December 16, 2017

As the World Turns

This was the title of a soap opera that ran on CBS for 54 years. Since about a year ago, it has seemed to many of us that we are living in a soap opera; that everything has gotten overblown, exaggerated, unreal. There is, after all, no thinking process going on within the head of Trump; he gets captured by some emotion, or impulse, and runs with it. One only hopes that this “limbic” mode of relating to the world won’t be operative in the case of a nuclear war with North Korea, but at this point, who knows?

As 2017 winds down, and we are faced with another year of soap opera “reality,” it might be good to speculate on what’s coming down the pike. As far as America goes, the answer is simple: cultural suicide. You’ve got people fucking vans and rioting over incorrect cheeseburger orders; others running around with pussy hats and actually believing that this activity amounts to confronting power; a tax bill that will make a lopsided distribution of wealth even more lopsided; progressives urging revolution and others thinking that identity politics is the answer; an epidemic of opiate use, in addition to widespread alcoholism and suicide; and the militarization of police forces around the country. And this is only a partial list. We are fucked, and there just is no way out.

I have proposed “Dual Process” as a portrait of what is happening (see AWTY, last essay): that concomitant with the disintegration of capitalism, alternative experiments are arising to fill in the resultant gaps. Such experiments are especially rife in countries suffering from austerity programs, such as Japan, Spain, Greece, and Portugal. And along with this, the growth of secessionist movements, such as we see in Scotland, Catalonia, and parts of the United States (something I predicted in 1981). One hopes that all of this will get stronger over time, but in the case of the US, the whole ideology of “Me, Myself, and I” is so deeply entrenched, that it is unlikely these things will take place in a serious way. The temptations of “greenwashing,” for example—adopting the symbols and language of green politics while retaining the ideology of economic expansion—are very hard to resist.

Meanwhile, on the world stage, it is clear that the US is finished, or shortly will be. Even internal intelligence memos say this, that China is rising and that there is no way to resist it. When England was eclipsed, at least it had the US to fall back on. We have no one, and it’s likely that most nations of the world will be happy to see us go. Even our allies know we are jerks; Trump is merely the outward manifestation of this (like a sacrament, noir version). Mr. Putin would love for Russia to relive its former imperial glory, be a major player on the world stage; but I suspect the nation is no match for Chinese hegemony.

One diplomat recently argued that America vs. Europe is repeating the drama of the Western vs. Eastern wing of the decaying Roman Empire. America will simply collapse, he said, and become irrelevant, while Europe will morph into some version of the Byzantine world. That is, it will neither be a success nor a failure; it will just limp along. And yet, within that structure, citizens will be able to lead modest and reasonable lives.

But getting back to China: check out my Preface to the Mandarin edition of WAF, archived on this blog. I was frankly amazed that it escaped censure, because I predicted that China would copy the American model of expansion, of cultivating economic colonies around the globe. It is now the world’s largest economy, and President Xi hardly shows any tendency toward restraint, or toward the marginalized alternative tradition I discuss in WAF. All of this will put an enormous strain on planetary resources, and the ignoring of this, and the disregard of climate change, can only pour oil on the ecological fire we are currently caught up in. In any case, the geopolitical situation is one of horror vacui, and as the collapse of America will leave an open hole in the world system, China clearly intends to fill that empty space. I suspect it will.

In the Twilight book, I discuss E.M. Forster’s notion of an “elite”—not, he says, an aristocracy of money or power, but an elite of integrity, of right intentions. People like John Ruskin or Gandhi stand out in my mind as representative of such movements; as Wafers, it is what all of us on this blog aspire to (which is why the blog has evoked such rabid animosity—the “existential strain” I have written about in the past). Despite every attempt in the past to corral such people, to trap them in some form of institutionalization, they always slip through the net, and go free. They resist definition, and yet when you run across one of these folks, you know it. It is folks like these who are best equipped to carry out the positive side of Dual Process, but it would seem that neither the US or China are very interested in what they have to offer. After all, they often choose to point out the down sides of modernization, and nations bent on hustling aren’t going to be receptive to this message. Here again, the “Byzantine” model of Europe may be the most likely place for such people, and such movements, to flourish.

On a world scale, the next 30 or 40 years are going to be rather hellish. As I have often said, you don’t get history for free. Hegel declared that it was a slaughter bench. The point is, you don’t transition out of an enormous world system that has been with you for centuries, overnight, and with relative ease. The collapse of Rome was a nightmare, as was the implosion of the feudal system in Europe. Capitalism is hardly going to escape the same fate; it may even be worse. What lies on the far side of this transition is anybody’s guess. Huxley agreed with Forster, but (like Ray Bradbury) predicted that this Ruskinesque “elite” would have to live on the margins of the dominant culture, whatever that culture might be. “Communities of the abandoned,” Ernest Becker called them, and said that when a person gets to the point of seeing the emptiness of the dominant culture, he or she is then confronted with the question of the meaning of life. American and Chinese (and European and Latin American) consumerism is designed to keep people from asking that question. But, he suggested, such an awareness might just be a new form of religious consciousness, one that could make it possible for us to survive as a race. There are attendant evils on this, of course: the fascism of New Age cults, for example. But all this elite can do, is its best, hoping it will be good enough.

As for Wafers, our motto is something along the lines of “Virtue is its own reward.” (Ruskin: “There is no wealth but life.”) Gandhi once said, “People ask me what is my message. I have no message. My life is my message.”