Where Do We Go From Here?
We tried hard in 2004. Hip-hop artists, environmentalists, unionists, people of all stripes who were disturbed by the fundamentalist drift of American politics came together to fight for democracy in our nation. Diverse people worked in unison with the hope that this country could be something other than a blundering brute in world affairs. For all the sadness of seeing our country sold to the highest bidders, the important question is what comes next. We may soon be facing a red-white-and-blue Gestapo. We need to figure this out.
Our country has been shifting to the right since 1980. Our nation has shifted right and left across its history. People talk about the pendulum swings as if they obey the laws of physics. Why has our country shifted so far to the right? What has pushed our nation's politics right and left in the past? If we can answer these questions, maybe we can get a handle on how to push it in a better direction.
Anyone with any real knowledge of history knows that there is more to our political evolution than the righteous march of democracy and progress. We know we must look for the answers beyond common mythology. There are very different answers depending on what time scale is applied. That's critical, because even when our best talk about these issues, they get to the radical truth at the bottom of a short time scale. That's fine for the politics of here and now, but certain long-term influences are going to make their presence felt soon.
The "short curve" of left-right politics in America looks like this: given that we are an industrialized capitalist nation, capital tends to accumulate. Notwithstanding the mythology of start from nothing millionaires, money makes money makes money. It is a simple mathematical fact that, if the process is not impeded, capital will tend to accumulate to the largest players of corporate consolidation.1 This is not because large corporations are more efficient, it is because they have more access to and control over the flow of capital.2 So why didn't our economy reach obscene levels of polarization a long time ago? Because the Greenbackers, Populists, Unionists, Socialists and Communists stopped them.3 The rule of accumulation is that capital will accumulate at the top until the elite are faced with adequate resistance, at which point a sufficient portion of wealth will be redistributed so as to forestall the restlessness of workers.
A brief review of how this has played out in American history will be useful. Colonial America was very much a mixed bag of "liberal/ conservative" politics. There was some expansion of freedoms, but also strict limitations on voting and civil liberties for minorities. As far as social welfare was concerned, colonial society for the most part accepted the care taking of the less fortunate as an appropriate social burden.1 Rapid industrialization took root after the American Revolution. An early consolidation of corporate power came in the 1820s. Spurred by a recession, business interests took power in our political system and issued in laissez faire capitalism with its Social Darwinist ideology. The politics of favoring the elite and demonizing the poor held sway largely throughout the 1800s. There was some ideological respite around the time of the Civil War as the soldiers and veterans were, at least to some degree, indulged with increased pubic support. Victorian capitalism reached its apex in the Gilded Age in the later half of the 1800s.2
Populists of various stripes had been organizing for a while and took advantage of recessions in the 1870s and 1890s to push the country decisively to the left. By the mid 1890s, there were over a thousand labor strikes per year in this country.3 As the unionists were organizing workers, the Farmers Alliance organized rural areas. Progressivism swept in a mighty wave, altering the politics and culture of our society deeply.4 The constitution was modified to allow for the election of U.S. Senators (formerly appointed).5 Laws were changed to prevent child labor and to create income tax and pensions.6 The International Workers of the World and the Socialists organized diligently, and paid a great price in lost lives.7
This period of history is an important lesson regarding the politics of truth. For all the effort we put into trying to convince people of what is true and what is right, that doesn't really have anything to do with how and why our country has shifted right and left in the past. That has more to do with power. All kinds of "discoveries" were made in the social sciences and popular culture once the Robber Barons of Victorian capitalism had been set back on their heels. The most noteworthy of these was the "scientific" recognition that poverty is caused by unemployment, not laziness.8 That truth, and many others, are created and abandoned in the social sciences as politics swing right and left.
The elite got their chance again with the financial strains leading up to WWI. The war divided progressives and the barons held the political upper hand through the 1920s. The Great Depression provided an excellent showcase for conservative callousness as one politician after another lectured the masses that there were plenty of jobs to be found for the industrious.1 This was also prime recruiting time for socialists. As the socialists and conservatives faced off with depression as the backdrop, the resolution came in the form of one Maynard Keynes. He told the capitalists that they could have their cake and eat it too. If they paid workers more, the workers would buy their products. Profits and wages could grow at the same time. It wasn't charity though. Although Keynes was most well known as an economist, he made it clear that the alternative could be a socialist uprising.2 The ranks of the radicals could be thinned by buying off workers with wage increases. The changes provoked by progressive agitations in the early 20th century were no mean feat. The net polarization of wealth in the U.S. was decreased as a result.3 (The last few decades have seen that reversed and now polarization of wealth is increasing.)
The fifties saw a brief revival of conservative power under the pressure of the cold war. Unions were restricted and the poor were blamed for their poverty.4 That was short-lived however as the sixties exploded, once again, with organized resistance. There were riots in the cities, opposition to the war on the campuses.5 Thus, in response to resistance, the "War on Poverty" and the "Great Society" were born. The stagflation of the 1970s brought us Reagan and the beginning of what Ralph Nader has called the Second Gilded Age.
One can see in each of these shifts to the left and right in American history that capital tends to accumulate until a social movement arises that can force the powers that be to redistribute wealth. Why is our country continuing to shift right in our time? The short-curve answer is that there is no resistance movement powerful enough (yet) to challenge the current trend of capital accumulation.
The immediate answer is to build that resistance movement. There are some obstacles to overcome. Much of the class of exploited workers is now overseas, thus putting distance and political barriers between them and their rulers.6 Too bad they can't vote from abroad to elect American CEOs and their politicians. Another major obstacle is the corporate media. The pen was once mightier than the sword, but now the lighted screen has asserted unchallenged imperial might.
The short-curve solutions are to build alternative media, challenge control of existing media where possible. Build alliances, not just across the alphabet soup of disenfranchised groups, but with common people and workers everywhere. Every large successful social movement has been a coalition of diverse interests with a common cause, not a vanguard of the most enlightened.
The short-curve solution may seem sufficiently difficult that we would be wise to leave it at that. But there is a longer, less visible curve of social change and social evolution. The long curve dominates over longer spans of time. The time has arrived for us to integrate the long and short curves of social change or face the wrath of that which lies beyond our immediate political vision.
With attention to avoiding inappropriate oversimplification, we need to look at what propels a society towards freedom or tyranny over the long term. The first human societies were the hunter-gatherers that lived for millions of years as proto-humans and humans before the arrival of agriculture, civilization, scarcity, and slavery. Such gatherers lacked any institutionalized hierarchy based on wealth, gender, race, family name, or inheritance. Such hierarchy as they possessed was based on charisma and skill, not abstract or inherited attributes. We as intelligent beings evolved in egalitarian bands.1
The egalitarianism of band society eroded slowly as population increased and human populations shifted from intensive gathering, to horticulture and agriculture. The story of civilization is one of perpetually increasing population stress in increasingly depleted environments.2 The most compelling story of social stratification is one where early leaders arose to cajole people to work harder in increasingly depleted environments. These leaders were seen as "great providers," symbolism that lasted a long, long time.3 Early leaders were also war leaders and male. Nothing in human history consolidates power in leadership or degrades the position of women more quickly than warfare.4
There were many groups who resisted the evolution toward male supremacist, militarized, stratified society. As far as we can tell from our retrospective look at their evolution, stratified societies were more effective at cajoling or coercing people to work harder, and won more often on the battlefield. Domination does not suggest that stratified society is in any way moral superior or sustainable, only that they won battles more often.
As far as civil liberty is concerned, there was a long sliding decline from gathering, to tribal horticultural societies to agrarian civilizations. One long curve, all in the same direction toward slavery. Then something curious happen -- limited political democracy. Democracy limited to male, property-owning Greeks would hardly have been noteworthy were it not a reversal of such a terribly long and enduring trend toward absolute tyranny.1
It has happened a few times since then. Just when a heavenly observer might think that humanity was headed for eternal slavery, out of the blue, in specific times and places, it all turns around and particular groups of people find themselves possessed of liberty and democracy. In modern America, we have taken the process further by enfranchising wider groups of people. (At least until recently.)
In our cultural mythology, democracy was handed down by wise forbearers who invented the modern form of it. There is less discussion about the contraction of democracy, as if the freedoms found in our time are eternal. Earlier civilizations went through periods when freedoms expanded, and periods when freedom was curtailed.2 Democracy would be usefully defined in a more objective sense.
In ancient democracies such as classical Greece, or the early Roman Empire, democracy expanded as imperial exploitation expanded and more goods were transported to the home state and traded.3 Stripping away the cultural mythology, we find that democracy is a process by which people who have access to wealth assert their power in a political process. If the first to gain wealth is a group of merchants, then that group will likely use that wealth to leverage political influence as a class. Given that they have a common interest, they will organize to empower their common interest. If the wealth available to be owned and traded expands, then new groups will organize to gain political power. Particularly if there is a fluid movement of resources, and ongoing economic expansion, opportunities for democracy will expand. The great expansion of democracy in our time owes its life to the ferocious fossil fuel expansion we have undertaken and the unprecedented expansion of wealth that has resulted.4
As the early imperial states reached their apex and began to decline, so the primary interests of people shifted away from a common economic and political influence to allegiance to military leadership that was arrayed against increasingly powerful enemies. In early states, militarist leadership used superstitions and fervent religious symbolism to enforce their role.5
The long curve in a nutshell is that, in a commercial economy, civil liberty expands and contracts as the resources available to a society expand and contract. What we call democracy is the privilege of colonial ruling powers in the last few thousand years to expand freedom among traders, producers and consumers in a manner that is economically beneficial. As warfare and colonial decline set in, democracy receded.
The long curve indicates that civil liberty expands as the flow of natural resources expands, and contracts as resource availability contracts. The short curve indicates that capital accumulates as far and as fast as the owners of industry can push the matter. That proceeds up to the point where popular movements of sufficient breadth and power force the limited redistribution of wealth. The short curve is more visible in the political moment. The long curve moves with inexorable force over time.
To integrate the long and short curves, we need one more piece of information, and that is the stress-response pattern of cultural evolution. When human societies are ecologically and economically stable, their technology changes very slowly if at all. Stressors initiate change. In response to ecological and economic stressors, movements arise to initiate changes in mechanical technology and social organization.1 These movements try to blame misery on the opposition and claim credit for any subsequent improvement.2 Though modern society proceeds at a rate of change unseen in history, the same rules apply. The long curve is the manifestation of our ecological and economic relationships with the environment. The long curve creates opportunities into which social movements may step, thus creating the short curve. In the absence of appropriate openings created by the long curve, no social movement stands a chance.
The long curve does not suggest that social change is the spontaneous result of some ethereal process of cultural “evolution.” Social movements create change. But the economic and ecological factors that guide the long curve create opportunities for social movements. There was no politically oriented civil liberties movement in the late Roman Empire that could have reversed the social and political impacts of resource decline. It is absurd to imagine any such thing. In our time, we cannot defend our civil liberties over the long haul by purely political means. This is terribly important that we get this point because the long curve is soon to assert itself in our time.
If all of this sounds different from the usual story of how things work, you have to realize that history is always written by people who consider themselves terribly important. It is not in an academic’s interests to tell you that ecological changes are more important than ideas. It is not in the interests of politicians, clergy, or even most activists, to tell their constituents to ignore the immediate political demands of the age to focus on long term, broader scale change.
A great limitation of current political theory is that it has largely been formulated in the last few hundred years -- a period of enormous resource expansion in the industrial world. No wonder progress is such an article of faith. Granted, the short curve has flipped and flopped about the political fortunes of parties and movements, but the long curve has created one opportunity after another for civil liberties expansion. These are long-term trends, but I suspect the current retraction of civil liberty is actually a bit ahead of the long curve, but not by more than a couple of decades.
The fulcrum of the long curve in our time is the supply of oil and other resources. The massive expansion of resource use greatly facilitates the expansion of civil liberty. We got a dry run on resource contraction in the 1970s with oil price hikes. Although that crisis was political rather than ecological, it closely imitated the impacts of ecological constraint. It created conditions ripe for the current conservative trend.1
What does all this mean in modern times? The ongoing, albeit uneven, expansion of civil liberty has ridden on a wave of economic expansion financed with an enormous flow of natural resources. Civil liberty does not automatically flow from economic expansion, but generalized economic expansion does create opportunities for social movements. The ruling class will not give; liberty is only taken with blood and sweat. But under conditions of expansion, it is cheaper for the powers that be to buy off their opposition than to fight.2 While movements of all stripes blame short-term downturns on their opponents, they can subsequently claim credit for the upturn that follows. If there is an upturn in generalized well being, the movements of liberalization can claim credit and everyone moves on. In those circumstances of grinding downturn, the conflicts remain unresolved, and power will centralize.
Because of our history, the U.S. is likely to respond to sustained stress by expanding the power of leadership, escalating male supremacy, and escalating the influence of God in politics. These are the means that stratified societies have developed over the last few thousand years to create a unity of effort.
The current conservative trend in the U.S. is probably not part of the long curve. I may be wrong, but I think the current trend is a short curve that is a couple of decades ahead of the long curve. If I am correct, then there will be a substantial uprising against the current conservative trend in the next ten years. That is not inevitable, nor would it be a painless "evolutionary" change. If it comes at all, it will come with great sacrifice. Further along in time, the long curve will makes its presence felt in resource shortages. That is of greatest concern. We are headed for a bitter future if we do not create a movement that can break free of the patterns of history.
The Democrats haven't really been able to "make hay" out of the current social stressors. But that is not as significant as it may seem. In the absence of a social movement with sufficient power to push an agenda of liberalism (however defined) Democrats are going to act like Republicans. Our history is clear enough on that score. You don't win the lottery by taking the Whitehouse. You expand liberty with powerful organizations that push the owners into a corner where compromise is in their best interest.1
The long curve is going to change the rules of the game. The oil price shocks of the 1970s were a dry run. They were politically induced rather than the result of actual depletion, but given current growth rates, actual shortages of almost every resource we use are not far in the offing. Of all the resources modern industrial society uses, only three are so plentiful that we are using them "sustainably" simply because they are inexhaustible. Those items are iron, titanium and aluminum.2 Everything else is on an unsustainable curve. The depletion of any resource drives its price upward.
Energy is critical because it is the means by which all other resources are processed, but energy isn’t the only issue. (Donella Meadows pointed out the limitations of focusing solely on energy supplies in The Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits, pointing our that even abundant energy does not change the long term trajectory of growth in the finite system that is our earth.)3 Even if we came up with an infinite supply of cheap energy -- which is not currently on the horizon -- we would add some length to the long curve, but not that much, and we certainly wouldn't change its basic shape. That is because almost every organic and inorganic resource used by industrial society is being used on an unsustainable basis. The long curve is the sociocultural and political impacts of our ecological choices.
I think the current short curve is ahead of the long curve because our fossil fuel industrial society can likely squeeze out a couple of more decades before depletion of a myriad resources becomes a severe and irresolvable social stressor. At that point, we will face the same fate as previous human societies that have undergone commercial and democratic contraction. There will be an escalation of the power of the Caesars, the Gods will come down to vent their wrath on a populace fraught with sin and a disrespect of tradition. Religion will become fanatical mysticism and state policy.1 All men will bow before the earthly representatives of divine power. It's been done before. There is no current indication that we will do anything other than follow in the footsteps of history.
The point of all this is that our predicament cannot be resolved purely through political means, and New Deal liberalism has no power to confront these issues. While we cannot completely ignore current political issues for the sake of the long-term agenda, our future is dependent on our developing a means of applying social movements to structural economic and ecological change in a manner that is outside of our current political tradition.
We can't expand civil liberty as we have in the past riding a wave of economic expansion. But there is a difference between modern and archaic democratic society. In the search for social justice, we have defined comfort and prosperity by mainstream standards. As the output of modern industrialism has expanded, the definition of a socially acceptable, middle class lifestyle has grown and grown. In an absolute sense, the democratic expansion of previous civilizations was financed with a pittance of the resources that we are currently using. We are also ruled now by a shadow corporate government that is unelected, unrecognized, and unrestrained. All of these things point to a clear course of action. We have to decentralize and localize economic activity. In doing so, we can make ourselves wealthier even as we use less resources by recirculating money locally, expanding human scale and cooperative enterprise. The long-term affect of these actions will be to move the economy more under the conscious direction of its informed citizens. We have to rebuild our society from the ground up.2
Our economy has centralized into megalithic corporate production because of the mathematics of capital accumulation. For most of what we use and need, small-scale production is more efficient. Even Adam Smith was vehemently opposed to corporate centralization.3 As industries grow larger, they replace human beings with increasing increments of fossil fuel energy. Machines make loaves of bread and shirts. Agriculture becomes industrialized, fossil fuel and chemical intensive, and under the control of giant corporations.4 Studies all over the world have shown small farms to be more efficient and productive.1 Decentralizing most, if not all, of our economy would allow us to develop a society of plenty -- fertile ground for liberty and peace -- even as we decrease dramatically the absolute volume of resources we use. It will be an economy that is guerrilla macro managed, and culture whose evolution is consciously understood and influenced by its participants.2
I share an affection for a term Daniel Quinn has used: mother culture.3 As much as we may recognize the need for change, American liberals are as addicted to the milk of mother culture as anyone else. We go the institutions of higher learning, we replicate the mainstream science. We drive the same cars to the same jobs and live in the same houses. We take the same pills. All the while, the mainstream ideology continues to drift right. And ultimately, we judge our movements by the media. We can succeed and not even know we did it. Our grandest accomplishments can be rendered failures without our ever even thinking about it. It is time we weaned ourselves, and developed the capacity to create media, praise, respect and culture.
We have to radically expand our ability to do what we have not previously considered possible or acceptable. Make no mistake, we will rebuild our culture from the ground up or your children will live in slavery on a denuded planet. Slave states are remarkably durable. The agrarian slave states that preceded the rise of political democracy lasted for five thousand years. We cannot stop the movement of history in the voting booth. Allowing current trends to take their natural course will likely leave the greater mass of humanity forever enslaved.
The alternative is a conscious culture created by informed people, rooted in localized economies. This isn't about higher wages. This isn't about saving some pretty part of nature off in the hills somewhere. This is about recreating our society at every level, economically, politically, spiritually. Our current society is blind, completely out of control, and headed for its own annihilation. You are not going to be able to drive to work, own your private home, and hold onto your civil liberty. The coming changes are going to alter every aspect of your life. If we have the courage to change at deeper levels that we have imagined, we can create the society of where people are not left in poverty.
We have more than enough resources to provide for people. The old methods of organizing are not going to get us out of our current predicament. We are compelled to seek a deeper, more far reaching, and profound kind of social change than we have imagined. The world is currently dominated by a global culture of militarism, male supremacy, and ecocide. We can create a conscious and sustainable culture in its shell.
1 Solomon, Lawrence, The Conserver Solution, Doubleday Canada Limited, 1978, p. 137
2 Ginneken, Wouter Van, Baron, Christopher (eds), Appropriate Products, Employment and Technology: Case Studies on Consumer Choice and Basic Needs in Developing Countries, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1984, see also Lipton, Micheal, "Creating Rural Livelihoods: Some Lessons for South Africa from Experience Elsewhere, World Development, Vol. 21, No. 9, 1993, p.1515-1548
3 Zinn, Howard, The Twentieth Century, A People's History, Harper and Row, New York, 1984, p.253-297
1 Tratner, Walter I., From Poor Law to Welfare State, A History of Social Welfare in America, Fourth Edition, The Free Press, New York, 1989, p.15-29
2Tratner, ibid, p.83-87, Mencher, Samuel, Poor Law to Poverty Program, Economic Security Policy in Britain and the United States, Pittsburg, Pittsburg University Press, 1974, p.274-305
3 Zinn, ibid, p.293
4 Zinn, ibid, p.253-297
5Zinn, ibid, p.349
6Tratner, ibid, p.103-123, 195
7Zinn, ibid, p. 330-344
8Tratner, ibid, p.94-96, Mencher, ibid, p.299
1Komisar, Lucy, Down and Out in the USA, A History of Public Welfare, Franklin Watts, 1977, p.44-67
2Keynes, John Manyard, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, 1960, (first published in 1935), Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, p. 378
3Korten, David C., When Corporations Rule the World, Berrett-Koehler, Kumerian Press, West Hartford, 1995, p.107-114, Phillips, Kevin, The Politics of Rich and Poor, The American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath, Random House, New York, 1990, p.8-15
4Tratner, ibid, p.280-282
5Zinn, ibid, p.443-539
6Korten, ibid, p.213-217
1Marshall, Lorna, The !Kung of Nyae Nyae, Harvard University Press, 1976, Lee, Richard B. The !Kung San, Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979
2Harris, Marvin, Cannibals and Kings, The Origins of Cultures, Vintage Books, New York, 1978
4Chagnon, Napoleon, Yanomamo: The Fierce People, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968, Heider, Karl, The Grand Valley Dani, Peaceful Warriors, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York, 1979, Gilbert, Herdt, The Sambia: Ritual and Gender in New Guinea, Holt, Rinehard, and Winston, New York, 1987
1Kitto, H.D.F., The Greeks, Penguin Books, New York, 1984, Fine, John, The Ancient Greeks, A Critical History, Cambridge MA., Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983
2Zeigler, Alexis, Conscious Cultural Evolution, Understanding Our Past, Choosing Our Future, Ecodem Press, Charlottesville, 2003, p.54-55, also at conev.org
5Africa, Thomas W., Science and the State in Greece and Rome, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1968
1Wilkinson, Richard G., Poverty and Progress, An Ecological Model of Economic Development, Methuen and Co. Ltd. London, 1973
2Zeigler, ibid, 79-93
1Nossiter, Bernard D. Fat Years and Lean, The American Economy Since Roosevelt, Harper and Row, New York, N.Y., 1990
2Brown, Micheal K., Remaking the Welfare State; Retrenchment and Social Policy in America and Europe, Temple University Press, 1988, Holden, K., D.A. Peel, J.L. Thompson, The Economics of Wage Controls, Macmillan Press, 1987
1Piven, Francis Fox and Cloward, Richard A., Poor People's Movements: Why the Succeed, How They Fail, Vintage Books, New York, 1979
2Meadows, Donella, Beyond The Limits, Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future, Chelsea Green Publishing Co., Post Hills, VT., 1992, p.84
3Meadows, Donella H., The Limits to growth : a report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind , 1974, Meadows, Donella, Beyond The Limits, Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future, Chelsea Green Publishing Co., Post Hills, VT., 1992
2Zeigler, ibid, p. 333-359
3Korten, ibid, p. 56
4Ward, Barbara, Progress for a Small Planet, W.W. Norton and Company, 1979, p.279
2Zeigler, ibid, 271-285
3Quinn, Daniel, Ishmael, Bantam, New York, 1995