Going off the grid

I struggle to process the emergence from the left of messages like: “Government doesn’t work. Abolish coercive enforcement by the state. Rely only on yourself and local, privately organized charitable systems.”

Of course, there are a lot of things I didn’t specifically anticipate, such as people freezing to death in Texas, yet here we are.

More generally, all of this is entirely in line with the dismal trends I have seen and bemoaned for so long. The trail of news stories and reports documenting the decay of America’s physical infrastructure goes back many years. I have written ad nauseam about the corresponding decay of political infrastructure, especially the corrupt sham Republican Party which in Texas “seceded” from the rest of the country’s electricity grids, and is now busy lying about the consequences. The “horseshoe theory” convergence of some left-originating rhetoric with rightwing libertarianism is strange in detail, but the broad collapse in social trust has been more and more on my mind.

Somewhere around here I have a scrap of paper on which I scrawled something like “the collapse is going to accelerate,” a few months ago. So, uh, yeah.

I feel like the implosion of social trust in America is massively out of proportion to the tiny amount of conversation about it, even among cultural critics and other obsessives. Politics generally is much less dumbfounding when one considers this factor, as are things like badly missed election forecasts, as well as rejection of contact tracing, vaccines, etc.

The prospects for reforming American systems, and changing course away from nightmare failed state toward modern functioning society, are bad enough from a mechanical perspective. It really just doesn’t seem possible for the machinery to perform that operation at all, at this point, without some kind of miracle. But if you consider how spreading distrust combines with corroded systems in a reinforcing cycle, that isn’t good news, really.

Three years ago I pasted the following lines, from a Vox article, into one of my many e-notebooks (hilariously it was the one about solutions).

After 2024 or so, it will get really hard to do anything meaningful. In fact, I think the choices might become so difficult that even fairly good people will get wrapped up in short-term self-interest.

So if we unseat the boomers from Congress, from state legislatures, and certainly from the presidency over the next three to seven years, then I think we can undo the damage. But that will require a much higher tax rate and a degree of social solidarity that the country hasn’t seen in over 50 years.

Bruce Gibney, author of A Generation of Sociopaths

We’re now halfway to the “really hard to do anything meaningful” point which Bruce Gibney warned of, and the trend is plainly running away from social solidarity.

In some ways the emergence of the corrosion within the political left might be the most dire indicator. In recent months I have been thinking that progressives need to confront the corrosion of social trust, and adjust our paradigms; it seems like the popularity of progressive ideas is missing important context that even people who like those ideas are increasingly reluctant to trust anyone with the power to implement them. As of this week, though, it feels like this confrontation is playing out but in an inside-out fashion.

One might usefully summarize a lot of contemporary argument about political philosophy as a contest between organizing to create Medicare for All, or organizing a GoFundMe. At one end, a big difficult collective action problem with the promise of utopia, achieved through traditional political and state institutions; at the other end, immediate but temporary relief for whoever can win the heartstrings lottery organized by a privately run internet platform.

Right now, it feels like GoFundMe is kicking Medicare for All’s ass in this contest, and like this is the prelude to our Thunderdome future.

(As an aside, even before this latest disaster someone posted to Twitter, a week ago, that “the CEO of GoFundMe wrote an op/ed saying we are in a major crisis.”)

There’s a weird and large schizophrenia, as a lot of the “fuck it, government has failed, we will just organize mutual aid on our own” voices seem to overlap with the voices demanding Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, socialism, etc. This takes various forms, with some proposing “I hope this crisis may lead to a Green New Deal or at least some kind of infrastructure renewal program.” But I perceive a growing emphasis on private mutual aid and resilience, some times explicitly accompanied by rejection of the traditional political process.

This isn’t entirely shocking or mystifying, and while processing it is as noted a struggle, I believe I could make progress. But as a simplified interpretation, it seems like many who were declaring five years ago that “it’s either socialism or barbarism” have concluded “eh barbarism it is, then, on to organizing our anarcho-syndicalist cyber-tribe.” If the power grid fails, just go off-grid. It would not surprise me in the least if plenty of people responded “yes exactly.”

This doesn’t work, however, remains my own belief.

Hannah Lebovits, even while personally living through the breakdown of essential services in Texas, writes very clearly and firmly that “internal communal systems cannot be relied on as a disaster preparedness plan.”

Unfortunately, I cannot honestly tell people at this point that America’s broken political system can be relied upon as a disaster preparedness plan, either, or that there are good prospects of fixing that system within it.

3 Thoughts on “Going off the grid

  1. I think your last two sentences here get to the heart of my position… and general sense of fear right now. Because we can’t rely on the government for disaster preparedness or that there’s any chance of that being correcting any time soon, we have to do as much individually-focused preparedness just for our own safety. But who, on their own, can be sufficiently prepared for an earthquake, tornado, or an extended sub-zero snowstorm? That’s when/where government is supposed to step in: to provide security and safety for things that are too big for an individual — or even a small group of individuals — to handle alone.

    I can vote in candidates who don’t try to flee the country when things get tough, and I can talk to my representatives to try to bring concerns to their attention, but it’s a ship that does NOT turn quickly. So I do what I can to mitigate how bad a disaster might impact me — I can have extra stores of water, food, etc. — and I can only hope that the disaster itself isn’t too much more than I can personally handle.

    Reminds me a little of the 1980s, where the threat of nuclear annihilation was always hovering in the background and there was effectively nothing I could do to change it, so it just remained a nagging fear in the back of my head for a solid decade. The fear isn’t quite as bad for me now, since I have greater autonomy and more resources to address some of my concerns, but that sense of nihilistic inevitability is sitting there once again.

    • Yep yep yep good times good times. It just doesn’t seem like anything is capable right now of disrupting the cycle of systemic failures >>> more people turning on or away from the system >>> a more tattered system >>> additional systemic failures.


  2. Pingback: America’s Politics Not Fit for Purpose | Matt Kuhns

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