Are we getting ready for what’s to come?
Revolution is such a radical word: It’s filled with images of upheaval and violence. Are revolutions just burned into our DNA, results of the “trousered ape” that seems to lurk within? Are revolutions even necessary, especially now with our advanced technologies and globalized economy?
According to National Geographic, “a revolution is a radical change in the established order, usually the established government and social institutions.” Aristotle thought revolutions had “…a number of causes and conditions” linked to “the desire for equality and honor.” Plato understood revolutions as being rooted in “social decay”. He “believed that revolutions occur when institutions, such as the Church or the State, fail to instill in society a system of values and a code of ethics that prevent upheaval.”
I think Plato got it right: Revolutions are rooted in social decay.
In a recent article by David Brooks, the author outlines the pathologies of social decay when he writes: “Over the past 50 years… membership in civic organizations has collapsed, political polarization has worsened, income inequality has widened, social trust has cratered, religious attendance is down, social mobility has decreased, depths of despair have skyrocketed and on and on.” Most will recognize these as signs of our times.
There are many symptoms of social decay. But the future is not written in stone: It is a matter of what we chose to do. In other words, social upheaval will come; it’s a question of whether we’re prepared for it. Being indifferent, or rationalizing it away (we’ll find an answer) is, however, dangerous. The roots of our problems are deep, and believing we’ll come-up with some sort of technical solution is simply magical thinking. We need much more than a new and improved version of Round-Up.
Becoming aware of the nature of the problems we face is the first step. During a recent trip to Michigan’s Lake Charlevoix area, I became a bit more aware of the manifestations of social decay.
“Workin’ Hard, Playin’ Hard” — Ted Nugent
For many, being American means working to take time-off. For these folks, the American dream is defined by hard work, toys and paid time-off to play. Even if one starts his or her own businesses, and doesn’t benefit from PTO, the person has faith hard work will someday pay-off. And when one is working all the time, and can’t see his or her family, taking time off on the weekends, and especially during the summer, is how one makes-up for lost time.
I’ve spent most of my adult life in Michigan; I grew-up in Metro Detroit and was privileged to have parents who made it possible for us to take family vacations. Over the last sixty odd years, I’ve made countless trips to Michigan’s northern lower and upper peninsulas (UP). I’ve seen, particularly in the UP, how the ups and downs of Michigan’s economy affected businesses and real estate value in Michigan’s vacation lands.
My most recent trip to the area around Lake Charlevoix was an eye-opener. I was amazed at the development that’s gone-on in the region, and the extent to which relatively small towns, such as Boyne City, have been transformed into havens for those who can afford to just get away. There are countless boutiques selling “Live, Laugh and Love” signs. If one needs a golf shirt with the words, “Lake Charlevoix” embroidered over the right breast, there’s sure to be one at any number of shops with names like, “Dew Drop In.” Boyne City may have more bottles of wine, and glasses decorated with catchy sayings from which to drink it, than in all of Paris. And of course, there are the toys.
There’s a saying that applies here: “The one with the most toys wins.” And to haul the toys Up North – the boats, trailers and various other wheeled vehicles –takes a lot of horsepower and towing capacity. In some cases, this means a heavy-duty pickup truck that’s exempt from at least some of the air emissions standards that apply to passenger cars and other lighter duty trucks. In other words, to bring the big toys Up North necessitates trucks with a fuel economy rating that’s probably better measured in gallons per mile.
Of course, it’s vital to have roads that allow for the efficient movement of heavy-duty trucks towing large toys. The roads in the Lake Charlevoix area are in top shape. It’s easy to drive over the speed limit on smooth roads, those that are free of potholes, cracked concrete and broken shoulders.
After driving and stopping in and around the Lake Charlevoix area, I became convinced that the American dream is alive and well in Michigan’s Up North. Workin’ hard paves the way to playin’ hard.
Worldviews, Class Divides and Conformity
To be sure, our topic is what Plato saw as the antecedent to revolution: social decay. While we see the symptoms, and sense there’s a problem, can we see its nature a bit more clearly?
In a recent Atlantic article, David Brooks paints an excellent picture of the current social divisions that are leading to decay here at home. Brooks describes the divisions along Blue and Red class structures. The one to which we’ll pay attention is what Brooks calls, “the proletarian aristocracy.” These folks make-up the Red middling ground. Brooks writes: “…the proletarian aristocracy” are those who work as “…contractors, plumbers, electricians, middle managers, and small-business owners. People in this class have succeeded in America, but not through the channels of the university-based meritocracy, from which they feel alienated.”
I know many folks who fit Brooks’ description of the proletarian aristocracy. They’re honest, hard-working people who’ve acquired what it takes to buy heavy-duty trucks, nice boats, RV’s and all the rest of the markers of middle-class achievement. And because they’ve arrived, they don’t want to hear from educated elites, those of us who are “woke”, desire “experiences” over “stuff” and probably have the same carbon impact, because rather than going Up North with our toys, we fly all over the planet to be with friends and experience things.
While we play Up North, or fly all over the planet, we’re all just “burning that gasoline”. Whether we realize it or not, we’re conforming ourselves to a particular worldview that does not harmonize with the Earth system. Sure, there’s all kinds of activity going-on around the periphery, but it is not anywhere near what’s needed. So, when we feel comfortable about recycling, we need to think again: Much of what we do, as good as the intentions behind them may be, is simply not making the sort of impact necessary for us to change course. This is because the ubiquitous “they”, those who’ve amassed enough wealth to affect change, would rather we keep doing what we’re doing.
Human beings emerged from Earth, a place that’s 4.5 billion years old and complex. Living things are complex, intricate and fragile. The root of our problem is that the way in which we’ve organized what we do, whether it’s work or play, is at odds with the Earth system itself – the very thing on which we rely for our existence. Unfortunately, most of us are simply unaware of what’s going-on; we’re living in Plato’s Cave, which is only a representation of what is real.
Most of us are formed – raised, educated and so forth – to believe things that conform us to the system itself. Today, we find ourselves under pressure to “stay on platform”, consume and then overlook the consequences of such behavior. We’re burning that gasoline. This is because the power structure of the corporate state – the thing that governs our behavior – encourages, promotes and rewards consumption. In this sense, it doesn’t matter whether you chose the red or blue baseball cap for your souvenir: What matters is that you just buy one.
Life is precious, interconnected and the only thing we truly possess. All of the stuff – the toys, plane tickets, pithy signs, baseball caps and locally sourced bottles of wine – don’t mean a damn thing when it comes down to destroying the very thing that gives us life.
It doesn’t take much to understand that what many of us think is just business as usual is not sustainable. And herein lie the cracks of decay, or breakdown: While some of us worry about recycling the paper stickers on banana peels, the corporate state is making sure we are burning that gasoline. And in an age marked by concision, sound bites and Tweets, it’s next to impossible to move toward the sort of dialogue necessary to reach common ground, the place where shared values are nurtured and grown, and more importantly, the dialogue necessary to get out from under the control of corporate power.
To overcome what we face, we must begin by seeing ourselves as intimately connected with the Earth system. As human beings – a species with tremendous capacities for awareness and thought – we must find our way back to the joy of life. Life is joyful when it’s cultivated, nurtured, and supported by love and cooperation. What’s going-on around us today is competition and the rapacious desire to consume things; it’s madness, pure and simple. And to what end will we continue to consume – burning that gasoline? Our extinction?
Social cultivation strikes me as the opposite of social decay. Here we understand “cultivate” to mean “to make friends with.” In other words, the things that hold a society together are those that lead to friendship. Social capital, despite all of the scholarly attempts to give it a definition, is an amorphous term, used to describe what holds a society together. Social capital cannot be measured: It’s sensed. Friendship and social capital are things we feel, rather than measure. We can use proxies, or surveys that ask questions such as, “Do you have a friend at work?” to approximate the extent to which social capital may exist, but we cannot know it without living it.
In his book, Death of the Megamachine, author Fabian Scheilder exposes the roots of our globalized culture, and it’s not the Enlightenment. It goes to the very start of civilization itself, some 10,000 years ago and began its acceleration with the Bronze Age. In other words, the human system that’s leading to the destruction of the Earth system has its roots in the dawn of civilization. This means, just about everything around us will be radically changed. Whether we navigate these changes as mature, adult human beings, or kicking and screaming like little kids, is for us to decide. But be assured, things will be radically different. The question is: How will we get to the point wherein we no longer see red hats and blue hats, but only human beings, dignified and gifted as the most capable of all life forms on Earth?
The transformation we need to see will be built on a foundation of trust, and trust comes about when we look each other in the eye, recognize our shared humanity and dialogue. Making posts on Facebook is not dialogue. It’s not discursive; it’s more akin to graffiti, which has its place, but not in the crucible of engaged dialogue.
The very roots of democracy, or as Scheilder puts it, “self-organization”, is dialogue, the give and take that occurs when people come together and share ideas about how to do better. We need to forget about the giant things, and start small – in our neighborhoods. The whole of the Earth system is a self-organized, complex and a comparatively stable thing that starts at the molecular level. Living things are self-organized systems of cooperation, not competition. When a living thing becomes diseased, it competes with what’s inside to survive. Competition has no place in self-organization; the only things that ought to compete, one with another, are ideas. To harmonize with the Earth system, we need to start small and self-organize the same way: in cooperation with each other.