Saturday, January 12, 2008

2008: Which Rough Beast? -- A Conclusion

Part I: A Year in Limbo
Part II: Hold on Tight to Your Dream
Part III: Where There Is No Vision, The People Perish
Part IV: On Denial, Collapse, and the Laws of Physics

-- by Sara

Returning once more to Yeats' apt description of our current moment:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand...

....And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming" (1921)

Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" in the aftermath of World War I, at the beginning of an era that saw the fall of great royal houses and the collapse of the European colonial order. Things as they had been for many centuries were indeed coming apart; the center provided by Europe's hereditary aristocracy (which he believed essential to political and social order) could no longer hold. Mere anarchy, in the form of fascism, communism, and self-rule, was being loosed upon the world.

What rough beast would be born of all this? Looking back down the last century, there are a couple of answers. In Yeats' mind, one of them looked like the rising United States -- its hour come round at last, as it slouched in unknowing innocence toward Bethlehem to be born. Come the nativity, Yeats seems to predict, this newborn ruler would be Europe's salvation and the world's next superpower -- even as it created a future in which nothing of the old regime he cherished would continue to exist. It wasn't a prospect he relished.

But in that same moment in the early 1920s, other, far more dangerous rough beasts were also slouching through Europe, spreading tides of blood-dimmed anarchy much closer to home. That was the decade that both communism and fascism began to take hold, dooming the continent to sixty years of totalitarianism and genocide. It's not clear to me that Yeats was consciously alluding to the threat of the Bolsheviks and Fascisti, even then emerging in Russia and Italy. But this poem has endured because it captures the raw and terrifying essence of those certain rare moments in which we finally accept that the past that we have known is over; and that all that remains before us is a choice of unknown and largely unknowable futures. And yet, even amid the collapse and chaos, we know we are making foundational choices that will determine how billions of people live and die for several generations to come.

The Beast in History
We are, once again, standing at that inflection point. The center is not holding. The structures that sustained the past as we knew it are being swept away -- as the colonial order was swept away in 1776, and the slaveholder order was shattered in 1865, and the tyranny of the industrialists was leveled in 1932. Now, a world built on oil and consumerism has become too dangerous to sustain; and that center, too, is falling away to make room for something new.

But we don't yet know what will rise in its place. That's what's being decided now. The biggest determining factor at these moments -- and also, far and away, the biggest risk -- is who gets to the center first and lays down the most compelling vision. Because, for better or worse, that will very likely become the memetic foundation on which the entire new age will arise. The founding myths, the cultural metaphors, the worldview and essential beliefs that define right and wrong, good and bad, useful and irrelevant for the new era are all embedded in this new foundation; and everything else that follows will be built on and out of that mental framework. The conflicts ahead of us will, in essence, be a sort of epistemologicial "capture the flag:" Whoever wins this race for the hearts and minds of the nation will win control of the future for most of the rest of this century.

America has been fairly lucky. At similar points in the past, we've been blessed with fleet-footed, reform-minded idealists like Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt -- leaders who weren't afraid to step into the breach and challenge us to become something entirely new and (for the most part) considerably better. Jefferson and his fellow Founders did this with such vision and passion that they remain one of history's prime examples of how this kind of transformative moment can be used to usher in an entirely new era of history.

Lincoln offers a more sobering view of what can also go wrong. After his assassination, Andrew Johnson allowed the corporate royalists to capture the still-very-new Republican party, and co-opt Reconstruction for their own ends. The military part of the revolution was won; but without The Great Emancipator's steadying hand through the aftermath, the social revolution that was supposed to finish the job of bringing African-Americans to full equality was throttled in its crib. The result was the rise of the Jim Crow and the robber barons, the excesses of the Gilded Age, the financial panics of the 1880s and 1890s, and (forty years on) the wrenching crusades of the Progressive Era in which a new generation fought to take back their government and use it to reclaim the common good.

One of those Progressive reformers was Franklin Roosevelt, whose seized his own moment and used it to create the modern middle class. He succeeded in part because he had 14 years in office -- plenty of time to follow through. By the time he died, his efforts had taken solid root, and the emerging middle class he sought to nurture had begun to flourish. As long as people remembered what he'd done, the will to maintain that middle class remained strong. It was only when the main beneficiaries were too old and comfortable to remember clearly, and a new generation came up with no such memories at all, that the Reaganites could finally get out the tools and begin to chip away at it.

The Roughest Beast
Moments like this one are a vortex that draws in the corrupt, absurd, opportunistic, and authoritarian, all of whom instinctively scramble for the center in hope of carving out their piece of the new order. (This fact, in a nutshell, explains how the Republican Party -- which set up shop right at the center of the old order, and is thus taking the brunt of its failure -- wound up with the unqualified and bizarre likes of Rudy and Fred and Ron on its primary ballot this year.) Throughout history, strongmen have waited and watched -- and done their part to instigate -- such moments. When the center fails, and the yawning void is at its deepest, they confidently step in and and take over, winning popular support by promising to restore order to a terrified nation.

At every previous transformational moment in American history, we've had plenty of these same people standing by, ready and eager to seize the moment and use it to reassert the prerogatives of the rich and powerful. The Founders faced down Loyalists -- and summarily expelled them from their new country after the Revolution was won. Lincoln's achievements were obliterated by the corporatists who followed in his wake, leaving us with a shattered South, Jim Crow, and a national wound that has yet to heal. FDR was the target of a coup attempt led by the nation's richest industrialists, who hoped to co-opt the military and set up something like fascist rule. (The plot only failed because they picked the wrong man.) And the Bush regime's careful care and feeding of the country's most authoritarian elements over the past seven years has left us with a sleek, well-fed royalist class that's already looking for its moment to sweep in, seize the future, and set the agenda for the rest of us.

So who will be competing for the spoils this time?

There are, of course, the aforementioned economic royalists. In the strengths column, they've had 30 years to pile up boggling fortunes, which they've used to capture the world's governments (we're hardly the only one with a corruption problem), place financial bets that ensure they win no matter what happens, and perfect a little history-shaping technique of their own, which Naomi Klein finally put a name to -- the Shock Doctrine.

America's ruling classes have learned how to deliberately create their own moments of destructive chaos, and then take advantage of them to control the future. Some of those experiments don't turn out so well (see "Iraq" and "Chile"); others turn out slightly better, but only slightly. The only sure bet in any of these situations is that a few will profit, many will die, and many many more will have their lives destroyed so that the world's rich will continue to get richer.

But on the weaknesses side, the balance is tilting. All of these destabilization campaigns have occurred in the context of (and in service to) the current systems of oil and consumption. When those systems fail, the meaning and purpose of Shock Doctrine invasions will change with them. They may become more numerous -- but also much riskier. Some of those great fortunes will be lost. Resistance will mount. Taxpayers will rebel. Groups of nations (South America would be one strong candidate) will band together and get creative about resisting these takeovers. The balance of power will shift, creating opportunities to solve problems in other ways. And, with enough resistance, Shock Doctrine-type tactics may eventually be abandoned as a money-losing proposition.

Another wild card is the religious right, whose long alliance with the royalists has come up for a serious re-negotiation on several fronts. As I've noted before, there are a number of long-term forces that are moving the next generation of Evangelicals slowly toward the center. One of these (crystallized in the campaign of Mike Huckabee) is a deep sense of betrayal at how their 30 years of loyal support have failed to pay off politically for them. Another is a growing sense of populism that is putting them back in touch with their own class interests. A third is a younger generation that's beginning to engage with the same issues of ecology and economy that the rest of us see, and are mounting a powerful Scriptural critique of it.

For the past decade, observers of the radical right have been worried that this group would be ripe pickings for a populist leader who promised them palingenesis -- a Biblical renewal of national purity, achieved through an eliminationist purging of the country's liberal and decadent elements, undertaken (as mandated by some theologies) in order to prepare the way for the Second Coming. If the right leader emerged to unite the moral passions of the religious right with the economic rapacity of the corporatists, a fascist state would almost certainly be the result.

However, given recent trends on this front, it seems possible that that the ripest moment for this may have come somewhere around 2003, and is now passing. It could still happen, especially in the event of another large-scale terrorist attack. But, absent that, as the dissatisfactions between the religious and economic right widen it will continue to become less likely.

The Beast Is Us
The third wild card -- and the one we must believe will be the real determining factor -- is how strongly and confidently the progressive movement can rise to the occasion, raising up leaders who can step into the void and fill it with compelling visions of the future we want to bring the country to.

That's why we need to be very skeptical about our sudden glut of "change" candidates. It's not enough to say you're for change -- Hitler was, too -- you need to lay out, very specifically and in the most visionary terms possible, what changes you seek. In the week since my last post in this series, the New Hampshire primary came and went -- and with it, a substantial realignment of the rhetoric being used by the candidates of both parties. Iowa and New Hampshire slammed the message home to campaign managers that people are fed up, and ready for change. As a result, candidates like Mitt and Hillary -- who, two weeks ago, were trying to sell their experience -- are now rushing to re-brand themselves as The Candidates of Change.

We're only two primaries down, and "change" already become a schtick -- a sort of rueful cliche, delivered in some cases with a broad wink at the corporate funders, meaning whatever the speaker thinks it means. But have you noticed how few of the candidates now extolling their ability to "create change" actually take the time to define what the word means to them?

"I am the candidate of change" tells us absolutely nothing; and we're fools if we accept this proclamation as sufficient. We need to know: What does change mean to you? Where do you want to take us? And, most importantly: Do you fully understand the magnitude of change possible in this moment? Are you willing to think at a scale that will help us lay down the foundation for a reworked economy, a new energy paradigm, a set of cultural values that don't depend on consumerism, and an entirely different relationship with nature and the rest of the world?

Because all of these things are now becoming possible. We are out here, 300 million strong, craving to be led in a new direction, into a new relationship with each other and the planet. Just saying they're for "change" is no promise that a would-be leader understands this, or is willing or able to deliver on it.

Moments of change and reform are terrifying because they take us right down to the most essential questions of who we are, what we stand for, and how we define what is good in the world. During stable times, when strong economic, social, and political systems are in place and working fairly predictably, we create change slowly, through persuasion, deal-making, and compromise. You find a leverage point or two, and keep working it slowly until the whole system begins to move in a direction that's more to your liking.

But we are not in a stable time. Except for those still in denial, most of us are quite clear that the systems themselves are broken. The job isn't about changing the behavior of an existing structure; now, we've got the rare opportunity to build ourselves a whole new economic, political, technological, and social order, constructed out of entirely new premises. We are being faced with the choice of what will be brought forward with us; and what will be allowed to pass away into history.

It's terrifying work, especially for those of us who are intelligent and prudent and like to make well-considered decisions based on piles of information. On one hand, progressives in particular have been so disillusioned by the past 30 years that we're more prone to heckle a big dreamer than follow them. On the other, we want to fill the void with something that will transform the future into something far closer to our values -- something that cannot happen unless we get over our cynicism and dare to dream big. Right now, the blogosphere seems to be grinding its wheels on these kinds of functional questions: How much change can we dare ask for? How big should we dream -- or should we even bother dreaming at all? How will we know if we're making the right choices?

These are the kinds of questions managers ask. In the meantime, while we're all dithering, opportunistic would-be leaders are already acting.

While we're standing around, hemming and hawing, far less prudent people are already hurling themselves into the breach. They don't have a moment's hesitation about dreaming big; and they don't worry in the least about having enough information, or thinking through the consequences, or wondering if their decisions are reasonable. They want CHANGE, dammit, and they want it now. Their appeal is emotional, furious, and sometimes incendiary. And while their definition of "change" is incoherent -- even those involved in some of their movements can't quite tell you what they stand for -- their zeal to get in there and become the first to seize the center more than makes up for it. The details can wait, they figure -- they'll work that out once they've taken control of the new reality, which will allow them to frame the terms of the conversation about possible solutions.

That's what leaders and winners look like in this moment. And it's why serious factions, yearning for change, are lining up behind people like Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. Their common trait is their willingness to hurl themselves into that breach in the name of creating change NOW, and -- for better or worse -- working out the details later.

The old saying says, "Be careful what you wish for, for you will surely get it." A lot of us -- especially those who remember what was lost -- have wished for this moment our entire lives. Now that it's upon us, we have to act. Ready or not, it's here, and we need to trust ourselves to make the leap into that void. Either we believe in the progressive vision with the same zeal as the True Believers of the Religious Right or the shrewd disaster capitalists of the economic right -- and are willing to stake our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor on that belief -- or we lose. And then, like the Founders and FDR did (and Lincoln could not do), we have to be ready to stay in the fight until it's over, until the new center is holding fast and the country has begun to organize around it.

Rough beasts that we are, we need to stand up straight, form up, and start marching toward Bethlehem with all deliberate haste. Because our hour has come. In this eventful year, the future we've been waiting for will finally begin to be born.

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