Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Distant Sound of Tumbrils

I’ve commented more than once in these essays about the echoing gap between the fantasies of elite omnipotence so common in contemporary America, and the awkward realities of a nation where power has become so diffuse that constructive action is all but impossible. The diffusion of power over time is a commonplace in the history of nations; an earlier post in this series has already discussed the concept of anacyclosis, the ancient Greek historian Polybius’ analysis of the way the diffusion works; still, there’s another dimension to it as well.

That dimension? The cluelessness that so often afflicts ruling classes in the last years of their power.

There’s no shortage of poster children for that in the present case, but I want to call on one of the less blatant examples here, precisely because he’s a very smart man. The person I have in mind is Robert D. Kaplan, who burst onto the current-affairs scene in a big way in 1994 with a harrowing and crisply written article titled "The Coming Anarchy." He’s one of the brightest of the tame intellectuals who provide American politicians with things to talk about, and like many of those tame intellectuals, he clawed his way up from a middle-class background to his present status as an adviser to Pentagon brass and a regular speaker at high-end conferences.

Thus it’s revealing to go back to one of his books from the 1990s, the lively but inconclusive An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future (1998), and read his account of his one brief collision with the country he thinks he’s exploring. Most of the book chronicles Kaplan’s encounters with his peers—that is to say, other tame intellectuals and the politicians and businessmen whose largesse keeps them employed—in their natural habitat, a landscape of airports, office parks, urban condominiums, and other fashionable venues. Once, though, his years as a foreign correspondent in some of the world’s rough places broke through, and he climbed aboard a Greyhound bus for a trip through the American Southwest to see the country and the people first hand.

The scene is really one of the best examples of unintentional comedy in modern letters. Kaplan briefly succeeded in extracting himself from the bubble in which tame intellectuals of his caliber normally live, and the world outside the bubble shocked him right down to the soles of his Bruno Magli shoes. His fellow passengers were, like, fat, and even the thin ones didn’t seem to be trying to fit any definition of pretty and stylish he’d ever encountered; they wore cheap ill-fitting clothes in garish colors, and some of them had their belongings in plastic garbage bags rather than, say, Gucci suitcases. You could practically hear the "Ewww, icky!" escape his lips.

Now it so happens that I’ve done a certain amount of travel by Greyhound bus through various corners of the country, and shared space on a moving bus with the same kind of Americans that left him gaping in horror. (If I’d been on that bus with him, no doubt he’d have been appalled by the guy with the scruffy beard and ponytail two seats up, wearing baggy clothes that had seen many better days—hint: you don’t wear nice clothes on a long bus trip—and reading some dog-eared fantasy novel from the 1970s instead of whatever piece of highbrow trash the New York Review of Books was touting that week.)  I’ve seen the garish polyester tank tops and the T-shirts that look like they’ve been used to clean auto parts, the women on their way to visit boyfriends who are doing five to ten for one thing or another, the college students who don’t have fancy scholarships, the middle-aged couple with bottom-level jobs on their way to visit some uncle they haven’t seen in ten years and who’s dying of cancer, and all the rest of it.  All this is familiar enough to most Americans, but to Kaplan, it came as a shock.

Mind you, he had the courage to get in line along with his unfashionably plump, unfashionably dressed, unfashionably accessorized fellow passengers, and board that bus. I suspect that most of his peers have never done anything of the kind, and would never think of doing so. In today’s America, if you want to avoid seeing how most people live, nothing could be easier; America’s geography is so thoroughly carved up by income level that it takes a deliberate effort to fall out of the comfortable orbits inhabited by the middle and upper classes and plunge back down to Earth.

This is quite common in aristocratic societies at certain points in their history. When Marie Antoinette responded to reports that the Parisian poor had no bread by saying, "Then let them eat cake," she was being clueless, not catty; a life in the rarefied circles at the zenith of ancien régime France had given her precisely no exposure to the fact that it was the price of bread, not some unexpected shortage of it, that was making the lives of the underclass wretched. Her husband probably had a slightly clearer grasp of the situation, at least in the abstract, but he—along with a great many other aristocrats who would share his fate—had no more useful an understanding of the powderkeg on which the vast and tottering structure of the ancien régime was so unsteadily perched.

The irony here is that the ancestors of these same aristocrats had been as hard-bitten a collection of ruthless pragmatists as history has on display. The medieval barons whose progeny were on their way to an appointment with Madame Guillotine not long after 1789 resembled nothing so much as old-fashioned Sicilian mafiosi, complete with the Mafia’s devotion to the Catholic church, its code of honor, and its readiness to slaughter people en masse whenever the situation seemed to warrant it. Like every other feudal elite in history, the old French aristocracy emerged in a time of chaos, when the last scraps of central government had gone missing in action, and local landowners smart and strong enough to gather a band of armed followers and lead them into battle could impose their own rough justice on as large a domain as they could seize and hold.

Such times do not favor cluelessness.  Even after the feudal system formalized itself, the heir to a barony who was too detached from the hard realities of the time could count on being removed from his position by the business end of a battle-axe.  It was only after warfare became a monopoly of the French king, and aristocrats no longer had to risk their lives regularly leading their vassals on the battlefield, that it was possible for the French upper classes to isolate themselves in a bubble of their own creation and start drifting toward their wretched destiny.

It’s of interest to note that this process took a great deal longer in two other European nations, Britain and Prussia—those of my readers who got an American public school education, and so know nothing about history, will probably need to be told that Prussia was the nucleus of the German Empire, and what’s left of it is now part of Germany. In Britain until after the Napoleonic Wars, and in Prussia right up through the Second World War, it was common for the sons of aristocrats to join the military.  Since Britain and Prussia both spent most of the 18th century at war, clueless young aristocrats tended to be removed from the gene pool via the helpful Darwinian selection pressures of early modern warfare. It’s worth noting also that British noble families drifted out of the habit in the 19th century, and the stereotype of the blithering aristocratic idiot entered British popular culture not long thereafter.

America’s aristocracy—yes, I can hear the screams of outrage evoked by the use of that latter phrase. Let us please get real; we have one, or a close equivalent to one. In every community of social primates, there’s an inner circle of members who have more influence, and more access to whatever wealth happens to be available, than the other members. In every community of social primates, your odds of getting into that inner circle depend partly on whether your parents belonged to it, and partly on your own ability to defeat rivals and bluff or bully or fight your way into it. Any group of social primates that claims not to have an aristocracy—as far as I know, this affectation is limited to human beings, though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that bonobos have gotten into it as well—has simply found it convenient to rely on a covert hierarchy instead of an overtly recognized one.  In today’s America, as in every other human society, the single most important predictor for your place in the income distribution curve is your parents’ place in the same curve. Some people do move up from below—Kaplan, as already mentioned, is an example—but they do so by adopting the values and attitudes of members of the social strata above them, who by and large control who is and isn’t allowed to make that ascent, and who make that choice on the basis of who fits in.

America’s aristocracy, as I was saying, has never had the tradition of sending its sons into the military.  The great wars of America’s history—the Civil War and the two World Wars—have seen members of every class show up at recruiting stations; the little wars have been fought by professionals or, in a few cases, by whoever happened to enlist when the drums started pounding and the press yelled for war. Most other potential sources of Darwinian selection have been kept away from America’s privileged classes with equal solicitude. The one exception is economic struggle, and even there the transfer of wealth from individual financiers and industrialists to trusts and holding companies has done much to guarantee that even the most feckless child of wealth and privilege will continue to enjoy wealth and privilege until the guy with the scythe makes the whole point moot.

John Kenneth Galbraith, whose prescient writings pointed to so many of the pitfalls into which today’s America is busily flinging itself, sketched out the consequences with his usual urbane wit in his 1992 book The Culture of Contentment. Galbraith seems to have taken a good deal of pleasure in making himself unpopular in the corridors of power and privilege, and the book just noted must have contributed heartily to that end; I’m thinking here particularly of his discussion of the unmentionable fact that the more money an American makes, the less actual work he or she has to do to earn it. Still, the core of the book is a precise and mordant comparison between the privileged class of contemporary America and an example I’ve already cited, the French nobility on the eve of the Revolution.

That comparison has an exactness that very few people notice these days.  Louis XIV, the Franklin Roosevelt of his day, took a great deal of wealth and privilege from the French aristocracy and imposed a flurry of restrictions they found burdensome.  After his time, it became a central goal of the nobility to restore their position at the king’s expense. Their strategy is one with which modern Americans ought to be familiar: they insisted on a massive military buildup and an aggressive foreign policy that landed France in expensive wars, while at the same time demanding tax cuts.  The goal was simply to bankrupt the French government, so that—no, not so that they could drown it in a bathtub; instead, they wanted to force the king to call the États-Général—roughly, the equivalent of a US constitutional convention—which alone could create entirely new tax structures. Once that happened, they hoped to bully the king into restoring their former privileges as the price of acquiescing in a new tax regime.

The result was a high-stakes game of chicken between the party of the aristocracy, and the party of the civil servants, bureaucrats and officials whose authority and wealth was guaranteed by the power of the king. (If you want to describe these two parties as "Republicans" and "Democrats," I’m not going to argue.)  What neither side noticed was that their struggles imposed severe burdens on the rest of the population, the peasants, laborers, and small-scale businesspeople on whose passive acquiescence the entire structure of power and prestige ultimately rested. As the struggle went on, the aristocracy did their best to delegitimize the king and the central government, while the civil service and its supporters did their best to delegitimize the aristocracy; both sides succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and managed to strip the last traces of popular legitimacy from the French political system as a whole.

So when the aristocrats finally got their way and the États-Général were summoned, all it took was a few speeches by radicals and a bit of violence on the part of the Paris mob, and the entire structure of the ancien régime disintegrated in a matter of weeks.  The aristocrats, who were chiefly to blame for the mess, were also the last to figure out what had happened. It’s tempting to imagine one of them, stepping aboard the tumbril that will take him to the guillotine, saying to another, "So, Henri, how’s that political strategy working for you?"—but there’s no evidence that any of them managed that degree of insight even when the consequences of their failure were staring them in the face.

I sometimes wonder whether the members of America’s privileged classes will show any more insight into the forces behind whatever messy fate waits for them.  Certainly they’re making all the same mistakes as their French equivalents. The power, wealth, and influence of the privileged classes in today’s America is a function of their ability to manipulate an elaborate structure in which government and what we jokingly call "private" industry are inextricably tangled. Most members of those classes have no skills worth mentioning other than those needed to manipulate that structure. They’re very good at manipulating the structure, and extracting wealth from it—that’s why they have the status and the influence they do—but they have forgotten, as most aristocracies forget when they reach senility, their own dependence on the structure.

Like the aristocrats of France before the Revolution, indeed, they’re busy undermining the structure that supports them—the culture of executive kleptocracy that pervades the upper end of American business these days is hard to describe in any other terms—and they’re equally busy trashing the last scraps of legitimacy the American political and economic system still has in the eyes of the people, for the sake of short term political advantage. It has in all probability never occurred to any of the people engaged in these activities that there could be negative consequences, or that the people in ugly clothes who bear the brunt of all this brinksmanship may eventually withdraw the support on which the entire structure depends. None of this can possibly end well: not for them, and probably not for the rest of us, either. I would remind those of my readers who think they would cheer the collapse of America’s ancien régime that what followed on the heels of 1789 was not the Utopia of reason promised by the radicals of that age, but the Terror, followed by the Napoleonic Wars.

In a way he didn’t intend, a core metaphor from Kaplan’s famous article "The Coming Anarchy" makes a perfect image for the mess ahead. He imagines the people of the world’s rich industrial countries as passengers in a limousine rolling through the dark and potholed streets of some Third World city, rife with poverty and violence. It’s interesting to note that he never asks what will happen when the limo runs out of gas. (I don’t happen to know his current views, but in earlier books he rejected the concept of peak oil.) Nor does he discuss what happens when the driver tries to dodge a pothole without braking and slams the limo into a brick wall—that’s more or less what’s happening to the economy of the industrial world just now—and let’s not even talk about the possibility that the people of the city might throw up some barricades, or lob a couple of Molotov cocktails in the limo’s direction. When one of those things happens—and I’m all but certain that it will—I hope Kaplan has enough of his wits about him to put on a greasy T-shirt and a pair of torn blue jeans, and mingle with the crowd.

I’d like to thank all my readers who chipped in over the last week to help Post Peak Fiction Magazine get off the ground. They’re still a ways short of the funding they need to get the magazine up and running, though. A donation of $35 will get you a subscription for the first year, not to mention help make sure that there is a first year. The magazine’s site at will give you all the details.

End of the World of the Week #30

I’m not sure what it is about UFOs, that iconic image of twentieth century folk mythology, that has been such a magnet for the apocalypse meme. Within a few years of those first 1947 sightings, UFO enthusiasts began to insist that sometime very soon, the saucers would make their presence impossible to ignore, either by landing on the White House lawn or in some other suitably dramatic fashion. Even though the years and decades have rolled by since then, the conviction remains unshaken; I still get fervent emails now and then insisting that I’ll see how wrong I am once Disclosure happens, which is sure to come any day now.

Still, not every true believer has the patience to sit and wait for the promised miracle to arrive all by itself. In 1952, science fiction fan turned UFO enthusiast Alfred Bender organized the International Flying Saucer Bureau, one of the very first UFO organizations in North America, and launched a project to talk to the aliens by mass telepathy. On World Contact Day, March 15, 1953, at 11:00 am Greenwich time, IFSB members and friends around the world concentrated on a message that began: "Calling occupants of interplanetary craft!" The goal was to get the saucers to respond somehow, in order to make contact with alien intelligences who would then save the Earth from the threat of nuclear war.

More than two decades later, an obscure Canadian band named Klaatu used the words of the message as the lyrics for their one major hit, Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, which later got covered by the Carpenters. Still, that was the only response the message got; if there were aliens in Earth’s skies in 1953, they weren’t listening.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Unknown said...

The difference between now and then is that then a few people of our upper classes had had some contact with hoi polloi. By now I mean now, and then means the 1950s and 1960s, when I was in my teens and twenties.

A long-departed golden age? Hardly. But there were still a few factory-owners sons who had to spend some time on the floor before ascending to the upper echelons, and many Americans had to spend some time in the military, often as officers granted, but still they had to rub shoulders, in a way, with the proles. Or at least hear what they had to say. Something that someone like, oh, Mitt Romney has never had to experience. Not to pick on him--he's just a type of his class and there are so many.

Yeah, they'll go down, through their own stupidity. But it will be messy, and I'll be glad to not be around to witness it.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown, exactly -- and it will be messy. It always is.

Kieran O'Neill said...

"America’s geography is so thoroughly carved up by income level that it takes a deliberate effort to fall out of the comfortable orbits inhabited by the middle and upper classes and plunge back down to Earth"

It's interesting to note that under Apartheid, urban planners had an active policy to encourage exactly this. Black-only areas were carefully situated just close enough to supply factories with cheap labour, but well enough hidden by geography (behind the hill, around the bend) that the white middle-class weren't exposed to the squalor endured by the people living there.

I wonder to what extent the USA's urban planning has followed this path.

Kieran O'Neill said...

As for the limousine/Molotov analogy: I think it can be argued that the "war on terror" is a (small) first taste of that...

The North Coast said...

Dear JMG

May I gently correct you on one tiny little inaccuracy?

The much-maligned Marie Antoinette never, ever said "let them eat cake". NEVER. That attribution was debunked over 100 years ago, being a slander propagated by her aristocratic enemies.

This woman was slandered and scapegoated incessantly and mercilessly, not by the "common" folk nearly so much as by members of the aristocracy and certain members of the royal family who deplored her for her Austrian origins and her distinctly non-aristocratic manners.

If there's anything one cannot accuse that unfortunate princess of, it's a lack of compassion or charity. Starting with her first year in France, when she and her husband gave away a considerable amount of money to victims of the fireworks explosion that marred their nuptial celebration, Marie Antoinette gave generous sums to charity every year, and after being chastised for her extravagance while in her early 20s, cut back her spending very sharply, remodeled her dresses, and continued to give a significant portion of her yearly income to charity, founding and supporting homes for poor young mothers and adopting many poor children, not just one little boy. She and her husband had their children donate their Christmas gifts to poor children, and insisted that members of their intimate court give, also.

Sorry to digress, but it distresses me to see a decent, kind person, who never harmed anyone in her life, made into a symbol of everything that was wrong with a savagely unjust order she couldn't have changed if she'd tried.

The North Coast said...

Having said what I said in my foregoing post, I will say that this week's column is on point.

Guardian said...

It's not just a US problem. In Europe (in which I include the UK) we have a similar problem of a ruling elite detached from the masses. This seems to me particularly clear in France and the UK where members of the ruling class are increasingly career politicians from the same small group of universities (and in some cases schools!). In the past in Britain many members of parliament used to come via the professions or on the other side of the political divide the shop floor so had experience of how the real world worked. Alas this is now rare as student politicians become interns become researchers and then MPs.
In Europe, unlike the US, the increasingly large underclass are kept quiescent by a relatively generous social security blanket. However the current debt crisis is starting to fray said blanket. You only have to look at Greece which is a classic case of a kleptocratic elite staying in power by 'bribing' the people. But when the money ran out...

void_genesis said...

Is it worth considering that a key difference between now and pre-french revolution times is that back then the basic machinery of society (growing food, manufacturing) was in the hands of the lower classes. They could afford to throw off the upper classes and still find something to eat.

Now the lower classes are utterly dependent on the technology that is owned and directed by the upper classes for basic subsistence (or at least subsistence as they currently practice it).

That makes me think the turning of the iceberg is going to be much more chaotic this time around.

Glenn said...

Just returned from a brief visit to Mt. Rainier, and wanted to comment on some of the _comments_ from last week.

Family size: I don't know how, but even before the Soviets influenced Mongolian family planning, they had very small families for at least a century, with no modern drugs or even condoms available (could have used the original "sheepskin" [ovine appendix], but I've read no mention of it).

The improvements in what we think of as "traditional" sailing rigs, are in many respects dependent on affordable, strong, machine made cloth, line and steel rigging wire. There is a blossoming of different small boat rigs in Europe and North America starting in about mid 17th century. In a post peak oil world, such are likely to be rare. Our ancestors didn't use "primitive" rigs because they couldn't figure out fore and aft sails or jibs, but because they made what would work with the materials they had. Once example is small boat rigs; prior to machine made cloth, they were just too expensive. Rowing was simply more cost effective. The Roskilde Museum in Denmark made a reproduction wool viking ship sail a few years back; it cost $750 per square foot.

This last applies to a whole host of technologies and trades, as soon as the materials were available at a reasonable price due to cheap fossil fuel energy, tremendous advances were made. Hero had his steam turbine, some alchemists may have made batteries; but the Greeks did not have steam powered railroads, and no one in Elizabethan England had an electric powered coach.

Marrowstone Island

Thomas Daulton said...

A very succinct, short and sweet explanation of what we all know in our guts but can't prove: nitwits like Thomas Friedman are the reason America is in for a hard fall.

"Most members of those classes" [the political and the corporate] "have no skills worth mentioning other than those needed to manipulate that structure." Gem of a quote right there, which has really been my experience working for a variety of public and private-sector jobs. I'd say that most managers and administrators (political and corporate) once had some basic training in useful skills, but those skills have long since atrophied to nothing -- never having been practiced much firsthand to begin with -- and after years upon years of indoctrination that "real" merit supposedly comes from managing other people's work, whereas doing work with your own two hands is a sucker's bargain.

I'm currently working in a middle management job myself, and I can just feel whatever trifling real-life skills I had as a youth slipping away, under the erosion of endless 80-hour weeks drawing Gantt charts. Thank you once again to JMG for reminding me that I need to reverse that skills atrophy, and pronto.

CGP said...

JMG, thank you once again for a fascinating post.

I appreciate the fact that you are drawing historical parallels with the current situation. I believe many of these parallels are informative and valid. However, I think there is a significant difference between the past (e.g. the fate of the French aristocracy) and now. The difference, I believe, is that those in power have access to technology and weapons that are so much more sophisticated and dangerous than what aristocrats and ruling classes of the past had access to. This means they can spy on people and use all sorts of means to imprison, injure and kill people with an efficacy past rulers could not even have dreamed of. Sure, people also have access to more sophisticated technology now than in the past but this change in technology seems to have benefited the ruling class disproportionately. Hence, I believe the discrepancy between the power of the people and that of the current ruling class is far greater in favour of the latter making it so much more difficult for them to be overthrown.

What am I not understanding? I accept that peak oil is real and that it will change society fundamentally over time. I also accept the Law of Wholeness and therefore agree that when the ruling class hurt society they hurt themselves in some way. However, given the technology and the institutions available to them I cannot see them being toppled. Rather, I imagine them continuing to rule indefinitely, albeit over an increasingly impoverished and unstable society. However, that will make their wealth and privilege even more of an advantage making them even harder to topple. What I can imagine is the ruling class creating a world resembling that of George Orwell’s 1984. Obviously I assume you disagree. Please dissect my logic and tell me where and how I am wrong. This is one of those instances where I do not want to be right.

Karim said...

Greetings all!

Great writing as usual! The parallel between the US upper elites and the French aristocracy is enlightening to say the least. But of course it does not stop there, as the same could be said of elites in Europe and elsewhere.

But is there not a small possibility that either in the US or Europe, someone like Roosevelt comes up, understands what the elites have brewed for themselves and manages to send some bankers to jail, curtails the excesses of the financial world, scales back military spending and thus delays by some years the collapse of the present regime?

Are there any prior historical examples of a leader who managed to do just that? Or in other words, any historical examples of any society that gracefully declines? I take the risk of asking naive questions!

In the case of France, the trigger (or déclic) was high food prices. Do you think that high food or energy prices may act as final trigger once more?

How much time do you give to Kaplan before he HAS to choose between downing a pair of worn blue jeans or be chased down a high street by an angry mob?

A minor rectification if you allow me: États-Général ought to be written États-Généraux.

hadashi said...

Riding through America in a bus. Yes, I've done that! It took me a week at the age of 21 (in 1977)to travel day and night from Disneyland to New York. (I didn't dare venture out of the bus stations.) That sums up my total experience of the United States, but it was enough! Grand Central Station looked so horrendous that I jumped on the subway and got on a plane to London within 45 minutes, where I felt much safer roaming the streets at midnight than I had for the previous seven days.

Spyral said...

I think the analogy with the French Revolution era is an interesting one if not entirely apt. The situation then was far more complicated and involved a lot more manipulation by the wealthy bourgeoisie (hardly small-time businessmen) and the artisans angered over the guild system.

Hardly "a bit of violence" and a "few speeches" on the part of the radicals. They had been cooking things up for years prior. Most of the nobility had either fled to the HRE or England, or were working in the Etates to try and reform the system without bloodshed. The feudal system was long abolished. And the nobility was well aware of the feelings of the peasantry--the queen (who btw never said "let them eat cake"--that is a misattribution) might have been, but by the time 1789 rolled around, there had been riots. People were aware. And in the rural districts, the nobility and the peasants certainly had contact with each other.

The American system, though is much the same as the actual French system. Some clueless, maybe, most caught up in forces they cannot control, some gaming the system for temporary benefit because they realize it's on its way out. Roger Ailes and his equivalent on the left are using fear to control--much like the Jacobin rhetoric--and those whose education or indoctrination leave them unaware fall for the moldy bread given, instead of demanding the cake they deserve.

Robert Burdette said...

The one major difference I see between the period leading up to the French Revolution, and current day America is that--and I readily admit my knowledge of the former is only superficial--there didn't seem to be a large segment of the French population defending the aristocrats. The same can't necessarily be said of America at the moment.

I'm always amazed at how deeply ingrained the idea of class mobility is in American society. It seems the endless reams of data showing that most Americans don't actually move up the "class ladder" is all but ignored by most people. Furthermore, there seems to be a significant portion of the population that thinks the answer to all of America's problems is to give the aristocrats more power. How else do we explain the Tea Party movement, and the popularity of writers such Ayn Rand among members of the lower middle class?

To me it seems even those individuals critical of the French revolutionaries--Burke for example--weren't so much defending the status quo, as they were saying: "Yes, there's a problem, but nihilism and anarchy are not the solutions."

Mean Mr Mustard said...


Not so sure about your theory of Darwinian selection of the Officer Class, having encountered a few idiot Galloping Majors and Colonel Blimps - but it was their class separation and ignorance of realities which often showed. Never confuse them with the facts, don't you know. It could have been worse, as improved selection did occur a few generations back, when the purchasing of commissions was abolished, but that only happened after the shocking leadership failure displayed at the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Here in the UK it's now manifestly obvious that vital sections of the establishment are compromised. Even the police are corrupt to some degree or other - they've spied on (and had sham initimate relationships, even children) with environmental activists, while going easy on investigating dubious press ethics and taking cash for tip-offs from the gutter press.

As those parts of the establishment were undermined, the remote political class have been bought by tax-dodging corporates at the Party level, while fiddling their own substantial personal expenses as well. Very few were imprisoned for that, while their underlings could expect instant dismissal for overstating a travel claim.

Meanwhile, the completely feral banker class, through their ignorance and greed, have crashed entire economies.

But for now, we do still have Bread and Circuses on offer, through the munificence of such fine incorruptible institutions as FIFA and the IOC. Though this latest circus to come to our town, courtesy of the IOC, has forced the establishment of 'Zil lanes' for their exclusive use, a very physical reminder of the separation of the limousine class.

Still, while Bread and Circuses are being provided, all is well.
To bring on any big change in the power structure requires a sudden shock or major public failure, rather than a steady decline.

Perhaps the drastic ending of Bread and Circuses could herald a period of benign military rule. With commissions for sale once more, to fund the table silver at the Officer's Mess.

(Welcome to the new boss -
Same as the old boss...)

Colonel Mustard

SeaMari said...

Mr. Romney's remarks at the NAACP conference are a good illustration of the core points of your post this week.

Odin's Raven said...

The leading American aristocrats have transferred their productive estates, and their vulnerable persons, offshore. When America's cities burn, they may expect to watch the display on television, from the comfort of a yacht moored at a well guarded Greek island, or a Paraguayan ranch,or in a tower block in say, Shanghai; whilst sipping a Chateau Lafitte, and texting each other about the dumb behavior of the low class cattle. No doubt they will be making extra money by fixing interest rates and other financial finagling, for as long as those opportunities last.

It's the classes who comprise the bureaucracy and it's lobbyists and contractees, who will still be available to take the blame. Some of those will be able to develop their contacts with the criminal classes and the military to become barons in the new world order.

Its been suggested that slavery will re-emerge as other sources of cheap energy disappear; so as the current order implodes, those who 'collapsed' early may find themselves growing organic veggies as serfs or slaves of new masters!

John D. Wheeler said...

Excellent post, as always.

Being a francophile, one thing I can't let go is the popular mistranslation of Marie Antoinette. One of the idioms of French is that what we call "cake" they always call "pieces of cake". A better translation would be "Let them eat crumbs!" So it was more an expression of arrogance than cluelessness.

I find it highly ironic that American public doesn't know where Prussia was, as the modern (circa 1900) American educational system was modeled after the Prussian one.

ando said...


Essays on the current state of affairs (mess) do not get any better than this. I almost cheered out loud when you had the grit to write "American Aristocracy." That whole paragraph was mighty fine.



Mister Roboto said...

I work for a corporate grocery store in the Midwest, and the behavior of the executives at the top level of this organization is a classic case in point of what you are discussing in this post. Recently, at the likely behest of the CEO, a new uniform policy was implemented. This policy requires employees to wear black dress-pants and white-dress shirts along with black neckties (yes, including female employees) and black shoes and belts. It is difficult to imagine a uniform more ill-suited for grocery-store work. I guess we should be grateful we weren't required to wear suit-coats as well. And despite being paid absolute peanuts for wages, all new employees have to buy all their uniform pieces for themselves, including the black shoes and belts if they didn't already own such clothing-items.

This corportation also pursues policies and attitudes that effectively chases away the very sort of good and reliable employees that a customer-service-oriented entity should really be trying to retain (at least when the good employees in question have any sort of option of working elsewhere, and they never want to return once they leave). They also cut employee working-hours to the marrow of the bone so that lines at the registers are frequently long and shelves are often poorly stocked. As a result, they are losing market-share in this locality. But the more market-share they lose and the more employees they alienate forever, the more feverishly committed they become to torturing and killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Oh, and the grocery bags of this chain of stores prominently features the face of the CEO on them and has done so for the past four years.

It is difficult to imagine such corporate types not encountering significant personal difficulty when the commonfolk start lashing out as everything falls apart. As a spiritual person, I have absolutely no desire to participate in said lashing out or even condone it in any way. But when a society becomes politically and economically unstable, the commonfolk have a way of not much caring for such quaint notions as The Golden Rule or spirituality.

ladydog70 said...

"those of my readers who got an American public school education, and so know nothing about history"

Hee, hee, hee, you are naughty!

But , you will recall that around the same time as France was in turmoil Edmund Burke the British philosopher was noting that, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it"

Paul said...

Always nice to have a convenient stick to beat the toffs with, even if you have to grab one from elsewhere. It's one of the ways the radicals and firebrands agitate. So Katherine the Great was supposedly killed when a horse collapsed on top of her... in her bedroom, and Marie Antoniette supposedly uttered those famously out of touch words.

It doesn't dilute the point you're making, Mr Greer, but as far as I can see, it's a deliberate misattribution.

M said...

Okay, it will be messy. The American Aristocracy will go down, presumably taken out by the people on Kaplan's bus. But there are factors in America today that can't be paralleled by 19th century France. Factors like sheer size of population, more racial diversity, and the fact that much of the "peasantry" performs work that, like the bygone French aristocracy, also will be rather useless in an age of scarcity and decline. (As opposed to a directory listing from 1866 in my Hudson Valley township, which lists name and occupation of all residents. More than half are designated "farmer" and the great majority of the rest are also involved in making an actual something--hatter, wool spinner, mason, blacksmith, carpenter, shoemaker, painter, miller, tinsmith.)

Human psychology being what it is, I'm guessing lots of disillusioned folk will strike out at the nearest target that their brains can categorize as "different"--whether that be someone of a different color or religion, or the poor schmo who has a "nicer" car.

I confess that recent TAR posts have been disconcerting. When I discovered your blog, it helped me think more cohesively about many of the issues I had been grappling with, and at the same time, reading back through the archives, it gave me some hope that there were steps I could take to begin to prepare for coming changes. More recent posts, however, are filling me with a vague sense of dread, with intimations of imminent social unrest and violence, and "major resource wars" in the next decade or two. (I have a male toddler, so that worries me greatly.)

I've recently beefed up our home's insulation, and took a full working share at my CSA farm this spring in addition to taking a small community garden plot. While my wife does not share my views, she has at least been learning how to can vegetables. She got very angry recently when I suggested that our son won't be going to college because that institution is a giant bubble and debt creation device (and we could not afford it in any case.)

I guess my point is, I'm hoping that you will continue to offer practical advice mingled in with these ominous rumblings.

Finally, a note about the recent Collapse Now While the Collapsing's Good" meme here at the Archdruid Report. This month's Harper's magazine has an article, "Broken Heartland, The looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains." In covering various solutions, the author talks to a couple, Frank and Deborah Popper, who for years have been espousing the idea of The Buffalo Commons: "The suggestion that residents embrace their own decline and convert their land into a vast national park known as the Buffalo Commons has sparked the enthusiasm of conservationists and the wrath of local farmers in equal measure." (Apologies if this was already mentioned in previous comments--I try to read them all but I don't remember them all!)

So, another slogan for TAR fans:
Embrace the Decline.

AA said...

Poor Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake," though she did get her head lopped off. It was said by someone perhaps seventy year before her time, and the reference to cake was really a reference to brioche.

martin-knight said...

According to my Muir's Historical Atlas, what's left of Prussia is now firmly part of Poland, not Germany.

Andy Brown said...

The USSR went through a dry run for collapse in the early 1990's. Although the tumbrils never rolled, there was a brutal economic sorting that left large swaths of the former elite staggering off into brief, impoverished retirements. And new elites were swollen by unfashionable, ruthless opportunists of various stripes, some criminal, some bureaucratic, some political. (Eventually, the siloviki, heirs to the Soviet security apparatus won out as gatekeepers of the new aristocracy, but that's a later development in Russia.) What was striking in the 90's was the utter, sudden and total destruction of the power of legal ownership, bureaucratic regulation and money, (legitimacy had already died long before) and the sudden power of those who had physical control over the material resources. It didn't matter who had jurisdiction over the factory, it mattered who actually had the machinery, the energy sources to run it, and the cooperation of enough people to run it, or access to enough violence to take it - without any real money or contracts or even legitimacy. It was, uh, interesting.

William Hunter Duncan said...

Diffuse power is right. The number of people that are gaming the system on the top end is so wide, so broad, it's impossible to imagine anything but a broad shutdown changing anything - enter, liquidity freeze, storms like you saw in Cumberland recently, corn crop failure, etc. What I wonder about is, Orlov's piece recently on the possibility of mass psychosis, and the body feeding on the body, while the head dictates. Of course, the head cannot exist without the body, but tell that to a politician or a banker.

Speaking of cluelessness, that seems to be the state of the bulk of America at this point, like an impenetrable wall of obliviousness, perpetuated by the MSM and the majority's hypnotic genuflecting servility. Meanwhile, right out in the open, Obama has been laying the legal groundwork for martial law and then some, and America hasn't blinked. It's astounding.

phil harris said...

UFOs had some attractive attributes - probably still have.
My guess is they offer 'proof', to a believer that is, that there are actually no limits (that is, if creatures get clever enough - and we are in that category, of course). Speed of light? There are ways round that. Energy sources enough to burn a way from star to star. We will get there because it has been shown it can be done. And so on ...

To my mind the above naive mind-set actually reflects some deeper aspect of our 'common sense', and one not quite so quaint. This is caught neatly by a short essay by the physicist Tom Murphy, and copied on TOD just now.
One quote I liked
"Science fiction—as inspiring and entertaining as it may be—is largely an exercise in ruthless extrapolation. Even less constraining, abeyance of the laws of physics (or grammar, in my case) is optional in this genre. For sure, I would be the last person to claim that we know all there is to know about physics. But any deviation from what we do know presently is a pretty substantial extrapolation."

"Ruthless extrapolation"? I like it.

Larry said...

I still remember that section of Kaplan’s book describing the bus ride, which I must have read a decade ago. The reality of bus rides generally isn’t that colorful. It’s interesting that the only “richee” with a sense of noblesse oblige is Warren Buffet who is willing to share the wealth a little. It might come from the fact that he’s been an avid reader.

SumErgoSum said...

Hi JMG. Have been reading your blog for a while, but have just decided to dip my toe into the discussion a little.

Your post discusses the effects of failed leadership, something that we are all going to be familiar with in the coming years.

Along with discussing failure, you often outline ways to adapt using alternative methods, so a discussion about how leadership could be improved in the face of a seriously downsized human race might be useful.

I'd like to offer up a quote from my favourite author to illustrate this.

“The merest accident of microgeography had meant that the first man to hear the voice of Om, and who gave Om his view of humans, was a shepherd and not a goatherd. They have quite different ways of looking at the world, and the whole of history might have been different. For sheep are stupid, and have to be driven. But goats are intelligent, and need to be led.”
― Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

A quick look at history shows us that large civilizations have an aspect of leaders acting like their subjects are sheep, and indeed the problems of scale may make it the more effective course.

While we cannot know the future, it is fairly certain that civilizations will tend towards localization for most things, along with some trade.

As these civilizations fragment into much smaller communities, leadership may evolve as well. Treating the people that follow you as intelligent equals who require guidance is a strategy that is likely to work well in a community.

In short we will need more goatherds and less shepherds. Since large civilizations have an habit of blowing themselves up, it strikes me as being a little more sustainable in any case

Forgive me if this has been discussed in an earlier post, as I have not read them all.

Rocco said...

I wouldn't bother if I didn't think your ideas and your presentation of them weren't more worthwhile than most of what I read these days, but, please define "tame intellectual". ("Tame" as opposed to what? "Wild"?)You used the term at least four times in the current post. I read you regularly and can't recall seeing that particular usage before. Strikes me as some sort of inside reference that I am not in on. If so, you owe it to those not properly informed to offer an explanation, or just not use it any more. Reminds me of the first times I ran across the term "chattering classes", which I find pretty useless in revealing truth. Your purpose, as I see it so far, is just the opposite.

Unknown said...

I think I still have my Klaatu albums someplace :D

Catana/Sylvie Mac said...

Like the first commenter, I probably won't be around to see it all go down the tubes. Part of me is glad, while another part regrets missing the drama. And like Odin's Raven, I'm concerned about a return of slavery, indentured servitude, etc. In fact, I'm currently making notes for a novel in which fiefdoms and serfs have made a come back. So your post was very relevant. Thank you.

John Michael Greer said...

Kieran, as far as I know, it hasn't been quite that deliberate here in the US, but the effect is the same.

North Coast, many thanks for the correction -- but I don't think it's any more fair to claim that I made her a symbol of everything that was wrong with pre-Revolutionary France, by citing her as an example of upper-class cluelessness: far from the only issue, then or now.

Guardian, I'm not surprised. I try to focus on the US, since that's where I live, and the last thing the rest of the world needs is one more American trying to tell them what to do!

Void, depends on what you mean by the lower classes. The current system, for example, could keep running about as well as it is now -- which admittedly is no great prize -- after the extermination of every American who makes seven figures or more a year. Not that I'm suggesting that, please note, but the rich don't actually contribute that much to the functioning of the system -- a point they may discover the hard way in the future.

Glenn, hmm. Well, we'll see.

Thomas, nah, nitwits like Thomas Friedman are only part of the reason. A significant part, but only part.

CGP, I'd encourage you to think about just who actually has access to all those technologies of control; it's not the elite, it's a bunch of employees hired from the polyester-wearing class, who are being paid low wages to sit in front of the screens and do the scut-work of managing a security state. Their interests are not necessarily the same as those of their bosses. The French monarchy had a very extensive system of secret police, domestic spies, and soldiers, and the great majority of them simply refused to do their jobs when push came to shove, because the collapse of legitimacy affected them as much as anyone.

I'd encourage you to remember the collapse of East Germany a few decades ago. The East German state had arguably the most comprehensive system of repression ever put in place, with something like half the population spying on the other half, and it fell over, twitched, and died in a matter of weeks because not even the secret policemen believed in the system they were hired to uphold. That's the way revolutions unfold -- and it's also the reason why Orwell's 1984 is a great novel and an inaccurate prophecy.

Karim, thanks for the correction. As for a Roosevelt, yes, it's a possibility. I don't see such a figure on the political horizon, either here or in Europe, though.

Hadashi, good heavens. I've been to some of the same bus stations, and didn't feel particularly uncomfortable leaving them to get travel food at convenience stores, or the like. Maybe it's just that I've spent a lot of time living on the wrong side of the tracks, or something.

John Michael Greer said...

Spyral, your description of the state of France on the eve of the Revolution has very little in common with the ones I've gathered from contemporary sources and modern historians alike. Not sure where you're getting your facts -- for example, the claim that most of the French nobility had fled the country before 1789 is frankly malarkey -- and you might want to doublecheck them.

Robert, there were significant factions in French society who supported the aristocratic party against the claims of the crown and its bureaucratic supporters, for much the same reasons that lower middle class Americans support the Tea Party against the Democrats and federal bureaucracy. The swing toward condemnation of the entire elite class came only after the revolutionary process got under way, and I think you'll see the same thing this time around.

Mustard, the problem there is that Britain isn't constantly at war these days. It takes a sustained barrage of enemy fire to bring the Blimps down to earth!

SeaMari, so's any recent comment from Obama you care to name. It's going to be wryly amusing to watch them try to portray the minute differences between them as vast issues, though at least we can be sure that the charade will end as soon as the polls close this November.

Raven, sure, and a week after they no longer have the US to protect them, all those rich exiles will be quietly interned "for their own protection" and never seen again. It's part and parcel of the upper class sense of entitlement that so many people fail to realize that money isn't real power any more than it's real wealth.

John, the Prussian influence in the US educational system vanished about the same time Prussia did. It had its problems, but at least students learned something.

Ando, thank you!

Mister R., back before I was able to write full time, I had jobs like that, in which management was drifting around in La-la land, pushing programs and policies that were gutting the companies they ran. On that scale, a failed executive can usually get hired somewhere else -- it's embarrassing how readily members of the executive class ignore the incompetence of their peers. On the level of nations, well, the former rulers of the US won't exactly be eligible for similar positions in other countries!

Ladydog, er, that wasn't Burke, it was Santayana. It's still a useful reminder.

Paul, no, it was a mistake -- I didn't happen to know that it was a misattribution. And what's with the reference to Catherine the Great, whom I didn't mention?

JP said...

Thanks, JMG!

You finally made me go answer the question "whatever happened to East Prussia?"

I've been reading a nice textbook from the 1910s - "Modern European History" to fill the holes left by standard-issue American education. I found a nice stash of 1920's textbooks some time ago. Some guy named Charles Downer Hazen, I think.

Next, I think I'm going to find something to address the late-medieval/early modern period.

Any recommendations for a good read in that timeframe (preferably with illustrated maps)? I'm thinking 1400-1700.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

We haven't had a nuclear war since 1953, have we? So it must have worked.

Yupped said...

While it could be satisfying to see certain members of the elite leadership class meet a suitable end at the hands of the masses (perhaps stoned to death with iPads or buried under mounds of Liberty Link corn? Or maybe just made to do their own yard work for a couple of hot weekends), I’m not convinced it will happen here. I’m sure things will get messy as we go further down the road. But I think the people really in the know will be able to fence themselves in somehow. They don’t actually need to become feudal masters; they can just put themselves under the thumb of some Lord Protector who can do the ugly stuff for the elite class. And there are plenty of scapegoating and attention turning opportunities of course. So I’m thinking the result will be more like a true Third World dictatorship, an impoverished mass held down by a kleptocratic elite for a long time to come. More Hunger Games than Jacobin Club. But time will tell.

On a related note, I’ve been turning an idea from Introduction To Spiritual Ecology” over in my mind of late – how the power of any flow of energy only manifests fully when it approaches its limits. Now that I’ve gotten my head around this principle, I’m seeing it everywhere I look. And generally it’s a beautiful thing to see. But I wonder if this also applies to broader (and not so beautiful) society-wide energies, like the pursuit of limitless material growth? If so, does that account for the increasingly bizarre and self-defeating (but nonetheless powerful) behavior of leadership elites, as they get closer to the hard limits of growth? I’m thinking of resource wars and reactionary acts of various sorts. Maybe I’m over-thinking it.

John Michael Greer said...

M, well, I'm sorry if you find it disconcerting. I spent a good part of last year spelling out most of what I know, from personal experience and training, about practical steps to take, and I'll also be having a few things to say about potential options for constructive action as the American empire comes unglued. Still, you're right to worry about your son, and I don't think I'd be helping anything to soft-pedal the scale of the mess into which we're heading.

Martin, the old Duchy of Prussia is now part of Poland, but the 18th century Kingdom of Prussia included a good deal of the eastern third of modern Germany -- Berlin was the Prussian capitol, and to my knowledge that isn't yet a Polish city.

Andy, it's quite possible that, as Dmitry Orlov points out, post-Communist Russia will be an even closer analogue to our future than Revolutionary France.

William, the various steps taken by the Bush and Obama adminstrations to lay the groundwork for martial law make perfect sense if they're expecting a major insurgency in the near future -- similar, for example, to the one the US and its allies are busy manufacturing in Syria right now. I suspect they've got good reason to do so. We'll be getting to that down the road a bit.

Phil, I enjoy Murphy's essays! He's one of the best of the bloggers who are running the numbers on our energy future, and coming up with hard and unwelcome answers.

Larry, I don't know, I see a lot of plump people in garish clothes here in Cumberland of a summer; we don't have Greyhound service any more, but if we did, I suspect I could match Kaplan's experience any day of the week.

Sum, I haven't talked much about leadership here -- it's an issue that attracts misunderstanding the way a dead rat attracts flies.

Rocco, "tame" in the sense of domesticated by the current structures of power and wealth. If you have a better term for the class of intellectuals that make their livings writing papers for well-funded think tanks and giving talks to Pentagon brass and top level executives, I'd be happy to hear it.

Unknown, well, there you are!

Bill Pulliam said...

When I reflect on american hierarchical cluelessness, I feel that there are two walls. Just as the uppermost echelon has no idea about what goes on below them, so does the great obsessively-washed middle have no clue about what goes on below THEM. In our society "Let them eat cake" is not uttered by a fictionalized member of "The 1%." Rather, it is uttered on a daily basis by the middle class about the bottom 10-20% or so, often in the form of "Get a job!" or "Go back where you came from!" (that latter to ones what have managed to find one of the jobs that the Great Middle would never stoop to doing anyway). The attitudes you describe about bus travel are as likely to be held by a suburban householder with a 5-figure income than by an elite neo-aristocrat with a 7-figure income.

This divide was evident in the Occupy encampments last year, when the problems in the camps were often publicly attributed to those icky homeless people and dirty barefoot hippies, not to the "real" occupiers. I guess the 99% somehow is defined to exclude the bottom 10%...

Attitudes towards those below this second wall of cluelessness are perhaps one of the very few remaining meaningful dividiosn betweeen the two major political parties; and even tehre, neither party really want to talk about it much. The middle needs better jobs and health care; we're not concerned so much with the bottom who have no jobs ad no healthcare, and that seems to be across the board now.

So I'm not sure what this double division does to the scenario... to use meteorological analogies, when a Hurricane develops a second eye wall, the overall intensity of the storm drops. On the other hand, when a tornado funnel breaks into multiple vortices, that typically makes it even more destructive. Will the middle lash out in both directions attempting to exterminate (metaphorically or literally) those both above AND below it? Or will the bottom try to do to the middle just what the middle is doing to the top?

SeaMari -- Romney may have been at the NAACP but he was not talking to the NAACP. He was talking to his base, saying "See? I will stand up for you against all those [brown people] you hate so much, even to their faces."

John Michael Greer said...

Catana, you're welcome.

JP, nothing comes instantly to mind -- your local used book store can probably fit you out with something, though.

Deborah, what must have worked?

Yupped, it's a very common fantasy of elites that they can shut themselves away, and it rarely works for long in a time of collapse. Those Third World dictatorships? They survive because they're propped up by industrial nations via neocolonial arrangements. Tyranny succeeds in ages of expansion or stability; in eras of contraction and decline, it tends to disintegrate into anarchy, followed by radical feudal decentralization. Thus I'm not worried about a Hunger Games fantasy future; I think we have much more serious issues to be concerned with.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, that parallels the division in revolutionary France between the urban middle classes and the rural poor, which made the revolutionary era a good deal more complex than it might otherwise have been. It's a complicated pattern, and can go spinning out of control in various ways.

GHung said...

Regarding 'The American Aristocracy', I'm not sure such exists anymore, at least at the top. They are now global, multinational, and their wealth is as diffuse as their power (see Romney and his off-shore holdings). Any feigned connection to their country of birth is purely for convenience, power and profit. Their limos are fully fueled Gulfsteams, their correspondence moves at the speed of light, and, unlike the aristocracy of yore, neither their holdings, nor their loyalties are fixed. Today's elite are well 'diversified' indeed. Only their subordinates have much to fear, until this plays out globally and there is nowhere left to hide.

When I was 16 (1974) I found myself stranded in Fayetteville, Arkansas and bought a bus ticket to Albequerque (not an express trip, mind you). I'm not sure why Albequerque, except that it was in the right direction, and it was as far as my $12 would take me (the ticket was $11.35, I still have it and the receipt in a scrapbook).

After zig-zagging across southern AR and the parts of Oklahoma and West Texas that most people never see - folks departing and boarding in virtually every dust bowl survivor town and many crossroads in the middle of nowhere - my sense of reality was altered forever, as was my connection to my species. I still recall sharing my last orange with an ancient Cherokee woman who's southern drawl was even deeper than mine, and the way her eyes smiled.

The modern day elite are, indeed, clueless. Their disconnect is complete (except for their heads ;-)

Best hopes for acquainting them with the bulk of humanity.

escapefromwisconsin said...

I don't know whether you're aware of it or not, but the phrase "Versailles on the Potomac" has entered common parlance. Regarding the Tea Party, Writer Thomas Frank has compared our political situation to a sort of French Revolution in reverse, with the peasants streaming into the streets shouting "up with the aristocracy!" There's also a good bit in Fukuyama's latest book about how the French aristocracy became an extractive rentier class, and how tax collection became "privatized" allowing tax collectors to use taxation as a means of personal enrichment rather than a means to fund necessary government functions.

There's a new book out in the manner of Galbraith that's apropos to this post: Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes. you may want to give it a read. Hayes talks about how all our institutions seem to be riddled with fraud, corruption and incompetence despite the supposed rule by the best and the brightest:

Hayes pins the blame on an unlikely suspect: meritocracy. We thought we would just simply pick out the best and raise them to the top, but once they got there they inevitably used their privilege to entrench themselves and their kids (inequality is, Hayes says, “autocatalytic”). Opening up the elite to more efficient competition didn’t make things more fair, it just legitimated a more intense scramble. The result was an arms race among the elite, pushing all of them to embrace the most unscrupulous forms of cheating and fraud to secure their coveted positions. As competition takes over at the high end, personal worth resolves into exchange value, and the elite power accumulated in one sector can be traded for elite power in another: a regulator can become a bank VP, a modern TV host can use their stardom to become a bestselling author (try to imagine Edward R. Murrow using the nightly news to flog his books the way Bill O’Reilly does). This creates a unitary elite, detached from the bulk of society, yet at the same time even more insecure. You can never reach the pinnacle of the elite in this new world; even if you have the most successful TV show, are you also making blockbuster movies? bestselling books? winning Nobel Prizes? When your peers are the elite at large, you can never clearly best them.

The result is that our elites are trapped in a bubble, where the usual pointers toward accuracy (unanimity, proximity, good faith) only lead them astray. And their distance from the way the rest of the country really lives makes it impossible for them to do their jobs justly—they just don’t get the necessary feedback. The only cure is to reduce economic inequality, a view that has surprisingly support among the population (clear majorities want to close the deficit by raising taxes on the rich, which is more than can be said for any other plan). And while Hayes is not a fan of heightening the contradictions, it is possible that the next crisis will bring with it the opportunity to win this change.

Full review:

In your telling, Kaplan is a poster child for this meritocratic elite. And speaking of primates and social hierarchies: The Old Primates' Club: Even Male Monkeys Ride Their Fathers' Coattails to Success (Science Daily)

P.S. I meant to post this last week since the subject of both magic and TED talks came up, but I found this TED talk on magic (the kind you deal with) to be quite enlightening:


Bill Pulliam said...

Re: inching towards martial law...

For many decades, it has seemed that every administration has taken steps to claim more imperial power for itself. These steps have always been decried by the party that was out of power. And then when the power changes hands, the party that was out and is now in, does NOTHING to roleback what its predecessor did, and seems perfectly happy to exercise the expanded powers created by it opposition.

Or did I miss the speech where Obama announced that he was immediately suspending the Patriot Act pending review? Maybe it was a footnote to the one announcing the closing of the Guantanamo internment camp within a year, which I did hear, but have yet to see...

Of course the President has always had the constitutional power to declare martial law if "necessary," but declaring and enforcing are two very different things.

Mister Roboto said...

JMG: Yes, exactly. And one thing I should have also mentioned was how much the hours-cutting contributes to employee stress by making the fewer people who are working, work even harder (and believe me, this outfit wants some work out of you if they are your employer). It's a medical fact that stress kills, and I really have to think this puts many employees in the position of having to use their health insurance to get medical help, when they perhaps wouldn't if they weren't so stressed.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

John, I was referring to the end of the world of the week. "The goal was to get the saucers to respond somehow, in order to make contact with alien intelligences who would then save the Earth from the threat of nuclear war."

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Mitt Romney uttered a classic let-them-eat-brioche remark during a speech to some college students in April. The subject was how to get ahead.

“This kind of divisiveness, this attack on success is very different than what we’ve seen in our
country’s history,” he said. “We’ve always encouraged young people, take — take a shot, go for it. Take a risk. Get the education. Borrow money, if you have to, from your parents. Start a business.”

He went on to tell an anecdote about someone he met on the campaign trail who started a franchise with $25,000 borrowed from his father.

There are a good many families in the United States whose annual income is less than $25,000.

Jim R said...

Reading through the comments, I see that others have already said anything I would have said, so I have nothing random brainfarts here. Another splendid essay, thank you for sharing these well-formed thoughts!

... An existing salvage opportunity -- that satellite dish would be great for long distance QRP connections ...

... "Those who don't learn history are doomed to misquote it!" ...

@North Coast,
Your account of the charities of Marie Antoinette reminds me of the current-day efforts of Al Gore to mitigate global warming. The offering of financial fraud and minor inconvenience to defer nature's wrath is much too little, much too late. It is also similar in that those feeble efforts are met with derision from political rivals.

Good points you make there, I was thinking the same thing. So much of the infrastructure of current technology is taken for granted, and while an alchemist of 500 years ago could have made a one-off crystal radio at great expense, there would have been little point in doing so if there wasn't a nearby 50kW+ AM radio station. I believe I've mentioned here it before, but I have read an account of a transistor built from ice crystals (sorry can't find a reference). Traces of ammonia or acetic acid as dopants, and of course you have to keep it cold. The charge carriers are protons, so your ohmic contacts must also be hydrogen electrodes. I doubt that they will find practical applications for it.

As for the 50kW AM stations, maybe enough glassmaking and metallurgy will survive to make tubes; that French ham makes them, and I didn't see anything much beyond 19th-century tech in his machine shop.

I also enjoyed browsing the site someone mentioned, or whatever. It had a cool kitchen-table laser demonstration (though I wasn't sure just what was lasing, or whether he was just deriving illumination from a spark-discharge). Most of the guy's technology was interesting but wouldn't have much practical use in a severely-constrained economy. How easy will it be to obtain a robust 60kV power supply in the year 2100? And a burnt piece of galvanized steel as a crystal radio detector ... hmmm, maybe.

shargash said...

It is more than war that winnows out aristocrats. A "healthy" aristocracy has to maintain a balance between aristocracy and meritocracy. You don't have to let commoners get above their station, but you do have to shuffle off the idiots to places where the harm they do is minimized.

This breaks down in a sclerotic aristocracy, and you get people like William Bligh, who after failing at his command of the Bounty, went on to fail at being governor of New South Wales, and was subsequently courtmartialed two more times. All the while he kept getting promoted, ending up at Vice Admiral of the Blue.

Also, Larry Summers.

Glenn said...

JMG said:

"Glenn, hmm. Well, we'll see."

Kind of a cryptic response, so I'll try to clarify my second point. (Unless you were speaking of birth control).

Ever since the bronze age a lot of improvements have been a direct result of the availability of either improved or more affordable materials. The limit does not seem to be human ingenuity, but what we can afford in terms of time, labour and energy. As you and others have said, a good deal of what we view as "scientific" or technical advances have been enabled by scientists and engineers having access to cheap energy to make their ideas work.

In a pre-industrial society, the common wisdom is that labour is cheap, and goods expensive. That is because all goods take more labour to produce, in the absence of our current cheap energy.

In the specific case, of sailing rigs, which you commented on, and which I happen to know a bit about (it's just my life's passion and vocation), the advances of the last three centuries are the result of materials availability. I'm not worried about the ideas of modern rigs being lost, sailors are pretty bright, and it didn't take long for all the improved rigs (from a modern eye) to be developed. I'm not speaking of modern yachts of course, but of working craft, in both fishing, cargo and passenger transport between say, 1750 and 1900, though there are good examples outside this range.

One of the consequences of this logic is that the knowledge of the making and handling of the older, pre-industrial rigs and hulls needs to be preserved. In the age of salvage (coming up soon on your scale, the present is beginning to feel suspiciously like industrial scarcity to me), we should be able to mimic the 19th century pretty well. It's your "dark ages" until the slow rise of the potential ecotechnic future in which the older knowledge, now mostly shared by a few academics and very serious re-enactors will be needed. As just one example, the differences between how a hand woven hemp square sail of the 1600's was sewn, roped and handled is quite different from how the same sail, on the same type of vessel was sewn, roped and handled in the late 1700's when machine made cloth became widely available.

In any case, there are plenty of sailors, shipwrights and re-enactors familiar with 19th century design, construction, rigging, sailmaking and ship handling in the U.S. currently, whose knowledge will carry us through the age of salvage. I will try to pass on the more primative information for my heirs in our dark ages.

Marrowstone Island

Odin's Raven said...

I remember reading some years ago that the Bush family had bought a large estate in Paraguay, over a very large aquifer of fresh water. Then I read of the growing influence of international criminals in the economy of that country and how popular it was becoming as a resort for very wealthy Americans. Now we're told that the President has been overthrown by politicians who have strong connections to the military and to American policy makers.

The American aristocracy, or kakistocracy, does not fail to buy friends wherever it needs them. They can afford to buy all the military, political, media, bureaucratic and legal support they need, especially if they are already major partners in the local political and crime scenes.They are of course already inter-related in various ways with the very similar scum at the top of the heap in the rest of the world.All the money stolen from America has been re-invested elsewhere.

Thus, I doubt that, as you say
'a week after they no longer have the US to protect them, all those rich exiles will be quietly interned "for their own protection" and never seen again.'

It is probably easier to overshadow and control a small country than a large one. Enough of the no-longer-paid American forces will be happy to follow new paymasters, (taking their fancy equipment); especially if there is a political deal with the surviving American government to give a figleaf of legitimacy. After all, if the Gulf States can hire the elite of the Columbian army, it is quite conceivable that Paraguay say,acting as a front for a few super-rich Kakistocrats, could hire all it wanted of the American army, navy and air force after an American economic and political collapse. 'Atom bombs? You got'em!'

Also, the American Kakistocrats don't have to give up entirely on America. They can continue to control the political parties, and supplement this by creating or bribing mobs and protest movements amongst the 'sheeple'. The example of Clodius in the late Roman Republic could be up-dated.

It is said that the continental European feudal aristocracy arose from a mixture of the invading barbarian chiefs with the local senatorial class. It would be no surprise if a similar mixture of 'previously American' crooks with 'previously American' mercenary commanders and locally powerful interests became the rulers of the New World Order well beyond what used to be known as the New World.

Crisis is Opportunity. Rich pickings await the able and ruthless.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Dear JMG,

So there I was, cycling to work today, musing on the wealth bubble effect: Owing to the drought, subsidized corn is dying in the fields here in Illinois. More concerning, unsubsidized vegetables and fruit are too. the young hedgerow trees my friends and I planted in September have died.

Meanwhile, in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Chicago, the residents keep running their automatic sprinklers every night so their grass can stay green. Drought? What drought?

Like you say in your essay...

Lee said...

I have been a regular reader of yours for nearly a year now and so far agree with everything I have read. I have learned from and been challenged by your work. Thank you. This current essay brings to mind something I have believed for years.

It is my understanding that roughly 80% of the wealth in the U.S. is controlled by approximately 20% of the population. With the shrinking of the middle class, I have no doubt that the ratio is changing in favor of the wealthy with each passing year.

Have you seen any research about the wealth/population ratios at the time of the French and Russian revolutions? I believe when the ratio of wealth controlled by the minority reaches an extreme proportion – for the sake of this example let’s say 90% of the wealth controlled by 5% of the population – the revolutionary powder keg will be primed and lit. Keeping the previous essay about whole systems in mind, other factors will be involved but the wealth/population ratio will be a key ingredient in the mix

tubaplayer said...

@William Hunter Duncan

Ah! A penny drops. I read your blog when it pops into the top 50 on Google.

JP said...

I think that my issue with this post would be that we are not necessarily at the peak point of cheap energy.

What we *have* hit here is a massive debt wall where massive private credit expansion has hit a brick wall, per Doug Noland.

We're at a innovation plateau, so to speak, where the information expansion (computers, et al) has completed the first standard-issue expansion and then stopped expanding. This is what the dot-com bust was about.

And now we're in a debt/political bust, both of which are human cycles based on generational changes rather than involving peak cheap energy, per se.

I can't suss out the issue of peak cheap energy vs. standard issue Western political-economic-technological evolution.

Is there any good random Internet places where data on the cheap energy stocks and flows are being monitored?

Chris Balow said...

JMG, I do believe you are right about the likely arrival of those mobs and molotovs. Whatever the end result of that process, it represents, in the minds of those who participate in its development, a chance to capture the frustrated dreams and desires that the established order had appeared to prevent. It's so seductive, so irresistible, is it not? The idea that, while today you sit at the bottom of the barrel, tomorrow you can grab a rifle and take what you believe the world has owed you all along.

It's that temptation, it seems to me, that makes the arrival of the Terror so inevitable.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

This was a highly entertaining read this week. Your Archdruidical prose had an extra lashing flourish.

As for myself, I considered myself an Anarchist for a time. Now I consider myself an Arachnist: someone who seeks to see the hidden connections between and weave the web of the wyrd.

However I doubt Kaplan was talking about the Anarchism in the line of Alexander Berkman, Goldman, Kropotkin (himself a prince and aristocrat) and others of those ilk. As someone who has had an interest in those types of Anarchist philosophies I wonder how much they will come into play in the future. Besides from folks leftover from whatever the Occupy movement will have morphed into by then, lobbing rocks and Molotov's.

Working at the public library I see many of the same kind of people you describe as being on the Greyhound.
And it seems like the number of unemployed, or under-the-table and black market employed, folks escaping the global warming heat of the summer, increases. It's a shame that the majority of them come here just to check their facebook status. (I hate the way that particular site turns people into information and "relationships" into a database.)The smell of the libraries tech center is not altogether pleasant. Unless you happen to like the way sweat smells when the person exuding the stuff subsists on McDonalds. (I've long been one of those pagan types who doesn't wear deoderant, but since I eat in a more healthful manner than some of my fellow Americans, I don't think my sweat is all that stinky. But that's just my opinion. I'm sure some of my coworkers have felt differently.) In Orlovsky's book he mentions that the way people smell in a society in collapse is something we're all going to have to learn to live with.

A good way to get used to other peoples funny smells is to start using the public transit while its still around. But be careful about taking home a hitch hiker, by which I mean a bed bug. In Cincinnati there has been an outbreak of these buggers. The petrochemical insecticides the exterminators use to kill'em is to going to dry up of course...

In the meantime there is so much to do.

Since their has been talk of Post Peak Fiction here the past two weeks I just want to recommend again, heartily, Paolo Baccigalupi's two young adult novels, "Shipbreaker" and "The Drowned Cities". These are in my mind a much more realistic depiction of a possible future than the Hunger Games blatherskite.

Rocco said...

I see: "tame" in the sense of being bought and paid for and happy for it, happy to do the master's bidding. The opposite then would not be "wild" as I first assumed, but rather something like alert, suspicious, perceptive, free and radical in the sense of having a willingness to pursue things to their root causes. The term does make sense to me now. I questioned it only because I had never seen it before. Did you coin it yourself?

Thank you for your succinct and clear definition. Your insight and analysis in these essays continue to impress me.

Richard Larson said...

Interesting comparison. The past is repleat with quick change motivated by the hardships endured by the lower class. The USA is not immune.

Jennifer D Riley said...

The latest excuse in favor of the 1% came last week from a unemployed conservative: "There's no reason to attack or get rid of billionaires. If you do, then another set of rick, wealthy people will just pop up in their place. The billionaires will always be with us." As if billionaire and mushroom DNA has cross-bred. My thought was that's not how I remember the results of the French Revolution.

John Michael Greer said...

Ghung, that's certainly the stereotype. Still, given the extent to which the major banks and business corporations still serve the national interests of the US -- that's a point I'll be discussing down the road a bit -- I'm not at all sure how much of it is the behavior of a minority or a certain amount of window dressing.

Escape, I'll check it out! It's interesting that the only meritocracies that work in the long run are those that, like the imperial Chinese bureacracy, require each generation to prove its capacity to master a completely useless branch of knowledge. The British classical education is another example of the same kind.

Bill, it's certainly a bipartisan project!

Mister R., true enough.

Deborah, gotcha. In the absence of the least scrap of evidence that UFOs had anything to do with that, I prefer to credit other factors.

Jim, you're welcome.

Shargash, oh, granted. War is just such an efficient way of doing it. I recall the Civil War general whose last words were "Don't be silly; they couldn't hit an elephant at this range."

Glenn, hanging onto the 19th century methods sounds like a good plan to me. Since mechanical looms can be powered by water -- and in fact were so powered for the first century or so of the industrial revolution -- and sailcloth in bulk will be a major economic and military advantage, I suspect that any coastal nation that has the potential to save or recover that technology will do so.

Raven, you're quite right that there will be plenty of opportunities for the able and ruthless. That's why the current American aristocracy is doomed; all they know how to do, again, is manipulate a hypercomplex and idiosyncratic system, which is coming apart around them. It's not today's bankers and corporate bureaucrats who will lay the foundations for the feudal system of Dark Age America, but a mix of Hispanic drug lords, successful gang leaders, midlevel military officers, and here and there an unusually gifted mayor or county commissioner.

Adrian, sorry to hear about the hedgerow trees! If this continues, as of course it may, you're going to need to research xeriscaping and bring in dryland plant species that can stand the cold of winter.

Tom Gaspick said...

Am I being dense, or is there something of a contradiction in this paragraph?

"America’s aristocracy, as I was saying, has never had the tradition of sending its sons into the military. The great wars of America’s history—the Civil War and the two World Wars—have seen members of every class show up at recruiting stations; the little wars have been fought by professionals or, in a few cases, by whoever happened to enlist when the drums started pounding and the press yelled for war. Most other potential sources of Darwinian selection have been kept away from America’s privileged classes with equal solicitude. The one exception is economic struggle, and even there the transfer of wealth from individual financiers and industrialists to trusts and holding companies has done much to guarantee that even the most feckless child of wealth and privilege will continue to enjoy wealth and privilege until the guy with the scythe makes the whole point moot." [Emphasis mine.]

'Just wondering,


John Michael Greer said...

Lee, that's an interesting and plausible theory. I'd also check the point at which the amount of wealth left to the majority is no longer enough to keep the economy running -- the poor spend, which fuels the economy, while the rich save and invest, which has a much smaller multiplier effect -- triggering a self-reinforcing crash that gives the majority no alternative but revolt.

JP, get over to The Oil Drum and start following the regular posts on energy issues. You'll find quickly that we're well past peak net energy, peak cheap energy, and peak energy per capita. The debt thing is a result of the attempt to evade those things by mass-producing credit.

Chris, exactly! You get today's gold star.

Justin, there's anarchy in theory and anarchy in practice. Anarchy in theory is wonderful. Anarchy in practice is so far to the opposite extreme that most people will embrace even the harshest tyranny in its place.

Rocco, I don't know for a fact that it's mine, but I don't recall lifting it from anybody else.

Richard, a nice crisp summary.

Jennifer, is your unemployed conservative friend a Christian? If so, you might mention to him that he's got his Bible exactly backwards -- Jesus said "The poor ye always have with you." One more data point for my suggestion that the GOP is a pack of Satanists...

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, the point is that if they only showed up at the recruiting stations during the same big wars that got everybody else, you can hardly speak of an aristocratic military tradition, can you?

Ricardo Rolo said...

Well, the Marie Antoinette story might not be true, but was definitely in caracter ( or atleast the people of the time could see it as such ) given the other true stories about her, from her ideal peasant village ( imagine the American First Lady hiring some Hollywood actors to pretend to be just plain Bible Belt denizerns in a mock-up Smallville in the gardens of the White House just for her diversion ... ) to all the ugly facts that became public with the famous Necklace affair ... a clear case of si no e vero ...

Anyway, and to be honest, only a American could be shocked about the use of the word aristrocracy ( that only means governement of the well-born ) applied to the USA ;) As you point out, there is literally no human society where the social status of your parental figures does not influence the upper limit of your social climb ( if there is a climb at all ... ) and after seeing the curricullum of people like the 43th president of the United States, not even a blind man could not see it unless it was activelly trying to not see it ...

There is one thing that might bork a American Jacobin scenario and that the French counterpart only avoided purely by acident: the elite basculating en force in support of a foreign power and try to stay in power with the support of a external military. In fact and linking tone of the first comments to your post, both the Greek and American elite ( in company of a lot other elites ) are being quite ready to kowtow to the supposed future Chinese overlords, in the same way the French aristocracy had no issue in exiling in Koblenz and other places, while bringing all the crowned heads armies of Europe against their kinsmen ...

By the way , and only tangentially related, you mentioned in another post that the "globalization" ( aka sweatshopping somewhere far away ) was a sign of the change of relative costs between mechanized ( and oil fed ) and manual work. That is definitely a plausible position, but note that a lot of countries decided to do the oposite of what the globalisation suposedely upheld and basically payed to kill or buy the other countries industries. The Chinese politics on the USA can definitely be described as such and the EU subsidies to literally not work in a lot of countries that were middle-manned by kleptocratic local nababs ( I'm in a country where the EU payed the fisherman to not work just to not make competition to the French and Spanish fishing fleet in the 90's ), that were thinly disguised actions from France and Germany to protect thir own industries ( that or the readiness for Volkswagen and Renault to grab the Skoda and the Dacia auto factories ) ... well, we could explain it as processes to save their industries from the rising tide for a while by making them aparently more valuable due to lack of competition. Not a winning proposition if we continue going down the Hubbert ( or Seneca ) slope as we are, but something we will definitely see a lot in the next decades.

Just to end , and tying up everything in a neat package, for a lot of time ( not sure if now ) the biggest profiter of the EU agrarian policy subsidies was a certain Elizabeth of Windsor ( due to the fact that the Crowned Head in England has a lot of real estate attached to the title ). Given the treatment given to her son in the recent riots ( in the same way his limo got eggs it could had got a Molotov, like you suggest in your methafor ) and his ... well, disatachement for the plight of the common englishmen, I guess that family fit like a glove in all of this discussion :/

Jennifer D Riley said...

No, my conservative pal is not a Christian but gets news from Faux news, and other conservative outlets, and I was going to add sounds like a paraphrase of the Bible, along the lines of there will always be wars and rumors of wars.

My next morph is to look at the CEO ads and outsourcing and ask: will the former middle class decide there don't need to be any CEOs? Speaking of kleptocracy and aristocracy. My reply to my conservative pal: when this country was founded around 1775 and later, there was a democracy of sorts. The aristocrats were in England (except for Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton) Here we go again.

escapefromwisconsin said...

This may be noted in a future post, but despite the common belief, revolutions have never come from the bottom strata of society; they have always come from the middle classes. The poor tend to be accepting of their lot, but the aspirational middle class has higher expectations, and when they become stagnant and frustrated, they have the necessary motivation and connections to make things happen. This is self-evident: every society has poor people but few have revolutions.

That may explain the relative docility of Americans thus far: lots of stored wealth combined with a sense that the people on the bottom deserved to be there. Historically, if you had enough drive, there were institutions you could take advantage of to be upwardly mobile. Now those institutions are being dismantled. Even professionals are working in minimum wage jobs and college graduates can't find work. When the middle classes see their privilege stripped away, that's when heads start to roll, figuratively speaking, and I think we're getting close to that point.

Another article apropos to this post from Naomi Wolf in The Guardian: This pampered private school elite can only lead to US decline.

I wonder what the British readers made of that?

Doctor Westchester said...


I always thought the term "housebroken" intellectuals might be more viscerally accurate.

badnewswade said...

I don't think it'll be like the French revolution, if only because the French revolution was ultimately a socialist revolt. Socialism is dead now - it's been tried, both in reformist and revolutionary forms, and both have led straight back into autocracy.

Also, the people are every bit as crazy as the government. Media control is an incredible thing nowadays - it is possible to literally brainwash entire populations, you could almost say that organised religion has in a sense been supplanted by the media, which is entirely controlled by an insane and out of touch ruling class.

The effect of this is that people don't blame the rich or the government for their problems - they blame poor people. If they are poor themselves, they blame immigrants and minorities.

It is quite possible that what modern societies do when they collapse is a lot more chilling than revolionary France or Russia and a lot more like 1990s Yugoslavia. British Muslims in particular are terrified that we will have another Bosnia here and I don't blame them. Skinheads are taking over my town for the weekend and driving people out of their homes - and the establishment are quite happy to let them do it. Anything that drives a wedge between people, they will push.

I give Britain a decade, maybe a decade and a half. It'll really kick off after Scottish independance of course...

Hidden Author said...

Two points.

1. You say that the rich do the least to earn the money that they have.

But what about those rich people like my great-uncle who started out as a farmhand but due to sleep problems that restricted his sleep to an hour or two a night, managed to overwork himself into a small fortune? Has it ever occurred to you that such real-life Horatio Alger types deserve their wealth and deserve the right to pass it on to an heir of their choosing?

2. What political tradition do you think the warlords of the future will come from? It seems to me that a conflict could emerge from a libertarian tradition that tries to purge the cronyism from state-led capitalist economies being challenged by socialists who use the race card to transform wars over economic ideologies into race wars. What do you think about that hypothesis? I think that would be sad because I have adopted Korean cousins, among other things.

Robert Mathiesen said...

I'm not so sure that revolutions just happen by themselves in response to intolerable conditions of life. Certainly both the American and the French Revolutions of the late 1700s were organized -- somewhat behind the scenes -- by relatively small groups of people who built on foundations of widespread popular discontent. The same was also true of the Russian Revolution of 1917, according to well-informed Russians I knew who had lived through those times.

Nor was the nation-wide student movement of the '60s spontaneous. It began in Berkeley, of course, and by accident I was a "fly on the wall" as it took off, spread, and was carefully crafted to seem spontaneous by the people who organized it.

Thereby hangs a small tale. In those days, about fifty years ago, I was trading weekly Russian lessons for home-cooked dinners. One of my pupils, who was a co-worker of mine in the university library, happened also to be the wife of an officer of the local chapter of SNCC (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee). The two of them were only a few years older than I, so we would all have a companionable dinner together, and then she and I would work on Russian at the dining table while he made plans with his friends and fellow-organizers in the living room. I heard a lot of what was said those evenings, and I also briefly met a few of the major players behind the scenes -- not just people involved in the Civil Rights Movement, but also people who were planning the Free Speech Movement before it came to the attention of the pubic, and were working to provoke occasions and provide content for the oratory of well-known front-men like Mario Savio. At some point, maybe in the last months of 1965, a stroke of dumb luck also put a very large sum of money (IIRC, about $100,000), free and clear of any obligation, into the hands of some of the people who were organizing the Free Speech Movement. They used that money over the next few years to send speakers and organizers to universities all over the country.

MAbout ten years ago I learned that the husband of my student was not just some random young political activist trying to make his mark on the times, but the son of the redoubtable Archie Brown, a leader in the San Francisco Longshoreman's Union and also a member of the Communist Party's national committee. He had developed his considerable skills as an organizer at his father's knee, so to speak.

michael menkevich said...

Hello John Michael,
Very heady post this week, and good follow ups. You have me rockin'
Having lived thru the most recent American uprisings and put downs, the way I see it is this: Corporate America has misted a strategy to divide and conquer the economic system in the USA, and has completed the plan for most people concerned.
Now they are bottom feeding to garner the last of the spoils before it all goes down the drain.
The people are left holding the empty bag, and get to kick the crap out of each other when they discover that the game is over.
In an ultimate blame game, it would be great to have some heads to roll, but we will be banging our own heads against the wall if we do not find a way to work together to overcome the failure of the systems.

michael menkevich said...

The land of the free and the home of the brave. Do you believe in that myth? Just step out of line and get your skull cracked open is more like it. Best to keep your head down and keep shuffling your feet. Yes massa
Lennon, or was it Lenin said, "say you want a revolution, better change your mind instead".
Make peace with yourself.
Tomorrow will be hard enough without the mental anguish.
Small is right, slow food, love your self and your neighbor. Find a way to get along. Study the birds, they seem to find a way.
Prepare for the gathering storm.

SweaterMan said...

@Robert Mathieson

"not just people involved in the Civil Rights Movement, but also people who were planning the Free Speech Movement before it came to the attention of the pubic, "

I believe that was the Free Love Movement, Robert. Another part of that wonderful 60s scene :-)

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I didn't know what a tumbril was so I googled it. Read the wikipedia entry. Then did an image search to get a better idea. Amongst the images of two wheeled carts pulled by ungulates there was a glossy head shot of.. well, what I imagine a French aristocrat would look like in the modern era. The link contained this lovely gem:

Are you familiar with the phrase “tumbril remark?”

It’s a great phrase. Tumbrils were used to carry French Aristocrats to the guillotine and ‘tumbril remarks’ refer to things the entitled aristocrats said that made the peasants feel like they were completely justified in killing them. “Let them eat cake” is usually the example cited.

Emphasis in the original.

Also, the discussion of meritocracy and mastery of a completely useless branch of knowledge reminded me of the handicap principle where an individual signals their fitness through a costly action that is correlated to the actual trait of interest. The classic example is the peacock's tail which requires a lot of resources to produce and makes it easier for predators to spot. This adaptation evolved to provide reliable signaling between animals who have an obvious motivation to bluff or deceive each other.

This segues to a previous post, Democracy's Arc you responded to a question about the high levels of cooperation amongst bees with: We're social primates, not social insects, and one consequence of that is that -- like most mammals -- each of us is always jockeying for position vis-a-vis the rest of the baboon troop.

Which leads back to the handicap principle, from Wikipedia: The central idea is that sexually selected traits function like conspicuous consumption, signalling the ability to afford to squander a resource simply by squandering it. Receivers know that the signal indicates quality because inferior quality signallers cannot afford to produce such wastefully extravagant signals.

Which leads back to the tumbril remarks that drip from the lips of people engaged in sending wastefully extravagant signals. Said words provide excellent justification for conveying the speaker to the chopping block via simple carts. It appears that we are at an impasse.

That's not quite right but I need to go to bed.


Robert Mathiesen said...

@ SweaterMan, who wrote:

"I believe that was the Free Love Movement, Robert."

No, it was the Free Speech Movement. I was there, and it sounds as though you weren't.

phil harris said...

@escape links to a Naomi Wolf article in the Guardian This pampered private school elite can only lead to US decline and wonders how UK readers might react. The Guardian is read by quite a number of more 'progressive' teachers, so there must be an audience, but perhaps they are not representative, except of one segment of the mostly better-off university educated stratum of UK life.

We have a curious obfuscation about education in our class-stratified society. We call better-off private schools, 'Public Schools'. (Think Tony Blair, David Cameron & the Mayor of London. Strange is it not?) Privilege starts early and stays/pays the course. Lord Palmerston back when attempted the first 'reform' of The House of Lords, and more than a century later we still have an unelected second chamber - and we will have for a while yet.

Our ruling-classes - I still tend to think of our dear Queen as representing something - used to send their small boys at the ages of 7 to 9 away from their home and from their nurse, (their mother usually not having such an intimate role), to 'boys-only' schools. As the empire grew these developed a kind of quasi-military training, infused with imperial values and became associated usually with forms of 'muscular christianity'. These schools tended by and large not to enhance intimately satisfactory later adult life.

This costly system could not be adapted to cater for the later mass society and universal minimum literacy. Compromises and attempts at transmitting an 'ethos' meme, however, were made, and these persist. British working class never wholly accepted the 'ethos', nor even fully the concept of compulsory education. In their way, all our kids tended to have an emotionally hard time, certainly until the last few decades. (Where mass media, fast food and other consumerism has led, is another story). The old-school reality though never matched the ethos very closely, and led to a lot of rewriting of personal history during adult life. By and large, especially perhaps in the well-off private sector in Britain, who had more to reform, some of the more outright nightmares previously routinely inflicted on children have been largely rectified.

So, I guess certain sympathy for wealthy Manhatten from the readership of the Guardian.

Personally, I think the current meme of 'toughening up' to beat the global competition, is so much political BS. It’s a bit like suggesting we remove regulation of our city smoke and other air pollution to 'toughen up' our lungs and weed out the namby-pambies. Careful management of education for a few hours a day is possible, but forcing young primates into age-stratified fenced group environments however justified on grounds of immediate security, has a strong probability of introducing social pathology, as well as cultural cluelessness. Doesn't work for most social animals, including I have to say, pigs. Dmitry Orlov has had some very interesting observations on educational experience. I think I know what he means when he discusses the Russian term krugozor. That might have future implications for the USA imperial decline.

Unknown said...

Your post rings so true in the kleptocratic cluster f... that is Tasmania. Our self annointed morons can scarcley find their arses with two hands and a flashlight, and we are rapidly reaching the "no clothes" moment. I look forward to it with relish.
I suspect with good reason that I am with a sizable majority.

On another matter, did I spot you over on SHTF spruiking the charms of Appalachian Red Brick towns recently.

Lauren said...

@Hidden Author - I look forward to JMG's comment on the wealthy. I'm not sure how wealthy your relative is, but growing up in the 1960s, I thought being a millionaire would be wealth. With some (many?) CEOs making many millions of dollars annually, a millionaire just ain't what he use to be. It's difficult for me to imagine a net worth of a billion or more, but I don't consider someone "Master of the Universe" wealthy without a few Bs.

And one might underestimate the number of those with "only" a million or so in cash or assets who might choose the Greyhound bus option today. A millionaire today is much closer to being poor than the truly wealthy are close to being "only" a millionaire.

Jim R said...

@Robert Mathiesen
Interesting story. You must have had FEEBs following you everywhere back then.

I just looked up some of the names you dropped, reading Wikipedia articles. And realized how unaware I was of that stuff at the time. It was in the papers, but I really didn't pay much attention.

Which, in turn, makes me realize that most people are not aware of the history through which they are living right now. Ask the fish how it likes the water, to borrow a phrase.

Jim Brewster said...

This post recalled to my mind one of the interesting tidbits of local history in my old stomping grounds: French Azilum, a scheme to settle French aristocrats, Bourbon sympathizers, and Haitian slave revolt refugees in a planned community in Northeast PA. Several families did settle there in 1793, and there has been much speculation that the Queen was to join them, but she lost her head around the same time the first refugees arrived.

I highly doubt the American public was as warm and fuzzy toward the Ancien Régime as this article suggests, otherwise they would have probably settled in the relatively tame environs of Philadelphia instead of the sparsely populated wilderness of the upper Susquehanna Valley.

Within 10 years the financiers went bankrupt, and Napoleon pardoned the exiles. Some returned to France and Haiti, others dispersed into various parts of the US. The son of one founder, John Laporte, built a mansion near the settlement and had a successful career in finance and in Congress. In other words, he became a member of the American aristocracy.

Glenn said...

@ Sweater Man,

I grew up in the People's Republic of Berserkeley in the 1960's; Robert is correct, it was the Free Speech Movement. For Free Love, along with heroin, syphilis and gonorrhea, one went across the Bay to the Hait-Ashbury district in San Francisco :)

I don't know how scripted the "movements" were, the anti-war was clearly enlightened self-interest and led directly to the current drafting of the poor via a "professional volunteer army".

Having lived under military occupation and Martial Law, I couldn't figure out if Governor Reagan was the world's biggest fascist idiot, or a closet revolutionary. Everything he did seem to make things look worse on the news and eventually tilted public opinion to the nice white kids getting their heads busted by the blue meanies. It radicalized me for life. The mask was certainly off when I saw what the constitution meant to "the man" when any group of people actually tried to assemble freely to have their grievances redressed.

Marrowstone Island

Adrian Skilling said...

Bill, I think you are correct in the UK too. The middle-class has become very isolated from the lower-classes. This has allowed the government to haphazardly cutting welfare benefits to the so called 'deserveless' poor suffer.

They are easily persuaded by the governments line that lower benefits are a good incentive to get people back to work. Never mind that there are no jobs (indeed a permanent talking head, Claire Fox, on the BBCs The Moral Maze was outright critical of the jobless - "Why can't they just accept something low-paid" she said - we right-wing ideology couldn't let her believe that those jobs didn't exist - it would break her World view that the poor deserve what they get). This is all a smoke-screen so the middle-class can save itself.

From (not my favourite paper!)

"The British Social Attitudes survey also found that 54 per cent believed unemployment benefits were too high - up from 35 per cent in 1983 when the annual study was first carried out."

I think sadly, we will see fighting over the crumbs between all classes and races.

Nathan said...

David Brooks - in spite of being a writer for the New York Times and therefore a tame intellectual himself - has a decent editorial about just this topic (elite entitlement). Friedman wrote one on the topic too, but it is unreadable.

You can read Brooks here -

I think his point about today's elites not having a sense of their place in society is true for the parts of the economy where competence + heredity matters, instead of heredity alone. When I was working in Silicon Valley, I learned firsthand that most of the programmers and managers there are competent, unlike their political counterparts in DC, but have no sense of their place in the larger system (ecological sense). This post made me think that the common refrain of 'Change the World!' used as a mission statement so frequently in Silicon Valley as elsewhere, in reality meant 'Change my Socioeconomic Position!' from middle to upper class.

Justin said...



Did you impart a recommendation for anarchy from my words?

I intended no such thought, however, within the European tradition of thought, I am not sure what is even meant by anarchy in practice other than to loosely describe a violent mob.

Stepping outside of this cultural context, plenty of anarchist cultures have existed and practiced just fine. For a contemporary example, see the Zomia.

In any case, I'll stipulate it however you want because the point I am trying to make has nothing to do with promoting anarchism.

Fwiw, I am with you on democracy. It stinks, but in so far as European cultures have governing institutions at this point in time, democracy is a good option compared to what else has been tried. Arguments to the contrary meant to provide a plan for radical change are, among many things, irrelevant and my comment was not at all in the spirit of offering one or the hints of one.

I have to admit that I'm still mulling over the possible implications of the latest round of financial chicanery, I could come up with a bunch of predictions, but what all of them have in common is that I don't think this one goes down easy, and its not likely to get any easier.

LewisLucanBooks said...

"Tumbril Remark". That's a good one. And very accurate. My favorite tumbril remark? Barbara Bush at the Houston astrodome in reference to the Katrina refugees ...

"And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. So this, this is working very well for them."

Off with her head!

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Jim R:
I'm sure now that you're right, but I didn't notice any FEEBs at the time, or even think much about the possibility.

But it was only after I found out who Doug Brown's father was, about a decade ago, that one odd event of my Berkeley years started to make any sense at all.

Like all Berkeley undergraduate males at the time, I had to take two years of mandatory ROTC. Since the draft was hanging over all our heads, I decided to stay with ROTC for all four years and then discharge my military obligation as an officer. You could choose your specialty as an officer back then. Because I was very good with both mathematics and linguistics (including Russian), I choose cryptography, which fell under military intelligence.

About half way through my junior year -- and not all that long after I had started giving those Russian lessons to my co-worker -- the kindly old sergeant who oversaw all us ROTC undergraduates called me into his office one day, and advised me to drop out of ROTC. He said he thought I would have a hard time actually getting enlisted men to obey my orders, once I was an officer. This did make a certain amount of sense to me, since I knew that I was something of an oddball and a geek. But I was also worried about doing my eventual military service as a private, if ever I was drafted; and I told him as much. What he said in reply astonished me. He promised that if I did quit ROTC, I would never have to worry about being drafted -- no explanations, just that bare promise. I slept on it overnight, and agreed the next day to do what he asked, since he did inspire a great deal of trust in me. As it turned out, I was right to trust him -- somehow my draft board never got around to calling me up.

But this whole conversation never made much sense to me until about a decade ago, when I finally happened to learn just who my co-worker's husband was. Then it all made perfect sense.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Glenn

I wouldn't say that the movements of the time were *scripted*, precisely, but there were attempts to *manipulate* the popular discontent and intensify it by a variety of groups of people behind the scenes, who were working somewhat at cross purposes with one another. I just happened accidentally to learn a very little about the efforts of one of those groups.

As far as Gov. Reagan went, the judgement of the generation before me was divided. Some thought he had already started to go senile, and was using his acting skills to seem gubernatorial. Others, who were far to the Right even of the John Birch Society in their politics, thought he was a dangerous leftist, maybe even a secret Communist, manipulating things to stir up as much trouble as possible. In retrospect, I favor the senility theory myself, and I think that he had already begun to be the puppet of Edwin J. Meese III and a few of Meese's like-minded friends. But I don't suppose I'll ever know for sure. Meese was pretty clearly one of the major powers behind Reagan's throne.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

"Britain isn't constantly at war these days.."

Since WW2, only 1968 was a quiet year for Tommy Atkins, and I'm not even sure about that. In rough order - Greece, Palestine, Korea, Malaya, Suez, Kenya, Aden, Borneo, N Ireland, Cyprus, Falklands, Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan...

Oh! What lovely wars...

Nathan said...


Have you read Vineland by Thomas Pynchon?? It is so much better than his other work (which comes close at points to highbrow trash). It is a beautiful fictional elegy for the California of the 1960's, with most of the plot set in Northern California in the '80's but all the characters were shaped by radicalism and Free Love and everything along with it. Your witty comment about Governor Reagan reminded me of the book - if you haven't already read it, I think you would love it. That goes for anyone else too. Vineland truly is a gem.

Mario Grant said...

John: I have also heard the term "organic intellectual" to describe what you called "tame intellectual", and I understood it that way. They are the intellectuals who are on the service of a special interest group, and are offered space on the editorial pages of the main newspappers and magazines.

elf said...

Karim asked, "Do you think that high food or energy prices may act as final trigger once more?"

I don't. I think the trigger will be health care. We have food, even at the very impoverished levels of society, at a level above the middle class of most of history. (Much of that is unhealthy food, leading to a childhood diabetes epidemic and other problems--but the point is, even the very poor in the modern US often have food on the table.) And while fuel prices are steadily rising, that doesn't *feel* like a greater imposition on the poor than on the rich.

The point of contention that raises to public outcry and violence is likely to be health care, especially for children, most especially for children with disabilities and special needs. While there are treatments for accidents and emergencies widely available, even to the poor (serving to lock the poor into future poverty, but they do get casts and appendectomies as needed, for the most part), treatments like dialysis and organ transplants and long-term medications are *not* just as available to the poor as to the wealthy. And access to early identification of long-term problems is strongly restricted by wealth and status.

There's no simple things-will-be-better-soon promises that will smooth over the grief and wrath of parents whose children died for lack of access to an MRI at the early stage of illness. And class warfare centered around children gets ugly fast; there'll be no shortage of irrational demands and extreme reactions from *all* directions.

streamfortyseven said...

Most of the elite types haven't a clue about the infrastructure required to give the lifestyle they desire. Gated communities exist only because the people who keep things running cooperate in doing so. If the toilet breaks, they call the plumber. If the sewer line breaks, then they call someone else. If their SUV breaks down, they have to get it fixed by a mechanic. And of course, they have maids and servants and the like to do the things which they won't lower themselves to do. And so on and so forth. Not to mention the infrastructure required to manufacture parts... Sure, you can live in a mansion over a large aquifer, but you've got to be able to fix the pump if it breaks down.

Having said all of that, I know some people in the Social Register who can run front-end loaders and who can and do muck out stalls, do veterinary care for livestock, fix pumps and the like, not that they wanted to get in this situation, but because of financial reverses since 2008 have had no other choice. Their attitudes towards the working class are somewhat altered as well...

Still, it's a question of infrastructure and the people who keep that going by their cooperation with the system. That goes down, and the Gulfstreams won't fly and they'll be in a fix they can't get out of, money or not.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

The web hosting IT gremlins struck me again. IT is a necessary evil and it is neither fun nor interesting. Some of my mates work in the IT area and I tell them, "Right. You have 10 minutes get it out of your system and then we shall speak no more about IT".

Some laws are unenforceable and it enacting those laws, governments inevitably lose credibility. The loss occurs because citizens are put in a position of active disobedience en mass and such a move desensitises populations to the fear of disobedience. Could be wrong, but that's what my gut feel is telling me.

I'm referring to your health insurance laws. Take insurance or get fined. The decision to insure or not is really an individual choice and it seems strange to me because it is a paradigm shift in the relationship between business and the population at large. Buy our products or else...

Sorry more to come later, and the gremlins are calling...



Renaissance Man said...

Minor intersting fact: the seating arrangement in the french assembly put the conservative aristocrats on the right side, the more liberal middle-classes on the left... hence our current (and inadequate ( handy descriptors of politics as 'left' or 'right' wing.
I wholeheartedly agree with the point of your post, minor historical quibbles aside, because I have been contemplating exactly that increasing disparity for years now. The similarities are quite striking. The French aristocracy accounted for something like 5% of the total population, yet they owned all the land and resources. In the U.S. now, fewer than that control almost as much.
It is also telling that (most everyone missed the fact), last year, the 'arab spring' was everywhere in fact, triggered by food riots. But not in the "occupy" U.S. which was about being frustrated in the American Dream of becoming wealthy, or at the very least, well-off and secure.
I must point out there are -- to my mind -- at least two crucial differences between the France ca. 1780 and North America in 2012.
First the powerful myth of democracy, i.e. that anyone can climb the ladder to "success" is still operent and still fervently believed, especially by those who ought to know better. Whereas, the French peasantry had no such opportunity, nor yet even the pretense of such. Thus the North American can still be coddled into believing that if they are not wealthy, it's somehow their own fault.
The second reason is Hollywood, professional sports, TV (Religion is the opiate of the people? Marx hadn't seen anything yet!), the National Enquirer, the cult of celebrity for celebrity's sake, &c. all serve to keep the general population under far better state of controlled distraction than anything the any previous civilization ever devised. All of these also provide highly-visible exemplars that support the democratic mythos that the most underprivileged kid in the most appalling ghetto can still become hideously rich and famous.
I just wonder if a sufficiently large percentage of the population can ever lift themselves off the couch and pry themselves away from the TV long enough to rebel.
Paris Hilton and Warren Buffett notwithstanding, people in the class of the Koch brothers are quite competent and utterly ruthless and have demonstrated they will do everything possible to keep their power and privilege, hence the current focus on state security measures, drones, and other high-tech, remotely-operated equipment and hence the increasing percentage of "news" being devoted to pop culture instead of anything significant. Moreover, I suspect there will always be sycophants enough to operate those remote-control devices, at least for the middle-term.

P.S. to JP, the Centennia atlas does exactly what you ask ( and Talessman's Atlas of World History is fascinating... and free his hobby. (

P.P.S. I firmly believe that there are aliens capable of interstellar travel... they have left WARNING: DANGER buoys out beyond Pluto's orbit to ward off visitors...

Rita said...

I spent last weekend at the Mensa Annual Gathering in Reno, NV. Interesting event with presentations and debates on all sorts of topics. James H. Lee, a futurist, did one called "The Upbeat Guide to the End of the World" based on his book _Resilience and the Future of Everyday Life_. Lots of overlap with the ADR in terms of changing current lifestyle, gardening, tool-sharing, non-job careers, cutting consumption,etc. But not a lot about actual scarcity and a general assumption that the technology for things like elder care robots will be around for us in the foreseeable future. Very optimistic.

A more sobering note was a visit to the State Art Museum, which featured an exhibit called "Oil" by Edward Burtynsky, who specializes in photographs of altered landscapes. This exhibit focused on the role of oil in our culture and featured photos of oil tar fields in Albert; ancient derricks in Azerbaijan; acres of scrap cars and planes in the desert near Tucson,AZ; the Talladega Speedway before a big race; suburban sprawl and highway interchanges; and the end zone of the oil story, ship-breaking in Bangladesh and crushed oil-drums waiting to be recycled. Amazing and depressing.

In line with the gathering theme of mocking the end time predictions for 2012, there were a couple of presentations on Apocalypse. One presenter had been raised as a Jehovah's Witness and recalled her confusion when the world did not end in 1975. Members were told that the church had never made that prediction, even though she had clear memories of it. Her doubts began then, even though the adults around her seemed to buy into the revision of history.

The limits on the amount of English land and the primogeniture system contributed to the pattern of sons of the gentry going into the Army or Navy. Since younger sons could not inherit the estates they had to choose a career. The Church, the law and the military were the only acceptable paths, as engaging in commerce would drop one out of the upper classes. Managing agriculture on an estate was acceptable, but managing a business was (genteel shudder) "trade." In America there was less prejudice against commerce and the opening of new land provided more options for younger sons, so there was little reason for them to seek a military career unless it personally appealed to them.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Continued, many hours later...

Also, the interesting thing about the impending health insurance situation over in the US is that it has the support of both parties.

Now before commenters start denying the bilateral support, it is widely reported here that Mitt Romney as a Governor enacted almost identical legislation to the Obamacare legislation. Can't wait to see how the spin doctors are trying to get out of that one!

What is really fascinating is that given these circumstances, you'd have to speculate that this legislation was lobbied for and written (ie. drafted) by the very industry that benefits from it. Scary stuff, because you then have to wonder how much of this sort of activity goes on and how pervasive is it? Probably quite a often and probably very pervasive.

Also, a lot of commenters have fantasies about Third World Dictatorships. It takes a lot of manufacturing, energy and financial support from Industrial countries to run these dictatorships. Any break down in local manufacturing facilities means that weapons and raw materials have to be sourced externally otherwise the force cannot be maintained for very long. It may be wise for commenters to consider the golden rule in this circumstance.

The other thing is that commenters also tend to have fantasies about are off shore funds for wealthy types. Yes, these exist, but haven't you lot ever noticed that in the event of an economic crisis, large flows of funds tend to be channelled back into the US - particularly into government bonds which are seen as a safe haven. These are subject to the same risk as everything else in a major economic collapse. Wealthy people worry about losing their wealth, it’s what keeps them up at night. The only wealth that money has is what it can buy. It is not a resource in itself (kindling maybe?).

Someone also mentioned Warren Buffett. He comes across as a pretty decent sort of a bloke. But, I may be wrong, hasn't he channelled most of his monetary wealth into a large not for profit trust with his children as trustees? Doesn't this structure avoid certain death duties and capital gains? What was one of the main points in this week’s essay?

Hi shargash,

Good to see that someone knows their Aussie history. William Bligh lacked political nous. To have been mutinied against once, fair enough, but twice, you'd have to ask the hard questions.

Rum Rebellion

What was interesting is that Governor Lachlan Macquarie that followed Bligh in NSW took the same people and resources and ran the colony completely differently. A very smart man.

Hi Adrian,

Sorry to hear about your water troubles. Over here those summer conditions are pretty typical every few years or so. Your hedgerow plantings are on the right track, but in the short term you need an over storey of very drought hardy shade trees. In those conditions, I'd recommend oaks or acacias. They may not grow much during those types of seasons, but at least they won't die either. The acacias are also nitrogen fixing. Also apply woody mulch (made up of a variety of woody materials – the more diverse the better). When you think you have put enough mulch on, add some more and make it deep. This stuff reduces evaporation and keeps the root systems cool like a blanket plus encourages fungal systems which feed the trees. Never let any soil at all be exposed to the sun and if in doubt add more mulch. Also don't cut the grass short. Hot weather will mean that it will die back, but at least the dead leaves will shade the soil. Too many people mow grass short because of fashions, which ends up then requiring too much water to keep alive. You never see short grass in nature in hot dry climates. Also if weeds take hold in your exposed soil, give them a chance and then when conditions change, chop and drop them – they’re trying to help you.



Ramaraj said...

Dear JMG,

I noticed the sense of urgency in your last half a dozen posts. I can see many people find it troubling, but it is long past the time to be subtle while describing our predicament. People should be given a chance to confront reality, if only for their's sake.
It is when the ruled classes realise that they have nothing more to gain from propping up the structure the real trouble will start. I get a feeling we will arrive there very soon. But after the whole political and economic structure crumbles, there is going to be a long period of chaos.
I fervently hope to make it through this period, carrying whatever wisdom and knowledge I can salvage from the past and the present. I am only 22, and I know for sure that most of my generation won't make it through. But I have always been alone, no matter how many people are with me. It gives a dry feeling in the throat to think that I will be alone in my thoughts, words and actions, probably forever.
Would like to read more in this blog about how collapse is likely to influence the minds people. Any books that might help?


Jim R said...

One interesting historical thing I have learned, long after the damage done by public schooling, is that revolutions have not been started by the peasantry.

Once the peasantry starts moving, of course, it's an unstoppable force.

But revolutions are usually started by members of the more-educated middle classes, or by individuals at the fringes of aristocracy.

Joseph said...

As someone who works through a temporary work agency, I can easily picture this "tame intellectual" finding enough shocking material in my workplace to write about. Workers who don't even have the luxury of eating three meals a day or wearing different clothes two days or more in a row, let alone being able to drive their own car to work would certainly shock the upper middle class and elites who are the voices of our media. But I'd argue, since graduating college in 2011, that what I see in my workplace has already become the new norm, especially for young people. There's been a lot of talk about my particular cohort of young people, the recent college graduates who have certainly dug themselves into a very troubling situation; I'd argue, however, that the cohort slightly younger than us, today's teenagers, have been given even less opportunity and are already fighting just for the scraps left at the very lowest rung of the social ladder, often not even being able to get access to that.

What we see is a permanent expansion of the lowest class. It's important, however, to remember that using your own personal anger or disappointment as fodder for hopes or fantasies of a total collapse of this system you find so unjust is not constructive; as JMG mentioned, the French Revolution was not followed by a utopia but instead by Terror. No matter how much you find wrong with our system, the responsible course of action is still to do your best to work with it. As the midwest corn crop failure disaster begins to get coverage, I can already say I'm thankful there's still reasonably priced food in the store and an employment opportunity that gets me access to that food.

Cathy McGuire said...

Great post. I keep wanting to write a longer comment, but summer is a garden-busy time. For now, here's a link to a good audio/slide show of the graphic journalism book by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. Their "sacrifice zones" remind me of your wealth pump:

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Born poor? Bad luck, you have won last prize in the lottery of life.

The rise of individualism and the celebration of the private over the public is undermining the strength of our social institutions.

Draco TB said...

…but they have forgotten, as most aristocracies forget when they reach senility, their own dependence on the structure.

Oh, it's far worse than that. The modern aristocrat has come to believe that they are the structure (actually, I'm pretty sure that's what all aristocracies come to believe). That's what's at the centre of the job and wealth creators BS that we hear from them is all about. They actually believe that the rest of society couldn't function without them.

I'm sure taht they're in for a rude awakening.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Cherokee and JMG

Thanks very much to you both for the hedgerow advice! I definitely get the need for species adapted to weather extremes. Here in the Midwest, drought is a recurring phenomenon (along with excess rain other years). Cherokee, I think it shares some similarities (of weather extremes, not terrain) to your place down under.

We did plant deep-rooted, well-adapted native species. the problem is that they were put in last September: had the drought arrived next year instead of this, they probably would have been fine. I am hopeful that some of the roots have survived--many species of this sort, like American plums, for example, are famous for suckering and surviving when and where you least expect.

A prairie planting I'm involved with is doing pretty well, while many non-native species in nearby gardens are dry and brown. Corn, well, corn as grown today may as well not be from the Americas--or any place else on earth either!

This could be considered very off-topic, but it's also intimately related to the overall discussion, I think.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello JMG and all,

To continue from my last comment,

I have a question for all in this blog community: Clearly, many are doing what we can to cope with and prepare for a non-rosy present and future, via green wizardry, "collapsing" early, learning new(old) skills and so forth.

There are many thoughtful and impressive comments and analyses here of our social and political problems on a national and international scale, stimulated by JMG's post.

But what about democracy, that least bad form of governing ourselves?

What do do? What are we doing to strengthen that skill-set? And clearly, democracy takes learned skills and habits, not to mention a certain number of shared assumptions and social values.

I look at it as working under the national-level radar, at a local, community scale and am proceeding in my own life under that premise. Still, I'd like to hear what JMG and others have to say about working our way forward with regard to this.

It's not just gardening skills and heirloom plant varieties we need to be keeping alive!

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Dang. The embedded hyperlink has put in front of the intended hyperlink.

Here it is anyway.

Cathy McGuire said...

Okay - the link didn't go through - so here it is plain:

Melissa M. said...

Hi, long time lurker here. At risk of seeming utterly juvenile, I remembered an old joke, perhaps three days after first reading this post.

A minstrel hears a roaring sound, and looks outside the palace windows to see an angry mob of peasants. "Your Majesty!" He cries to the king. "The peasants are revolting!"

The king waves his hand dismissively. "Yes, yes. But what's all that noise?"

Jason said...

A superb post this week Archdruid Greer, thanks.

Some might like to see this recent 1/2-hour BBC show which very much confirms the picture in the UK and shows that there is at least a little historical thinking going on:

Britain on the Brink: Back to the 70s?


-- 1 in 5 families living on the edge financially

-- Community not as good as in 70s

-- working families marginalised by being priced out of neighbourhoods, aspiration and hope disappearing

-- average real earnings fall biggest in thirty years

-- basic foods up massively in price -- meat up 26% in four years

-- Wealth gap only projected to grow

-- youngsters are not prepared for life, a hopeless "lost generation"

-- more social unrest like the riots probably on the way

-- no-one believes the politicians have an answer, they are "out of touch with the people at the bottom"

And two more absolutely perfect bullseyes for the Archdruid:

1. Income inequality has effectively made a consumerist society lacking the capacity to consume; and

2. An old Margaret Thatcher speech: "It wasn't restraint that caused us to look for oil in the North Sea and bring it ashore... it was incentive, positive driving incentive!" -- and that drove our 80s as Alaska did the US's.

It's nice to see a show at least asking: "What if this is just the beginning?" That's what we pay our licence fees for. Any shows like that in the us?

One question on the post JMG: whichwell-thumbed 70s fantasy novel? Surely not Lord Foul?? :)

jeffinwa said...

Democracy today and (maybe) tomorrow; since it's been mentioned in the comments. Can it really be so simple?

Thanks again JMG, always stimulating.

Jennifer D Riley said...

My advice: if you're using a small, in-ground garden space, compost the heck out of it. We have a 10x10 space in the sun and we dig in compost year round, for the past 7 years. This year we have bee balm (bergamot) that's six feet tall. A first tomato plant that toppled over at 6 feet from top-growing tomatoes and is now prob. 7 feet. Two more tomatoes at 6 feet and growing. This weekend I harvested 12 cherokee purple tomatoes from one plant. Compost, compost. Year round I dig compost straight into the ground, bury it, water when necessary, mulch, and let nature do the rest.

Justin said...

Apologies for the confusion on my part! I see there's more than one Justin here.


Candace said...


OT for this week, but fits in with the overall theme. Someone posted a link to this article over at TAE. I thought it was a good overview of the problems with social complexity, financial failure and peak oil. I sent the links to my family. It is a PDF.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Adrian,

Thanks. Your drought sounds like the summer of 2008/09 here where the summer rains failed, the aquifers were depleted by below average rainfall over winter and spring and hot winds blew in from the centre of the continent day after day. The upshot though was that not much grew. But, with a bit of advance preparation, not much died either.

I didn't have the spare water capacity then that I have installed now either, although even now I'd still only use the water I do have on the vegetables and herbs and then leave the trees to chance, as they'll probably be OK.

One bonus of hot dry summers is that the fruit that does grow is smaller but much more highly flavoured - not that most people care about such things nowadays. As an interesting side note, in recent times friends have fed me imported garlic in quite a few different houses now and it tastes odd to me. The imported stuff costs between 5x and 80x of the price of the locally grown stuff (due to a soil virus/fungus). The imported stuff is sprayed with methyl bromide which goes some way towards explaining the odd taste. But palates become quickly accustomed to changing flavours… Sorry, I digress.

It is worthwhile having a look at the video for the work that the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia is doing in the Jordon desert as their basic methods are as applicable here and also at your place as in Jordan.

PRI work in Jordan - Greening the desert

It is worth watching because they have chosen to start a demonstration site at probably one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. There is nothing particularly complex or difficult in the techniques they employ in Jordan, it is just that they are prepared to employ them, observe them and be held account for the outcomes. Perhaps this can also be viewed as walking the talk?

Corn is so central to your diet in the US, it is a significant national risk if that one crop fails. It is a very heavy feeder too which is a burden on your ecosystem and an impending disaster especially if chemically fertilised.

As to your question about the future, I wonder about this issue too. As an observation, the culture that we do live in is profoundly wrong in that we pursue the interests of the individual regardless of the expense of that pursuit.

In comparison, the forest here doesn't work that way at all and each species is part of a larger system. The whole system is in a state of flux and change and different species push at their limitations, but they all live within those limitations because they have no choice. More or less, it seems to be a system that works.

We tend to be the species that doesn't accept limitations, or we impose them on others if the limitations conflict with our own individual needs.

Enough ranting... You'll know we are on the right track when you note that mutual obligation becomes social currency again. That is the thing to look out for. We're not there yet and it may be a strange time in between, but we'll get there eventually as we have no choice in the matter.



flute said...

Thanks for yet another very good blog post, which opens up new views of how the world works (and worked historically).

Interesting that you should mention Kaplan, who from a European viewpoint appears rather absurd in his writings. Being from Europe I had not read anything by him until I started subscribing to Stratfor last year, but then I reacted to his "analyses", which stand in stark contrast to the rest of the quality material from Stratfor. Every piece I've read by Kaplan contains loads of sweeping generalisations and statements of "facts" which are easily proved false, apart from his strong pro-US bias.

OT: Have you read the interesting study on financial collapse by David Korowicz of Feasta? "Trade Off: Financial system supply-chain cross contagion – a study in global systemic collapse"

zentao said...

Interesting posts these past few weeks...Have you received different messages regarding the urgency or true state of affairs? I have found that the messages feel like a rising storm - one that is not going to lift many boats.

There is likely to be more than class in the first wave of change. The age meme is getting stronger and, with the standard movement towards blame, it seems likely that the newly-retired class will be facing some wrath.

No doubt that years of "sacrifice everything for my pension" drove global economics (you can't have a pension plan return of 15% if the big fish aren't making >30% which is clearly unsustainable in any mode) to its current predicament but the present state of rich retirees whooping it up will not be accepted very well by the impoverished youngsters...

Expect the first houses to be looted to be be in those quiet neighbourhoods where most are spending their retirement watching the world on tv's...

John Michael Greer said...

Ricardo, that's where the divide between the elites and the people who actually have their hands on the machinery of control opens up. In Revolutionary France, the aristocrats may have fled to Coblenz but the army was largely on the side of the National Assembly, so the attempt to restore the Bourbons by way of Austrian bayonets ran into the hard fact that one of the largest armies in Europe was still very much in the way.

Jennifer, that's the way revolutions start.

Escape, it's a bit more complex than that. A successful revolution depends on the conjunction of middle class radicalism and a shift in loyalties on the part of the masses. More on this down the road a bit.

Doctor W., that's workable!

Wade -- the French Revolution was socialist??? I think you need to go read some history.

Author, that isn't what I said. What I said is that by and large, the higher a salary somebody earns, the less they have to do to earn it. The average CEO of a bank probably gets more in a year than your great-uncle made in his lifetime; that's the sort of thing I was referencing.

Robert, there are always groups of people trying to organize dissent and make something happen. I'm interested in what differentiates examples like the Sixties movement, which didn't overthrow a government, and 1789 France, which did.

Michael, never blame conspiracy for something that can be accounted for perfectly well by stupidity.

Tim, I hadn't heard the term "tumbril remark," no! Thank you -- it's a useful term.

Phil, fascinating. I suspect, though, that here in the US what you'll see is a certain amount of handwaving in the direction of one ethos or another, while the education industry slides down the chute toward its final collapse.

John Michael Greer said...

Tasmanian Unknown, nope -- I don't have the time to frequent many other blogs. Someone else may have figured out the advantages of small, walkable towns in isolated areas, surrounded by plenty of small farms, and with dirt-cheap real estate prices.

Jim, fascinating!

Nathan, thanks for the links. Yes, I've seen a lot of the same thing.

Justin, no, that wasn't aimed at you! I'll probably have to start coming up with expanded nicknames for people who have the same names.

Lewis, that was a good example, yes.

Mustard, okay, I stand corrected. So what was it that kept the British upper class from being blithering idiots until the mid-19th century, while their French equivalents managed the transition more than a century in advance?

Mario, the problem there is that, being American, I associate the word "organic" with tasty vegetables that aren't coated with toxic sprays. "Wonder bread intellectuals" might be closer...

Elf, there's a reason why a very large number of Americans use alternative health care, and avoid the fantastically overpriced and largely incompetent official system. That's much of what Obama's health care "reform" is meant to counter -- the theory seems to be that if people are forced to pay for officially approved health care, the industry doesn't have to care if they use it or not.

Stream, exactly. You get today's gold star for attention to hard realities.

Cherokee, the health care "reform" is simply a government-mandated subsidy for a corrupt and politically well-connected industry. There are also nice robust fines for anybody who doesn't prove that they buy health insurance, at whatever price the insurance companies happen to want to charge. It's really quite a scam!

John Michael Greer said...

Renaissance, it all depends on where the sycophants decide their own best advantage lies. History shows that fairly often, when things start coming unglued, it's not always on the side of the bosses.

Rita, sounds like an interesting event. I hope they start getting a clue about scarcity, though.

Cherokee, granted -- one of the more wryly amusing facets of the quadrennial clown show we call a presidential election is seeing a couple of politicians who can't be told apart without a micrometer trying to insist that there are huge differences between them. Just as Obama campaigned as the Un-Bush and then gave us George W. Bush's third term, if Romney gets in we'll have Obama's second term anyway.

Ramaraj, your best bet might be to find some good social histories of eras of crisis in the past; general studies will do you much less good than specific studies of specific events, with plenty of documentation.

Jim, exactly. It's the conjunction between middle class activism and inchoate popular unrest that makes for a revolution that matters.

Joseph, working with the system is one option. Moving outside it to help create an alternative is another. Revolution? Rarely a useful option, though we're probably going to see something of the sort.

Mustard, thanks for the link!

Draco, no argument there!

Adrian, we're going to get to that. Yes, learning how to work a democratic system is a crucial and badly neglected skill set, and there are a range of options I'll be discussing at length in a little bit.

Cathy, thanks for the link!

Melissa, old but still good.

Jason, good gods, no. I read Donaldson, of course -- I read just about anything in the way of fantasy I could get, back in the day -- but his stuff hasn't worn well, at least to my tastes. No, it would probably be some gloriously trashy Michael Moorcock novel, or Beagle's Last Unicorn, or maybe something by Patricia McKillip.

John Michael Greer said...

Jeffinwa, thanks for the link! Still, it'll take more than a vague sense of outrage.

Jennifer, excellent advice anywhere.

Cowboy Hat Justin, no problem.

Candace, fascinating. That may just feature in this week's report.

Flute, I don't read Stratfor -- the sound of axes being ground is a bit too shrill for my ears -- but your take on Kaplan seems not unreasonable. Yes, I've seen the Feasta report, courtesy of Candace.

Zentao, that's also a source of strain. The question is purely a matter of what reaches flashpoint first.

Robert Mathiesen said...

JMG wrote:

"Robert, there are always groups of people trying to organize dissent and make something happen. I'm interested in what differentiates examples like the Sixties movement, which didn't overthrow a government, and 1789 France, which did."

This is an excellent question.

The Free Speech Movement, at least in Berkeley where I saw it first take shape, wasn't aiming at overthrowing the government, but returning it to its ideal form. It was a straight-forward reform movement, not a revolutionary one. It wasn't even an exclusively leftist movement back then; many centrists and a certain number of rightists strongly supported the FSM in its early days. It was only Ronald Reagan's hostile response to the Free Speech Movement, as a new governor, in late '66 and '67 that polarized things for political advantage, and started to tip the movement more strongly leftward.

In 1968, of course, lots of other things began to erupt as well both in politics and in culture. What was left of the old Free Speech Movement was quickly subsumed into the whole "[Late] Sixties Movement," which was actually a highly disorganized bundle of various distinct movements, which often fought against one another as much as they fought against the "mainstream." All of the various revolutionary movements that emerged during that period, without exception, managed to alienate the rightists and to create a new sort of conservative -- "Reaganist" rather than Goldwaterist" in its views. More significantly, all these revolutionary movements managed to alienate the enormous part of the population that thought of itself as anti-extremist or moderate. And in the US, any revolutionary movement that alienates the moderate center is doomed from the outset. (This is not necessarily true in other countries, but it seems to be an enduring truth in US political history.)

At least, this is how it seemed to me at the time, and still seems so in retrospect.

noxpopuli said...

If you have not read it yet, you might enjoy skimming Paul Fussell's 1992 book _Class_, a primer on the markers of class differences in the U.S.

It's a funny book, but I haven't been able to ascertain whether the biggest joke is intentional. After painstakingly lambasting each class, their politics, consumption preferences, and culture habits, Fussell outlines the "X" class: individuals who live alongside the traditional class system and are therefore excused of and freed from its tacky constraints. The "X" naturally includes intellectuals and velvet underclass, i.e., the folks likely to read his book.

Justin said...


One of the things about the peak oil scene (and I categorically include this blog) is that there is a lot of awareness at this stage and pockets of activity, but there is still this forlorn sense of faint helplessness by way of personal independence and stoic isolation. People with like interests, concerns and outlooks are not yet at the stage of coordinating or collaborating in physical space yet via these networking technologies, at this point, I don't think they ever will be and perhaps that is a limitation in functional use.

Everyone here is beaming in from their personal, independent homestead. The positive take on this is that everyone who are in places like this and beginning to actually change their behaviors in the real world are likely going to be helping those further back on the reality learning curve who have to catch up later that are in their proximity.

The downside is that we are not achieving economies of scale. I am in upstate New York and there are derelict homesteads, farms and shops aplenty just standing around. If JMG is right about the coming revival of religion, Shaker like communities will eventually start sprouting up and taking these things over at some point.

You might be lonely now, but I'll bet within the next five years, there will be plenty of support in your area unless you live in D.C. or some other pocket of concentrated wealth.

Diane said...

Kaplan and his ilk always bring to my mind the story of the blind men and the elephant; each of the blind inquirers touched a different
part and concluded that the whole animal was some object resembling the part of which he had had the touch. A few months ago I browsed Kaplan's book on the Indian Ocean, and may well have mentioned here, that although his analysis was centred on 2020 there was no reference to either climate change or peak oil. He specialises in geopolitics and seems to ignore the other parts of the elephant.
In relation to the build up of the US naval presence in the India Ocean, I read somewhere recently that both China and Russia are busily building or planning to build continental rail net works to Europe and the Middle East

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

It's OT for this week's discussion, but worth mentioning. Last night, I put the TV on (a fairly rare event) to catch the 10 o'clock news on BBC1 - this is the BBC's main news programme on their main free-to-air channel in the UK. I joined towards the end of a discussion about just-published census data showing that the UK has undergone huge population growth over the past decade.

As I tuned in, the discussion was between the presenter and a guest who was saying that the UK needs to be planning a strategy to get the population down to about 20 million, as a preparation for the arrival of peak oil, indeed peak everything, because the current population is totally unsustainable.

I'm not sure what was most striking - the fact that someone was discussing peak oil and population on the BBC's prime news programme, or the complete incomprehension and astonishment of the presenter...

If any other UK readers caught that, and know who the guest was, I would be interested to know.

JP said...

@JMG - "Robert, there are always groups of people trying to organize dissent and make something happen. I'm interested in what differentiates examples like the Sixties movement, which didn't overthrow a government, and 1789 France, which did."

Two primary issues seem to be (1) temporal distance from last major systemic reorganizing crisis war and (2) position in the credit cycle. This is where "generational theory" for lack of a better word, seems to explain some things in a general way.

In the 1960's, the U.S. had just won a major war and was "world leader" of the West. Private credit expansion had just begun. Plus, the Boomers did "win". Nixon resigned, the draft was repealed, and the Vietnam war was wound down quite nicely from the point of view of those who were going to the firing line.

In pre-revolutionary France, they were far, far from the last major crisis war and their credit system was disintegrating.

That being said, I know very little about pre-revolutionary France from the end of the hundred-years war to the eve of the French revolution.

In the U.S., we're both temporally distant from the last major reorganizing crisis war and our credit bubble just burst. That makes it easier to pull "disintegrating chaotic revolution" out of the hat.

The primary similarity that the U.S. has with pre-revolutionary France is that the private credit system is bust. The difference is that the U.S. is current;y "world leader" and the lower classes are well-fed, if undernourished.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Cherokee Organics

Hi Chris,

Unfortunately, your link didn't work for me. I would like to watch the piece on Jordan--I'm interested in permaculture and agroecology and have done some reading on the subject. I practice a little Illinois-adapted permaculture in my urban backyard, and agree about watering vegetables. The thing about fruits: yes smaller and more flavorful, but also fewer of them!

The thing about my friends' property is that no one lives there full time, so things planted don't get looked after.

Re corn: it's not just a huge part of our U.S. diet (well not mine, since I'm a vegetarian and also don't eat processed food), but 1/3 of the crop goes for ethanol and much of the rest goes for animal feed. So a failed crop is indeed a wide-spreading disaster, with global implications. I've written articles on some of the environmental ramifications. A good book on the American food industry is "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which I've recommended often, even on this site. Maybe you've read it?

I agree about mutual obligation, if carried out in a positive, socially/environmentally beneficial way. Also to the point is perhaps a need for appreciating the value of self-restraint, whether with regard to other people or one's ecosystem.

Well, better stop, this is so far off topic, JMG might hesitate to post it. ; )


phil harris said...

Very much a footnote to this week's post and correspondence, but George Monbiot in today's UK Guardian has an evocative piece.

Yes George never did understand Peak Oil nor did he fix his heat-leaky old house, but this current vignette of his on British life amid youth unemployment has a certain authenticity, set rather neatly in the context of British history. (Meanwhile in Spain, youth unemployment is 50% - clearly not sustainable in an important economy of 46M.)

Last year's British inner-city riots by the young, poor and marginalised did not touch the affluent areas. They mostly looted and burned the shops they knew. Reminds me of nearly 40 years ago when the riots started in northern Ireland, when communities of, to the outsider, identical citizens burned one another's areas of identical poor housing. Who said this stuff is going to be explicable except on some inner plane of imagination caught in the webs of blame resulting from declining imperial structures latterly served by a clueless upper echelon. As history and JMG tells us, things can get very unreasonable.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

So what was it that kept the British upper class from being blithering idiots until the mid-19th century, while their French equivalents managed the transition more than a century in advance?

I'd imagine that a fair number of the second sons of the Aristocracy were sent to the Colonies... ;-)

Bob the Blogger said...


The article Candace posted was excellent and highlights the key issues that preoccupy me - how fast will the collapse proceed and how long do we have left to prepare?

I recollect you talking in terms of centuries of downward progression per the Roman Empire, but my observation, in line with the article, is that our systems are so complex, interconnected and fragile that once they start to fail, they will fail fast and there is no obvious fallback position, except a long, long way down.

The difference between us and the Romans is that they built stuff to last. Whereas with our throw-away, hyper-consumption model, every ínnovation introduces more complexity than the last and artefacts with a shorter half life.

Dmitry Orlov talks in terms of us societally and technologically going up a one way ladder, which is a good analogy.

Can you comment on this pls.

Ricardo Rolo said...

Well, Mr Greer, regarding your answer to my comment , and to be brief, that is what I meant when I said that the Rev. France avoided a sucessful foreign intervention more by luck than design: the French army not only was mostly in France, but also did no broke in the too common warring factions that happen all the time when the political power goes down ( say, the cyclic story of the Chinese dynasties aftermath ), mainly because the exodus of the previous elite dropped the control of the army in the hands of a small and highly coesive group of middle rank officers like Massena, Junot or, last but not least, a certain Bonaparte. It could had definitely not had happened in that way ...

Now the US army might or not hold in one piece if the political elite flees and ask for a external power to intervene ( the US army does have it's internal rivalries and cliques like any other , and who knows what will happen to it if the bigwigs disappear and become the enemy ), but that is pretty dwarfed by the fact that the US Army is spread around the world and the battle ready parts of it are not in the US and neither can come to fight in the US readily even in ideal conditions. In that the situation seems far more similar to the Philip II grab of the Portuguese throne in 1580-81 ( with the full consent, invitation and support of the high classes against the popular strata that had crowned one of his cousins King of Portugal ): as the Portuguese troops were tied to action in India and the Far east, it was easy to capture the power center in Europe before the troops in India could even think on acting. Those are the dangers of a empire of bases ... ;)

Edward said...

@Justin (cowboy hat Justin)

I know that "upstate" NY covers a BIG area, but I'll take a shot in the dark: Do you have anything to do with the Omega Institute of Holistic Studies near Rhinebeck?

My son is working there for his second summer and is coming along admirably for a 20-year old in todays world.

Cathy McGuire said...

A slightly longer comment - I appreciated the comparison to the French Revolution, JMG, and the clear demonstration that the top .1% can not exist without the rest of us, because money doesn't equal security, food or assistance in a chaotic world. Ever since I saw this 1980's version of the French Revolution (warning, it's 5 hours long - but totally engrossing!) I was strongly struck by the parallel with our country, and the danger of letting mobs get started. I recommend watching it, to get a living picture of how it went (there is a French-language version as well)

Anyway, I also noted a lot more pessimism this post, JMG - is there a reason? Or perhaps you're just now touching on a subject that has little "good news" about it - and "distant" sound perhaps indicates it's not about this upcoming decade? My perception on the next decade is so wildly variable that I just focus on my greenwizard skills, and building my local community contacts. Last evening, there was a workshop on growing food over the winter - it's Oregon - and there was at least twice as many in the audience as they anticipated! That's great!

tideshift said...

Wondering if you'd be willing to address the flip side of the increasingly shrill peak denialists: the increasingly shrill doomers. One of the things I appreciate most about your work is the historicity - your view that the collapse happens step-wise and differently in different places, rather than all at once and everywhere.

It seems to me that the deeper the denialists bury their heads in the sand, the louder the doomers yell that everyone on the planet is going to die, and very soon. Not a surprising reactivity, but some nuanced interpretation would be good.

Justin said...

JMG, that won't work because I'm never wearing the Cowboy hat while typing, its always one of the bowlers for thinking.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, that seems quite plausible. You're quite right, of course, about alienating the center; I've thought more than once that the radical groups that spend all their time trying to alienate most people are, by that action, proclaiming that they're not actually interested in making change happen.

Nox, I read it when it first came out. His "X class," of course, isn't outside the class system at all; it's better known as the middle class intelligentsia, which always deludes itself into thinking it's outside the class system, and thus ignores the benefits it gains from that system.

Diane, not a bad metaphor -- though I think in this case Kaplan's blindness is self-inflicted.

Carp, fascinating! I'd been expecting this to start happening fairly soon; the sheer volume of denial makes it clear that people are starting, however unwillingly, to pay attention.

JP, I'm not sure I find that analysis convincing; still, it's worth considering.

Phil, the frustrating thing about Monbiot is that he gets it, except when he doesn't.

Mustard, it would explain our politics...

Bob, I've commented on it at vast length in previous posts, and will be discussing it again in this week's post. The short form? The collapse is already happening. While people sit around waiting for a fast collapse, industrial civilization is collapsing the way real civilizations collapse, in the real world -- a bit at a time, spread out over years. We're already seeing the fallback positions being established, and failing, and being replaced -- what do you think the last four years of dubious economic gimmickry and spreading unemployment are about? This is it; this is what collapse looks like.

Ricardo, an interesting parallel! I'm not sure if you're aware, though, that the US military has quite a bit of its total force based in the US, for reasons we'll be discussing down the road a bit -- and as long as current technologies hold out, quite a bit of the remainder can return here in a matter of a few days at most.

Cathy, I'm talking right now about the leading edge of the next round of catabolic collapse, which will probably hit at some point in the next two decades. There's not a lot of good news to it, except for the fact that those who work on their green wizard skills are going to be much better prepared for it than those who don't.

Tideshift, the fixation on overnight collapse is another form of denial. It's a denial of what's actually happening -- "no, no, we don't have to go through a long slow grueling decline, it'll all be over in a flash!" More on this in this week's post.

Justin, that may be, but your image makes a good memory anchor!

Mean Mr Mustard said...


This is the now quite charming place I have visited and was thinking about. Turned out that the pioneers - English Aristos - couldn't adapt to Green Wizardry, being idle and entitled at heart.,_Tennessee



latheChuck said...

Another sign of things falling apart: mobile phone systems in England and in France have had major outages. Here's a link: Part of the problem, in France, was that the system operators needed to call in The Experts to fix the problem, but their call-in numbers were (naturally) disabled by the outage.

latheChuck said...

PS: As a trained, licensed, and organized Amateur Radio Emergency Service operator, I'm very much interested in being able to explain how amateur radio can be the last man standing when other communication systems go down.
I have some, small, solar power capacity, and can also run from a car alternator (... until the gas runs out).


David Michael Smith said...

At age 65, I am closer to my end than my beginning. So many illusions have come and gone, and the purse is almost empty. I, too, hope I am not here to (as Jerry Rubin put it) "groove on the rubble." For rubble there will be. It's just a question of when, not if.