I was moved to write what follows after reading a blog post from the always-entertaining writer, Clay Shirky. The post was entitled, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models.” Reflecting on it, helped me to re-frame how I think about the sheer “scale” of the various problems that we face both as a people and as a nation.
Shirky takes his cue from anthropologist Joseph Tainter, who in his 1998 book, “The Collapse of Complex Societies” makes the argument, that when societal structures reach advanced enough levels of complexity, they begin to lose the capacity to extricate themselves from the burden of their own strangling entanglements. “Hopelessly snarled” – is this what we are experiencing today? Clearly, the argument is there to be made.
Somewhere in the past, success is what initiates this process; a surplus of resources, environmental advantages, advanced technologies, a more skilled labor force – all these forces (and more) work to expand the sophistication and methods of those organizations which then use them to innovate and advance their competitive agenda. For some period of time, it proves to be a successful formula that then gets broadly propagated. But gradually, the returns start to diminish, and procedures that were once quick and efficient grow lumbering and wasteful. No longer innovative or dynamic, the escalation of inefficiencies now requires more external subsidizing and rhetorical bolstering to maintain the same semblance of progress. The focus of activity shifts, as it has in our time, away from true productivity for the betterment of communities and the nation and towards profits for profit’s sake and for the benefit of the already advantaged and influential.
You know the beast is in critical condition when judges and lawyers take the place of doctors and nurses at its bedside. Those in charge of the health of the nation are replaced by those in charge of the wealth. Gutting the beast, and getting their share before someone else does, is what has brought them together in this elite death-circle. Strip it of its assets is the call, and if you can’t sell it whole, then sell it in pieces. It is too late to worry about anything as ephemeral as the “people” or planetary sustainability or moral responsibility; it’s time to act.
Do you need further proofs? Look at our political system. We hear these inane debates over how big government should be or how much control it should exercise over the lives of its citizens. Conservatives claim big government is an evil, while liberals claim that evil is a necessary one. Both positions are nothing more than sales pitches. Both sides of the political spectrum know what they have on their hands is an obese bureaucracy fattened by a lobbyists, that cannot help but consume both positions with indiscriminate and impartial fervor. The only question to be decided is who gets a bigger cut of the profits today! When it’s their turn, Republicans want those profits to go only to the already well off, claiming some Darwinian justification while at the same time dressing it in obsequious Christian fundamentalism. Democrats on the other side of the same hand, want to spread the profits around to themselves too, while giving lip service to the so-called “middle-class,” and lazily genuflecting in the direction of the poor and the disenfranchised to whom they offer a measure of (mostly inefficient) social programs. While the Democratic gameplan may be more to your liking.. it certainly is to mine; neither plan is really effective enough to unravel the knot of systemic imbalances or to stave off an inevitable collapse into chaos.
Consider the outright cost today of running for elected office. Thanks to our Supreme Court and their Citizens United decision, the overwhelming cost of running means that NO one (neither Democrat nor Republican) who ultimately wins office will have escaped capitulating their principles in some ritual act of compromise and surrender so complete that it would surely make truth and justice weep. But they do it, because this is the way things are – this is the way of the world. This is the new definition of “success” and of “winning” as defined by modern-day capitalism. It is common knowledge that lobbyists are the primary authors of many laws that get enacted. Politicians, too busy raising money, simply sign off on them. The Defense Industry, the Prison Industry, Energy Companies, Big Pharma, Big Insurance – and the Lady Gaga of them all – Wall Street; these are the real stars – the big “winners” of the doomed spectacle game show, for these industries and their chosen representatives are the ones who pull the strings at the same time that they unapologetically bring shame on what was once a justly proud nation with an envied form of democratic government.
Did we think that Obama would somehow bring his strong and swift sword down on the Gordian knot that is America today? Perhaps we did. I know I did. And I thought my lovely starry-eyed friend Marla (who has spent the last year joyously traveling through India) was being overly skeptical when she said that there would be little or no change under Obama. Now, it is not entirely true that there has been little or no change. (Check out the wonderful “What the Fuck has Obama Done So Far?” website for examples of what has been accomplished.) Indeed, there were many good regulations or revisions to older regulations passed in these past two years that reached out to and helped many previously under-served segments of the population. But in the bigger battles – in those battles that truly mattered, the ones that might actually shift the balance of power within society, what victories have we seen?
I am afraid, if we are to go in search of victories then we will have to seek out those won by the true protectors of justice, the ordinary people of this country who daily rise above hard-pressed circumstances to give generously of their heart and soul to their families and to their communities. This is the America that Obama spoke to so successfully in his presidential campaign, and it is this same America that now looks upon the coming collapse and realizes that perhaps the beast was more than any one man could slay, and that being president of the United States, even a stout-hearted freedom fighter president means governing over a fractured nation that no longer believes that individual heroics can effect the changes necessary to resurrect this land of ours from the specter cast by this dark and doubtful cloud of complexity.
Look at the Obama Health Care “compromise.” Other countries manage to run efficient and low-cost health care programs that are at the same time popular with its citizens. Why can’t we do the same? Because OUR health care plan had to be engineered to align with the arcane and entrenched health insurance industry. Every stakeholder within that vast industry had to be heard from and deferred to. So this well-intentioned helping hand to the poor and the uninsured came out of committee wrapped in so many layers of compromise, that any hope of its thick pork-stained fingers being able to pick up any kind of coin was doomed from the start. The only thing this helping hand is designed to pick up is a brick of gold that will go first to the health insurance industry who will then be responsible for doling it out to those in need. Right. Just like BP took charge of the oil spill – for the benefit of the people of Louisiana. When only a handful of profit-hungry corporations control nearly all our media channels, is it any wonder that what comes to us via radio and television is less “fair and balanced” than it is obfuscated and incendiary?
Last winter it was announced that the top ten health insurers reported over $9.3 billion in profits for the first three quarters of 2010. On average, their profits went up 41 percent from the year before. The staggering beast, firmly under the control of its corporate handlers grows increasingly single-minded in its role as capitalist predator. Another study from the end of last year says that charitable giving decreased by more than a third between 2007 and 2009 among the country’s wealthiest. Clearly, them what’s got are hunkering down in anticipation of the increased chaos and uncertainty to come, while them what’s don’t got, are reeling and living in fear as to when the next flying fist out of nowhere will hit them. Meanwhile, the old beast plods along – his ticker tape heart on life support, doing what it must to survive and prosper – but knowing its options are as limited as its ability to change course. Though instinctively we know it’s the end of the line for the beast, very few are inclined to admit it publicly, because to do so would single them out and so jeopardize their access to the goose that even today is laying golden eggs at an unprecedented rate. Capitulation on extending the Bush tax cuts was a punishing blow to fiscal responsibility. What further signs do we need? What further proof must we see before we admit to ourselves that the America of our dreams is now for most people more nightmare than dream, and that the only way out is to let the beast die, so that the spirit within it might rise again in some new simpler form?
For most of us who have neither the ambition nor the desire to join in the gutting of the beast, what’s our excuse? What is it that keeps us from admitting the truth that a system that continues to serve only a few, does not a righteous alternative make? Come on, at least you and I.. WE must admit it. If we are to press on, we must more actively seek out signs of truth. And I’m not talking here about truth with a capital T. No, it’s just plain old simple common sense truth I have in mind. Now I cannot, anymore than you can, presume to know with any certainty what is or is not true. But I can (just like you can) by doing a little research and by following the money trail, see just who stands to benefit from obfuscation of their financial or political connections and who doesn’t. We know that some ridiculous percentage (maybe 37% I recall hearing once) of the American public believes that one day they too will be wealthy. So, we should not be surprised to see this percentage of the people at least temporarily deluded into some kind of self-loathing Stockholm Syndrome-like admiration and support of the wealthy and their elitist agendas. But for the rest of us, who harbor no such illusions that require our identification with the oppressor – what’s our excuse, and more than that, what’s our truth?
Fortunately for us, the way out is a lot simpler than the way in. On the way out, we turn away from the media-wide soul traps of advertisements and lies, and turn towards solutions and actions that are simpler, more sustainable and mostly right there in front of us. We – you and I, must become more skilled at separating fact from fantasy, and in distinguishing shared vision from mass delusion. Along the way, we must also look for ways to opt-out (however we can) from social, political and cultural processes that seek to enslave us in support of that dying beast that will surely take us with it, down to it final resting place, alongside all the other great but now collapsed civilizations of the past. If we and our children are to survive and prosper, it must be on a simpler and more transparently human basis. That is my wish for us all. May it one day be so.