Resenting Our Dependence

How we did this before civilization culture (30,000 years ago)
How we do it now under civilization culture
Learning and staying informed self-directed, with self-selected mentors dependent on massive hierarchical education systems and dumbed-down mainstream media
Making a living simple and instinctive (we gathered what we needed from nature’s abundant wild resources) dependent on large corporate employers “offering” us jobs
Staying healthy preventive (exercise and healthy diet), self-diagnosis and self-treatment dependent on massive, ineffective, cumbersome medical systems
Getting around on foot  dependent on complex, fragile transportation systems and cheap oil
Dealing with antisocial behaviour self-managed in community, rehabilitative dependent on punitive, coercive, invasive, ineffectual, incarcerating centralized security systems
Eating well simple and instinctive (we gathered what we needed from nature’s abundant wild resources) dependent on huge, cruel, toxic agribusiness and factory farms
Clothing ourselves self-made and/or unnecessary (self-adornment is craft, art and fun) dependent on globalized, exploitative trade in shoddily-made clothing
Sheltering ourselves, keeping warm unnecessary (the tropical forest provided all the shelter and warmth we needed) dependent on globalized, exploitative trade in materials for constructing shoddily-made buildings, and on cheap oil
Entertaining ourselves self-developed and self-performed in community (art, music, performance arts) dependent on massively over-hyped, overpriced ‘entertainment industry’ products
Coping with retirement not applicable (there was no arduous ‘work’ to retire from) dependent on inflated real estate valuations and ever-increasing stock market prices to provide retirement income

A recent article by Indi Samarajiva gave me a bit of an epiphany about the schism in political thinking in many western nations, and why so many conservatives are so angry and ready to embrace fascism, or any system that they think might be less oppressive than the one we live under today.

Indi cites a 1991 report written by Wang Huning, a member of the 6-man Chinese politburo that rules under that country’s leader Xi Jingping, discussing US style democracy:

I asked a senior professor of American politics “What exactly is the difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party”? After a moment’s contemplation he replied: “There are different views of freedom and equality, with the Republican Party focusing on freedom and the Democratic Party focusing on equality”… In the hearts of Americans, most of them are inclined towards freedom. This is because equality under the western system is only formal political equality, not social or economic equality.

In other words, most of us in the western world are resigned to equality only of voting rights, and not equality of power, social privileges, or wealth. And since elected officials respond primarily to those with wealth, social privileges, and power (who overwhelmingly fund their electoral campaigns, and own the media covering them), voting rights per se are pretty much meaningless for most of us.

So, given the choice between a party that stresses (untrammelled) freedom and a party that stresses (formal political) equality, it’s not surprising that disgruntled citizens opt for the former, and hence why we’ve seen an apparent surge to the right over the past fifty years. We have bred a distrust and loathing of government into every aspect of our society.

So why are conservatives so passionate about “freedom”, which sounds more disruptive and perturbing and even anarchic than the “law and order” they are also passionate about?

My epiphany is that what we are witnessing is a massive resentment against our utter dependence — political, social and economic — on others”outside our control (and often beyond our comprehension), including large institutions, governments, and corporations. That massive resentment has arisen because that dependence so constricts us, belittles us, and incapacitates us, that we naturally long for “freedom” from it. We don’t really know, or care, who or what we are dependent on, or why; for most of us it’s too complex to fathom. We just know we don’t like it, and so, extreme libertarianism is taking over — left and right! — from both progressivism and conservatism.

If we don’t trust anyone else to do things for us, we want the ‘freedom’ to do everything for ourselves, from raising our children and looking after our own health, to Texas-style vigilantism as a means of punishing perceived wrong-doers.

But we have this gnawing realization that, as much as we would ideally like that, we are currently, utterly, and hopelessly dependent on others outside our control and influence for everything that is important to us. The table above, from my earlier article on dependence, lists the extent to which, I think, this is now so.

This is a scary list of dependencies, enough to be unnerving no matter where in the political spectrum your beliefs lie. We’re dependent, mostly on massive national and global bureaucracies we don’t understand, respect or trust, for almost every facet of a healthy human life.

No wonder so many of us are angry, and perhaps a bit ashamed. How did we get to this point anyway; who allowed it to happen? We are a bit like teenaged children, suddenly aware of how dependent we are on our parents, and wanting to do all kinds of things we can’t do because of that dependence. So we complain, act up, and act out — putting antlers on our heads. We can’t run away from “home” though, because we have no place to go, and because we’re dependent on what that despised, constraining “home” affords us.

There is no answer to “How did it get this way?” The collective actions of billions of people will often (perhaps always) lead to situations that no one is happy with and which benefit only a tiny few. No one is in control, and knowing that only makes our dependence on the current systems even scarier. We know the world is fucked, and yet we are helpless to do anything about it. The only thing that prevents our anger and fear from boiling over is our cultivated (both by ourselves — since we really don’t want to know — and by others) ignorance of just how awful and unfixable it really is.

Conservatives in particular (but not exclusively) are therefore conflating their understandable desire for freedom from dependence from those they don’t know or trust, with untrammelled ‘freedom’ to do whatever they, and those who think like them, want to do. What do they do with these ‘freedoms’ when they get them? Well, they accidentally or deliberately kill and injure many, many innocent victims with their righteously-possessed guns (or with their cars when they drive drunk). They infect millions of people unnecessarily with a lethal and debilitating virus. They destroy the natural wealth of the planet to the point it can no longer sustain life. What price ‘freedom’?

So when we say we want ‘freedom’, what I think we really mean is that we want freedom from our humiliating dependence. We want to do the things humans took for granted and did effortlessly for our first million years on the planet. We want a level of control over our lives that we naively or nostalgically thought we once had — though we never really did.

But in a massively complex and interconnected world of 7.8B people, in a horrifically overcrowded, prosthetic world whose biodiversity is in free fall, whose climate is in an accelerating stage of collapse, and whose economy is massively overextended and teetering on the edge of a ghastly disintegration, freedom from dependence is impossible. We will be dependent on the systems that we have cobbled together to try to support us all until they fall apart, and then we will get our wish. We will relearn how to do things locally, with people we know and trust, or we’ll die in the attempt.

I am sure if I were to say all this to conservatives or libertarians I would be told I was sanctimonious and condescending. After all, it’s hard to defend systems and institutions that have fundamentally failed and are beyond reform, even though things will only get harder when they fall apart.

But I’m content to just file this epiphany away, and the next time I hear ravings from conservatives or libertarians about the need for ‘freedom’, I’ll at least begin to understand the pain and terror that underlie their misconceptions about what ‘freedom’ they really long for. We all share that ancient longing.

It’s awful being dependent on those you don’t know or trust or control. But as I suspect many teenagers who’ve been thrown out into the streets could tell you, it could be even worse.

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6 Responses to Resenting Our Dependence

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    It’s awful being dependent on those you don’t know or trust or control.

    Yes, so true, but it wouldn’t be much better even if we did know and trust the people we are dependent upon. It has been obvious for many decades that modern civilization is a very fragile system with a limited lifespan and depending on that civilization for our very lives makes us vulnerable to its inevitable failure. Even if all the modern powers-that-be were paragons of virtue and trustworthyness, we should still be very frightened.

    Minimizing dependence on modernity is just plain prudent and evidence of a mature reflection on life’s important choices. It’s too bad that only a tiny number of people manage to calmly consider their situation and then take common sense action to enhance their independence and self sufficiency in advance of collapse.

    It’s true that, as you note, it would be impossible for everyone in rich countries to opt out of their dependency on modernity, but that’s a kind of poetic justice. There are millions of poor, struggling people in the Global South who will retain their far greater powers of self sufficiency much more easily than people in the rich world. That is more than enough for humanity to start over (with 28,000 BC lifestyles) after modernity collapses. I wish them all good luck.

  2. Anonymous says:

    So insightful! And gives an explanation of the fork in the road between where China is going and the the continued demise of the US. The Chi es seem to be going for socialism but on an industrial scale. Looks like we need a new fork. Using the wisdom of the past with what we can salvage from today.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Dave
    I agree with the diagnosis. For some time, I have been toying with ideas about the escape valve which societies might open. During the New Deal, the US government had some land which it made available to homesteaders, particularly black homesteaders. Those communities survived until after WWII. The situation we face now is one of continual decline. So a community founded on local resilience might survive indefinitely into the future. The governments might do well to direct about a tenth of one percent of the military budget toward funding the establishment of villages which are largely self-sufficient and which are freed from the red tape and overhead costs of running the outside civilization. The choice each individual or family or small group would face would be much more like the two columns in your article. I think a substantial number of people would choose the left column.

  4. Joe Clarkson says:

    Aloha e Don,

    Getting the money for self-sufficient “lifeboat” communities from the government is a reasonable idea, but it may be hard to do. The constituency that would benefit (young and strong, but poor would-be farmers and craftspeople) has virtually no political clout.

    I have often wondered by wealthy people who want to engage in philanthropy don’t get things started. Seeding a transition to sustainable communities would be one of the biggest gifts a wealthy person or foundation could give to posterity. It might also start a trend that could become large enough that it might have a much better chance of being funded through the public purse.

    The critical parameter for the success of these independent communities (or possibly individual homesteads) would be isolation from outside markets and monetary systems. Taxes, product sales, continuing purchases of routine supplies and consumer items would have to be prohibited to prevent dependencies and the neccessity for earning money. Basic craft materials, like iron and steel for smithies, might be allowed in for a short time after founding, but no longer.

    The PBS series Frontier House (2002)revealed the pros and cons of a rapid adaptation to a very simple agrarian lifestyle. One marriage broke up, another was strengthened and the kids who participated loved it.

  5. Stephen says:

    Hi Dave,

    Google “The 30 years war and the printing press”.

    New forms of propaganda are causing a societal reorganization. It will probably get a lot uglier, unfortunately.

    Steve

  6. Philip says:

    the limits to growth are here just as we have been saturated in the propaganda of the freedom as a birthright…travel, toys, entertainment etc. You are right Dave, a deeper, older freedom is desired on an often unconscious level. Our dependence is disempowering and has a relationship with many anxieties. Given me something to reflect on again.

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