any other set of political and cultural ideals. In its early inception, modernity contained something good and beguiling. It was a revolution against the authority of the Church, its taboos, repressions, inquisitions, and witch burning. It was a new dawn of the human spirit—celebrating life, knowledge, individuality, freedom, and human rights. It bequeathed to man a sunny disposition on the world, and on himself….The new spirit fueled scientific discovery, inventiveness, trade, commerce, and an artistic explosion of great splendor. But as with every new spirit, modernity has gone foul….Modernity lost the freshness and innocence of its early promise because its goals became inflated, impossible, and even pernicious. Instead of being the symbol of freedom, independence, justice, and human rights, it has become the sign of conquest, colonialism, exploitation, and the destruction of the earth.”

In a word, its number is up, and it is our fortune or misfortune, as I said earlier, to be living during a time of very large, and very difficult, transition. An old way of life dies, a new one eventually comes into being. Dual Process: it’s the only game in town.

©Morris Berman, 2016