To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment….would result in the demolition of society.Karl Polanyi
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying but the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.Antonio Gramsci
As the planet flounders and fails under the weight of the human project, the emergent complexity and multiplicity of our predicament should not be superimposed back onto causal explanations of our current state. Our million-and-one problems don’t mean that there are also that many sources of trouble to find and fix. Simple originating defects can, when spun out over long periods of time, result in a panoply of emergent dysfunctions. Attacking these dysfunctional symptoms, without changing the original defect, is a recipe for futility and wasted energy.
Our current situation is really quite simple, and is encapsulated nicely in the two quotations above. In “The Great Transformation,” Karl Polanyi detailed the transition from older medieval societies to the modern “market societies” that now exist. Market societies are dominated by economic rationality and utility at almost every level, in every sphere, and the working out of that relentless logic has, as Polanyi described, resulted in the “demolition of society.” There are obviously many facets and nuances to this demolition, but the underlying causation is straightforward and basic: we have allowed the marketplace to absorb all of our social relationships and economic functions, and have reaped the whirlwind.
Now, of course, undoing the demolition caused by market society is not a ‘simple’ task, even though we’re describing the causation itself as such. But I think we have reached a point where all sensible people either know, intuit, or suspect that we’ve hit a major impasse with what this type of social organization can do for us going forward, and that it is doing irreparable damage to our natural home. We just don’t know what to do next. As Gramsci describes it, “the old is dying, but the new cannot be born.” Just so.
So how do we stop doing what we know is killing us and our planet, and put in something different that might reverse our course? How do we birth the new? Regular readers of this blog probably know what’s coming, but let’s do a quick review of what’s currently on offer from our reigning merchants of the future (for more background, check out some earlier post series here and here).
With Trump’s capture of the Republican party, American conservatives have gone all-in for a comforting, non-complex plan for the future: crush the libs and return the country to the simpler times of the past. This is more than just boilerplate conservative philosophy, which stresses the preservation of time-tested institutions and traditions. And it is more than Trumpists wanting to ‘turn back the clock’ so that white men can be back in control of everything, with women, darker people, and sexual deviants put back in their rightful, subservient places. While racism, sexism, and economic grievance get most of the play in explaining the changing nature of conservatism under Trump, there is a more fundamental force at work: conservatives are exhausted with the fast-multiplying problems and complexities that have spun out of modern market society. In essence, they have reached the ‘Polanyi-point,’ a realization that society has indeed been demolished, and that our failures are deep and entrenched.
In consolidating around Trump, conservatives are shouting their belief in an easy answer to our troubles: a Savior. Despite his personal lack of faith, or any of the usual virtues that one would consider ‘Christian,’ it is not surprising that so much of his die-hard support comes from religious types. Trump is best seen as fulfilling a theological role, a weapon of God against the evildoers. This is why his followers are so entrenched, and why their support of him actually increases as evidence piles up regarding his crimes against the Constitution and against the country itself. Conservatives see Trump as their hero in a Holy War, and attacks on him only confirm the nefariousness of the enemy. Consolidated deliverance through a savior battling evil is central to Christian tradition, so Trump’s takeover of conservatism marks that movement’s full embrace of a religious view of society and the state. The lurking threat of an American ‘theocracy’ gets thrown around a lot by liberals, in discussions around Republican efforts on abortion, school prayer, and the like. But the theocratic danger actually runs much deeper, and the centrality of the savior-battling-evil motif is key. As long as millions of people want the easy answer of a Hero bringing deliverance, we’re in trouble.
By contrast, liberals are not looking for the easy answer of a savior-figure. To be sure, everyone loves a charismatic, inspiring leader, and Obama certainly provided an amazing example of dignity, statesmanship, and competence. But liberalism is a more diverse coalition than conservatism, and those myriad constituent parts are reflected in the broad range of issues and causes that liberals engage with. For liberalism, “systemic” is the crucial modifier. We need to fight against systemic sexism, systemic racism, systemic injustice, systemic ecological abuse, etc. Causes and campaigns proliferate: green infrastructure, living wages, police reform, un-defining corporations as persons, reinvigorating labor unions, elimination of gerrymandering, gender and racial parity in salaries, expansion of LBBTQ rights, and so on. For liberals, many conservatives are seen as enemies, but not in the same theological sense with which Trumpists see their foes. For liberals, it is mostly the conservative leaders who are assholes, and their main transgressions are: leading their followers astray, and blocking the natural progress that should be unfolding from the various movements to expand people’s civil rights and economic opportunities. As the Polarization Industrial Complex has tightened its stranglehold on our politics, liberals have of course been mobilized into battle mode. But the enthusiasm for conflict is not really there for liberals, and the conservative ‘enemy’ is more an annoying roadblock than an evil cosmic adversary. What liberals really want is for conservatives to stop trying to drag the country backwards, and to come to the realization that liberal policies can expand opportunity for everyone, and make all lives better. The subtext here is a liberal rejection of the conservative savior-model, in favor of a broad range of government policies and programs.
Unsurprisingly, I have more in common with the liberal approach than the conservative one. I am not a religious person myself, but I have studied religion quite a bit through the years, and I empathize with some faith traditions’ pursuit of truth, justice, and morality. But in general, I view theological approaches to social, political, and ecological issues to be inadequate at best, and highly dangerous at worst. Trumpism illustrates the danger of applying a theological scheme to the escalating challenges of social and ecological collapse. If Armageddon is what you are preparing for, you’ll probably get it. Except that no one will ride out of the clouds to save the day for the righteous.
Unfortunately, however, we don’t have the time to implement the multi-facted liberal menu of campaigns and causes. Recent evidence pouring in from the natural sciences indicate that we don’t have much time left before cascading feedback loops of collapse become unavoidable (and actually, they’re probably underway already). The hope for an expanding ‘progressive’ world, where we can have sustainable green growth, wider economic opportunity for all, and full gender, racial, and social justice – all achieved through government and grassroots cooperation – is simply off the table. It’s just is not going to happen in time, if at all.
What is needed is something that can match the laser-focus of the Trumpian easy answer, but something that is free of the theological baggage of the savior-model. We need something that can effect monumental change quickly; something radically different that goes around the current polarization impasse; something that can attract the attention and energy of conservatives and liberals; something that can engage the conservative desire to halt reckless change, as well as the liberal desire for substantive change.
So what is that ‘something’? I think it has to be the 3-headed monster of Universal Basic Income, Bigger Home Bases, and Modern Money Theory. Read more about that here. And next time, I’ll recapitulate this scheme in a fresh rendering.
(Image: The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1835)