Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead - John Michael Greer (2016)
Chapter 8. THE DISSOLUTION OF CULTURE
ALL THE CONVERGING CRISES TRACED OUT SO FAR IN THIS book—the environmental disasters, the coming demographic collapse, the implosion of political and economic institutions, the failure of science and technology—have another kind of impact, which focuses on culture. Sociologists argue about what culture is and isn’t, and a variety of competing definitions have been proposed over the years. For the purposes of this exploration, though, a relatively simple definition will be most useful: a culture is the set of narratives, concepts, and interpretations of the world that make a given society make sense to the people who live in it.
Cultures, that is, are the inward dimension of a society, the structures of the mind that define (and are defined by) the structures of matter that give a society its outward expression. A house, let’s say, is a particular kind of material object, but it’s also a particular set of concepts with its own distinctive emotional loading. Since that set of concepts differs from culture to culture, and even among subgroups within a culture, what counts as a house depends very much on who’s doing the counting, and on what cultural and subcultural frameworks they’re bringing to the task.
Broadly speaking, a culture is viable when it succeeds in giving meaning and direction to a society in the context of its environment. A culture fails when it fails to do this. Any number of anthropological studies have sketched out what happens when a culture is unable to adapt to changed conditions; the short form is that the results are never good and can quite readily plunge into the extremes of human ghastliness. This is uncomfortably relevant to the theme of this book, because the major cultures of North America today are showing many of the signs of the failure to adapt just noted, and potent forces hardwired into today’s industrial societies are pushing them steadily in that unwelcome direction.
To a remarkable extent, even the privileged classes of today’s North American societies find their lives empty of meaning, and the stories our culture provides to make sense of their experiences simply aren’t up to the task. What’s more, the products and lifestyles our culture labels “more advanced,” “more progressive,” and the like are very often less satisfactory and less effective at meeting human needs than the allegedly more primitive products and lifestyles they replaced. To an extent not always recognized, today’s technology fails systematically at meeting certain human needs, and that failure isn’t due to a lack of complexity but an excess of it. The peak of technological complexity in our time thus might also be described as peak meaninglessness.
I’d like to take the time to unpack that phrase. In the most general sense, technologies can be divided into two broad classes, which we can respectively call tools and prosthetics. The difference is a matter of function. A tool expands human potential, giving people the ability to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. A prosthetic, on the other hand, replaces human potential, doing something that under normal circumstances, people can do just as well for themselves. Most discussions of technology these days focus on tools, but the vast majority of technologies that shape the lives of people in a modern industrial society are not tools but prosthetics.
Prosthetics have a definite value, to be sure. Consider an artificial limb, the sort of thing on which the concept of technology-as-prosthetic is modeled. If you’ve lost a leg in an accident, say, an artificial leg is well worth having; it replaces a part of ordinary human potential that you don’t happen to have any more, and enables you to do things that other people can do with their own legs. Imagine, though, that some clever marketer were to convince people to have their legs cut off so that they could be fitted for artificial legs. Imagine, furthermore, that the advertising for artificial legs became so pervasive, and so successful, that nearly everybody became convinced that human legs were hopelessly old-fashioned and ugly, and they rushed out to get their legs amputated so they could walk around on artificial legs.
Then, of course, the manufacturers of artificial arms got into the same sort of marketing, followed by the makers of sex toys. Before long you’d have a society in which most people were gelded quadruple amputees fitted with artificial limbs and rubber genitals, who spent all their time talking about the wonderful things they could do with their prostheses. Only in the darkest hours of the night, when the TV was turned off, might some of them wonder why it was that a certain hard-to-define numbness had crept into all their interactions with other people and the rest of the world.
In a very real sense, that’s the way modern industrial society has reshaped and deformed human life for its more privileged inmates. Take any human activity, however humble or profound, and some clever marketer has found a way to insert a piece of technology in between the person and the activity, in a mode of intermediation that goes far beyond the merely financial. You can’t simply bake bread—a simple, homely, pleasant activity that people have done themselves for thousands of years using their hands and a few simple handmade tools. No, you have to have a bread machine, into which you dump a prepackaged mix and some liquid, push a button, and stand there being bored while it does the work for you, if you don’t farm out the task entirely to a bakery and get the half-stale industrially extruded product that passes for bread these days.
Of course, the bread machine manufacturers and the bakeries pitch their products to the clueless masses by insisting that nobody has time to bake their own bread any more. Ivan Illich pointed out a long time ago in Energy and Equity the logical fallacy here, which is that using a bread machine or buying from a bakery is faster only if you don’t count the time you have to spend earning the money needed to pay for it, power it, provide it with overpriced prepackaged mixes, repair it, clean it, etc., etc., etc. Illich’s discussion focused on automobiles rather than bread machines. He pointed out that if you take the distance traveled by the average American auto in a year, and divide that by the total amount of time spent earning the money to pay for the auto, fuel, maintenance, insurance, etc., plus all the other time eaten up by tending to the auto in various ways, the average American car goes about 3.5 miles an hour: about the same pace, that is, that an ordinary human being can walk.
If this seems reminiscent of the concept of externalities introduced earlier in this book, dear reader, it should. The claim that technology saves time and labor seems to make sense only if you ignore a whole series of externalities. In this case, the time you have to put into earning the money to pay for the technology, and into coping with whatever requirements, maintenance needs, and side effects the technology has, is an important externality that’s carefully excluded from discussions of the value of technology. Have you ever noticed that the more “time-saving technologies” you bring into your life, the less free time you have? This is why—and it’s also why the average medieval peasant worked shorter hours, had more days off, and kept a larger fraction of the value of his labor than you do.
Something else is being externalized by prosthetic technology, though. What are you doing, really, when you use a bread machine? To begin with, you’re not baking bread. The machine is doing that. You’re dumping a prepackaged mix and some water into a machine, closing the lid, pushing a button, and going away to do something else. Fair enough, but what is this “something else” that you’re doing? In today’s industrial societies, odds are you’re going to go use another piece of prosthetic technology, which means that once again, you’re not actually doing anything. A machine is doing something for you. You can push that button and walk away, but again, what are you going to do with your time? Use another machine?
The machines that industrial society uses to give this infinite regress somewhere to stop—televisions, video games, and computers hooked up to the internet—simply take the same process to its ultimate extreme. Whatever you think you’re doing when you’re sitting in front of one of these things, you’re actually staring at little colored pictures on a screen and maybe pushing some buttons as well. All things considered, this is a profoundly boring activity, which is why the little colored pictures jump around all the time. That’s to keep your nervous system so far off balance that you don’t notice just how boring it is to spend hours at a time staring at little colored pictures on a screen.
I can’t help but laugh when people insist that the internet is an information-rich environment. It’s quite the opposite, actually. All you get from it is the very narrow trickle of verbal, visual, and auditory information that can squeeze through the digital bottleneck and turn into little colored pictures on a screen. The best way to experience this is to engage in a media fast—a period in which you deliberately cut yourself off from all electronic media for a week or more, preferably in a quiet natural environment. If you do that, you’ll find that it can take two or three days, or even more, before your nervous system recovers far enough from the narrowing effects of the digital bottleneck that you can begin to tap in to the ocean of sensory information and sensual delight that surrounds you at every moment. It’s only then, furthermore, that you can start to think your own thoughts and dream your own dreams, instead of just rehashing whatever the little colored pictures tell you.
A movement of radical French philosophers back in the 1960s, the Situationists, argued that modern industrial society is basically a scheme to convince people to hand over their own human capabilities to the industrial machine, so that imitations of those capabilities can be sold back to them at premium prices.1 It was a useful analysis then, and it’s even more useful now, when the gap between realities and representations has become even more drastic than it was. These days, as often as not, what gets sold to people isn’t even an imitation of some human capability but an abstract representation of it, an arbitrary marker with only the most symbolic connection to what it represents.
This is one of the reasons why I think it’s deeply mistaken to claim that Americans are materialistic. Americans are arguably the least materialistic people in the world. No actual materialist—no one who had the least appreciation for actual physical matter and its sensory and sensuous qualities—could stand the vile plastic tackiness of America’s built environment and consumer economy for a fraction of a second. Americans don’t care in the least about matter. They’re happy to buy even the most ugly, uncomfortable, shoddily made, and absurdly overpriced consumer products you care to imagine, so long as they’ve been convinced that having those products symbolizes some abstract quality they want, such as happiness, freedom, sexual pleasure, or what have you.
Then they wonder in the darkest hours of the night, when the TV is off, why all the things that are supposed to make them happy and satisfied somehow never manage to do anything of the kind. Of course, there’s a reason for that, too, which is that happy and satisfied people don’t keep on frantically buying products in a quest for happiness and satisfaction. Still, the little colored pictures keep showing them images of people who are happy and satisfied because they guzzle the right brand of tasteless fizzy sugar water, and pay for the right brand of shoddily made half-disposable clothing, and keep watching the little colored pictures: that last above all else. “Tune in tomorrow” is the most important product that every media outlet sells, and they push it every minute of every day on every stop and key.
That is to say, between my fantasy of voluntary amputees eagerly handing over the cash for the latest models of prosthetic limbs, and the reality of life in a modern industrial society, the difference is simply in the less permanent nature of the alterations imposed on people here and now. It’s easier to talk people into amputating their imaginations than it is to convince them to amputate their limbs. Fortunately, it’s also a good deal easier to reverse the surgery.
What gives this even more importance than it would otherwise have, in turn, is that all this is happening in a society that’s hopelessly out of touch with the realities that support its existence, and that relies on bookkeeping tricks and sheer fantasy to prop up the belief that it’s headed somewhere other than history’s well-used compost bin. The externalization of the mind and the imagination plays just as important a role in maintaining that fantasy as the externalization of costs—and the cold mechanical heart of the externalization of the mind and imagination is the mode of intermediation discussed here, the insertion of technological prosthetics into the space between the individual and the world.
Technology is not the only thing that slips into that vulnerable space, though. Abstract concepts have the same function. In both cases, that process of insertion begins with sheer necessity—human beings use abstractions to understand the world in much the same way they use tools to shape the world, and much of what counts as being human can be traced back to one or the other of these two deeply ingrained habits—but both processes can become pathological when they are used not to adapt to reality but to evade it.
Let’s start with the basics. Human beings everywhere use abstract categories and the words that denote them as handles by which to grab hold of unruly bundles of experience. We do it far more often, and far more automatically, than most of us ever notice. It’s only under special circumstances—waking up at night in an unfamiliar room, for example, and finding that the vague somethings around us take a noticeable amount of time to coalesce into ordinary furniture—that the mind’s role in assembling the fragmentary data of sensation into the objects of our experience comes to light.2
When you look at a tree, for example, it’s common sense to think that the tree is sitting out there and your eyes and mind are just passively receiving a picture of it, in much the same sense that it’s common sense to think that the sun revolves around the Earth. In fact, as philosophers and researchers into the psychophysics of sensation both showed a long time ago, what happens is that you get a flurry of fragmentary sense data—green, brown, line, shape, high contrast, low contrast—and your mind constructs a tree out of it, using your subjective tree concept (as well as a flurry of related concepts such as “leaf,” “branch,” “bark,” and so on) as a template. You do that with everything you see. The reason you don’t notice yourself doing it is that it was the very first thing you learned how to do, as a newborn infant, and you’ve practiced it so often you don’t have to think about it anymore.
You do the same thing with every representation of a sensory object. Let’s take visual art for an example. Back in the 1880s, when the Impressionists first started displaying their paintings, it took many people a real effort to learn how to look at them, and a great many never managed the trick at all. Among those who did, though, it was quite common to hear comments about how this or that painting had taught them to see a landscape, or what have you, in a completely different way. That wasn’t just hyperbole: the Impressionists had learned how to look at things in a way that brought out features of their subjects that other people in late-nineteenth-century Europe and America had never gotten around to noticing, and they highlighted those things in their paintings so forcefully that the viewer had to notice them.3
The relation between words and the things they denote is thus much more complex, and much more subjective, than most people ever quite get around to realizing. That’s challenging enough when we’re talking about objects of immediate experience, where the concept in the observer’s mind has the job of fitting fragmentary sense data into a pattern that can be verified by other forms of sense data: in the example of the tree, by walking up to it and confirming by touch that the trunk is in fact where the sense of sight said it was. It gets far more difficult when the raw material that’s being assembled by the mind consists of concepts rather than sensory data: when, let’s say, you move away from your neighbor Joe, who can’t find a job and is about to lose his house, start thinking about all the people in town who are in a similar predicament, and end up dealing with abstract concepts such as unemployment, poverty, distribution of wealth, and so on.
Difficult or not, we all do this, all the time. There’s a common notion that dealing in abstractions is the hallmark of the intellectual, but that puts things almost exactly backwards. It’s the ordinary unreflective person who thinks in vague abstract generalizations most of the time, while the serious thinker’s task is to work back from the abstract category to the raw sensory data on which it’s based. That’s what the Impressionists did: staring at a snowbank as Monet did until he could see the rainbow play of colors behind the surface impression of featureless white, and then painting the colors into the representation of the snowbank so that the viewer was shaken out of the trance of abstraction (“snow” = “white”) and saw the colors too—first in the painting and then when looking at actual snow.
Human thinking, and human culture, thus dance constantly between the concrete and the abstract, or to use a slightly different terminology, between immediate experience and a galaxy of forms that reflect experience back in mediated form. It’s a delicate balance: too far into the immediate and experience disintegrates into fragmentary sensation; too far from the immediate and experience vanishes into an echo chamber of abstractions mediating one another. The most successful and enduring creations of human culture have tended to be those that maintain the balance. Representational painting is one of those; another is literature. Read the following passage closely:
Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.4
By the time you finished reading it, you likely had a very clear sense of what Frodo Baggins and his friends were seeing as they looked off to the east from the hilltop behind Tom Bombadil’s house. So did I, as I copied the sentence, and so do most people who read that passage—but no two people see the same image, because the image each of us sees is compounded out of bits of our own remembered experiences. For me, the image that comes to mind has always drawn heavily on the view eastwards from the suburban Seattle neighborhoods where I grew up, across the rumpled landscape to the stark white-topped rampart of the Cascade Mountains. I know for a fact that that wasn’t the view that Tolkien himself had in mind when he penned that sentence. I suspect he was thinking of the view across the West Midlands toward the Welsh mountains, which I’ve never seen, and I wonder what it must be like for someone to read that passage whose concept of ridges and mountains draws on childhood memories of the Urals, the Andes, or Australia’s Great Dividing Range instead.
That’s one of the ways that literature takes the reader through the mediation of abstractions back around to immediate experience. If I ever do have the chance to stand on a hill in the West Midlands and look off toward the Welsh mountains, Tolkien’s words are going to be there with me, pointing me toward certain aspects of the view I might not otherwise have noticed, just as they shaped my childhood sense of the hills and mountains of Washington State. It’s the same trick the Impressionists managed with a different medium: stretching the possibilities of experience by representing (literally re-presenting) the immediate in a mediated form.
Now think about what happens when that same process is hijacked, using modern technology, for the purpose of marketing.
That’s what advertising does, and more generally what the mass media do. Think about the fast-food company that markets its product under the slogan “I’m loving it,” complete with all those images of people sighing with post-orgasmic bliss as they ingest some artificially flavored and colored gobbet of processed pseudo-food. Are they actually loving it? Of course not. They’re hack actors being paid to go through the motions of loving it, so that the imagery can be drummed into your brain, where it drowns out your own recollection of the experience of not loving it. The goal of the operation is to keep you away from immediate experience, in a haze of abstractions, so that a deliberately distorted mediation can be put in its place.
You can do that with literature and painting, by the way. You can do it with any form of mediation, but it’s a great deal more effective with modern visual media because those latter short-circuit the journey back to immediate experience. You see the person leaning back with the sigh of bliss after he takes a bite of pasty bland bun and tasteless gray mystery-meat patty, and you see it over and over and over again. If you’re like most Americans, and spend four or five hours a day staring blankly at little colored images on a glass screen, a very large fraction of your total experience of the world consists of this sort of thing: distorted imitations of immediate experience, intended to get you to think about the world in ways that immediate experience won’t justify.
The externalization of the human mind and imagination via the modern mass media has no shortage of problematic features, but the one I want to talk about here is the way that it feeds the habit, pervasive in modern industrial societies just now, of responding to serious crises by manipulating abstractions to make them invisible. That kind of thing is commonplace in civilizations on their way out history’s exit door, but modern visual media make it an even greater problem in the present instance. These latter function as a prosthetic for the imagination, a device for replacing the normal image-making functions of the human mind with electromechanical equivalents. What’s more, you don’t control the prosthetic imagination. Governments and corporations control it, and use it to shape your thoughts and behavior in ways that aren’t necessarily in your best interests.
The impact of the prosthetic imagination on the crisis of our time is almost impossible to overstate. I wonder, for example, how many of my readers have noticed just how pervasive references to science fiction movies and TV shows have become in discussions of the future of technology. My favorite example just now is the replicator, a convenient gimmick from the Star Trek mass media franchise: you walk up to it and order something, and the replicator pops what you want into being out of nothing.
It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the way that people in the privileged classes of today’s industrial societies like to think of the consumer economy. It’s also hard to think of anything that’s further removed from the realities of the consumer economy. The replicator is the ultimate wet dream of externalization: it has no supply chains, no factories, no smokestacks, no toxic wastes, just whatever product you want any time you happen to want it. It’s probably no accident that inevitably, whenever I’ve had conversations with people who think that 3-D printers are the solution to everything, they’ve dragged Star Trek replicators into the discussion.
3-D printers are not replicators. Their supply chains and manufacturing costs include smokestacks, outflow pipes, toxic-waste dumps, sweatshopped factories, and open-pit mines worked by slave labor, and the social impacts of their widespread adoption would include another wave of mass technological unemployment—remember, it’s only in the imaginary world of economic propaganda that people who lose their jobs due to automation automatically get new jobs in some other field. In the immediate world, the one we actually inhabit, that’s become vanishingly rare. As long as people look at 3-D printers through minds full of little pictures of Star Trek replicators, though, those externalized ecological and social costs are going to be invisible to them.
That, in turn, defines the problem with the externalization of the human mind and imagination: no matter how frantically you manipulate abstractions, the immediate world is still what it is, and it can still clobber you. Externalizing something doesn’t make it go away. It just guarantees that you won’t see it in time to do anything but suffer the head-on impact. A culture that shoves all its problems out of sight by way of various modes of externalization and intermediation thus guarantees that those problems will not be solved. The question that remains is what will replace the culture of externalization as it finally collapses, and what kind of narratives will appeal to those who have finally gotten around to realizing that they aren’t loving it and never were.
One uncommonly clear glimpse at the narratives that may shape meaning in the impending dark age appeared in a news story from 1997 about the spread of secret stories among homeless children in Florida’s Dade County.5 These aren’t your ordinary children’s stories: they’re myths in the making, a bricolage of images from popular religion and folklore torn from their original contexts and pressed into the service of a harsh new vision of reality.
God, according to Dade County’s homeless children, is missing in action. Demons stormed heaven a while back, and God hasn’t been seen since. The mother of Christ murdered her son and morphed into the terrifying Bloody Mary, a nightmare being who weeps blood from eyeless sockets and seeks out children to kill them. Opposing her is a mysterious spirit from the ocean who takes the form of a blue-skinned woman and who can protect children who know her secret name. The angels, though driven out of heaven, haven’t given up; they carry on their fight against the demons from a hidden camp in the jungle somewhere outside Miami, guarded by friendly alligators who devour hostile intruders. The spirits of children who die in Dade County’s pervasive gang warfare can go to the camp and join the war against the demons, so long as someone who knows the stories puts a leaf on their graves.
This isn’t the sort of worldview you’d expect from people living in a prosperous, scientifically literate industrial society, but then the children in Dade County’s homeless shelters don’t fit that description in any meaningful sense. They live in conditions indistinguishable from those in the Third World’s more hazardous regions, leading lives defined by poverty, hunger, substance abuse, shattered families, constant uncertainty, and lethal violence dispensed at random. If, as William Gibson suggested, the future is already here, just not evenly distributed, they’re the involuntary early adopters of a future very few people want to think about just now.6
The transformations that inspired the “secret stories,” after all, have uncomfortable parallels in the processes that unfold as a civilization descends into a dark age. Over and over again, in the twilight of one civilization after another, something snaps the thread that connects past to present, and allows the accumulated knowledge of an entire civilization to fall into oblivion. That failure of transmission can be seen at work in those homeless children of Dade County, whispering strange stories to one another in the night.
Arnold Toynbee, whose ideas have been cited repeatedly in this book, proposed that the most important factor that makes a rising civilization work is mimesis—the universal human habit by which people imitate the behavior and attitudes of those they admire.7 As long as the political class of a civilization can inspire admiration and affection from those below it, the civilization thrives, because the shared sense of values and purpose generated by mimesis keeps the pressures of competing class interests from tearing it apart.
Civilizations fail, in turn, because their political classes lose the ability to inspire mimesis, and this happens in turn because members of the elite become so fixated on maintaining their own power and privilege that they stop doing an adequate job of addressing the problems facing their society. As those problems spin out of control, the political class loses the ability to inspire and settles instead for the ability to dominate. This in turn becomes one of the forces that drives the emergence of the internal proletariat, the increasingly sullen underclass that still provides the political class with its cannon fodder and labor force but no longer sees anything to admire or emulate in those who order it around.
It can be an unsettling experience to read American newspapers or wide-circulation magazines from before 1960 or so with eyes sharpened by Toynbee’s analysis. Most newspapers in those days included a feature known as the society pages, which chronicled the social and business activities of the well-to-do, and those were read, with a sort of fascinated envy, very far down the social pyramid. Established figures of the political and business world were treated with a degree of effusive respect you won’t find in today’s media, and even those who hoped to shoulder aside this politician or that businessman rarely dreamed of anything more radical than filling the same positions themselves. Nowadays? Watching politicians, businesspeople, and celebrities get dragged down by some wretched scandal or other is this nation’s most popular spectator sport.
That’s what happens when mimesis breaks down. The failure to inspire has disastrous consequences for the political class—when the only things left that motivate people to seek political office are cravings for power or money, you’ve pretty much guaranteed that the only leaders you’ll get are the sort of incompetent hacks who dominate today’s political scene in the United States and elsewhere—but I want to concentrate for a moment on the effects on the other end of the spectrum. The failure of the political class to inspire mimesis in the rest of society doesn’t mean that mimesis goes away. The habit of imitation is as universal among humans as it is among other social primates. The question becomes this: what will inspire mimesis among the internal proletariat? What will they use as the templates for their choices and their lives?
That’s a crucial question, because it’s not just social cohesion that depends on mimesis. The survival of the collective knowledge of a society—the thread connecting past with present I mentioned earlier—also depends on the innate habit of imitation. In most human societies, children learn most of what they need to know about the world by imitating parents, older siblings, and the like, and in the process the skills and knowledge base of the society are passed on to each new generation. Complex societies like ours do the same thing in a less straightforward way, but the principle is still the same. Back in the day, what motivated so many young people to fiddle with chemistry sets? More often than not, mimesis—the desire to be just like a real scientist, making real discoveries—and that was reasonable in the days when a significant fraction of those young people could expect to grow up to be real scientists.
That still happens, but it’s less and less common these days, and for those who belong to the rapidly expanding underclass of American society, the sort of mimesis that might lead to a career in science isn’t even an option. A great many of the children in Dade County’s homeless shelters won’t live to reach adulthood, and they know it. Those who do manage to dodge the stray bullets and the impact of collapsing public health, by and large, will spend their days in the crumbling, crowded warehouse facilities that substitute for schools in this country’s poorer neighborhoods, where maybe half of each graduating high-school class comes out functionally illiterate. Their chances of getting a decent job of any kind weren’t good even before the global economy started unraveling, and let’s not even talk about those chances now.
When imitating the examples offered by the privileged becomes a dead end, in other words, people find other examples to imitate. That’s one of the core factors, I’m convinced, behind the collapse of the reputation of the sciences in contemporary American society, which is so often bemoaned by scientists and science educators, and has been analyzed from a different angle in a previous chapter. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, say, may rhapsodize about the glories of science, but what exactly do those glories have to offer children huddling in an abandoned house in some down-at-heels Miami suburb, whose main concerns are finding ways to get enough to eat and stay out of the way of the latest turf war between the local drug gangs?
Now, of course, there’s been a standard knee-jerk answer to such questions for the past century or so. That answer was that science and technology would eventually create such abundance that everyone in the world would be able to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle and its attendant opportunities. That same claim can still be heard nowadays, though it’s grown shrill of late after repeated disconfirmation. In point of fact, for the lower eighty percent of Americans by income, the zenith of prosperity was reached in the third quarter of the twentieth century, and it’s all been downhill from there.8 This isn’t an accident. What the rhetoric of progress through science misses is that the advance of science may have been a necessary condition for the boom times of the industrial age, but it was never a sufficient condition in itself.
The other half of the equation, of course, was the resource base on which industrial civilization depended. Three centuries ago, as industrialism got under way, it could draw on vast amounts of cheap, concentrated energy in the form of fossil fuels, which had been stored up in the Earth’s crust over the previous half billion years or so. It could draw on equally huge stocks of raw materials of various kinds, and it could also make use of a biosphere whose capacity to absorb pollutants and other environmental insults hadn’t yet been overloaded to the breaking point by human activity. None of those conditions still obtain, and the popular insistence that the economic abundance of the recent past must inevitably be maintained in the absence of the material conditions that made it possible—well, let’s just say that makes a tolerably good example of faith-based thinking.
Thus Tyson is on one side of the schism Toynbee traced out, and the homeless children of Dade County and their peers and soon-to-be-peers elsewhere in America and the world are on the other. He may denounce superstition and praise reason and science until the cows come home, but again, what possible relevance does that have for those children? His promises are for the privileged, not for them. Whatever benefits further advances in technology might still have to offer will go to the dwindling circle of those who can still afford such things, not to the poor and desperate. Of course, that simply points out another way of talking about Toynbee’s schism. Tyson thinks he lives in a progressing society, while the homeless children of Dade County know that they live in a collapsing one.
As the numbers shift toward the far side of that dividing line, and more and more Americans find themselves struggling to cope with a new and unwelcome existence in which talk about progress and prosperity amounts to a bad joke, the failure of mimesis—as in the fallen civilizations of the past—will become a massive social force. If the usual patterns play themselves out, there will be a phase when the leaders of successful drug gangs, the barbarian warbands of our decline and fall, will attract the same rock-star charisma that clung to Attila, Alaric, Genseric, and their peers. The first traces of that process are already visible. Just as young Romans in the fourth century adopted the clothes and manners of Visigoths,9 it’s not unusual to see the children of white families in the suburban upper middle class copying the clothing and culture of inner city gang members.
Eventually, to judge by past examples, this particular mimesis is likely to extend a great deal further than it has so far. It’s when the internal proletariat turns on the failed dominant minority and makes common cause with the external proletariat—the people who live just beyond the borders of the falling civilization, who have been shut out from its benefits but burdened with many of its costs, and who will eventually tear the corpse of the civilization to bloody shreds—that civilizations make the harsh transition from decline to fall. That transition hasn’t arrived yet for our civilization, and exactly when it will arrive is by no means a simple question, but the first whispers of its approach are already audible for those who know what to listen for and are willing to hear.
The age of charismatic warlords, though, is an epoch of transition rather than an enduring reality. The most colorful figures of that age, remade by the workings of the popular imagination, become the focus of folk memories and epic poetry in the ages that follow; Theodoric the Ostrogoth becomes Dietrich von Bern, and the war leader Artorius becomes the courtly King Arthur, taking their place alongside Gilgamesh, Arjuna, Achilles, Yoshitsune, and their many equivalents. In their new form as heroes of romance, they have a significant role to play as objects of mimesis, but it tends to be restricted to specific classes and finds a place within broader patterns of mimesis that draw from other sources.
And those other sources? What evidence we have—for the early stages of their emergence are rarely well-documented—suggests that they begin as strange stories whispered in the night, stories that deliberately devalue the most basic images and assumptions of a dying civilization to find meaning in a world those images and assumptions no longer explain.
Two millennia ago, to return to a familiar and useful example, the classical Greco-Roman world imagined itself seated comfortably at the summit of history. Religious people in that culture gloried in gods that had reduced primal chaos to permanent order and exercised a calm rulership over the cosmos. Those who rejected traditional religion in favor of rationalism—and there was no shortage of those, any more than there is today, because it’s a common stage in the life of every civilization—rewrote the same story in secular terms, invoking various philosophical principles of order to fill the role of the gods of Olympus. Political thinkers defined history in the same terms, with the Roman Empire standing in for Jupiter Optimus Maximus. It was a very comforting way of thinking about the world, if you happened to be a member of the gradually narrowing circle of those who benefited from the existing order of society.
To those who formed the nucleus of the Roman Empire’s internal proletariat, though, to slaves and the urban poor, that way of thinking communicated no meaning and offered no hope. The scraps of evidence that survived the fall of the Roman world suggest that a great many different stories got whispered in the darkness, but those stories increasingly came to center around a single narrative: a story in which the God who created everything came down to walk the Earth as a man, was condemned by a Roman court as a common criminal, and was nailed to a cross and left hanging there to die.
That’s not the sort of worldview you’d expect from people living in a prosperous, philosophically literate classical society, but then the internal proletariat of the Roman world increasingly didn’t fit that description. They were the involuntary early adopters of the post-Roman future, and they needed stories that would give meaning to lives defined by poverty, brutal injustice, uncertainty, and violence. That’s what they found in Christianity, which denied the most basic assumptions of Greco-Roman culture in order to give value to the lived experience of those for whom the Roman world offered least.
This is what the internal proletariat of every collapsing civilization finds in whatever stories become central to the faith of the dark age to come. It’s what Egyptians in the last years of the Old Kingdom found by abandoning the official Horus-cult in favor of the worship of Osiris, who walked the Earth as a man and suffered a brutal death; it’s what many Indians in the twilight of the Guptas and many Chinese in the aftermath of the Han dynasty found by rejecting their traditional faiths in favor of reverence for the Buddha, who walked away from a royal lifestyle to live by his begging bowl and search for a way to leave the miseries of existence behind forever. Those and the many more examples like them inspired mimesis among those for whom the official beliefs of their civilizations had become a closed book, and they became the core around which new societies emerged.
The stories being whispered from one homeless Dade County child to another probably aren’t the stories that will serve that same function as our civilization follows the familiar trajectory of decline and fall. That’s my guess, at least, though, of course, I could be wrong. What those whispers in the night seem to be telling me is that the trajectory in question is unfolding in the usual way—that those who benefit least from modern industrial civilization are already finding meaning and hope in narratives that deliberately reject our culture’s traditional faiths and overturn the most fundamental presuppositions of our age. As more and more people find themselves in similar straits, in turn, what are whispers in the night just now will take on greater and greater volume until they drown out the stories that most people take on faith today.