In 1995, I posted the Ethical Spectacle Mission Statement, which sets as its very first goal, "Stating the obvious if no-one else has, or if the obvious is not getting enough attention".
For some years now, I have conceived of a short essay with this title: Our world is ending. Yet every time I thought of writing it, I deflected away and wrote something else instead.
Why? For a lot of reasons. Because of a superstitious sense, that something isn't real until you say it. Out of a sort of etiquette, that it is a very impolite thing to say. With a feeling of compassion, that it is a hurtful truth to tell anyone (like saying "So you're dying of cancer!" to someone who has resisted believing that their Stage Four disease is terminal). With shame, thinking that I will reveal myself to be crazy, of the fringe, by saying it. From a mild fear that, as democracy erodes, what I am about to write could be cited against me in a corrupt courtroom, as evidence I am an anarchist or want our world to fall.
Our world is ending. I believe that we have reached a threshold where any intelligent person can see it. Now that I've said it, I wonder why we seem to have no equivalent statements from anyone writing in the last decades of the Roman Empire, when it must have been equally easy to foresee. Probably due to the same five constraints I have just named.
First, we have screwed the planet. Global climate change is, depending on who you read, either irreversible or could only be resisted by enormous changes we will not be willing to make.
Our world is physically ending in several ways.
The oceans are rising and, within one hundred years or so, will have submerged large chunks of our civilization. New York City, where I was born and spent more than fifty years of my life, and which I visit on business four or five times a month, will be under water. Where I live in Napeague, the narrowest point of Long Island, where the ocean and bay are separated by less than a quarter mile of land, the two bodies of water will meet each other. The town in which I live, and the city in which my work life is still centered,are literally ending.
There is no believable scenario in which our nation, or any other, simply adapts to the waters rising. We will not move New York City inland, nor relocate its millions of inhabitants. We long ago lost any political will, and of course, the wealth, even to study that. People will drown, starve, kill one another. Refugees fleeing inland will not be welcome because "the boat is full".
Climate change will end livelihoods of fishing and farming as fish stocks disappear or move, and areas become too arid or warm for particular crops. The extinction or dwindling of support species, such as bees, and the invasion of new species will upset long-maintained balances. The political chaos caused by sea level rise and other factors will make it ever harder to obtain and distribute the food necessary to feed the population.
Continuing pollution, as political regulation disappears, will have its effect, constrained only by an inability to mount large industrial enterprises in a lawless environment. Other opportunistic disasters, such as disease, rioting or civil war, will act as solvents of society.
Yet population will continue to grow for some time, in the face of all these factors. There will be more people who cannot be governed, housed, fed, educated, or provided with meaningful work.
These paragraphs have done no more than set up the proposition that the Titanic is steaming at speed towards an iceberg. The other piece, in an essay entitled "Our World Is Ending", is to explain why we will not or cannot turn the ship.
I cannot completely explain why from earliest childhood, I had an overdeveloped sense of entropy. I picked up a dead starling from my Brooklyn street when I was six and had my first vision of the Second Law. During the Cuban missile crisis, and for many years after, I had a recurring nightmare of coffin-shaped nuclear weapons attached to parachutes falling into Brooklyn. I looked everywhere for evidence of decline, and found it. Sometime circa 1966, the New York Times Sunday magazine ran an article on the "immense issues of the human future" which, as I recall, included a prediction that the continued doubling of the human population would end our ability to manage before too long. There are more than twice as many people on Earth now as there were when I read that article. I asked my father whether our world was ending, and he answered, "Oh, you know, humans always invent something at the last moment to solve every problem". Faith in the last minute save.
For most of my life, I had a residual faith in, or at least a hope, for democracy and human rationality, that we would find answers, change our ways, ameliorate the worst consequences. That hope, tinier than a pebble, ended definitely with the 2016 election, which turned American history into a shaggy dog story. Q. What do you do when rising sea level, climate change, population growth, pollution, and poverty threaten your civilization? A. You elect Donald Trump.
In my writing, I have identified and explored a human quality I call "Bloodymindedness", a toxic mix of deep wilfullness, selfishness, irrationality, credulousness, hatred and propensity for violence which in all historical eras has represented the worst of humanity. For going on seven years, I have been at work on what I term my "Mad Manuscript" which, two nights ago, passed 7,000 pages. My title is "In Search of Free Speech", but it has transformed into a free-ranging examination of all human history seen through the lens: Under what circumstances do we tell the truth to each other, and even to ourselves? To illustrate Bloodymindedness at work in an era not our own, here is a brief case study:
No American easily understood what was at stake on the eve of World War I. The politics were so complex that they are almost impossible to explain even today. There is no easy way to describe why the assassination of an Austrian Archduke by a Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo would lead to world war just six months later. I have read scores of books about World War I and I can't wrap my mind around it. The most intelligent explanation I have ever seen is that humans just reach pressure points in history that are relieved by a war. When nations with adjoining borders start imagining war with one another, the actual reason they will find is unimportant.
Americans were rightly skeptical about what was at stake for them, and why they should expend their own lives or treasure intervening in a European conflict. Yet within three years, a master communicator, President Woodrow Wilson, had deployed propaganda so effective that America witnessed a new phenomenon, "flag kissing mobs". These assaulted anyone of German heritage or suspected of socialism or merely of antiwar views, forcing them to kiss the American flag. Some victims were beaten, tarred and feathered, or murdered. We had somehow gone, via our own Bloodymindedness, from "who cares?" to "Kiss the flag to show you care" in three years.
Here is my big reveal: The Bloodyminded are the Trump base. That is not as smart or special as it sounds, because the Bloodyminded are also the electorate the Republicans have been encouraging and growing since 1948, when they needed a campaign premise to use against Truman in a booming post-war economy and chose disloyalty. That was the electorate HUAC and McCarthy spoke to, the electorate which can be captivated on any issue which inspires their hatred against Communists, immigrants, black people, hippies, women, or Democrats--which cleverly organizes them around their hatred, so they don't notice they have been persuaded to vote against their own jobs, mortgages, education, and health care at the same time. In encouraging the growth of this electorate, the Republican Party merely miscalculated by expecting that the people they were stirring up would ever choose Donald Trump over Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.
My reading for the Mad Manuscript, which began decades before I actually began writing it, has allowed me to drill down into aspects of our history we have forgotten. In a sense, Donald Trump has happened before. Many of the Framers were emotionally overthrown or threatened by the election of Andrew Jackson, who was the first President not to share their experience and world-view. A blustering, slave owning ex-general who had fought duels, his rise to power caused one Framer, Benjamin Rush, to destroy the draft of his autobiography and declare, in despair, that the American experiment in democracy had ended.
Harvard published a prestigious series of short, accessible biographies starting at the end of the nineteenth century, called "American Statesmen". The introduction to the volume on Jackson explains that they are forced to include him because of the revolution he worked, but will skip many of his successors, because....they were not "statesmen". I don't remember if they included a single President between Jackson and Lincoln. Who even remembers that list mostly of hacks, Van Buren, Harrison,. Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan?
"Donald Trump happened before" is not an optimistic statement. You could derive "and will happen again, and we will carry on, as we always do". I derive instead that our history is cyclical, that we remember nothing and avoid nothing, and that it constitutes a "widening gyre" up until the moment we actually "punch in". We are in more debt than we were when Jackson was elected. The planet is in worse shape. There are many more people.
Although democracy is not the only environment in which free speech has ever thrived--Frederick the Great was an autocrat who let his subjects say whatever they pleased, about him and almost any other topic--it has historically been the main one. We have way overloaded Greek "parrhesia" with inappropriate content. Athenian democracy did not protect Socrates' right to be the "gadfly" of his nation. It merely represented the right of the assembly freely to debate killing him. The minimal Greek epiphany, that we do better when we can share knowledge among elite males widely and debate what to do next, was still huge, compared to the concept it replaced, that we all are the property of a king or dictator who makes all decisions and can dispose of us how he wishes.
There is a certain amount of interesting scholarly writing about the ideal size of a democracy, with most writers agreeing that it works pretty effectively in a city Athen's size, where (I am citing numbers from memory), a population of less than a quarter million including women, children, foreigners and slaves, was governed by voting males of less than half the number, of whom about 7,000 were likely to show up on the Pnyx hill actually to make decisions.
There is thus a major issue, which has never been effectively answered or, IMHO, even confronted, of how far democracy can scale. Could you manage a planet of seven billion people as a democracy? What about a nation of 327 million (ours)? I can begin to imagine, and someday hope to write more about, ways that, just maybe, you could: for example, by distributing democracy down to the local level first, for example in a system where you are either born into, or voluntarily join, a "thousand", a group of people tasked with solving certain problems and discussing all others, and then passing their solutions and recommendations upwards until a consensus is sought at the 327 million member level. Regardless of how far you could scale democracy, however, it is stunningly clear from the evidence that we have not tried. In every putatively representative democracy, it is not hard to find powerful people cynical and honest, or despairing , enough, to expose the wires, and speak freely about the manipulation of public opinion. In the Athens of the age of Philip of Macedeon and his son Alexander, Demosthenes stood up in assembly and delivered a series of speeches predicting that the Macdeonians would end Athenian democracy, describing how they were doing it, and what the consequences would be. No one listened, and it all came to pass. In Prussian democracy, Bismarck stands out as an autocratic figure who, in the security of his power, fueled by his own remarkable self pity, spoke rather freely about the problems of tricking and bullying the common people into doing what he wanted. And now, as I said above, we have the Trump electorate the Republicans have been engineering since 1948....but that is not the entire picture, because they are the same people who elected Andrew Jackson.
In fact, when you try to trace the skein of Sophistry and manipulation through American politics, it does not begin with Jackson, but lamentably, in the rivalry between the second and third President, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom hired "yellow" journalists to lie about one another, and deployed censorship prosecutions to chill one another's acolytes. (One of the ironies of history is that the biggest lie aimed at Jefferson turned out to be the truth, that he had children with his slave, Sally Hemings.)
We have not really done anything to ensure democracy would scale; that would have involved among other factors a much greater focus on education, on creating voters of the opposite type, who could not be manipulated.
I have come all this way without even mentioning Capitalism. Another of the great ironies I discovered in my reading is that Friedrich Hayek, beloved of Libertarians, actually acknowledges there are problems Capitalism cannot solve, and which require government, and he gives the environment as an example. I doubt that ninety-five percent of the Libertarians citing Hayek have ever read him.
I had the always dreary experience once of debating a Libertarian, in front of an audience of about 100 people, and the outline of his counter-attack was as follows: "Climate change is not happening....it is a lie...it is a crock of shit....it is a liberal conspiracy....it is a fraud...." and then, when we were alone afterwards and the audience could no longer hear: "And there is nothing we can do to stop it anyway".
So much for the Invisible Hand. One of the greatest Sophistries in history has been the idea that millions of selfishnesses add up to the general good. The Invisible Hand has given us climate change and the destruction of our planet. So, class, what is another way to say that? It is an easy formulation, that you will never hear anyone on the mainstream say, though many know it: Capitalism has failed.
In the interests of writing an essay, not a book, I will keep this brief, but: I was a capitalist myself, running a technology business in the 1990's which, at the end, had 90 employees and some millions in revenue. I loved creating jobs for people, and solving problems together, and I wrote here in those years that a form of compassionate Capitalism was possible in which you considered the interests of all stakeholders, including the public. It is not hard to find examples going back long before the word "Capitalism" was even invented. Herodotus describes a form of silent bargaining carried on in perfect trust, between shy islanders who lay out produce on the beach, and visiting merchantfolk who then lay out the goods they are willing to trade. Each party adjusts the amounts until the islanders take the payment, at which point the merchants load the goods aboard ship. This is not a myth; I found some references to this form of commerce occuring within historical memory.
On the first day of law school, my contracts professor gave another memorable example. You go into the corner store and hold up a can of beans. The proprietor nods. You leave. She writes it down on your account. You have also just formed a contract in perfect silence--and trust. It isn't hard to find examples of corner store-owners in the Depression carrying accounts for local families for which they knew they would never be paid. This wasn't completely selfless; it was also in the store owner's interest, when the Depression lifted, still to have customers.
It became evident to me that not all commerce is Capitalism, and that there can even be flavors of the latter. I invented the following proposition, which I am still testing via research and thought experiment: Middle period Capitalism creates the steamship. Late Capitalism chops up the decks and railings to feed the boiler.
The essay I thought I would write this month, until I had a moment of courage, and wrote this one, was "Case Studies in Late Capitalism". My cell phone works less well than the one I had ten years ago. Strangely, the buggiest app is the one you would think they would get right, the phone app, which freezes and crashes when I access voicemail. My Windows 10 computer is buggier, slower and crashes more than the CP/M based Morrow Microdecision which was my first office computer in 1984--which had 256K of RAM and two floppy drives (no hard drive). Everything I do on a computer now, such as writing this essay, I could do on that one better. Almost nothing seems to work as well in the world of Late Capitalism. Why, instead of paying a quarter to use an ATM, which would still allow the people who deploy them to make mad money, do I pay as much as $3.95 to take out twenty dollars? Why does Verizon, after selling me a phone for $800, refuse to repair it? The iconic image of Late Capitalism is that of airplane security beating passengers. And so forth.
I have spent some time in this essay blaming the Republican party. But recently, an earnest student asked Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the Democratic House, if the party has considered alternatives to Capitalism, and the answer was, we are Capitalists. Yes, and riding the spirals down until we punch in.
I have touched on many topics here one could write a book about. Here is one: The personal space programs launched by billionaires such as Bezos and Musk probably represent a recognition that our world is ending, and an attempt to get an elite, including billionaire himself and family, off the surface before the worst happens. Sounds like a Robert Heinlein plot.
Something I want to ask the Libertarian I debated, and hundreds of others like him: When the shit hits the fan and the billionaire boards that spacecraft (or the prior version, the Gulfstream jet to his ranch in New Zealand), do you think he will hold the door open for you?
All that said, why am I alive, still writing, and (strangely) relatively contented with my life? There is a philosophical answer, a selfish one, and a bridge or middle ground between the two.
1. The selfish answer is that I think (I am turning 65 this summer) I will likely be dead before the worst happens.
2. Standing on the bridge between personal experience and philosophy, if I am wrong about #1, I have had a FGL (fucking great life). People can take your life, but they cannot take away from you that you lived. Another book packed into a few words: quality is much more important than longevity. As one of my personal goals, I have known for years that I would like to go for at least a two mile run on the last day of my life. There is a lot of subtext in that sentence.
3. Moving over to the philosophical, I also not merely decided to live, but began to live, some years ago, as if I were an optimist. I did not know until much more recently, that this is a version of Pascal's Wager, to live as if God existed.
I am a Hope Punk.
The way I reconcile these two aspects of myself, deep pessimism and hope, is with a story I tell myself. Everything I write is no longer so much for you, who are reading this now, but for Dawn. Dawn is a highly intelligent twelve year old girl who lives 1,000 years from now, at a time when small agricultural communities are again able to live in relative peace and people have the leisure again to think about the human future. My version of remaining somewhat hopeful is to believe that there is at least a chance that Dawn and her friends can break out of the hopeless spiral of human history, and do better than we have.
Everything I have ever written--this essay, the Mad Manuscript and The Ethical Spectacle--is a handbook for Dawn.
There is so much to be said that I will save it for another essay. (And gosh, what a wonderful way of punting everything serious that could become.)