Three C-Words We Need to Embrace: Contraction, Community & Cleanup

Like all creatures, humans have made their way in the world so far by trial and error; unlike other creatures, we have a presence so colossal that error is a luxury we can no longer afford. The world has grown too small to forgive us any big mistakes.

Ronald Wright

Because the future has no image, the utopian imagination must reclaim, must resurrect, past ruins and transform them into wish images that still carry a revolutionary potential for change.

Erik Reece

The World has become too dangerous for anything less than Utopia.

John R. Platt

As we limp into 2023, nothing in America feels quite right. Everything is just…. off. We could call it the long tail of Covid, which wrung the spirit out of the US, leaving us parched, bereft of common purpose and meaning. Or we could call it the longer tail of political polarization, the system that has evolved to protect the position of the plutocracy, diverting our energies into a burning, futile hatred of our demonized domestic enemies. And to extrapolate even further back, we’re in the terminal phase of a decades-long deterioration of fundamental economic fairness. A society cannot indefinitely tolerate conditions in which inequality expands year after year, where, amidst the richest economy in the history of civilization, most households report living paycheck to paycheck, perpetually skirting the cliffside of financial disaster. And all the while, the omens of nature and the warnings of our scientists signal the biggest dysfunction of all: the wholesale collapse of the entire range of our ecological support systems.

So what of the solutions on offer from our leaders, the menu of rescue plans being championed by our political and cultural oarsmen? It’s not an appetizing bill of fare. The conservatives in Congress are readying their knives for the Biden family, promising an extended series of investigations and impeachment hearings (payback for the Trump years), and the resumed pursuit of the imagined evils of election theft and infant cannibalism. And with Roe now overturned, conservatives are also ready to unfurl more bolts of sturdy Handmaid’s cloth, rooting out sexual sin and ethnic miscellany, to reinvigorate a straighter, whiter American, via voter suppression, deportation, and other mechanisms of cultural purification. (On the shorter horizon, we’ll have the eternally-recurring, manufactured stalemate over the national debt, a red herring that we’ll cover in detail in the next post on this site.)

On the other side of the aisle, our liberal establishment will carry on its pursuit of a Lake Wobegon America, where with enough access to education at all levels, and with a robust Green New Deal, we can all be above-average, with glittering eco-careers and electric SUVs. The exact pathways for these liberal hopes are not clear, as even small policy victories are elusive, which would seem to render grand schemes dead on arrival.

And burbling underneath these conservative and liberal fever-dreams is the constant-but-subtle reassurance from our plutocracy-launderers that, economically, nothing really needs to change all the much. Regardless of which sociocultural projects are being espoused at any particular time, the basic business processes and structures can remain untouched: less corporate taxation, less regulation, more support for monopolies and oligopolies, and of course, continued growth-growth-growth.

What we have, in essence, is a massive divergence of what regular people feel about the future, and how we are enacting those feelings, vs. what the actual controllers of our systems dictate to be the necessary course for continued “success,” or “productivity,” or whatever other anodyne terms are deemed acceptable by our public and private bureaucrats. In short, to us, the world feels like it has gone off the rails: endless mass shootings, mobs storming the capitol, politicians and spouses targeted for violence, continued police brutality, cataclysmic weather events of all kinds, and on, and on. And the political volume and vitriol has been turned up to 12, with tens of millions of enraged partisans (all of whom consider themselves to be ‘moderates’) lined up against different tens of millions of other enraged partisans.

But in Marxian sociological terminology, all of these popular feelings, passions, and expectations are just part of the ‘superstructure,’ cultural bubbles floating effervescently on top of the deeper, substantive economic realities underneath. And the sheer magnitude of the concentration of wealth and power in America ensures that those political and cultural battles remain fundamentally ineffectual, no matter how volatile they become for individual citizens. As I have described it in earlier posts, this is exactly the main function of the Polarization Industrial Complex: to rationalize and protect gross economic inequality and injustice, shunting our energies and passions over to internal hatred of our fellow citizens, instead of towards changing the underlying system itself.

Needless to say, we need another story to inhabit, another project around which we can rally as one country. In earlier posts, I proposed a 3-part plan of action for our future: Universal Basic Income, Bigger Home Bases, and Modern Money Theory. This tripartite structure is fairly granular and concrete, and I proposed that getting these strategies into place would require a Transparent Trojan Horse approach, to get it past the hermetically-sealed plutocracy. I would encourage everyone to go back and review these earlier posts for critical background on what I think is needed to move the US to a better place. But for the remainder of this post, I want to float another 3-part description of what our American future could look like, if we turn away from our polarizing fantasies and commit to the only possible path to non-disaster.

The Three Cs: Contraction, Community & Cleanup

Endless growth in a finite system is not possible. Everyone should by now be familiar with the general points: we are using almost twice the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself; every major natural support system on the planet is in decline, most of them steeply; biodiversity is disappearing faster than any time in the last 10 million years; 5 earths would be needed to support an American lifestyle for the global population…. etc.

The brute reality is that our impact on the planet is just too big. It doesn’t really matter, for our purposes, whether it’s mostly due to too many people, too much stuff, or the wrong kinds of activities. Suffice it to say, it’s all of that and more, and the exact proportions don’t matter. It also doesn’t matter who is more to blame, whether it’s the US, China, Europe, whoever. It’s all of us. Probably not the poorer countries, though they will feel the brunt of much of the coming ecological failures. At this point, all of that finger-pointing and WhatAbout-ism is moot. We just don’t have time to worry about that shit, and it wouldn’t bear any fruit anyway, even if we could dole out the perfect shares of blame and responsibility. Those ships have sailed and sunk.

Instead, what’s more important right now is the need for a philosophical shift of massive proportions: committing ourselves to Contraction instead of growth. We absolutely need to shrink our impact on the planet, and we can’t dance around that any more. We must not grow. We must contract. There can be no such thing as Sustainable Growth, or Green Growth, or Smart Growth. Growth itself is over, and one way or another, contraction is in the offing. The only question is whether we will be doing the contraction ourselves, purposefully, or if the planet is going to do it for us. If the Earth itself dictates the contraction, it will almost certainly flip over into a much worse “C”: Crash. That’s our choice: Contraction or Crash. We need to chase Contraction. I’m even a little leery of the term “de-growth,” as it still seems a little dancy-aroundy. We need to become comfortable with the C-Word. Straight-up Contraction.

Of course, there’s just one problem. Well, not just one problem, but this is the biggest, and it’s another C-Word: Capitalism. Modern capitalism is predicated on growth. More production, more investment, more sales, more jobs, more profit — ad infinitum. The only economic alternative to growth, conventional wisdom tells us, is stagnation. Without growth, we get stagnation, recessions, depressions, and eventually collapse. In conventional times, this conventional wisdom might serve us well. But we are at the point where economic collapse is not something we can avoid with growth. In fact, continued growth will trigger an ecological collapse that will cause economic collapse by default. Economics has been floating in a non-physical Neverland for decades, where Nature is nothing but an eternal resource cache and a bottomless waste dump. That economic fantasy-land is now finished, and our devotion to growth will now ensure collapse, not prevent it.

So we would seem to be at an impasse. We have to commit to Contraction, but it is literally unthinkable in our current economic and political calculus. We are tethered to growth, even though it will destroy us. That is where the second C-Word comes into play: Community. The thing that keeps us in a death embrace with growth is the relentless need for full employment and perpetual job creation. And that need is driven by the tiny household format that constitutes the American social fabric. We live as nuclear families, couples, and increasingly, isolated individuals. This social form is much too small. It does not provide economic stability, it is ecologically disastrous, and it is psychologically crippling. The average household size in the United States is now 2.6 people. We are not evolved to live in tiny social units like that. And with the radically-changed nature of money, labor, and the economic value of work, American households are now completely helpless in the face of wider economic trends. It’s no wonder that most households live paycheck-to-paycheck, have minimal savings, and are not able to save enough to return. This precariousness contributes to widespread stress, rage, depression, and other social pathologies.

The answer to these ills, and the escape route that will let us actually embrace Contraction instead of growth, is Community. We must live in larger groups (50-150 people), to reduce our ecological impact, increase our economic stability, and to improve our psychological health. I call these communities Bigger Home Bases, and you can check out my earlier posts to see how I propose creating demand for them, how to support them (with Universal Basic Income), and how to get all of that instituted at a national level. Transitioning a huge share of Americans over to a completely different, more collective lifestyle might seem like a ridiculous and utopian pipe dream. But as John Platt observes at the opening of this post, “The World has become too dangerous for anything less than Utopia.” And considering the alternative fantasies of our major cultural parties, each predicated on endless growth, building a new Community-based America from the ground up is actually the most practical avenue open to us.

That brings us to the last C-Word that will provide significant substance to a transforming United States: Cleanup. It’s not sexy, this necessary Cleanup stuff. Americans are not really good at it. We’re a pioneering people. We like breaking new ground, finding new places, making new stuff, striking new deals. Being a huge but young country, we have filled our physical spaces at a breakneck pace, building and moving on, then building some more and moving on again. The result? The US is bursting at the seams with, there’s no other way to put it, junk. There’s junk everywhere: garbage, chemical waste, disused commercial buildings, rusting equipment, abandoned houses, and all other manner of detritus. And as our population has aged, the physical ability to maintain the American Dream has fizzled out as fast as the economic prerequisites. You can see it when you drive around regular towns and cities: older people just don’t have the time, energy, or money to maintain the single-family housing stock. Disrepair is everywhere.

We’ll need to clean all of this up. We can’t continue to wallow in our own squalor, especially as the population ages and loses the actual physical ability to do the work. In our current household configuration, this Cleanup would be impossible. But if we transition to a community-based society via Bigger Home Bases, this macro-maintenance project become eminently doable. Freed from the economic shackles of full employment, there would be huge reservoirs of time and energy to devote to cleaning up our landscapes and shitscapes. And if the federal government commits to a Modern Money Theory approach to public spending, states and localities could be flooded with cleanup money to fund all kinds of projects.

These are the three Cs of a rejuvenated America: Contraction, Community, and Cleanup. None are really possible without the other pieces, and the details are fleshed out with the companion trio of UBI, BHBs, and MMT. Getting these all into place seems impossibly utopian. And yet… and yet, Utopia is now the most practical option open to us.

(Cover image from Pacificdomes.com)

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