Over the last four months or so, as this blog has sketched out the trajectory of empires in general, and then traced the intricate history of America’s empire in particular, I’ve been avoiding a specific issue. That avoidance hasn’t come from any lack of awareness on my part, and if it had been, comments and emails from readers asking when I was going to get around to discussing the issue would have taken care of that in short order. No, it’s simply a natural reluctance to bring up a subject that has to be discussed sooner or later, but is guaranteed to generate far more heat than light.
The subject? The role of protest movements in the decline and fall of the American empire.
That’s an issue sufficiently burdened with tangled emotions and unstated agendas that even finding a good starting place for the discussion is a challenge. Fortunately I have some assistance, courtesy of Owen Lloyd, who is involved with an organization called Deep Green Resistance and recently wrote a review of my book The Blood of the Earth. It’s by no means a bad review. Quite the contrary, Lloyd made a serious effort to grapple with the issues that book tried to raise, and by and large succeeded; where he failed, the misunderstandings were all but inevitable, given the differences between his views and mine. Thus it’s all the more striking that his review points up so precisely the reasons why protest movements have by and large been spinning their wheels in empty air for thirty years, and will almost certainly continue to do so while America’s empire crashes and burns around them.
The point that matters here is the review’s denunciation of one of the central points of the book, which is that those who want to change the world need to start by changing their own lives. According to Lloyd, we don’t have time for that, since the biosphere is in dire peril; what’s needed instead are the standard tools of contemporary activism—"direct action, community building, and outreach," in his convenient summary. His reasoning is logical enough, as far as it goes; if your house is on fire, after all, it’s a little late to install sprinklers and smoke alarms. If the situation is as urgent as Lloyd claims, all other considerations have to take a back seat to an all-out effort to deal with the immediate crisis with the most effective means available.
It’s a common enough claim in the contemporary activist community; Derrick Jensen had an article in Orion Magazine a few years back making essentially the same argument. Still, there’s a problem with that argument, because the responses Lloyd, Jensen, and other activists are promoting here have been standard across the spectrum of activist groups for more than three decades now, and that’s more than enough time to see how well they work. The answer? Well, let’s be charitable and say "not very well."
For years now, leading environmentalists have been bemoaning how much ground is being lost year after year, and how little the environmental movement has been able to do even to slow that down. They are quite correct in that assessment, of course. It’s standard these days to insist that this simply shows the power differential between the corporate interests that profit from environmental destruction and the citizen groups that are trying to fight them. That argument seems convincing, too, so long as you do what most people these days are taught to do, and ignore the lessons of history.
Glance back to a slightly earlier period and at least one of those lessons stands out in bold relief. In the 1970s, environmental activists facing equally powerful and well-funded corporate interests built a mass movement and forced through landmark legislation. In the United States, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and a bevy of less famous but equally important environmental bills crashed through a wall of corporate opposition and became the law of the land. That sort of success is something that today’s environmental activists can only daydream about, and it was accomplished using the same tools that activists use today—with one important addition: the environmental activists of that time recognized that the most effective way to advocate any given change was to make that change in their own lives first. That awareness was not limited to the environmental movement; it was pioneered by the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, in fact, who turned it into a core principle of their movement—"the personal is political"—and leveraged it efficiently to bring about dramatic if still incomplete gains in women’s rights. They recognized, as did many other activists in those years, that if your lifestyle supports a system, and depends on that system, any efforts you may think you’re making to force significant change on that system will be wasted breath.
It will be wasted breath because most people, reasonably enough, want to see that there’s a life worth living on the other side of the changes your activist movement wants to make, and the best way to give them a glimpse of that life is to enact it yourself. It will also be wasted breath because most people have a tolerably good nose for hypocrisy, and are highly familiar with the kind of demagogy that calls on everybody else to make sacrifices and get by with less so the demagogue doesn’t have to do so. Talk to Americans who didn’t support either the climate change movement or its corporate opposition, and you’ll find that for a good many of them, it was when word of Al Gore’s air-conditioned mansion and frequent-flyer miles got around that they decided that global warming was yet another manufactured threat, meant to stampede people into acquiescing with somebody’s political agenda.
Finally, it will be wasted breath because if the system you think you want to change is also the system that supplies you with a comfortable middle class lifestyle, with all the comforts and conveniences that such a lifestyle supplies, the changes you will push the system to make will pretty reliably be limited to those that will not affect your continued access to the lifestyle, comforts and conveniences in question. The Breton peak oil blogger Damien Perrotin has commented amusingly on the influence of what, in France, are called bobos—that is, bourgeois bohemians (the acronym works equally well in both languages), members of the liberal upper middle classes. Bobos are terribly eager to see themselves as the saviors of the world—that’s the bohemian side—and will do absolutely anything to fulfill this role, so long as it doesn’t require them to give up any of the benefits of their privileged status—that’s the bourgeois side.
I hope the term catches on in this country, because we have a lot of bobos over here, too. Last week’s discussion of captive constituencies has a special relevance in any discussion of the species Bobo americanus, because being active in the captive constituency of some otherwise mainstream political faction is a very popular way to play the role of saving the world without risking disruption to the system that gives bobos their privileged status. There are also substantial personal rewards available for those who take leadership positions in captive constituencies, and help keep them captive. It’s a role bobos are well qualified to fill, especially those who come from the upper end of the class hierarchy and so have the connections and skills for the job. That’s where you get the executives of mainstream environmental groups who draw six-figure salaries, maintain cordial relationships with corporate sponsors, and show an obvious willingness to settle for whatever scraps may fall from the tables of wealth and power onto their corner of America’s unwashed kitchen floor.
Still, the bobo-ization of American radicalism is not limited to such obvious cases. When you hear activists loudly insisting that it’s possible to save the world without being an ascetic—and I’m sorry to say that, yes, that well-worn trope turned up in the Owen Lloyd book review cited above—you’re hearing the echoes of bobo influence, in the form of the popular but profoundly wrong notion that it must somehow be possible to maintain today’s unsustainable lifestyles on a sustainable basis. That’s not going to happen, for reasons that reach right down into the laws of thermodynamics; no amount of handwaving is going to make it happen; and the sooner we get used to living with a lot less, the less damage we will do to ourselves, each other, and the Earth as the industrial economy sputters to a halt.
Now of course that suggestion is anathema to the existing order of things, in America and elsewhere. It’s usually anathema in a declining imperial society. James Francis’ useful study Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World chronicles how the imperial Roman government came to treat the asceticism of Stoic and Neoplatonic philosophers as an unendurable threat to its authority. They were quite correct to do so; a system that maintains itself in power by bribing the lower classes with panem et circenses and the middle and upper classes with the more lavish entertainments chronicled in Petronius’ Satyricon has no convenient lever with which to control those who have no interest in these things.
Thus it’s probably safe to assume that there will be no effective opposition to the status quo in this country until some movement arises that in practice—not just in theory—embraces an essentially ascetic approach. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the first movement to do so will be a revived Marxism. I’m no fan of Karl Marx, and even less a fan of the various ideologues who filled out the framework of his system, but Marxism has features that will give it powerful appeal in the decades ahead. It gives the poor someone to blame for their misfortunes, and does so in a far more detailed manner than (say) the vague rhetoric of the Occupy movement; it is among the few ideologies that manage to fuse a rigorous intellectual tradition with a utopian future vision of religious intensity; and it has a strong ascetic element—the figure of the Marxist revolutionary, lean, passionate, doctrinaire, and contemptuous of material goods except insofar as they might help further the cause, was a common social type in Europe for close to a century.
Marxism also has an advantage just now that no amount of money could buy it: the extraordinary campaign of unintended propaganda that the Republican party is currently carrying out on its behalf. Right now, even the most moderate and revenue-neutral attempts to use the powers of government for the benefit of American citizens are being lambasted by the GOP as communism. It’s an embarrassing admission of intellectual poverty—one gathers that the American right spent so long belaboring the Red Peril that it really has no idea what to say now that communism isn’t around any more—but it also guarantees a familiar kind of backlash. Fundamentalist churches that spend too much time denouncing Satanism, complete with lurid descriptions of Satanic living replete with wild parties and orgiastic sex, get that kind of backlash; that’s why they so often find that they’ve merely succeeded in making devil worship popular among local teens.
In the same way, if the Republicans succeed in rebranding, say, public assistance and food safety laws as Marxist, the most likely result of that campaign will be to convince a great many Americans of otherwise moderate political views that Marx might have had something going for him after all. As suggested above, I don’t consider this a good thing; in theory, Marxist revolution leads to the glorious worker’s paradise of the future via the inevitable workings of the historical dialectic, but in practice the dictatorship of the proletariat reliably turns into just another dictatorship, with the usual quota of gulags and unmarked mass graves. Still, in a country where most people are frighteningly ignorant of history, and are being driven to the wall by a corrupt and spectacularly mismanaged imperial economy in headlong decline, it’s unpleasantly unlikely that this point will be remembered.
Still, other forces are pushing American society toward a crisis that its existing political and economic arrangements are unlikely to survive, and the rehabilitation of Marxism is unlikely to proceed fast enough to reach any sort of critical mass before that crisis hits in earnest. It’s probably a safe bet that the more mainstream groups will increasingly side with the established order of things—I’ve long suspected that before all this is over with, the Sierra Club will come out in favor of strip mining the national park system so long as it’s done in, ahem, an environmentally sensitive way. Outside the bobosphere, things are much less clear, for the twilight years of a disintegrating political system tolerably often create a fiercely Darwinian environment for ideologies and political movements, in which the only thing that matters is which set of beliefs and personalities can build the strongest coalition at the right time, absorb or marginalize the largest fraction of opposing groups, and make the most successful bid for power. As that bubbling cauldron of competing belief systems boils over in violence and systemic disruption, it’s anyone’s guess who or what will come out on top.
Whoever ends up more or less in charge of what’s left of the United States of America when the flames die down and the rubble stops bouncing, though, will have to face a predicament far more difficult than the ones encountered by the winners in 1932, or 1860, or for that matter 1776. All three of these past crises happened when the United States was still a rising power, with vast and largely untapped natural resources, and social and economic systems not yet burdened with the aftermath of a failed empire; the winning side could safely assume that once the immediate crisis was resolved, the nation would return to relative prosperity, pay off its debts, and proceed from there.
That won’t be happening this time around. When the crisis is over, whatever form it takes, the United States—or whatever assortment of successor nations end up dividing its territory between them—will be a shattered, bankrupt, resource-poor Third World failed state (or collection of failed states) that will likely have to struggle hard even to regain basic levels of political and economic stability. That struggle will be pursued in a world in which energy and other resources are getting scarcer each year, energy- and resource-intensive technologies are being abandoned by all but a very few rich and powerful nations, and unpredictable swings in temperature, rainfall, and other climatic and ecological factors make life a good deal more difficult for everyone. In that not-so-far-future America, the comforts and conveniences most of us now take for granted will be available only to the rich and powerful, if they can be had by anyone at all.
That’s the world our choices over the last three decades or so have been preparing for us, and for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. In such a world, the people who will have the most to offer their communities, their societies, and the biosphere that supports all our lives will be those who have the courage, now, to walk away from the consumer economy and its smorgasbord of dubious pleasures, and learn, now, how to get by with less, use their own capacities of body and mind, and work with the patterns and processes of nature. For the time being—specifically, until we get close enough to the crisis period that even the most nonviolent challenge to the existing order calls down massive violence in response—protest can still accomplish goals worth pursuing, especially if activists wake up once again to the power of personal example; over the longer run, though, it’s the change on the individual, family, and community level that so many of today’s activists reject as pointless that have the most to offer the world..