Failed state, culture, civilization?

It feels like I am running out of genuinely new things to add about the corrosive storm engulfing us. Eric Sandy and I seem, largely independently, to be getting a stronger and stronger sense that “The brakes are cut, everybody. There is no exit ramp.”

At a guess, it seems to be staring us all in the face that the President of the United States already fully intends to pursue some kind of power play which might turn out like the beer hall putsch, or might turn out like the Reichstag fire, but is quite openly his intent.

But our systems don’t really seem to know how to handle that so mostly it’s all proceeding as it would anyway.

It’s better than nothing, certainly, that people like Greg Sargent and James Fallows have recently made clear, powerful statements that US journalism is still allowing Trump to exploit its failings as effectively as four years ago. But, realistically, the accuracy of the critique is, at this point, also a convincing argument against expecting that failure to change suddenly within the next couple of months.

I don’t think journalism is really unique in this regard, either. I’m reminded of Robert X. Cringely‘s proposal years ago that in a crisis, institutions do the same thing they do at other times, just more so.

All these years later I think I can not only affirm the truth of that, but also expand on it. It seems very likely to me that a great deal of conventional thinking about how our social systems work is myth, particularly the expectation that people or institutions generally respond to new conditions.

So much of our culture is so manifestly unfit for purpose, yet it just… goes on anyway, and indeed even as its organs fail and limbs fall off, it sustains active and strong resistance to changing its ways.

Is that an American problem, or is it a human civilization problem?

Clearly, America is performing very badly by lots of objective measures. Nearly every other state is better handling the COVID-19 pandemic, congratulations, good show.

But a lot of the world’s population is not doing a whole lot better. Think of the world’s other large states: China, Russia, Brazil, India, e.g., all with their own severe problems of corruption and toxic culture, figuratively and literally. Even Europe seems largely powerless to halt the slide of various member states toward corrupt autocracy. Meanwhile basically all of industrial civilization is disastrously failing on measures of sustainability. As far as I know, no major economy is on course to meet its carbon commitments, which are themselves inadequate to prevent the disaster now unfolding.

I wonder more and more how much contemporary industrial civilization could simply be the greatest economic bubble in human history. Why not? There’s no evidence that modern civilization will give up fossil fuel combustion before catastrophe. In the big picture, modern “Western” civilization’s roots don’t really go back much more than maybe 500 years. In that time, it spread out from the western fringe of Eurasia to dominate the planet, but this is hardly long enough to take for granted that it’s built to last. Ancient Egyptian civilization endured for millennia, and still decayed in the end.

Compared to that standard, modern industrial civilization has not even gotten out of beta testing yet. So much of what we take for granted as indispensable components of social organization has only existed for a very short time. Prime example: the job. As the late Jane Jacobs helped crystalize for me, “jobs” are treated as just about the whole raison d’être of the modern world’s richest and most powerful nation, and most of the other developed world to a great extent. Yet this is quite a new concept. Even a couple of hundred years ago, our idea of “a job” was only a small piece of socioeconomic organizing. Most of the population produced sustenance for themselves, in the agricultural economy. Most of the remainder were artisans or tradesmen; the status of “working for someone” other than the public at-large was what apprentices did, but ultimately once one learned one’s business one graduated from the status of “employee.” (The very term “employee” is a relatively quite recent addition to the English lexicon if I’m not mistaken.)

Thinking about things like this seems to challenge even the basic concepts of progressive and conservative. This critique could appear conservative, in questioning how rapidly humanity has staked everything on new and little-tested systems. But objections to how calcified these systems seem to have already become would seem more progressive. Objections to the extent that this monoculture has choked off most alternatives for social organizing—whether traditional or innovative—seems like it transcends either category.

I don’t know. I have gotten some things wrong, certainly, over the years. But I’m not sure that since reaching adulthood I have had occasion to conclude that my general sense of society’s trend lines, and what works and doesn’t work, has been completely off. Certainly I have been usually pessimistic about this country’s dysfunction since the early 00s and nothing, absolutely nothing, right now causes me to feel like my basic judgment was really off.

Whatever I ought to do about that, I still think that adapting expectations needs to be a primary element.

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