In his 3-15 article “Disengage from the spectacle,” posted at http://www.postcarbon.org, Richard Heinberg describes the beginning of the Trump administration as “Empire’s End,” TV’s latest and biggest-ever 24/7 reality show, decades in the making, “with a budget in the trillions, a cast of billions, and a hero-villain more colorful and pathetic than Tony Soprano or Walter White.” He advises that “at least some of us are better off severely limiting our consumption of American national news right now. It’s not that events in Washington won’t affect us – they will. Rather, there are even more important things to attend to, over which we have far greater agency.
First Premise: We’re at the end of the period of general economic growth that characterized the post-WWII era. I’ve written extensively about this, and there’s no need to repeat myself at length here. Suffice it to say that we humans have harvested the world’s cheap and easy-to-exploit energy resources, and the energy that’s left won’t support the kind of consumer economy we’ve built much longer. In order to keep the party roaring, we’ve built up consumer and government debt levels to unsustainable extremes. We’ve also pumped hundreds of billions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and oceans, putting the entire biosphere at risk. Our current economic and political systems also require further, endless growth in order to avert collapse. Almost no one wants to discuss all of this, but everyone senses a change in the air: despite jiggered statistics, workers know their wages have stagnated or fallen in recent years, and members of the younger generation generally expect to earn less that their parents. This generates a persistent low-level sense of fear and dissatisfaction, guaranteeing the type of political shift we’re seeing.
Second Premise: The new U.S. regime is adopting an essentially fascist character. When empires decline, people often turn to leaders perceived as strong, who promise to return the nation to its former glory. In extreme instances, such leaders can be characterized as fascist, using the word in a generic sense to refer to authoritarian nationalism distinguished by one-party rule, the demonization of internal and external enemies (usually tinged with some form of racism or anti-Semitism), controls on press freedoms, and social conservatism. Once a nation turns decisively toward fascism, it rarely turns back, since fascist regimes ruthlessly destroy all opposition. It usually takes a foreign invasion or a complete economic-political-social collapse to reset a national government that’s gone fascist.
Those who get the second premise but miss the first tend to conclude that, at least until the new regime neutralizes significant opposition within the government, there are still things we can do to return life to ‘normal.’ But the end of growth ensures that, beyond a certain point, there will be no more ‘normal.’ We’re headed into new territory no matter what. Taking both premises into account, what are the likely outcomes?
It’s possible that the Trump administration will succeed in rooting out or suppressing opposition not just in Congress and the media, but also in executive-branch departments, including the CIA and FBI. In that case we may see at least a few years of authoritarian national governance punctuated by worsening financial and environmental crises against a backdrop of accelerating national decline. But thanks to Premise One, short-term success won’t lead to a stable regime over the long term. Eventually, no matter how vigorously it suppresses real or perceived enemies, the U.S. federal government will collapse as a result of war, economic crisis, or the simple ongoing erosion of biophysical support systems. At that point a possible trajectory for the nation would be to break apart into smaller geographically defined political entities.
The short-term success of the current regime isn’t assured anyway. It’s still possible that establishmentarian Democratic and Republican members of Congress, working with renegade CIA and FBI mid-level officials and mainstream media outlets, could mire the new leadership in a scandal too deep to survive. Or, if Republicans lose control of Congress in 2018, articles of impeachment could be brought against Trump. This wouldn’t guarantee a return to status quo politics in Washington though. Not only does Premise One guarantee that the old status quo is no longer tenable, but on its own terms the political system is now too broken and the nation too divided. In this scenario, pro-regime and anti-regime elites might continue to escalate their attacks on one another until the whole system crashes.
In either case, there’s no national team to root for capable of restoring the status quo ante Trump for long, if that’s even desirable. Under either scenario, competent local governance might provide significantly better living conditions than the national average, but the overall picture is pretty grim. A few years from now I expect that we’ll be in very different territory socially, politically, and economically. Nevertheless, what we do in the meantime could make a big positive difference to people and planet, both over the short term and also over the long term. Here are some specific things you can do:
Disengage from the spectacle. Learn what you need to know in order to assess immediate threats and general trends, but otherwise avoid spending long periods of time ingesting online, print, radio, or televised media. It’s bad for your mental health and takes time away from other items on this list. If you haven’t already done so, make a personal and family resilience plan in case of a temporary breakdown in the basic functions of government (everyone should do this anyway in view of our vulnerability to earthquakes or weather disasters). Are you growing any of your own food? Do you have other practical skills? Do you have stored food and water? Do you have cash set aside? Work to build community resilience as well. If and when national governance breaks down, your local community’s degree of social and biophysical resilience will make all the difference for you and your family. Biophysical resilience relates to local food, water, and energy systems. A socially resilient community is one in which people are talking to and looking out for one another, and institutions for resolving disputes are trusted. Identify organizations that are building both kinds of resilience in your community and engage with them. These could be churches; government and non-profit organizations; food, energy, and health co-ops; neighborhood safety groups; local investment clubs; or Transition groups. Get involved with existing organizations or start new ones. It takes time, but friends like these are more important than money in the bank, especially in times of social and political upheaval. Direct some of your resilience-building efforts toward long-term and nature-centered concerns. – also work that proceeds best in the company of others. Take time as well for the conservation of culture – arts and skills that are their own reward. Connecting with others in your community by enjoying or playing music together, singing, dancing, or making visual art deepens relationships and gives life more dimension and meaning. Participating in protests could enable you to get to know other members of your community or further fragment your community if it’s deeply divided politically. At certain moments in history it’s necessary to take a stand one way or the other on a particular issue, and in the days ahead some issue may require you to plant your flag. This historical moment is also one in which many real heroes and heroines engage in ways that aren’t scripted by any of the elites.”
In an earlier essay, “Traditionalism” through the Lens of Cultural Ecology,” published 2-27 (also on postcarbon.org), Heinberg discusses the political philosophies now vying against each other in Washington. “The common terms liberalism and conservatism have lost their usefulness in navigating these political waters,” he says. Traditionalism is a more useful term, representing “the recent rightward ideological surge in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, but it remains widely unfamiliar and poorly defined. In this essay, I’ll explore the significance of traditionalism using a conceptual tool I call cultural ecology: an inquiry into the ways society shapes itself in response to geography, energy resources, and other environmental factors. My understanding of cultural ecology is derived from the work of anthropologist Marvin Harris, who investigated how societies were transformed by their shifts from hunting-and-gathering to farming, and how they adapted themselves to various geographies (geographer Jared Diamond also made important contributions along these lines).
In the last couple of centuries, a shift as profound as the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago occurred as societies came to base their economies on the use of fossil fuels. Now, as the fossil fuel era starts to wane, wrenching changes in the social, intellectual, political, and religious foundations of modern society should be anticipated. Fossil-fueled society came to full flower during the 20th century. With unprecedented amounts of energy available, economies grew rapidly, and the expectation of further and unending growth became a core feature of economic and political theory, along with the notion that unending progress was also to be expected in social, scientific, and political realms. Capitalism – the private ownership of what Marx called the ‘means of production,’ along with mechanisms for constant reinvestment in the expansion of those means – was never so much a coherent ideology as a set of cobbled-together agreements and institutions. Since capitalism’s tendency (as Marx observed) was to produce ever greater economic inequality along with worsening boom-bust cycles, efforts were made to restrain those tendencies through redistributive taxation and social programs, along with financial, labor, and environmental regulations (which were seen by many as signs of social and political progress). Immigration and globalization served to reduce labor costs, but were also regarded as evidence of progress toward a more egalitarian, multicultural ideal. The acceptance and resettlement of refugees from political strife or natural disasters represented a national expression of humanitarianism. This was the milieu within which liberal and conservative political discourse took place; that discourse questioned relative degrees of power and benefit enjoyed by social groups (e.g., workers versus managers versus owners of capital) but seldom challenged the shared allegiance to growth. Within a growing economy, there was always more for (nearly) everyone, even though some were able to obtain a much higher percentage of the increasing overall wealth.
The fossil fuel era is now failing. Even without climate change, oil, coal, and natural gas are finite resources extracted using the low-hanging fruit principle. While large amounts of these resources remain, each further increment extracted offers declining energy returns on the energy invested in production, an instance of the law of diminishing returns. The situation with respect to oil is approaching crisis: while production rates are high, costs to producers are soaring, and the higher prices needed to cover those costs can’t be sustained because they tend to frustrate economic growth and kill demand for motor fuel. The petroleum industry is between a proverbial rock and hard place, with debt increasing and profit evaporating. Alternative energy sources will need to be introduced at eight to ten times the current rate of solar and wind build-out to avert a climate or a depletion crisis. In any case, it’s highly doubtful that renewable or nuclear energy could support the consumer economy we’ve come to rely on. Since energy is the basis for all economic activity (a fact mainstream economists have been slow to grasp), the end of the fossil fuel era effectively means the end of growth.
Just as a growing economy encouraged the development of the ideological and social constructs of the 20th century, a stagnating or contracting economy is likely to favor a different and uglier politics whose main themes are: longing (and promises) for the return of a lost condition of abundance, blaming social or political groups for the current situation, and calling for the exclusion of others deemed to be competing with ‘us’ for increasingly scarce resources. This could be a description of what would, in ordinary political discourse, be termed far-right nationalist populism.
Insight into ideological Trumpism can be gleaned from the beliefs of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. According to the website Politico, his favored readings ‘tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. They tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone.’ One of Bannon’s influences is said to be blogger Curtis Yarvin, a leader of a movement called Dark Enlightenment that rejects egalitarianism and multiculturalism along with the progressive view of world history. Dark Enlightenment supports strong, centralized political leadership, libertarian economics, and socially conservative views on gender roles, race relations, and immigration. Another Bannon favorite is Nassim Taleb, author of the 2014 book Antifragile, which proposes managing systems in a way that benefits from random events, errors, and volatility.
The term traditionalism crops up in the work of Italian philosopher Julius Evola (1898-1974). A recent New York Times article explored Bannon’s fascination with Evola, ‘a leading proponent of traditionalism, a worldview popular in far-right and alternative religious circles that believes progress and equality are poisonous illusions.’ Evola’s book Revolt Against the Modern World speculated that the near-universal myth of a lost Golden Age is actually a collective memory of a time when religious and temporal power were united, and society was ruled by spiritual warriors. He believed that the modern world represents a serious decline from that society.
In my first book, Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (1989, revised edition 1995), I explained how the idea of a lost Golden Age has long been associated with various forms of millenarianism, the notion that the current world is degraded and approaching a cleansing crisis from which a revived paradisiacal condition will emerge. Millenarian movements (of which many variants of Christianity and Islam are clear examples) often spring up during times of secular decline or crisis, and typically take the form of a cult led by a charismatic visionary aiming to ‘make the world great again.’ Sometimes a benign character, the leader is more often malign — like Hitler. In my view, the myth of a Golden Age is a deep cultural memory of our shared origin in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, when we lived embedded in nature rather than separate from and dominating it.
To summarize, cultural ecology predicts that a historical moment of change such as ours would provide the ideal growth medium for social and religious movements that glorify a largely imagined past, anticipate a cathartic renewal (which they may seek to precipitate), and promise followers a privileged position in the coming order.
Some of the basic features of traditionalism are evident in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which went through an end-of-growth crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR. In a 2013 speech at the Valdai conference in Russia, Putin warned, ‘We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They’re denying moral principles and traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.’ In a 2014 speech at the Vatican, Steve Bannon called Putin a kleptocrat, but spoke approvingly of his philosophy: ‘We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what Putin is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.’ One of Putin’s influence is Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right Russian political philosopher and fan of Julius Evola. Dugin has asserted that, ‘Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, can we become a credible global player.” He’s helped Putin forge alliances with nationalist movements in Europe, including Marine LePen’s National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Ataka Party in Bulgaria, and Hungary’s Jobbik Party. Putin’s friend Viktor Orbán, now prime minister of Hungary, has promised to turn his country into an ‘illiberal democracy’ modeled on Russia. He is virulently anti-Muslim, seeing Islam as a ‘rulebook for another world.’
Traditionalism demands an enemy, and the fear and loathing of Islam is a key feature of far-right populism in both Europe and the U.S. Here’s Steve Bannon on the dangers of what he calls ‘jihadist Islamic fascism’: ‘I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.’ The expectation of an ultimate cathartic clash between a traditionalist Christian West and jihadist Islam is of course shared by radical Islamist movements such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which themselves represent brands of millenarianism. (The description of the relationship between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations” appeared first in a 1957 speech at Johns Hopkins University by British orientalist Bernard Lewis, and Harvard professor Samuel Huntington popularized the idea.)
Societies in decline or crisis don’t always elevate far-right leaders and social movements. The medieval Joachimites and Brethren of the Free Spirit (whose followers endured plagues and wrenching poverty), and the 17th century Ranters in Britain (where small farmers were losing their land to the wealthy) promoted a radically egalitarian vision of human relations. Much more recently, a period of economic contraction and crisis in the United States produced one of the country’s most left-leaning presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, it could be argued that Barack Obama was an FDR-like figure tasked to address the global financial crisis of 2008, but that his too-tepid response (or the fact that the crisis was too deeply-rooted to yield fully to Keynesian formulae) then opened the way for far-right Trumpism.
Traditionalism therefore characterizes only one phase of the cultural and political aftermath to the end of growth. While for the foreseeable future (and in certain nations or regions) circumstances may favor strong leaders who demonize racial or religious groups and promise a restoration of forsaken values, their regimes may disappear as quickly as they arrived on the scene. Polities may fragment, with formerly united regions choosing to follow separate paths. Currently, large swathes of America (accounting for over half its total population) are proving highly resistant to the Trumpist mental virus, and much the same could be said with regard to Europe.
A far-left millenarian movement could also arise, a form of militant egalitarianism like Bolshevism or Mao’s Red Brigades that could potentially prove as dangerous as any other brand of extreme millenarianism. But our future options need not be limited to competing brands of millenarianism. Individuals and communities can focus on practical efforts to bring the greatest good to the most people (and other species) over the longest time by rethinking and redesigning production and consumption patterns in anticipation of the failure of existing consumerist institutions. The word ‘good’ in the previous sentence is of course open to definition and redefinition, but even a meager understanding of ecology and psychology would suggest that it should point to values like diversity (permitting the flourishing of many kinds of species and cultures), happiness, health, autonomy, and sustainability.” Heinberg then gives the same recommendations as in his 3-15 post. He concludes: “Millenarianism is a collective psychological expression of stress and powerlessness. The antidote is to act. In a time of division, unite. In a time of demonization, reach out.” He then recommends a new Post Carbon Institute online course called ‘Think Resilience: Preparing Communities for the Rest of the 21st Century,'” available at education.resilience.org.