Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Retrotopia: Dawn Train from Pittsburgh

This is the first of a series of posts using the tools of narrative fiction to explore an alternative shape for the future. A hint to readers who haven't been with The Archdruid Report for long: don't expect all your questions to be answered right away.

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I got to the Pittsburgh station early. It was a shabby remnant of what must once have been one of those grand old stations you see on history vids, nothing but a bleak little waiting room below and a stair rising alongside a long-defunct escalator to the platforms up top. The waiting room had fresh paint on the walls and the vending machines were the sort of thing you’d find anywhere.  Other than that, the whole place looked as though it had been locked up around the time the last Amtrak trains stopped running and sat there unused for forty years until the border opened up again.

The seats were fiberglass, and must have been something like three quarters of a century old. I found one that didn’t look too likely to break when I sat on it, settled down, got out my veepad and checked the schedule for the umpteenth time. The train I would be riding was listed as on time, arrival 5:10 am Pittsburgh station, departure 5:35 am, scheduled arrival in Toledo Central Station 11:12 am. I tapped the veepad again, checked the news. The election was still all over the place—President Barfield’s concession speech, a flurry of op-ed pieces from various talking heads affiliated with the losing parties about how bad Ellen Montrose would be for the country. I snorted, paged on. Other stories competed for attention: updates on the wars in California and the Balkans, bad news about the hemorrhagic-fever epidemic in Latin America, and worse news from Antarctica, where yet another big ice sheet had just popped loose and was drifting north toward the shipping lanes. 

While the news scrolled past, other passengers filed into the waiting room a few at a time. I could just make them out past the image field the veepad projected into my visual cortex. Two men and a woman in ordinary bioplastic businesswear came in and sat together, talking earnestly about some investment or other. An elderly couple whose clothes made them look like they came straight out of a history vid sat down close to the stair and sat quietly. A little later, a family of four in clothing that looked even more old-fashioned—Mom had a bonnet on her head, and I swear I’m not making that up—came in with carpetbag luggage, and plopped down not far from me. I wasn’t too happy about that, kids being what they are these days, but these two sat down and, after a little bit of squirming, got out a book each and started reading quietly. I wondered if they’d been drugged.

A little later, another family of four came in, wearing the kind of cheap shabby clothes that might as well have the words “urban poor” stamped all over them, and hauling big plastic bags that looked as though everything they owned was stuffed inside. They looked tense, scared, excited. They sat by themselves in a corner, the parents talking to each other in low voices, the kids watching everything with wide eyes and saying nothing. I wondered about them, shrugged mentally, went back to the news.

I’d finished the news and was starting through the day’s textmail, when the loudspeaker on the wall cleared its electronic throat with a hiss of static and said, “Train Twenty-One, service to Toledo via Steubenville, Canton and Sandusky, arriving at Platform One. Please have your tickets and passports ready. Train Twenty-One to Toledo, Platform One.”

I tapped the veepad to sleep, stuffed it in my pocket, got out of my seat with the others, climbed the stairs to the platform. The sky was just turning gray with the first hint of morning, and the air was cold; the whistle of the train sounded long and lonely in the middle distance. I turned to look. I’d never been on a train before, and most of what I knew about them came from history vids and the research I’d done for this trip. Based on what I’d heard about my destination, I wondered if the locomotive would be a rattletrap antique with a big smokestack pumping coal smoke into the air.

What came around the bend into view wasn’t much like my momentary fantasy, though. It was the sort of locomotive you’d have found on any American railroad around 1950, a big diesel-electric machine with a blunt nose and a single big headlight shining down on the track. It whistled again, and then the roar of the engines rose to drown out everything else. The locomotive roared past the platform, and the only thing that surprised me was the smell of french fries that came rushing past with it. Behind it was a long string of boxcars, and behind those, a baggage car and three passenger cars.

The train slowed to a walking pace and then stopped as the passenger cars came up to the platform. A conductor in a blue uniform and hat swung down from the last car. “Tickets and passports, please,” he said, and I got out my veepad, woke it, activated the flat screen and got both documents on it.

“Physical passport, please,” the conductor said when he got to me.

“Sorry.” I fumbled in my pocket, handed it to him. He checked it, smiled, said, “Thank you, Mr. Carr. You probably know this already, but you’ll need a paper ticket for the return trip.”

“I’ve got it, thanks.”

“Great.” He moved on to the family with the plastic bag luggage. The mother said something in a low voice, handed over tickets and something that didn’t look like a passport. “That’s fine,” said the conductor. “You’ll need to have your immigration papers out when we get to the border.”

The woman murmured something else, and the conductor went onto the elderly couple, leaving me to wonder about what I’d just heard. Immigration? That implied, first, that these people actually wanted to live in the Lakeland Republic, and second, that they were being allowed in. Neither of those seemed likely to me. I made a note on my veepad to ask about immigration once I got to Toledo, and to compare what they told me to what I could find out once I got back to Philadelphia.

The conductor finished taking tickets and checking passports, and called out, “All aboard!”

I went with the others to the first of the three passenger cars, climbed the stair, turned left. The interior was about what I’d expected, row after row of double seats facing forward, but everything looked clean and bright and there was a lot more leg room than I was used to. I went about halfway up, slung my suitcase in the overhead rack and settled in the window seat. We sat for a while, and then the car jolted once and began to roll forward. 

We went through the western end of Pittsburgh first of all, past the big dark empty skyscrapers of the Golden Triangle, and then across the river and into the western suburbs. Those were shantytowns built out of the scraps of old housing developments and strip malls, the sort of thing you find around most cities these days when you don’t find worse, mixed in with old rundown housing developments that probably hadn’t seen a bucket of paint or a new roof since the United States came apart. Then the suburbs ended, and things got uglier.

The country west of Pittsburgh got hit hard during the Second Civil War, I knew, and harder still when the border was closed after Partition. I’d wondered, while planning the trip, how much it had recovered in the three years since the Treaty of Richmond. Looking out of the window as the sky turned gray behind us, I got my answer: not much. There were some corporate farms that showed signs of life, but the small towns the train rolled through were bombed-out shells, and there were uncomfortable stretches where every house and barn I could see was a tumbledown ruin and young trees were rising in what had to have been fields and pastures a few decades back. After a while it was too depressing to keep looking out the window, and I pulled out my veepad again and spent a good long while answering textmails and noting down some questions I’d want to ask in Toledo.

I’d gotten caught up on mail when the door at the back end of the car slid open. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the conductor said, “we’ll be arriving at the border in about five minutes. You’ll need to have your passports ready, and immigrants should have their papers out as well. Thank you.”

We rolled on through a dense stand of trees, and then into open ground. Up ahead, a pair of roads cut straight north and south across country. Until three years ago, there’d been a tall razor-wire fence between them, soldiers patrolling our side, the other side pretty much a complete mystery.  The fence was gone now, and there were two buildings for border guards, one on each side of the line. The one on the eastern side was a modern concrete-and-steel item that looked like a skyscraper had stopped there, squatted, and laid an egg. As we got closer to it, I could see the border guards in digital-fleck camo, helmets, and flak vests, standing around with assault rifles.

Then we passed over into Lakeland Republic territory, and I got a good look at the building on the other side. It was a pleasant-looking brick structure that could have been a Carnegie-era public library or the old city hall of some midsized town, and the people who came out of the big arched doorways to meet the train as it slowed to a halt didn’t look like soldiers at all.

The door slid open again, and I turned around. One of the border guards, a middle-aged woman with coffee-colored skin, came into the car. She was wearing a white uniform blouse and blue pants, and the only heat she was carrying was a revolver tucked unobtrusively in a holster at her hip. She had a clipboard with her, and went up the aisle, checking everybody’s passports against a list.

I handed her mine when she reached me. “Mr. Carr,” she said with a broad smile. “We heard you’d be coming through this morning. Welcome to the Lakeland Republic.”

“Thank you,” I said. She handed me back the passport, and went on to the family with the plastic bag luggage. They handed her a sheaf of papers, and she went through them quickly, signed something halfway through, and then handed them back. “Okay, you’re good,” she said. “Welcome to the Lakeland Republic.”

“We’re in?” the mother of the family asked, as though she didn’t believe it.

“You’re in,” the border guard told her. “Legal as legal can be.”

“Oh my God. Thank you.” She burst into tears, and her husband hugged her and patted her on the back. The border guard gave him a grin and went on to the family in the old-fashioned clothing.

I thought about that while the border guard finished checking passports and left the car. Outside, two more guards with a dog finished going along the train, and gave a thumbs up to the conductor. A minute later, the train started rolling again. That’s it? I wondered. No metal detectors, no x-rays, nothing? Either they were very naive or very confident.

We passed the border zone and a screen of trees beyond it, and suddenly the train was rolling through a landscape that couldn’t have been more different from the one on the other side of the line. It was full of farms, but they weren’t the big corporate acreages I was used to. I counted houses and barns as we passed, and guesstimated the farms were one to two hundred acres each; all of them were in mixed crops, not efficient monocropping. The harvest was mostly in, but I’d grown up in farm country and knew what a field looked like after it was put into corn, wheat, cabbages, turnips, industrial hemp, or what have you. Every farm seemed to have all of those and more, not to mention cattle in the pasture, pigs in a pen, a garden and an orchard. I shook my head, baffled. It was a hopelessly inefficient way to run agribusiness, I knew that from my time in business school, and yet the briefing papers I’d read while getting ready for this trip said that the Lakeland Republic exported plenty of agricultural products and imported almost none. I wondered if the train would pass some real farms further in.

We passed more of the little mixed farms, and a couple of little towns that were about as far from being bombed-out shells as you care to imagine. There were homes with lights on and businesses that were pretty obviously getting ready to open for the day. All of them had little brick train stations, though we didn’t stop at any of those—I wondered if they had light rail or something. Watching the farms and towns move past, I thought about the contrast with the landscape on the other side of the border, and winced, then stopped and reminded myself that the farms and towns had to be subsidized. Small towns weren’t any more economically viable than small farms, after all. Was all this some kind of Potemkin village setup, for the purpose of impressing visitors?

The door at the back of the car slid open, and the conductor came in. “Next stop, Steubenville,” he said. “Folks, we’ve got a bunch of people coming on in Steubenville, so please don’t take up any more seats than you have to.”

Steubenville had been part of the state of Ohio before Partition, I remembered. The name of the town stirred something else in my memory, though. I couldn’t quite get the recollection to surface, and decided to look it up. I pulled out my veepad, tapped it, and got a dark field and the words: no signal. I tapped it again, got the same thing, opened the connectivity window and found out that the thing wasn’t kidding. There was no metanet signal anywhere within range. I stared at it, wondered how I was going to check the news or keep up with my textmail, and then wondered: how the plut am I going to buy anything, or pay my hotel bill?

The dark field didn’t have any answers. I decided I’d have to sort that out when I got to Toledo; I’d been invited, after all. Maybe they had connectivity in the big cities, or something. The story was that there wasn’t metanet anywhere in the Lakeland Republic, but I had my doubts about that—how can you manage anything this side of a bunch of  mud huts without net connections? No doubt, I decided, they had some kind of secure net or something. We’d talked about doing something of the same kind back in Philadelphia more than once, just for government use, so the next round of netwars didn’t trash our infrastructure the way the infrastructure of the old union got trashed by the Chinese in ‘21.

Still, the dark field and those two words upset me more than I wanted to admit. It had been more years than I wanted to think about since I’d been more than a click away from the metanet, and being cut off from it left me feeling adrift.

The sun cleared low clouds behind us, and the train rolled into what I guessed was East Steubenville. I’d expected the kind of suburbs I’d seen on the way out of Pittsburgh, dreary rundown housing interspersed with the shantytowns of the poor. What I saw instead left me shaken. The train passed tree-lined streets full of houses that had bright paint on the walls and shingles on the roofs, little local business districts with shops and restaurants open for business, and a school that didn’t look like a medium-security prison. The one thing that puzzled me was that there were no cars visible, just tracks down some of the streets and once, improbably, an old-fashioned streetcar that paced the train for a while and then veered off in a different direction. Most of the houses seemed to have gardens out back, and the train passed one big empty lot that was divided into garden plots and had signs around it saying “community garden.” I wondered if that meant food was scarce here.

A rattle and a bump, and the train was crossing the Ohio River on a big new railroad bridge. Ahead was Steubenville proper. That’s when I remembered the thing that tried to surface earlier:  there was a battle at Steubenville, a big one, toward the end of the Second Civil War. I remembered details from  headlines I’d seen when I was a kid, and a history vid I’d watched a couple of years ago; a Federal army held the Ohio crossings against Alliance forces for most of two months before Anderson punched straight through the West Virginia front and made the whole thing moot. I remembered photos of what Steubenville looked like after the fighting: a blackened landcape of ruins where every wall high enough to hide a soldier behind it had gotten hit by its own personal artillery shell.

That wasn’t what I saw spreading out ahead as the train crossed the Ohio, though. The Steubenville I saw was a pleasant-looking city with a downtown full of three- and four-story buildings, surrounded by neighborhoods of houses, some row houses and some detached. There were streetcars on the west side of the river, too—I spotted two of them as we got close to the shore—and also a few cars, though not many of the latter.  The trees that lined the streets were small enough that you could tell they’d been planted after the fighting was over. Other than that, Steubenville looked like a comfortable, established community.

I stared out the window as the train rolled off the bridge and into Steubenville, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Back on the other side of the border, and everywhere else I’d been in what used to be the United States, you still saw wreckage from the war years all over the place. Between the debt crisis and the state of the world economy, the money that would have been needed to rebuild or even demolish the ruins was just too hard to come by. Things should have been much worse here, since the Lakeland Republic had been shut out of world credit markets for thirty years after the default of ‘32—but they weren’t worse. They looked considerably better. I reached for my veepad, remembered that I couldn’t get a signal, and frowned. If they couldn’t even afford the infrastructure for the metanet, how the plut could they afford to rebuild their housing stock?

The cheerful brick buildings of Steubenville’s downtown didn’t offer me any answers. I sat back, frowning, as the train rattled through a switch and rolled into the Steubenville station. “Steubenville,” the conductor called out from the door behind me, and the train began to slow.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Last Refuge of the Incompetent

There are certain advantages to writing out the ideas central to this blog in weekly bursts. Back in the days before the internet, when a galaxy of weekly magazines provided the same free mix of ideas and opinions that fills the blogosphere today, plenty of writers kept themselves occupied turning out articles and essays for the weeklies, and the benefits weren’t just financial: feedback from readers, on the one hand, and the contributions of other writers in related fields, on the other, really do make it easier to keep slogging ahead at the writer’s lonely trade.

This week’s essay has benefited from that latter effect, in a somewhat unexpected way. In recent weeks, here and there in the corners of the internet I frequent, there’s been another round of essays and forum comments insisting that it’s time for the middle-class intellectuals who frequent the environmental and climate change movements to take up violence against the industrial system. That may not seem to have much to do with the theme of the current sequence of posts—the vacuum that currently occupies the place in our collective imagination where meaningful visions of the future used to be found—but there’s a connection, and following it out will help explain one of the core themes I want to discuss.

The science fiction author Isaac Asimov used to say that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. That’s a half-truth at best, for there are situations in which effective violence is the only tool that will do what needs to be done—we’ll get to that in a moment. It so happens, though, that a particular kind of incompetence does indeed tend to turn to violence when every other option has fallen flat, and goes down in a final outburst of pointless bloodshed. It’s unpleasantly likely at this point that the climate change movement, or some parts of it, may end up taking that route into history’s dumpster; here again, we’ll get to that a little further on in this post.

It’s probably necessary to say at the outset that the arguments I propose to make here have nothing to do with the ethics of violence, and everything to do with its pragmatics as a means of bringing about social change. Ethics in general are a complete quagmire in today’s society.  Nietzsche’s sly description of moral philosophy as the art of propping up inherited prejudices with bad logic has lost none of its force since he wrote it, and since his time we’ve also witnessed the rise of professional ethicists, whose jobs consist of coming up with plausible excuses for whatever their corporate masters want to do this week. The ethical issues surrounding violence are at least as confused as those around any of the other messy realities of human life, and in some ways, more so than most.

Myself, I consider violence enitrely appropriate in some situations. Many of my readers may have heard, for example, of an event that took place a little while back in Kentucky, where a sex worker was attacked by a serial killer.  While he was strangling her, she managed to get hold of his handgun, and proceeded to shoot him dead. To my mind, her action was morally justified. Once he attacked her, no matter what she did, somebody was going to die, and killing him not only turned the violence back on its originator, it also saved the lives of however many other women the guy might have killed before the police got to him—if they ever did; crimes against sex workers, and for that matter crimes against women, are tacitly ignored by a fairly large number of US police departments these days.

Along the same lines, a case can be made that revolutionary violence against a political and economic system is morally justified if the harm being done by that system is extreme enough. That’s not a debate I’m interested in exploring here, though.  Again, it’s not ethics but pragmatics that I want to discuss, because whether or not revolutionary violence is justified in some abstract moral sense is far less important right now than whether it’s an effective response to the situation we’re in. That’s not a question being asked, much less answered, by the people who are encouraging environmental and climate change activists to consider violence against the system.

Violence is not a panacea. It’s a tool, and like any other tool, it’s well suited to certain tasks and utterly useless for others. Political violence in particular is a surprisingly brittle and limited tool. Even when it has the support of a government’s resource base, it routinely flops or backfires, and a group that goes in for political violence without the resources and technical assistance of some government somewhere has to play its hand exceedingly well, or it’s going to fail. Furthermore, there are many cases in which violence isn’t useful as a means of social change, as other tools can do the job more effectively.

Pay attention to the history of successful revolutions and it’s not hard to figure out how to carry out political violence—and far more importantly, how not to do so. The most important point to learn from history is that successful violence in a political context doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It’s the final act of a long process, and the more thoroughly that process is carried out, the less violence is needed when crunch time comes. Let’s take a few paragraphs to walk through the process and see how it’s done.

The first and most essential step in the transformation of any society is the delegitimization of the existing order. That doesn’t involve violence, and in fact violence at this first stage of the process is catastrophically counterproductive—a lesson, by the way, that the US military has never been able to learn, which is why its attempts to delegitimize its enemies (usually phrased in such language as “winning minds and hearts”) have always been so embarrassingly inept and ineffective. The struggle to delegitimize the existing order has to be fought on cultural, intellectual, and ideological battlefields, not physical ones, and its targets are not people or institutions but the aura of legitimacy and inevitability that surrounds any established political and economic order. 

Those of my readers who want to know how that’s done might want to read up on the cultural and intellectual life of France in the decades before the Revolution. It’s a useful example, not least because the people who wanted to bring down the French monarchy came from almost exactly the same social background as today’s green radicals: disaffected middle-class intellectuals with few resources other than raw wit and erudition. That turned out to be enough, as they subjected the monarchy—and even more critically, the institutions and values that supported it—to sustained and precise attack from constantly shifting positions, engaging in savage mockery one day and earnest pleas for reform the next, exploiting every weakness and scandal for maximum effect. By the time the crisis finally arrived in 1789, the monarchy had been so completely defeated on the battlefield of public opinion that next to nobody rallied to its defense until after the Revolution was a fait accompli.

The delegitimization of the existing order is only the first step in the process. The second step is political, and consists of building a network of alliances with existing and potential power centers and pressure groups that might be willing to support revolutionary change. Every political system, whatever its official institutional form might be, consists in practice of just such a network of power centers—that is, groups of people who have significant political, economic, or social influence—and pressure groups—that is, other groups of people who lack such influence but can give or withhold their support in ways that can sometimes extract favors from the power centers.

In today’s America, for example, the main power centers are found in what we may as well call the bureaucratic-industrial complex, the system of revolving-door relationships that connect big corporations, especially the major investment banks, with the major Federal bureaucracies, especially the Treasury and the Pentagon. There are other power centers as well—for example, the petroleum complex, which has its own ties to the Pentagon—which cooperate and compete by turns with the New York-DC axis of influence—and then there are pressure groups of many kinds, some more influential, some less, some reduced to the status of captive constituencies whose only role in the political process is to rally the vote every four years and have their agenda ignored by their supposed friends in office in between elections. The network of power centers, pressure groups, and captive constituencies that support the existing order of things is the real heart of political power, and it’s what has to be supplanted in order to bring systemic change.

Effective revolutionaries know that in order to overthrow the existing order of society, they have to put together a comparable network that will back them against the existing order, and grow it to the point that it starts attracting key power centers away from the network of the existing order. That’s a challenge, but not an impossible one. In any troubled society, there are always plenty of potential power centers that have been excluded from the existing order and its feeding trough, and are thus interested in backing a change that will give them the power they want and don’t have. In France before the Revolution, for example, there were plenty of wealthy middle-class people who were shut out of the political system by the aristocracy and the royal court, and the philosophes went out of their way to appeal to them and get their support—an easy job, since the philosophes and the nouveaux-riches shared similar backgrounds. That paid off handsomely once the crisis came.

In any society, troubled or not, there are also always pressure groups, plenty of them, that are interested in getting more access to the various goodies that power centers can dole out, and can be drawn into alliance with a rising protorevolutionary faction. The more completely the existing order of things has been delegitimized, the easier it is to build such alliances, and the alliances can in turn be used to feed the continuing process of delegitimization. Here again, as in the first stage of the process, violence is a hindrance rather than a help, and it’s best if the subject never even comes up for discussion; assembling the necessary network of alliances is much easier when nobody has yet had to face up to the tremendous risks involved in revolutionary violence.

By the time the endgame arrives, therefore, you’ve got an existing order that no longer commands the respect and loyalty of most of the population, and a substantial network of pressure groups and potential power centers supporting a revolutionary agenda. Once the situation reaches that stage, the question of how to arrange the transfer of power from the old regime to the new one is a matter of tactics, not strategy. Violence is only one of the available options, and again, it’s by no means always the most useful one. There are many ways to break the existing order’s last fingernail grip on the institutions of power, once that grip has been loosened by the steps already mentioned.

What happens, on the other hand, to groups that don’t do the necessary work first, and turn to violence anyway? Here again, history has plenty to say about that, and the short form is that they lose. Without the delegitimization of the existing order of society and the creation of networks of support among pressure groups and potential power centers, turning to political violence guarantees total failure.

For some reason, for most of the last century, the left has been unable or unwilling to learn that lesson. What’s happened instead, over and over again, is that a movement pursuing radical change starts out convinced that the existing order of society already lacks popular legitimacy, and so fails to make a case that appeals to anybody outside its own ranks. Having failed at the first step, it tries to pressure existing power centers and pressure groups into supporting its agenda, rather than building a competing network around its own agenda, and gets nowhere. Finally, having failed at both preliminary steps, it either crumples completely or engages in pointless outbursts of violence against the system, which are promptly and brutally crushed. Any of my readers who remember the dismal history of the New Left in the US during the 1960s and early 1970s already know this story, right down to the fine details.

With this in mind, let’s look at the ways in which the climate change movement has followed this same trajectory of abject failure over the last fifteen years or so.

The task of the climate change movement at the dawn of the twenty-first century was difficult but by no means impossible. Their ostensible goal was to create a consensus in the world’s industrial nations that would support the abandonment of fossil fuels and a transition to the less energy-intensive ways of living that renewable resources can provide. That would have required a good many well-off people to accept a decline in their standards of living, but that’s far from the insuperable obstacle so many people seem to think it must be. When Winston Churchill told the British people “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” his listeners roared their approval. For reasons that probably reach far into our evolutionary past, a call to shared sacrifice usually gets a rousing response, so long as the people who are being asked to sacrifice have reason to believe something worthwhile will come of it.

That, however, was precisely what the climate change movement was unable to provide. It’s harsh but not, I think, unfair to describe the real agenda of the movement as the attempt to create a future in which the industrial world’s middle classes could keep on enjoying the benefits of their privileged lifestyle without wrecking the atmosphere in the process. Of course it’s not exactly easy to convince everyone else in the world to put aside all their own aspirations for the sake of the already privileged, and so the spokespeople of the climate change movement generally didn’t talk about what they hoped to achieve. Instead, they fell into the most enduring bad habit of the left, and ranted instead about how awful the future would be if the rest of the world didn’t fall into line behind them.

On the off chance that any of my readers harbor revolutionary ambitions, may I offer a piece of helpful advice? If you want people to follow your lead, you have to tell them where you intend to take them. Talking exclusively about what’s going to happen if they don’t follow you will not cut it. Rehashing the same set of talking points about how everyone’s going to die if the whole world doesn’t rally around you emphatically will not cut it. The place where you’re leading them can be difficult and dangerous, the way there can be full of struggle, sacrifice and suffering, and they’ll still flock to your banner—in fact, young men will respond to that kind of future more enthusiastically than to any other, especially if you can lighten the journey with beer and the occasional barbecue—but you have to be willing to talk about your destination. You also have to remember that the phrase “shared sacrifice” includes the word “shared,” and not expect everyone else to give up something so that you don’t have to.

So the climate change movement entered the arena with one hand tied behind its back and the other hand hauling a heavy suitcase stuffed to the bursting point with middle class privilege. Its subsequent behavior did nothing to overcome that initial disadvantage. When the defenders of the existing order counterattacked, as of course they did, the climate change movement did nothing to retake the initiative and undermine its adversaries; preaching to the green choir took the place of any attempt to address the concerns of the wider public; over and over again, climate change activists allowed the other side to define the terms of the debate and then whined about the resulting defeat rather than learning anything from it. Of course the other side used every trick in the book, and then some; so? That’s how the game is played. Successful movements for change realize that, and plan accordingly.

We don’t even have to get into the abysmal failure of the climate change movement to seek out allies among the many pressure groups and potential power centers that might have backed it, if it had been able to win the first and most essential struggle in the arena of public opinion. The point I want to make is that at this point in the curve of failure, violence really is the last refuge of the incompetent. What, after all, would be the result if some of the middle class intellectuals who make up the core of the climate change movement were to pick up some guns, assemble the raw materials for a few bombs, and try to use violence to make their point? They might well kill some people before the FBI guns them down or hauls them off to life-plus terms in Leavenworth; they would very likely finish off climate change activism altogether, by making most Americans fear and distrust anyone who talks about it—but would their actions do the smallest thing to slow the dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the resulting climate chaos? Of course not.

What makes the failure of the climate change movement so telling is that during the same years that it peaked and crashed, another movement has successfully conducted a prerevolutionary campaign of the classic sort here in the US. While the green Left has been spinning its wheels and setting itself up for failure, the populist Right has carried out an extremely effective program of delegitimization aimed at the federal government and, even more critically, the institutions and values that support it. Over the last fifteen years or so, very largely as a result of that program, a great many Americans have gone from an ordinary, healthy distrust of politicians to a complete loss of faith in the entire American project. To a remarkable extent, the sort of rock-ribbed middle Americans who used to insist that of course the American political system is the best in the world are now convinced that the American political system is their enemy, and the enemy of everything they value.

The second stage of the prerevolutionary process, the weaving of a network of alliances with pressure groups and potential power centers, is also well under way. Watch which groups are making common cause with one another on the rightward fringes of society these days and you can see a competent revolutionary strategy at work. This isn’t something I find reassuring—quite the contrary, in fact; aside from my own admittedly unfashionable feelings of patriotism, one consistent feature of revolutions is that the government that comes into power after the shouting and the shooting stop is always more repressive than the one that was in power beforehand. Still, the way things are going, it seems likely to me that the US will see the collapse of its current system of government, probably accompanied with violent revolution or civil war, within a decade or two.

Meanwhile, as far as I can see, the climate change movement is effectively dead in its tracks, and we no longer have time to make something happen before the rising spiral of climate catastrophe begins—as my readers may have noticed, that’s already well under way. From here on in, it’s probably a safe bet that anthropogenic climate change will accelerate until it fulfills the prophecy of The Limits to Growth and forces the global industrial economy to its knees. Any attempt to bring human society back into some kind of balance with ecological reality will have to get going during and after that tremendous crisis. That requires playing a long game, but then that’s going to be required anyway, to do the things that the climate change movement failed to do, and do them right this time.

With that in mind, I’m going to be taking this blog in a slightly different direction next week, and for at least a few weeks to come. I’ve talked in previous posts about intentional technological regression as an option, not just for individuals but as a matter of public policy. I’ve also talked at quite some length about the role that narrative plays in helping to imagine alternative futures. With that in mind, I’ll be using the tools of fiction to suggest a future that zooms off at right angles to the expectations of both ends of the current political spectrum. Pack a suitcase, dear readers; your tickets will be waiting at the station. Next Wednesday evening, we’ll be climbing aboard a train for Retrotopia.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The War Against Change

Last week’s post explored the way that the Democratic party over the last four decades has abandoned any claim to offer voters a better future, and has settled for offering them a future that’s not quite as bad as the one the Republicans have in mind. That momentous shift can be described in many ways, but the most useful of them, to my mind, is one that I didn’t bring up last week: the Democrats have become America’s conservative party.

Yes, I know. That’s not something you’re supposed to say in today’s America, where “conservative” and “liberal” have become meaningless vocal sounds linked with the greedy demands of each party’s assortment of pressure groups and the plaintive cries of its own flotilla of captive constituencies. Still, back in the day when those words still meant something, “conservative” meant exactly what the word sounds like: a political stance that focuses on conserving some existing state of affairs, which liberals and radicals want to replace with some different state of affairs. Conservative politicians and parties—again, back when the word meant something—used to defend existing political arrangements against attempts to change them.

That’s exactly what the Democratic Party has been doing for decades now. What it’s trying to preserve, of course, is the welfare-state system of the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society programs of the 1960s—or, more precisely, the fragments of that system that still survive. That’s the status quo that the Democrats are attempting to hold in place. The consequences of that conservative mission are unfolding around us in any number of ways, but the one that comes to mind just now is the current status of presidential candidate Bernard Sanders as a lightning rod for an all too familiar delusion of the wing of the Democratic party that still considers itself to be on the left.

The reason Sanders comes to mind so readily just now is that last week’s post attracted an odd response from some of its readers. In the course of that post—which was not, by the way, on the subject of the American presidential race—I happened to mention three out of the twenty-odd candidates currently in the running. Somehow I didn’t get taken to task by supporters of Michael O’Malley, Ted Cruz, Jesse Ventura, or any of the other candidates I didn’t mention, with one exception: supporters of Sanders came out of the woodwork to denounce me for not discussing their candidate, as though he had some kind of inalienable right to air time in a blog post that, again, was not about the election.

I found the whole business a source of wry amusement, but it also made two points that are relevant to this week’s post. On the one hand, what makes Sanders’ talking points stand out among those of his rivals is that he isn’t simply talking about maintaining the status quo; his proposals include steps that would restore a few of the elements of the welfare state that have been dismantled over the last four decades. That’s the extent of his radicalism—and of course it speaks reams about the state of the Democratic party more generally that so modest, even timid, a proposal is fielding shrieks of outrage from the political establishment just now.

The second point, and to my mind the more interesting of the two, is the way that Sanders’ campaign has rekindled the same messianic fantasies that clustered around Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in their first presidential runs. I remember rather too clearly the vehement proclamations by diehard liberals in 1992 that putting Clinton in office would surely undo all the wrongs of the Reagan and Bush I eras; I hope none of my readers have forgotten the identical fantasies that gathered around Barack Obama in 2008. We can apparently expect another helping of them this time around, with Sanders as the beneficiary, and no doubt those of us who respond to them with anything short of blind enthusiasm will be denounced just as heatedly this time, too.

It bears remembering that despite those fantasies, Bill Clinton spent eight years in the White House following Ronald Reagan’s playbook nearly to the letter, and Barack Obama has so far spent his two terms doing a really inspired imitation of the third and fourth terms of George W. Bush. If by some combination of sheer luck and hard campaigning, Bernie Sanders becomes the next president of the United States, it’s a safe bet that the starry-eyed leftists who helped put him into office will once again get to spend four or eight years trying to pretend that their candidate isn’t busy betraying all of the overheated expectations that helped put him into office. As Karl Marx suggested in one of his essays, if history repeats itself, the first time is tragedy but the second is generally farce; he didn’t mention what the third time around was like, but we may just get to find out.

The fact that this particular fantasy has so tight a grip on the imagination of the Democratic party’s leftward wing is also worth studying. There are many ways that a faction whose interests are being ignored by the rest of its party, and by the political system in general, can change that state of affairs. Unquestioning faith that this or that leader will do the job for them is not generally a useful strategy under such conditions, though, especially when that faith takes the place of any more practical activity. History has some very unwelcome things to say, for that matter, about the dream of political salvation by some great leader; so far it seems limited to certain groups on the notional left of the electorate, but if it spreads more widely, we could be looking at the first stirrings of the passions and fantasies that could bring about a new American fascism.

Meanwhile, just as the Democratic party in recent decades has morphed into America’s conservative party, the Republicans have become its progressive party. That’s another thing you’re not supposed to say in today’s America, because of the bizarre paralogic that surrounds the concept of progress in our collective discourse. What the word “progress” means, as I hope at least some of my readers happen to remember, is continuing further in the direction we’re already going—and that’s all it means. To most Americans today, though, the actual meaning of the word has long since been obscured behind a burden of vague emotion that treats “progressive” as a synonym for “good.” Notice that this implies the very odd belief that the direction in which we’re going is good, and can never be anything other than good.

For the last forty years, mind you, America has been moving steadily along an easily defined trajectory. We’ve moved step by step toward more political and economic inequality, more political corruption, more impoverishment for those outside the narrowing circles of wealth and privilege, more malign neglect toward the national infrastructure, and more environmental disruption, along with a steady decline in literacy and a rolling collapse in public health, among other grim trends. These are the ways in which we’ve been progressing, and that’s the sense in which the GOP counts as America’s current progressive party: the policies being proposed by GOP candidates will push those same changes even further than they’ve already gone, resulting in more inequality, corruption, impoverishment, and so on.

So the 2016 election is shaping up to be a contest between one set of candidates who basically want to maintain the wretchedly unsatisfactory conditions facing the American people today, and another set who want to make those conditions worse, with one outlier on the Democratic side who says he wants to turn the clock back to 1976 or so, and one outlier on the Republican side who apparently wants to fast forward things to the era of charismatic dictators we can probably expect in the not too distant future. It’s not too hard to see why so many people looking at this spectacle aren’t exactly seized with enthusiasm for any of the options being presented to them by the existing political order.

The question that interests me most about all this is the one I tried to raise last week—why, in the face of so many obvious dysfunctions, are so many people in and out of the political arena frozen into a set of beliefs that convince them that the only possibilities available to us involve either staying exactly where we are or going further along the route that’s landed us in this mess? No doubt a good many things have contributed to that bizarre mental fixation, but there’s one factor that may not have received the attention it deserves: the remarkable dominance of a particular narrative in the most imaginative fiction and mass media of our time. As far as I know, nobody’s given that narrative a name yet, so I’ll exercise that prerogative and call it The War Against Change.

You know that story inside and out. There’s a place called Middle-Earth, or the Hogwarts School of Wizardry, or what have you—the name doesn’t matter, the story’s the same in every case. All of a sudden this place is threatened by an evil being named Sauron, or Voldemort, or—well, you can fill in the blanks for yourself. Did I mention that this evil being is evil? Yes, in fact, he’s evilly evil out of sheer evil evilness, without any motive other than the one just named.  What that evilness amounts to in practice, though, is that he wants to change things. Of course the change is inevitably portrayed in the worst possible light, but what it usually comes down to is that the people who currently run things will lose their positions of power, and will be replaced by the bad guy and his minions—any resemblance to the rhetoric surrounding US presidential elections is doubtless coincidental.

But wait!  Before the bad guy and his evil minions can change things, a plucky band of heroes goes swinging into action to stop his evil scheme, and of course they succeed in the nick of time. The bad guy gets the stuffing pounded out of him, the people who are supposed to run things keep running things, everything settles down just the way it was before he showed up. Change is stopped in its tracks, and all of the characters who matter breathe a big sigh of relief and live happily ever after, or until filming starts on the sequel, take your pick.

Now of course that’s a very simplified version of The War Against Change. In the hands of a really capable author, and we’ll get to one of those in a minute, that story can quite readily yield great literature. Even so, it’s a very curious sort of narrative to be as popular as it is, especially for a society that claims to be in love with change and novelty. The War Against Change takes place in a world in which everything’s going along just the way things are supposed to be.  The bad guy shows up and tries to change things, he gets clobbered by the good guys, and then everything goes on just the way it was. Are there, ahem, problems with the way things are run? Might changing things be a good idea, if the right things are changed?  Does the bad guy and his evil minions possibly even have motives other than sheer evilly evil evilness for wanting to change things?  That’s not part of the narrative. At most, one or more of the individuals who are running things may be problematic, and have to be pushed aside by our plucky band of heroes so they can get on with the business of bashing the bad guy.

It happens now and then, in fact, that authors telling the story of The War Against Change go out of their way to make fun of the possibility that anyone might reasonably object to the established order of things. Did anyone else among my readers feel vaguely sick while reading the Harry Potter saga, when they encountered Rowling’s rather shrill mockery of Hermione whatsername’s campaign on behalf of the house elves? To me, at least, it was rather too reminiscent of “No, no, our darkies love their Massa!”

That’s actually a side issue, though. The core of the narrative is that the goal of the good guys, the goal that defines them as good guys, is to make sure that nothing changes. That becomes a source of tremendous if unintentional irony in the kind of imaginative fiction that brings imagery from mythology and legend into a contemporary setting. I’m thinking here, as one example out of many, of a series of five children’s novels—The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper—the first four of which were among the delights of my childhood. You have two groups of magical beings, the Light and the Dark—yes, it’s pretty Manichean—who are duking it out in present-day Britain.

The Dark, as you’ve all probably figured out already, is trying to change things, and the Light is doing the plucky hero routine and trying to stop them. That’s all the Light does; it doesn’t, heaven help us, do anything about the many other things that a bunch of magical beings might conceivably want to fix in 1970s Britain. The Light has no agenda of its own at all; it’s there to stop the Dark from changing things, and that’s it. Mind you, the stories are packed full of splendid, magical stuff, the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to win the heart and feed the imagination of any child stuck in the dark heart of American suburbia, as I was at the time.

Then came the fifth book, Silver on the Tree, which was published in 1977.  The Light and the Dark finally had their ultimate cataclysmic showdown, the Dark is prevented from changing things...and once that’s settled, the Light packs its bags and heads off into the sunset, leaving the protagonists sitting there in present-day Britain with all the magic gone for good. I loathed the book. So did a lot of other people—I’ve never yet heard it discussed without terms like “wretchedly disappointing” being bandied around—but I suspect the miserable ending was inescapable, given the frame into which the story had already been fixed. Cooper had committed herself to telling the story of The War Against Change, and it was probably impossible for her to imagine any other ending.

 Now of course there’s a reason why this particular narrative took on so overwhelming a role in the imaginative fiction and media of the late twentieth century, and that reason is the force of nature known as J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m by no means sure how many of my readers who weren’t alive in the 1960s and 1970s have any idea how immense an impact Tolkien’s sprawling trilogy The Lord of the Rings had on the popular imagination of that era, at a time when buttons saying "Frodo Lives!" and "Go Go Gandalf" were everywhere and every reasonably hip bookstore sold posters with the vaguely psychedelic front cover art of the first Ballantine paperback edition of The Fellowship of the Ring. In the formative years of the Boomer generation, Tolkien’s was a name to conjure with.

What makes this really odd, all things considered, is that Tolkien himself was a political reactionary who opposed nearly everything his youthful fans supported. The Boomers who were out there trying to change the system in the Sixties were simultaneously glorifying a novel that celebrates war, monarchy, feudal hierarchy, and traditional gender roles, and includes an irritable swipe at the social welfare program of post-World War Two Britain—that’s what Lotho Sackville-Baggins’ government of the Shire amounts to, with its “gatherers” and “sharers.” When Tolkien put together his grand epic of The War Against Change, he knew exactly what he was doing; when the youth culture of the Sixties adopted him as their patron saint—much to his horror, by the way—I’m not at all sure the same thing could be said about them.

What sets The Lord of the Rings apart from common or garden variety versions of The War Against Change, in fact, is precisely Tolkien’s own remarkably clear understanding of what he was trying to do, and how that strategy tends to play out in the real world. The Lord of the Rings gets much of its power and pathos precisely because its heroes fought The War Against Change knowing that even if they won, they would lose; the best they could do is put a brake on the pace of change and keep the last dim legacies of the Elder Days for a little longer before they faded away forever. Tolkien nourished his literary sense on Beowulf and the Norse sagas, with their brooding sense of doom’s inevitability, and on traditional Christian theology, with its promise of hope beyond the circles of the world, and managed to play these two against each other brilliantly—but then Tolkien, as a reactionary, understood what it was like to keep fighting for something even though he knew that the entire momentum of history was against him.

Does all this seem galaxies away from the crass political realities with which this week’s post began? Think again, dear reader. Listen to the rhetoric of the candidates as they scramble for their party’s nomination—well, except for Hillary Clinton, who’s too busy declaiming “I am so ready to lead!” at the nearest available mirror—and you’ll hear The War Against Change endlessly rehashed. What do the Republican candidates promise? Why, to save America from the evil Democrats, who want to change things. What do the Democratic candidates promise? To save America from the evil Republicans, ditto. Pick a pressure group, any pressure group, and the further in from the fringes they are, the more likely they are to frame their rhetoric in terms of The War Against Change, too.

I’ve noted before, for that matter, the weird divergence between the eagerness of the mainstream to talk about anthropogenic global warming and their utter unwillingness to talk about peak oil and other forms of resource depletion. There are several massive factors behind that, but I’ve come to think that one of the most important is that you can frame the climate change narrative in terms of The War Against Change—we must keep the evil polluters from changing things!—but you can’t do that with peak oil. The end of the age of cheap abundant energy means that things have to change, not because the motiveless malignity of some cackling villain would have it so, but because the world no longer contains the resources that would be needed to keep things going the way they’ve gone so far.

That said, if it’s going to be necessary to change things—and it is—then it’s time to start thinking about options for the future that don’t consist of maintaining a miserably unsatisfactory status quo or continuing along a trajectory that’s clearly headed toward something even worse. The first step in making change is imagining change, and the first step in imagining change is recognizing that “more of the same” isn’t going to cut it. Next week, I plan on taking some of the ideas I’ve floated here in recent months, and putting them together in a deliberately unconventional way.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Suicide of the American Left

Regular readers of this blog know that I generally avoid partisan politics in the essays posted here. There are several reasons for that unpopular habit, but the most important of them is that we don’t actually have partisan politics in today’s America, except in a purely nominal sense. It’s true that politicians by and large group themselves into one of two parties, which make a great show of their rivalry on a narrow range of issues. Get past the handful of culture-war hot buttons that give them their favorite opportunities for grandstanding, though, and you’ll find an ironclad consensus, especially on those issues that have the most to say about the future of the United States and the world.

It’s popular on the disaffected fringes of both parties to insist that the consensus in question comes solely from the other side; dissident Democrats claim that Democratic politicians have basically adopted the GOP platform, while disgruntled Republicans claim that their politicians have capitulated to the Democratic agenda. Neither of these claims, as it happens, are true. Back when the two parties still stood for something, for example, Democrats in Congress could be counted on to back organized labor and family farmers against their corporate adversaries and to fight attempts on the part of bankers to get back into the speculation business, while their opposite numbers in the GOP were ferocious in their opposition to military adventurism overseas and government expansion at home.

Nowadays? The Democrats long ago threw their former core constituencies under the bus and ditched the Depression-era legislation that stopped kleptocratic bankers from running the economy into the ground, while the Republicans decided that they’d never met a foreign entanglement or a government handout they didn’t like—unless, of course, the latter benefited the poor.  An ever more intrusive and metastatic bureaucratic state funneling trillions to corrupt corporate interests, an economic policy made up primarily of dishonest statistics and money-printing operations, and a monomaniacally interventionist foreign policy: that’s the bipartisan political consensus in Washington DC these days, and it’s a consensus that not all that long ago would have been rejected with volcanic fury by both parties if anyone had been so foolish as to suggest it.

The gap between the current Washington consensus and the former ideals of the nation’s political parties, not to mention the wishes of the people on whose sovereign will the whole system is supposed to depend, has attracted an increasing amount of attention in recent years. That’s driven quite a bit of debate, and no shortage of fingerpointing, about the origins and purposes of the policies that are welded into place in US politics these days. On the left, the most popular candidates just now for the position of villainous influence behind it all mostly come from the banking industry; on the right, the field is somewhat more diverse; and there’s no shortage of options from further afield.

Though I know it won’t satisfy those with a taste for conspiracy theory, I’d like to suggest a simpler explanation. The political consensus in Washington DC these days can best be characterized as an increasingly frantic attempt, using increasingly risky means, to maintain business as usual for the political class at a time when “business as usual” in any sense of that phrase is long past its pull date. This, in turn, is largely the product of the increasingly bleak corner into which past policies have backed this country, but it’s also in part the result of a massively important but mostly unrecognized turn of events: by and large, neither the contemporary US political class nor anyone else with a significant presence in American public life seems to be able to imagine a future that differs in any meaningful way from what we’ve got right now.

I’d like to take a moment here to look at that last point from a different angle, with the assistance of that tawdry quadrennial three-ring circus now under way, which will sooner or later select the next inmate for the White House. For anyone who enjoys the spectacle of florid political dysfunction, the 2016 presidential race promises to be the last word in target-rich environments. The Republican party in particular has flung itself with creditable enthusiasm into the task of taking my circus metaphor as literally as possible—what, after all, does the GOP resemble just at the moment, if not one of those little cars that roll out under the big top and fling open the doors, so that one clown after another can come tumbling out into the limelight?

They’ve already graced the electoral big top with a first-rate collection of clowns, too. There’s Donald Trump, whose campaign is shaping up to be the loudest invocation of pure uninhibited fΓΌhrerprinzip since, oh, 1933 or so; there’s Scott Walker, whose attitudes toward working Americans suggest that he’d be quite happy to sign legislation legalizing slavery if his rich friends asked him for it; there’s—well, here again, “target-rich environment” is the phrase that comes forcefully to mind. The only people who have to be sweating just now, other than ordinary Americans trying to imagine any of the current round of GOP candidates as the titular leader of their country, are gag writers for satiric periodicals such as The Onion, who have to go to work each day and face the brutally unforgiving task of coming up with something more absurd than the press releases and public statements of the candidates in question.

Still, I’m going to leave those tempting possibilities alone for the moment, and focus on a much more dreary figure, since she and her campaign offer a useful glimpse at the yawning void beneath what’s left of the American political system. Yes, that would be Hillary Clinton, the officially anointed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that she’ll lose this campaign the way she lost the 2008 race, and for the same reason: neither she nor her handlers seem to have noticed that she’s got to offer the American people some reason to want to vote for her.

In a way, Clinton is the most honest of the current crop of presidential candidates, though this is less a matter of personal integrity than of sheer inattention. I frankly doubt that the other candidates have a single noble motive for seeking office among them, but they have at least realized that they have to go through the motions of having convictions and pursuing policies they think are right. Clinton and her advisers apparently didn’t get that memo, and as a result, she’s not even going through the motions. Her campaign basically consists of posing for the cameras, dodging substantive questions, uttering an assortment of vague sound bites to encourage the rich friends who are backing her, and making plans for her inauguration, as though there wasn’t an election to get through first.

Still, there’s more going on here than the sheer incompetence of a campaign that hasn’t yet noticed that a sense of entitlement isn’t a qualification for office. The deeper issue that will doom the Clinton candidacy can be phrased as a simple question: does anyone actually believe for a moment that electing Hillary Clinton president will change anything that matters?

Those other candidates who are getting less tepid responses from the voters than Clinton are doing so precisely because a significant number of voters think that electing one of them will actually change something. The voters in question are wrong, of course. Barack Obama is the wave of the future here as elsewhere; after his monumentally cynical 2008 campaign, which swept him into office on a torrent of vacuous sound bites about hope and change, he proceeded to carry out exactly the same domestic and foreign policies we’d have gotten had George W. Bush served two more terms. Equally, whoever wins the 2016 election will keep those same policies in place, because those are the policies that have the unanimous support of the political class; it’s just that everybody but Clinton will do their level best to pretend that they’re going to do something else, as Obama did, until the day after the election.

Those policies will be kept in place, in turn, because any other choice would risk pulling the plug on a failing system. I’m not at all sure how many people outside the US have any idea just how frail and brittle the world’s so-called sole hyperpower is just at this moment. To borrow a point made trenchantly some years back by my fellow blogger Dmitry Orlov, the US resembles nothing so much as the Soviet Union in the years just before the Berlin Wall came down: a grandiose international presence, backed by a baroque military arsenal and an increasingly shrill triumphalist ideology, perched uneasily atop a hollow shell of a society that has long since tipped over the brink into economic and cultural freefall.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor any of the other candidates in the running for the 2016 election will change anything that matters, in turn, because any change that isn’t strictly cosmetic risks bringing the entire tumbledown, jerry-rigged structure of American political and economic power crashing down around everyone’s ears. That’s why, to switch examples, Barack Obama a few days ago brought out with maximum fanfare a new energy policy that consists of doing pretty much what his administration has been doing for the last six years already, as though doing what you’ve always done and expecting a different result wasn’t a good functional definition of insanity. Any other approach to energy and climate change, or any of a hundred other issues, risks triggering a crisis that the United States can’t survive in its current form—and the fact that such a crisis is going to happen sooner or later anyway just adds spice to the bubbling pot.

The one thing that can reliably bring a nation through a time of troubles of the sort we’re facing is a vision of a different future, one that appeals to enough people to inspire them to unite their energies with those of the nation’s official leadership, and put up with the difficulties of the transition. That’s what got the United States through its three previous existential crises: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. In each case, when an insupportable status quo finally shattered, enough of the nation united around a charismatic leader, and a vision of a future that was different from the present, to pull some semblance of a national community through the chaos.

We don’t have such a vision in American politics now. To an astonishing degree, in fact, American culture has lost the ability to imagine any future that isn’t simply an endless rehash of the present—other, that is, than the perennially popular fantasy of apocalyptic annihilation, with or without the salvation of a privileged minority via Rapture, Singularity, or what have you. That’s a remarkable change for a society that not so long ago was brimming with visionary tomorrows that differed radically from the existing order of things. It’s especially remarkable in that the leftward end of the American political spectrum, the end that’s nominally tasked with the job of coming up with new visions, has spent the last forty years at the forefront of the flight from alternative futures.

I’m thinking here, as one example out of many, of an event I attended a while back, put together by one of the longtime names of the American left, and featuring an all-star cast of equally big names in what passes for environmentalism and political radicalism these days. With very few exceptions, every one of the speakers put their time on the podium into vivid descriptions of the villainy of the designated villains and all the villainous things they were going to do unless they were stopped. It was pretty grueling; at the end of the first full day, going up the stairs to the street level, I watched as a woman turned to a friend and said, “Well, that just about makes me want to go out and throw myself off a bridge”—and neither the friend nor anybody else argued. 

Let’s take a closer look, though, at the strategy behind the event. Was there, at this event, any real discussion of how to stop the villains in question, other than a rehash of proposals that have failed over and over again for the last four decades? Not that I heard. Did anyone offer some prospect other than maintaining the status quo endlessly against the attempts of the designated villains to make things worse? Not only was there nothing of the kind, I heard backchannel from more than one participant that the organizer had a long history of discouraging anybody at his events from offering the least shred of that sort of hope.

Dismal as it was, the event was worth attending, as it conducted an exact if unintentional autopsy of the corpse of the American left, and made the cause of death almost impossible to ignore. At the dawn of the Reagan era, to be specific, most of the movements in this country that used to push for specific goals on the leftward end of things stopped doing so, and redefined themselves in wholly reactive and negative terms: instead of trying to enact their own policies, they refocused entirely on trying to stop the enactment of opposing policies by the other side. By and large, they’re still at it, even though the results have amounted to four decades of nearly unbroken failure, and the few successes—such as the legalization of same-sex marriage—were won by pressure groups unconnected to, and usually  unsupported by, the professional activists of the official left.

There are at least two reasons why a strategy of pure reaction, without any coherent attempt to advance an agenda of its own or even a clear idea of what that agenda might be, has been a fruitful source of humiliation and defeat for the American left. The first is that this approach violates one of the most basic rules of strategy: you win when you seize the initiative and force the other side to respond to your actions, and you lose by passively responding to whatever the other side comes up with. In any contest, without exception, if you surrender the initiative and let the other side set the terms of the conflict, you’re begging to be beaten, and will normally get your wish in short order.

That in itself is bad enough. A movement that defines itself in purely negative terms, though, and attempts solely to prevent someone else’s agenda from being enacted rather than pursuing a concrete agenda of its own, suffers from another massive problem: the best such a movement can hope for is a continuation of the status quo, because the only choice it offers is the one between business as usual and something worse. That’s fine if most people are satisfied with the way things are, and are willing to fling themselves into the struggle for the sake of a set of political, economic, and social arrangements that they consider worth fighting for.

I’m not sure why so many people on the leftward end of American politics haven’t noticed that this is not the case today. One hypothesis that comes to mind is that by and large, the leftward end of the American political landscape is dominated by middle class and upper middle class white people from the comparatively prosperous coastal states. Many of them belong to the upper 20% by income of the American population, and the rest aren’t far below that threshold. The grand bargain of the Reagan years, by which the middle classes bought a guarantee of their wealth and privilege by letting their former allies in the working classes get thrown under the bus, has profited them hugely, and holding onto what they gained by that maneuver doubtless ranks high on their unstated list of motives—much higher, certainly, than pushing for a different future that might put their privileges in jeopardy.

The other major power bloc that supports the American left these days offers an interesting lesson in the power of positive goals. That bloc is made up of certain relatively disadvantaged ethnic groups, above all the African-American community. The Democratic party has been able to hold the loyalty of most African-Americans through decades of equivocation, meaningless gestures, and outright betrayal, precisely because it can offer them a specific vision of a better future: that is, a future in which Americans of African ancestry get treated just like white folk. No doubt it’ll sink in one of these days that the Democratic party has zero interest in actually seeing that future arrive—if that happened, after all, it would lose one of the most reliable of its captive constituencies—but until that day arrives, the loyalty of the African-American community to a party that offers them precious little but promises is a testimony to the power of a positive vision for the future.

That’s something that the Democratic party doesn’t seem to be able to offer anyone else in America, though. Even on paper, what have the last half dozen or so Democratic candidates for president offered? Setting aside crassly manipulative sound bites of the “hope and change” variety, it’s all been attempts to keep things going the way they’ve been going, bracketed with lurid threats about the GOP’s evil plans to make things so much worse. That’s why, for example, the Democratic party has been eager to leap on climate change as a campaign issue, even though their performance in office on that issue is indistinguishable from that of the Republicans they claim to oppose: it’s easy to frame climate change as a conflict between keeping things the way they are and making them much worse, and that’s basically the only tune the American left knows how to play these days.

The difficulty, of course, is that after forty years of repeated and humiliating failure, the Democrats and the other leftward movements in American political life are caught in a brutal vise of their own making. On the one hand, very few people actually believe any more that the left is capable of preventing things from getting worse. There’s good reason for that lack of faith, since a great many things have been getting steadily worse for the majority of Americans since the 1970s, and the assorted technological trinkets and distractions that have become available since then don’t do much to make up for the absence of stable jobs with decent wages, functioning infrastructure, affordable health care, and all the other amenities that have gone gurgling down the nation’s drain since then.

Yet there’s another factor, of course, as hinted above. If the best you can offer the voters is a choice between what they have now and something worse, and what they have now is already pretty wretched, you’re not likely to get much traction. That’s the deeper issue behind the unenthusiastic popular response to Hillary Clinton’s antics, and I’d like to suggest it’s also what’s behind Donald Trump’s success in the polls—no matter how awful a president he’d be, the logic seems to run, at least he’d be different. When a nation reaches that degree of impatience with a status quo no one with access to power is willing to consider changing, an explosion is not far away.