On the respective ease of imagining the end of the world and the end of capitalism

When I was growing up, environmentalist propaganda efforts were in full swing. I learned about environmental problems in school. I watched Captain Planet at home. Recycling programs were rolling out in local communities for the first time. My father, an ardent Republican and Rush Limbaugh listener, dutifully peeled the labels off of cans and rinsed out milk cartons, doing his part. As the Cold War wound down, US and Soviet authorities collaborated on environmental measures, and MacGyver went from being a spy to being an environmental activist. George Bush, Sr., had pioneered a cap-and-trade program that significantly mitigated acid rain, and other leading Republicans such as John McCain were happy to work with Democrats on similar measures. And finally, in 2000, the Democratic presidential candidate was Al Gore, a man who had published a book on the environment characterizing the automobile as the most destructive technology ever devised.

I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time, but if you’d asked me when I was 16, I probably would have guessed that by the time I was an adult, progress on the environment would be so far advanced as to be unrecognizable. What we got instead was tax subsidies for SUVs (a class of vehicle virtually no one needed), along with a housing boom based on even more intensive suburban and exurban expansionism (which is extremely wasteful of energy in essentially every way), an end to all US participation in international environmental treaties, growing distrust of public recycling programs, and the emergence of environmentally sound products as a luxury niche for the wealthy and aspiring. My local grocery store, in a pretty progressive neighborhood famous for its lesbian population, doesn’t even bother to carry recycled paper towels. The effects of global warming are undeniable in the increased number of unprecedented natural disasters and even in the uncanny disruption in weather patterns that we experience every day, and no serious action is being taken or even discussed — or indeed, even imagined as a live possibility. Meanwhile, the market forces that were supposed to make alternative energy competitive have instead made it profitable to drill for oil reserves that would have been economically infeasible a generation ago, so that the US has reemerged as a major oil and natural gas producer.

In the light of such an absolute and irretrievable failure, I think we need to revise the slogan about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It’s as though we collectively were given a choice of which we would choose, and we chose to end the world. The decisive victory of liberal-democratic capitalism really was the end of history, just not in the sense intended.

35 thoughts on “On the respective ease of imagining the end of the world and the end of capitalism

  1. I’ve made the joke before that Climate Change is the hidden “stones will cry out” to the Revolution. Since the Revolution was silenced the stones cry out.

    If you know you want a joke that encapsulates communism and the Gospel.

  2. Tainter’s Rules…

    1. Human societies are problem solving organizations.
    2. Socio-political systems require energy for maintenance.
    3. Increasing complexity carries with it increased costs per capita.
    4. Investment in socio-political complexity often reaches a point of declining marginal returns. (From: The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter)

    MacIntyre’s Conclusion…

    What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to use the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.

    This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.

    We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.

  3. Tarzie, Note the words “as though.”

    Parsimon, I’ve been thinking along these lines for a long time, but the proximate cause was noticing that there was no recycled paper towel at the grocery store.

  4. Andy, As I think about your comment more, it seems to me that what we need is not another St. Benedict, but another Muhammed. After all, it was Islam that actually preserved the classical heritage that Western intellectuals eventually took up in the High Middle Ages. I guess we can start our little grouplets in the West, in the hopes that China has absored enough of the best of Western culture that it will still be there for us to rediscover 500 years from now. And in the meantime we can all keep ourselves busy manually copying After Virtue over and over while the Chinese, like the Muslims before them, continue to grow in intellectual sophistication over the course of our “dark ages.”

  5. “This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.”

    Exactly. Hence the problem with indiscriminate use of ‘we’ by left intellectuals.

  6. Adam: the proximate cause was noticing that there was no recycled paper towel at the grocery store.

    You have taken issue with them, at the grocery store, I hope. It’s the least a person could do.

  7. Here was my take, Adam, though I’ve found trying to understand someone’s point communicated via a few cryptic lines on a blog is often an exercise in misinterpretation:

    Your point – perhaps triggered by antipathy toward MacIntyre and signaled by using a term like “grouplets” – was to diminish the notion that if we indeed have already entered the point of declining (perhaps negative) returns in our investments in social complexity (which I think is a likely explanation for the observations in your initial post), then perhaps we need to prepare for the collapse to follow – whether it’s “Fall of Rome,” or “Fall of Great Britain” in scope. And that the best way to do so, is to strengthen local bonds of community via outposts gestured to by MacIntyre.

    Of course, I could have read you wrongly. And I don’t pretend to your level of intellectual firepower on these matters, so I welcome any correction you may want to supply.

    And while I appreciate the indispensable contribution of Islam in sustaining the Western Classical heritage, I find there is also much to admire about the monastic tradition. Given my indisposition toward empire, you’ll understand if I choose not to elevate Mohammed’s table of virtues above those of my own faith tradition (which of course has carried on a thousand year love affair with empire itself, though I think it’s apparent, that affair is on the wane).

  8. I don’t think there’s some social scientific rule that caused the shift I’m pointing out. It should be obvious that it was a series of political decisions by various elites — the decision to install Bush rather than Gore on the part of the Supreme Court and the decision of the rest of the US elites to go along with it, for instance, or the Soviet elites’ decision to cash out rather than maintain their system. I also think it’s obvious that a large-scale social system is a more robust way of preserving a cultural heritage than small self-selecting groups (hence I’m not in favor of “empire” so much as “having a society at all”).

    If you want to start a small monastic community, though, by all means.

  9. Because preserving all of that information is going to be really important, since the information age has yet to dawn. I’d resist any reading of our current situation as a recapitulation of the transition from ancient to medieval Europe.

  10. I’d say I’m suspicious of “robust” and more interested in “antifragile” (a la Taleb), which is why I’m also suspicious of large-scale social systems and more interested in networks of smaller communities, if indeed collapse is coming.

  11. Perhaps I am. Or perhaps like any investigator, I’m simply finding confirmation of an hypothesis, while hopefully keeping in mind the powerful role played by confirmation bias.

    As I tried to articulate earlier, it’s hard to communicate the development of one’s thought in this format. At the risk of being completely obvious, I would say, though, that a network of smaller communities is not complex in the same way a modern market state is. One can lose one or even several nodes of a network of smaller communities and go merrily along. The same cannot be said when an empire invests in layer upon layer of complexity to keep itself going, particularly if the returns on the investments begin to go negative.

    A further supposition is that above some population level – probably a few hundred thousand – the level of coercion required for political unity becomes unacceptable over time, especially when perceived benefits are few, and costs are felt to be immediate.

    I’m not sure my ideas are any more ad hoc than yours about a series of political decisions by elites being the cause of certain of our difficulties (if in fact that’s a fair characterization of your posts above). Those proximate causes may indeed play out according to observed regularities in social systems – the Roman grain and olive oil doles being a possibly analogous example.

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  13. Merely imagining the fall of Rome to imagine climate change is thinking far too small. In anything but implausibly best case scenarios a recognizable China is not going to survive any more than the “West”. What may very well be coming over this century is a change to how the whole planet works on a scale larger than has happened since millenia before agriculture even existed.

    The question is: do some human societies exist in that world, or does our species come to an end?

  14. “If MacIntyre becomes the next Augustine, I’m going to be so pissed.”
    thanks Adam, a laugh just before sleep is good for my soul

  15. We can focus on strengthening the bonds and promoting the welfare of our local community (especially the welfare of those on its margins), and still engage the larger world.

    The problem with the final question in your post, it seems to me, isn’t so much with what you correctly, (i think) identify as concrete practices, but with the ends to which the products of those practices are directed. It’s the difference between the the coders, who are engaged in practices that inculcate certain virtues and the end users, who reap the benefits of the work without the need to engage in such practices. Perhaps if folks produced even a portion of their own food (community gardens, anyone?), they’d be less sanguine about using non-recyclables, even in the most “progressive” of neighborhoods.

  16. My neighborhood does have a much smaller grocery store that features all organic, local, sustainable, etc., products. It has a weekly farmer’s market when seasonally appropriate as well, which is very well attended. There are many urban gardens, even just on my street. It may be literally the best case scenario for a progressive urban neighborhood, and somehow all those good, responsible individual choices do not add up to systemic change.

    It’s almost as though there’s a fundamental mismatch between systemic problems and individualistic solutions!

  17. Maybe that’s why I lean strongly towards communitarianism. Community prior to individual. At the risk of sparking disdain (or just plain boring even further), I wonder if what may be missing in neighborhoods like you describe is a common core of necessary practices that tie individuals together. Wondering if those urban gardens are felt as necessary to the well-being (even survival) of the community, or just nice activities to do together. Our politics is just so screwed right now.

    Also wondering what the take is on a small college being an environment conducive to “community,” and how that plays out in the larger world. Or does academic politics overwhelm things? I have a feeling the university is what MacIntyre had in mind as a present-day model when he first penned AV. Interesting he seems to have migrated to a more or less orthodox Catholicism.

    And in the interest of full disclosure re: Alex’s post, I earn my living standing in front of a computer keyboard in an office 10 feet from my bedroom :-O

  18. Communitarianism is voluntary and artificial — it creates a self-enclosed mini-system, a kind of “bigger” individual that can’t produce wider systemic change. At best, it’s a species of responsible consumerism; at worst, it’s light Fascism.

  19. “but with the ends to which the products of those practices are directed”

    Sure. But in the case of many of these activities (some) of the ends I don’t know can be dismissed as worthwhile and would only be available if the localist and communitarian perspective is defied and wider perspective is adopted. The same goes for much of what humans do – including, ironically, global projects like localism!

  20. Another irony: communitarianism has to take liberal-capitalist individuals and establish a community with them. In reality, we already have a community “prior to” individuals — it’s called global capitalism. It’s not a good form of community, certainly, but that’s only surprising to someone who thinks you can make anything good by slapping “community” onto it.

    In short, Andy, I wish you would think through your positions like at all, ever. You’re not even wrong — you’re just repeating cliches that sound good to you.

  21. At a risk of piling on, that always seems the paradox of MacIntyre’s stuff. He seems to actually believe the liberal individualism and atomism he decries is real, yet for this reason, lacks the explanation of how it came about or is sociologically transmitted consider society is thusly atomised. Or, put differently, he actually believes liberalism own hype that there are such things as asocial individuals – in contradistinction from the Marxist stance he abandoned that the individuals of liberalism are at best a pernicious ideological fiction.

  22. Funny, I was just looking up that Wolfgang Pauli quote two days ago (was watching the show on the Challenger Disaster, and thought it was a Feynmanism). As far as your criticism, I will consider it, though since you don’t know me, I’d say it may be a bit overboard. Is it possible what you refer to as thinking in cliches, is simply a shorthand way for communicating in a necessarily abbreviated format? (For some reason, “Mrs. Who,” from A Wrinkle In Time comes to mind.) Or maybe it’s laziness…

    I agree there is an inherent nexus between the urge toward unity and fascism. I happen to think there’s a form of community that overcomes such difficulties, but that would require more cliches in order to make my case.

    Finally, thanks for engaging, even if at the cost of some exasperation. (exeunt)

  23. Alex, since your last post wasn’t up when I was writing, I’m wondering if you’ve considered that a thinker like say, Bakhtin, may be able to correct some of the issues you identify with MacIntyre.

  24. I’m not familiar with Bakhtin, but I think that fundamentally the dichotomy extant communitarians propose as well as what they think liberalism is doesn’t seem plausible. I’d rather not patch something basically wrong!

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