Doom. That's what's on the way for us here in the fifty nifty United States. Doom doom doom. Big fucking Doom. That's right, I said it. The world is in fact coming to an end in a total cluster fuck of denial, false consciousness, and Machiavellian intrigue. Ten years from now, you will look around you and no longer recognize the world you live in. I do not say this lightly. I am no doomer. I genuinely believe that global warming and peak oil will most likely cause a crisis that will meet with some sort of solution. In the middle term, those are problems that I think humanity is more or less capable of dealing with. There will be problems, but those problems are not insurmountable. No, the people who see in the coming food crisis an end to all things are mistaken. They are mistaken for good reasons. They worry about the rise of unchecked economic power in the post-industrial world. They worry about the unsustainability of current modes of production. And these are real problems. But they fail to grasp the flip side of that coin. They make the same mistake that Ronald Reagan's conservative children make, and see only the supply side of the economy. This is the path we have been on in the United States and in much of Europe for a good 40 years now. So dominant is this view of the world that even in the thinking of an astute and critical mind like that of Chris Hedges, the coming dystopia is mistaken for something akin to the feudal dark ages of Europe. This is a historically conditioned vision of the world and it says more about the fears of those who have them than it does about what the world will look like in ten years. I am sympathetic to those fears, but fear is not a civilizing impulse and it is a severe impediment to rational thought. There will never be another dark age, and the structure of the coming cultural hegemony is as yet completely underdetermined by present facts.
The problem with the great doomer visionaries of the present is that they are pessimists, and pessimists, at their core, are misanthropes. They look around themselves at American society and culture, they recognize that it is the model shaping the rest of the world, and they see it as a yoke that enslaves and binds. They see this because they hate other people. They see the petty obsessions of people living their lives in ways that are wasteful and imprudent, dull and unchallenging, awash in the propaganda of the advertising culture, and they take this as symptomatic of what these people are. They see vapid, empty existences, and they assume that people live these lives because they are weak and manipulable. In this, they are wrong. What they fail to understand is that people are resilient. Communities as much as individuals have lifespans and values by which they abide. The error here is the tendency to view history as a series of epochs one following another. They recognize that our current modes of life are unsustainable and they assume this means that the present epoch will end and a new one will spring into being formed of whole cloth. That is simply not the way a society works. More importantly, it is not a rule for changing circumstances that is born out by the history of the rise and fall of empires.
Consider Rome. Rome was at the time of its ascendency the greatest empire the world had ever known. It spanned from the British Isles through nearly all of Europe, Asia Minor, to the Middle East and North Africa. And yet, if you look at the map of the Roman Empire at its height, before the split into the Eastern and Western Empires, you could quite easily be deceived into thinking that this beast was in some way a unitary entity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Within the bounds of the empire, communities of people survived and thrived under a myriad of cultures, languages, creeds, and identities. Roman law and order was primitive and failed to adequately deal with the vast bulk of the population. Rome's might was always in the hands of its military, and that military might, as it came to depend ever greater on the enlistment of non-romans, eventually led to the downfall of the empire. And the reason for that was that for all its wide reach, in the end, Rome was always still just a city state in the middle of things. Rome's culture was a misshmash of ideas and cultures drawing heavily on an imaginary view of the fallen Greek, Persian, Levantine, and Egyptian trade empires that had preceded Rome. When Rome fell it was not because it had over utilized it's resources or disintegrated in its own decadence. Rome fell because the people who were the power of the Roman machine, the Germanic, North African, Gallic, and Middle Eastern mercenaries who made up her legions, realized that they were being ruled only by an idea. When they stopped believing in that idea, a vacuum was created and the illusion of order that had endured through the centuries of Roman hegemony disappeared. Europe entered the dark ages not because the world changed nor because people suddenly began living in a manner other than the way they had previously lived. Europe entered the dark ages because the petty warlords of various tribes and barbarian hordes no longer viewed Roma as the stern father who would smack them down if they got out of line. The result was a centuries long period of constant war and violence during which the values and ideals of competing oligarchic thugs under the helpful but weak organizing principle of the divine order of monarchy ruled an oppressed populace with fear and death. And where did this grand organizing idea come from? It originated with the corrupt and degenerate Church in Rome which claimed a superstitious divine authority that allowed it to endure primarily because it was no real military threat and yet it was useful for the management of the enslaved peasantry of the European kings.
It is important to note under all this that the lives of the vast bulk of the populace of Europe did not change in the slightest. They had been slaves and petty freemen and soldiers in Rome, and they were slaves and petty landholders and knights in feudal Europe. The dark ages only appear dark in retrospect because of the cloistering of men of learning within the Church where their minds and thoughts were stifled and kept secret whereas in the previous pagan age they had served powerful patrons and produced great quantities of literature about the world in which they lived. But that which is dark for the historian is not necessarily a change in circumstance for the man or woman living in bondage to a despot. And yet civilization progressed. The feudal system was as unsustainable in its fashion as is our current economic system. Where we face the problems of peak oil and climate change and the impending failure of our economic system, they faced the burden of an ever discontent source of energy in bonded human labor. One need only scratch the surface of Cathar and Albigensian resistances to see the truly precarious situation that the landed "nobility" of feudal Europe found itself in. And it was ever thus.
The history of the end of feudalism with the early renaissance reforms of government and the birth of the enlightenment out of the changing economies of Europe is instructive because while it spelled the end of the old order in Europe, it is notable that at no point did a significant regress in political liberty take place. Slowly but surely, the nation-states of Europe emerged from the feudal hierarchies, and with them came expanded trade, the evolution of the European City, and a liberalization of education and economic opportunity for the emerging middle class. To be sure, the old order passed away, but what took it's place, a system founded on better ideas and a more open society was better. This long march of progress has continued unabated for the better part of five centuries now. Today we live in a world where leisure, economic opportunity, political access, and institutions of justice are superior to any that have ever existed in the history of the world. To hold with the doomers that the coming shift in technology and climate are something that will throw us back a thousand years or more in our social structure is to make a prediction of a mass social change that is entirely unprecedented in the history of the world.
That is not to say it cannot happen, of course, but the mere appeal to the unavoidable fact of the coming collapse as a retreading of history does not push through to the final analysis. To be sure, we are overly dependent on petroleum and industrial agriculture at present, and these systems of provision cannot last forever. But that is not to say that whatever comes to replace it will necessarily be so destructive as to reduce us to a more primitive and disconnected state of society. Frankly, any prognostication of what the world will look like in ten or twenty years is premature and rash, and the prospect of a new feudalism, a breakdown of law and order, and apocalyptic transformation as the world falls ever more under the rule of vast multinational corporate wealth is to only look at the supply side of the economy. It is the history of the powerful so aptly criticized by Howard Zinn in his People's History of the United States merely projected onto our future days. As a populist, a humanist, and an egalitarian, that is a vision of humanity and the future that rings false to me. Because I do not believe that the leisure and decadence of our culture are a bad thing. I see in them the glorious fact that for the first period in the history of the world vast swaths of the regular folks, those who are not powerful players on the stage of history, have before them an unprecedented ability to live a life of their own choosing. Certainly many of them choose to expend that opportunity on a commercialized and consumerist culture that I find personally distasteful. But what matters is not the choice that the people make, it is the fact that they have that choice. They are free to live the sort of life that they choose, not bound by familial enslavement, draconian law, or the necessities of a hard scrabble sustenance level farming. It will take more than peak oil and global warming to give people cause to surrender that liberty. We are an ingenious and adaptable species. We did quite well with massive populations in certain parts of the world long before the discovery of steam power and the industrialization of electricity and petroleum. We will do fine if we are forced to sacrifice those things in the face of ever more limited resources. Life finds a way.
In fact it must, because the doomers in their limited scope of viewing as important only the power structures of the global elite fail to reckon with the fundamental fact of capitalism, and that is for the supply side to sustain itself it must have adequate demand. And we have in place in much of the world at this time the requisite republican structures to terminate the forty year landslide into the consolidation of power. And most importantly, it's a proven fact that we can do so in the United States and Europe because we've done it twice before during times of crisis that are still within living memory. The Great Depression and World War II and the last phase of the Cold War were both periods marked by the excesses of power. As much influence as the powerful have in American politics today, the level of control and resistance to regulation exerted by monied interests is nothing compared to the period of excess that marked the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons and the series of corrupt governments in existence between the two Roosevelt administrations. And yet these abuses were curbed. Fascism was defeated in Europe and Stalinism was defeated by the Western democracies. Compared to the threat of global nuclear annihilation during the cold war the petty concerns of our present political feuds pale. The doomer fear of the a coming collapse is shown to be hollow and vain in its pessimism because frankly things simply haven't gotten bad enough yet to mobilize the efforts of large masses of people to fight to institute corrective measures. Because people will not sacrifice their freedoms, they will not stand idly by while their expectations from life dwindle, and the fact that what is currently possible is vaguely satisfactory is shown by the fact that the over reach of the most powerful has yet to meet significant resistance from the working and middle classes. Because people are not greedy. By and large, most people's needs are fairly modest. If a body politick is able to sustain itself, to raise its children as it sees fit, to pursue satisfaction from work and family and friends, then that is enough. It is in fact a noble existence. For those of us of a certain bent, so long as we are able to work, to seek justice and service in a manner that fulfills our spiritual hunger for such things, and to choose to live our lives on our own terms pursuing such knowledge and company as we see reason in valuing, then life is good. Some hardship we are willing to bear as inevitable, and as a people with a great constitution and of significant endurance given that our fundamental capabilities to live such lives are secure and appear to remain secure for the foreseeable future, we will put up with a lot. But history shows time and again that oppressed peoples who pass a breaking point will not remain complacent and will risk their lives and their freedom in opposition to fundamental injustice. Never in the history of the world has a people who have known freedom relinquished it. The failed states of the world such as Somalia or Sierra Leone are only failed because they have never had a moment to breathe freely and the people have never had any agency such as that enjoyed by the free peoples of the West. Perhaps it is possible that an absence of food security could plunge us into such a state, but as Amartya Sen has conclusively demonstrated, famines are always failure of government not of resources. THe capacity of the land to feed us is far from tapped, and while radical measures may at some point need effecting in order to provide, it is a mistake to condemn as sheep the people as a body and deny the capacity to generate the political will to take those measures should they become necessary.
In the end the vision of doom as the doomer paints it is flawed because it presumes too much and expects too little. The flaw at its core is a misplaced admiration for power that leads those of that mindset to presume that those without power are incapable of acting in concert to get it. A corollary of that flaw is a repulsive lack of faith in the people of a civilized nation to remain civilized and to demand their due. Chris Hedges is simply wrong to attribute to thugs and criminals the status he accords them to be able to shape a society in crisis. To be sure, there are always opportunists who are willing to exploit human misery. But such people can only function when there is a significant threat in place capable of distracting the rest of humanity from clamping down on the bullies and enforcing justice against those who commit crimes against the common good. The fear of the post apocalyptic villain who uses violence and strength to secure his position is therefore unrealistic and can only come about through the veneration of power that fascists and doomers share. They fail to understand what it is about the popular will that can and does effectively resist the sort of power that these people worship, and this failure is again rooted in their misanthropy.
I am not a misanthrope. I have faith in my fellow citizens, in the people of the world, to continue to push the arc of history toward the justice we all crave. A reckoning is coming, no doubt. The world is in the midst of crisis and upheaval the likes of which it has never before seen, and the new world order that emerges from the shed skin of the old may very well look completely different from the world into which we were born. But history is not discrete, it is continuous, just as our lives and our communities are. What comes will come, and perhaps for a good long while times will be very difficult. But history and the might of the human spirit demonstrate, time after time, that the over reach of power, the reverence for power, and the oppression of concentrated power have always only predicated a greater freedom, more sure equality, and better world than that which has come before. The coming crisis can only be a catalyst for a new world, and any such new world can only be better than this one. Were it otherwise, we would not be the people that we are.