Thursday, April 22, 2010

Another example of the disintegration of the center, from FPR

It's almost as if things have come full-circle.  Where I once traveled in decidedly left-wing political circles, I have come to greatly appreciate -- nay, rely upon -- the work of the more conservative intellectuals at Front Porch Republic.  I don't frequent them in order to find an echo chamber, unlike the more prevalent tendencies in the American populace.  I go there because it: 1) Intellectually challenges my own convictions and perspective, which is more on the left than the right, and 2) Demonstrates frequently and repeatedly areas for broad cooperation between people on the left and right who still believe in antiquated notions of discussing ideas civilly and rationally -- but still passionately.  In that way, they are a refreshing antidote to the mind-numbing monotony of beltway gossip and public relations generated talking points repeated ad nauseum that is offered by our mainstream outlets.  D. W. Sabin's piece, "The Duma on the Potomac, for the Greater Glory of Government," provides a good example of this.

Truth be told, I was hooked on Sabin's piece from the start:
Ambrose Bierce, in his magnificently arch “Devils Dictionary” defined a Conservative thusly: Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils , as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others”. 
Anything that starts off with an acerbic quote that immediately sets such a deliciously cynical "pox on both your houses" tone... well, I guess you could say that my curiosity is always piqued.  But all joking aside, Sabin hit something later that really made me think and reflect:

Meanwhile, the frustrations of being forced to watch a slow-motion train wreck are resulting in a splintering of the slap-happy Grand Old Party into renegade bands of Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. The American Mensheviks have their Trotsky in the Big Government Neo-Conservatives who wish for progress but only that kind of progress which will maintain the existing forms of government modified, of course, in their world-transforming image. The American Bolshys , on the other hand, are the mad-as-hell Tea Party with their sexpot Lenin Sarah Palin, fresh from cash-cow book tour and on a First Class Junket into Everyday Celebrity. These two “revolutionary” combatants against the evil Liberal gentry will now duke it out with a wrestling card of opinion that is sure to be exciting, while their opponents in the Intelligentsia will continue to concoct a thinly veiled bunko in the general schemes of space travel, democracy at gunpoint and fiat money economic legerdemain. The Show Must Go On.
One thing is certain, like in Russia during the last gasp of the Tsars, Terror will be ever-present, although its perpetrators shall be few and at the end of the day, the raznochintsy will still be “the people of no worth.”
The other day, I overheard President Obama as he held forth on the potentials of our storied Space Program. He announced that he intended to hand the low earth orbit taxi service concession over to our Cosmonaut friends in Russia while applying our own efforts to heavy cargo lifting for exploration deeper into space, concurrent with the development of commercial earth orbit space transportation. In his remarks, he declared without a hint of irony that he wanted America to not only embrace the future but to actually “leap into the future”. Stirring words perhaps, redolent of the Kennedy through Nixon effort to land an American on the Moon but amidst the current economic crisis , the idea that we might like to “leap into the future ” seems downright escapist if not wholly comic. I can hear the Exceptionalists and Positivists grumbling now that I am resorting to a retreat from our technological abilities and embracing American Decline. I am doing nothing of the sort, I’m simply acknowledging the very clear signals that we have not yet reached such an exalted state that would merit the idea of decline from it. The flesh is willing but the spirit is dead and buried.
I recently completed reading Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies, a very densely and scholarly written, yet wonderful book that specifically targets the pattern of collapse in ancient civilizations as different as the Western Roman Empire, the Maya and the Chacoans of the American Southwest.  Now, I'm grossly generalizing here, but basically Tainter's conclusion (based on archeological study compared to current demographic trends) is that all complex societies are eventually done in by the patterns that fueled their rapid growth, because those patterns offer diminishing -- and eventually negative -- marginal returns on all investments of energy.  The simplest example is in terms of military conquest -- initial conquests are close to home and offer a flood of new resources, making the conquest able to pay for itself and then some.  However, continued expansion eventually hits up against the wall of becoming prohibitively expensive and difficult to carry out, and even the maintenance of conquered lands provides a growing drain on the investment against declining yields.  Finally, the centralization of power that develops out of the need to effectively administer larger amounts of territory begins to lose legitimacy as it proves increasingly incapable of addressing the diminishing returns of expansion and complexity.  In short, the center no longer holds.

What does all of this have to do with Sabin's article?  I think that by questioning the very notion that we are in a Golden Age right now, and instead looking at the current American manifestation of Western Civilization as something far less from grand in a spiritual (in the broadest form) sense, Sabin is demonstrating what happens when the center is seen as no longer holding.  What we get are not battles of rhetoric and ideas, but clashes of hardened ideology (as in the neo-cons vs. the tea party crowd over the soul of the Republican Party, or the "conservatives" vs. "liberals" over what brand of evil we are going to more readily embrace, old or new).

It also informs our reading of Tainter's work, especially as to what else we should expect if the disintegration of the center is a presage of a broader "collapse" of the way of life we are all accustomed to experiencing.  The real question then becomes, what kind of institutions will be formed out of the scrap heap of the old ones?  Will they be a potemkin prosperity for an increasing few, a broad and deep raznochintsy ("people of no worth"), and power structures that rely upon direct coercion to maintain such high levels of inequality?  Or will we instead answer to the "better angels of our nature" and create something of lasting beauty out of the wreckage?  I know which way my rational sense tells me, but nevertheless I have to remain hopeful because, if hope is lost, then what is the point?

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