The trouble with the eagerness to make a world is that, because the world is already made, what is there must first be destroyed. – Paul Shepard, ‘Nature & Madness’
Modern industrial societies have three fundamental features: they are stupendously successful, stupendously destructive, and stupendously unequal. It is the last facet, inequality, which prevents any meaningful action to mitigate the destruction or redefine success.
Inequality, like many other social ills, is often described as “systemic.” But what does that actually mean? Usually, I think, people are trying to say that systemic problems are deeply-entrenched, historically long-tailed and not easily solved by quick fixes and platitudes. Exactly so, kind of. There is also an implication that there are a lot of people to blame for systemic woes: people not just of the present, but of the recent and distant past.
But a more helpful interpretation of systemic inequality is this: it is actually no one’s fault. In this sense, ‘systemic’ means the accretion of decades, even centuries, of wide-ranging changes in the material world, broadly considered. Social reality and social change are not the accumulated sands of individual actions, which can be swept away with the robed sleeves of justice and progress. A huge systemic thing like inequality is the product of long, multi-channelled evolution in technology, finance, international trade law, corporate organization, mass communication, supply-chain logistics, legal contours of ownership, etc.
Unfortunately, this hefty, depersonalized understanding of inequality also means something else: it is immune to change, except of the catastrophic sort. In his recent and vital book, The Great Leveler, Walter Scheidel, a historian at Stanford, had the unenviable task of reminding us that highly unequal societies do not, in fact, fix themselves gradually. Instead, they are always done in by one of more of the Four Horsemen of violent leveling: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics.
And it makes sense that unequal societies don’t fix themselves in an orderly fashion. The same powerful forces that have created the inequality in the first place are still there, guarding the gates against any and all benign efforts at change. It’s really a reverse-Panglossian tautology: if gradual change could have happened, it would have happened already. The continued and worsening existence of inequality is itself the confirmation of its intractability.
So that’s where we are. Modern industrial societies around the world, regardless of their particular political stripe, are becoming more rigidly unequal, at the exact time when we desperately need monumental change to confront another raiding party of galloping collapse agents: global climate change, mass species extinction, and capitalism’s self-immolation. In a recent piece, Umair Haque describes it thusly:
“We have just one decade left. Just one decade in my estimation, to begin undoing those three existential threats. They aren’t existential threats in the cartoon sense — “the end of humanity!”. They’re existential threats in a real one, a genuinely dangerous one. They will take a world of peace and progress with them. They will reduce human civilization to charred ashes. They will lead to a new Dark Age.”
Is there any escape from Scheidel’s bind? Is there any way to not have our national experiment come to another violent inflection point? How can we overcome the defensive forces that have created our predicament in the first place, the inequality that prevents us from tackling the much larger issues of ecological and socioeconomic collapse?
Solutions to big problems like this are normally conceived to be the stuff of politics and governance, which, in our current situation, is a pretty grim prospect. As highlighted in previous blog posts, our political machinery is extremely successful at just a few things: maintaining power for the who already have it, providing ideological cover for the lack of help for regular people, and perpetuating a comfortable kabuki set for partisan blame-mongering, which conveniently kicks the can down the road, as we wait for the future to bring promised things that will never arrive.
What politics cannot do, as the US has already found out (and as everyone else will soon), is consistently and aggressively redistribute massive wealth and income from the top to the bottom. This is just not going to happen. Again, looking through our reverse-Pangloss glasses, we can see that the massive power imbalances are still there; and the powerful will always find economic, ideological, legal, and political stratagems to keep the fortress intact. There will be no overcoming of, or sneaking past, the guardians of privileged inertia.
Instead, what is needed is a mortal threat to the system that is somehow embraced by the powerful as a boon. Something that will be welcomed inside the ramparts, but which will then quickly bring them down. And this Something needs to be delivered in full sunlight.
(Cover art courtesy of Steve Gaul – visit http://www.SGaulArt.com)