My essay last week attempted to draw together three sets of ideas (those of Aurélien, John Michael Greer and Tyson Yunkaporta) about how and why political collapse is now unfolding. The gist of these ideas is that politics has become rooted in simplistic ideologies (notably what might be called ‘conservative’ nostalgic reactionary traditionalism, versus ‘liberal’ eternal-progress-seeking humanism). But the suggestion here is that all ideologies, political theories, and —isms are doomed to fail in real, complex, large-scale societies, because human nature just doesn’t work that way. Our belief systems, behaviours, and ways of thinking and seeing the world, don’t fit into neat, simple ideological boxes.
To make matters worse, failures of education, lack of practical experience, poor critical thinking skills, ignorance of history, and lack of imagination, have resulted in the administrations charged with implementing these ideologies becoming increasingly incompetent. (Victoria Nuland probably qualifies as the poster child for ideology-obsessed incompetence, and Biden just gave her a big promotion.) From the top down, our political governance and administration is more and more infantile, amateurish, and incapable of doing the job, Aurélien argues, and he spent most of his life in the system. And they are more and more credulous. Every newscast contains new evidence to support this observation.
We are now coping with the consequence of imposed ideologies managed by incompetent people — namely utterly dysfunctional, horrifically mismanaged, dangerously-broken systems. Most of us sense that something is terribly wrong with our political systems, but the only options we’ve ever been presented with are all based on impracticable ideologies. We can hardly even imagine a political system that isn’t ideology-based. Even if the ideology is as intellectually and morally bankrupt as “Hope” or “MAGA”.
Those who’ve become disillusioned with all the —isms have of late started casting around for a new ideology, a new theory or model or new ‘story’. And each group of salvationists has a different ideology: social justice theory, longtermism, neosurvivalism, posthumanism etc. As the song goes, “Everybody wants to change the world.” And “if everyone would just…” the world would surely be saved.
Their intentions are good, of course, but’s it’s exactly these sorts of ideologies that got us into this mess. Instead of dreaming up and designing new ideologies and models to impose on the population, we are going to have to ‘grow up’ and realize that we will only manage our way through deepening civilizational collapse (economic, political, ecological and social collapse) if we abandon ideologies entirely and instead support and promote acceptance, adaptation, competence, experience, pragmatism, and collaboration, focused on matters over which we have enough substantiated knowledge not to be dangerous, and on matters which directly affect us and which our actions can meaningfully affect.
That is only likely to happen sporadically, among those who appreciate the failings of ideology (political, economic, social, religious, scientific and philosophical) to serve us well. It is also likely to happen only in small groups and at the local level. And it will never come about as a result of some large-scale concerted effort. That’s just magical thinking.
So it’s a hard sell. We’re mostly sold on the ideologies and —isms we’ve been conditioned all our lives to believe are fair, moral, and/or the best way to live. We don’t want to give them up, and are easily suckered by political opportunists who will reduce everything to a dichotomy — “us” versus “them”. But it’s getting harder and harder to stomach the endless attempts to sell us warmed-over, failed ideologies. The very thought of voting for a Biden, or a Trudeau, or a Starmer, even at the risk of the latest reactionary sociopath squeaking by them into power, is enough to make anyone who ever called themselves a progressive, absolutely gag.
But here we are. I have often trotted out my Being Adaptable reminder list for coping with collapse (reproduced above), which I think is quite ideologically neutral, unless you believe collapse is a conspiracy theory, in which case I really can’t offer you anything. But beyond that I have been at a loss to suggest what could or should be ‘done’ to deal with any aspect of the collapse ‘polycrisis’, and the same applies to political collapse.
Fortunately, Aurélien has been asking the same questions, and today he asked So Where Do We Go From Here? The article starts off rather slowly, at least if you’re a regular reader of his blog or this one, reiterating the complexity and interrelatedness of the polycrisis. But then he gets to the heart of the matter.
I won’t try to summarize the whole, long article, but here are what I thought were the highlights and major insights from his thinking [my blather in square brackets, and emphasis mine]:
Action to contain, let alone resolve, even one of the [polycrisis] problems, would require high-level national and international coordination, massive technical and managerial expertise, and the allocation of immense financial and human resources over years or decades, according to a robust long-term plan. Yes, that was my reaction too: there’s no point wishing for things you can’t have. [Even, or especially, if some political group promises them.] If you actually want to see how the collective West handled a really grave crisis it’s enough to look at the Covid shambles…
Western states today are not only incapable of preventing [major natural or human-caused] disasters in the first place, they are incapable of dealing with the symptoms and the consequences. Theoretically, even now, the worst effects of climate change could be avoided with massive coordinated action, the energy crisis could be managed with careful rationing, changes in patterns of life and massive investment in alternative technologies … which everyone knows is not going to happen. That’s not pessimism, any more than it’s pessimism to say that an old tractor can no longer pull a heavy load up a hill, and there are no spare parts…
[So] the problems are of an unprecedented gravity, the individuals who have to deal with them probably represent the weakest political class in modern history, and the surrounding circumstances greatly limit their ability to act, even if they knew what to do. So the interaction of the situation and the response to it is unlikely to produce much that is positive.
So far, so grim. But if we are to think our way through the problems of the future (and yes, I am getting to that) then we have to have a clear idea of what they are, and of what can effectively be done to confront them. To begin with, it is wise to assume that the solutions cannot come from enfeebled governments and adolescent political classes. This is not to write off all possibility of governments doing necessary and useful things, but it is a question of scale and capability: things have effectively gone too far already. Nor can we have any confidence that the private sector will step in: in many cases they will simply make things worse.
The corollary of governments no longer being able to deal with these problems, therefore, is that it is pointless to stage performative acts to demonstrate (or demand) that something is, or should be, “done.” The Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) will probably continue, since these things acquire an inertia of their own, but ultimately, the Conference brings together actors who, with the best will in the world, no longer have the political or technical capability to influence the progress of climate change very much. And by extension, gimmicks aimed at “raising consciousness” or “putting pressure on governments” are equally pointless and counter-productive. There is no point in wasting time and energy lobbying governments to do things that they cannot do, or to engage with problems they cannot solve…
The final point I want to make about the future context, is how the inevitable decline will come. Here, the problem is that “decline” is not one thing but a whole series of things, going at different rates. As a general rule, elements of our society will disappear like Hemingway’s character who went bankrupt — gradually and then suddenly. Which is to say that the capabilities that support our society will not necessarily decline gradually and in a civilised fashion. The de-industrialist dream, I think, is of slow and steady decline: each year a little less energy, a progressive adaptation to climate changes, and so forth. But we know quite a lot about the decay of complex systems, and it resembles what happens when a bridge finally buckles and falls under gradually increasing stress. And there never has been a society remotely as formally and technically complex as ours, so we have very little idea where the inflexion point comes, and the system suddenly can no longer support itself…
So rather than gentle managed decline, what we can expect is a series of sudden, unpredictable lurches downwards, to a new temporary equilibrium, but without any consistent logic. Likewise, the terrifying diseases of my childhood, like Smallpox, have been banished by immunisation. But if we can’t get the vaccines for some reason, and the percentage of the vaccinated starts to fall much below 90-95%, we would be in trouble very quickly.
How are we going to deal with all that? The first thing to say is that, if we are facing a series of unprecedented changes and crises at a time when capability to deal with them has never been lower, then much will depend upon individuals and groups who can actually do something. Crises tend to have a Darwinian effect on groups and structures: those best fitted to handle the crisis find themselves thrust into in positions of responsibility. This happens with armies and governments at the start of wars, for example, when competences required in peacetime are no longer relevant.
It’s perhaps hard to realise just how far government has become performative and virtual in recent decades. It’s not simply that governments have lost capability, it’s also that they don’t care. For modern political parties, the imperative is that of the Party in 1984: to be in power. Actually doing things is dangerous: you might fail, and even if you succeed you could annoy potentially powerful groups. Talking about doing things, on the other hand, is fine. Blaming others (especially outside forces), condemning your opponent’s or your rival’s plans on ideological or financial grounds, successfully burying a problem or even denying that it exists, are the standard tools of government today…
So I think we are at a point where action and influence (if not necessarily formal power) will increasingly devolve upon those who can Do Things, as it always does in difficult times, especially at a local level. Otherwise, we will perish…
It seems clear that if we abandon performative gestures and impossible demands, if we recognise that our enfeebled states are likely to be overwhelmed by the challenges of the near future, then we are of necessity thrown back on the collective resources of ordinary people. In times of stress, these have often turned out to be considerable, and our energies might be better devoted to doing things ourselves and with others, than striking poses to demand action from institutions that increasingly lack the capability to act. You can certainly demand your “rights” but, as Spinoza was probably not the first to notice, rights do not enforce themselves in the absence of power…
Perhaps it would be useful if we were to consider how we spend our lives, and try to do what we are doing to the best of our ability… Perhaps we will be called on to make a personal contribution when the time comes, or perhaps we just cultivate our personal gardens as best we can, which is not a small thing in itself. But given the series of crises that are drumming their fingers in anticipation of an interesting future, we will not be helped by performative actions or performative words, but only real actions, no matter how humble, of ordinary people.
Yeah. What he said.
Thanks to Paul Heft, Cara MariAnna, and Ivor Tymchak for helping me think through the ideas in this post.