A sheep’s vigil

I said I’d swear off blogging for a month, but I thought I’d just drop by to note the appearance on the Dark Mountain Blog of my review of 2016, called ‘A sheep’s vigil’. And, since I’m here, I might as well sketch a little bit of extra context for that piece.

A view I’ve long charted on this site is that people’s health and wellbeing will ultimately best be served by an economy strongly grounded in the productive capacities of their local landscapes. My feeling is that the seismic political events of 2016 – Brexit, Trump etc – have taken us still further from that already remote possibility, and the notion that they represent a move towards anti-elitist localism is illusory. Therefore the overall mood of my analysis is pessimistic. On the other hand, had the gods ordained that 2016 should be the year of Bremain and Clinton, we would scarcely be much closer to my aspirations. So perhaps it could be argued that when the false dawn of 2016 becomes more widely apparent, it’ll turn out at least that these events were staging posts to a more genuine egalitarian localism. Trouble is, from where I stand, I can’t really see it – what comes to my mind instead is a Tom Waits line: “They say if you get far enough away you’ll be on your way back home. Well I’m at the station, and I can’t get on the train”.

So my piece mostly tries to chart what I see as a greater likelihood and a greater danger, that after Theresa May’s Brexit conservative government and Donald Trump’s presidency fail to deliver their undeliverable promises we’ll get something much worse. I got some stick on this site for talking about fascism in the context of the politics of 2016, and I’d concede that leftists do have the bad habit of yelling ‘Fascism!’ as a kind of reflex whenever they encounter resurgent right-wing politics. Still, the whole tenor of political discourse in the UK at the moment (perhaps it’s best if I avoid opining on the US situation, which I’m more remote from) is more proto-fascist than anything I’ve yet seen in British politics during my lifetime, with all its talk of ‘enemies of the people’, the revolt against ‘liberal’ elites, the scapegoating and the ressentiment. To compound it all, as I’ve charted on this blog, various voices among radical greens are, at best, content just to rub their hands at the gory spectacle of it all and, at worst, are cheerleading the slide towards nativism and state corporatism. Shame on them.

But, hey, it’s a new year, and if I can’t find a few rays of sunshine to penetrate the gloom in the salad days of January then I’ll be surpassing even my own championship levels of lugubriousness. So here’s a few positive thoughts, based largely on the books I read during the recent holiday:


I belatedly got around to reading Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s book about Christopher McCandless, who gave all his money to Oxfam, and wandered the western USA before unfortunately dying in Alaska as he sought truth in the immediate and the wild. Most cultures historically have found a place for world-renouncing transcendence and have valued people who seek it. Ours regrettably does not, but there’s no lack of people nowadays who nonetheless feel its pull. The McCandless story has influenced many people – some of whom try to repeat his exact trip and end up needing rescuing from the Teklanika River, or worse. So what’s the moral here? That people find some dumbass ways to get themselves into trouble? Well for sure but I’m looking for positives, remember? So I’d say it’s this: much as our society likes to peddle the myth that everyone wants to be rich and famous, it’s not actually true. But most people are quite suggestible and tend to tread the paths (literal or figurative) where others have gone before. So maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to divert a lot of them to a worthwhile path of transcendence. And the choice we face isn’t between either a six-figure salary in Manhattan or hunting for food in Alaska and dying a lonely death. You could try gardening, for starters.

The over-industrious revolution

I also finally got around to reading Jan de Vries’ article ‘The industrial revolution and the industrious revolution’ – one of the seminal contributions to the ‘industrious revolution’ debate that I’ll be discussing in later posts, and full of implications for sustainable agricultures and societies of the future. One of de Vries’ points is that the industrial revolution of Victorian England didn’t just come down from on high as a result of fossil energy capture and was then promulgated around the world to a grateful populace (which is kind of the ecomodernist version of history). Rather it arose substantially through a series of marginal decisions made by ordinary people living in pre-industrial households about how best to spend their time, with results that they could have scarcely imagined. And the moral of this story for me is the following answer to those who say that the rise of capitalism and its huge amplification in the quantity of material things was bound to happen, and is what everybody wants: no it wasn’t and no they don’t. A short answer, I’ll admit, but one I propose to expand on in due course. The positive message I draw from de Vries is that major historical change can happen from the bottom up without a coordinated political plan. So it’s conceivable that people will come to think that the revolution we’ve had these past two centuries has been a tad over-industrious, and will start finding some other ways of organising their time than wage labour to fund the industrial production of commodities.

Collapse in slo-mo

Next on my reading list was End Game: Tipping Point For Planet Earth? by palaeo-ecologists Anthony Barnosky and Elizabeth Hadly. I’d recommend it as light holiday reading. No seriously. Maybe I just don’t get out enough. Anyway, despite its lack of depth I thought there was a lot of good stuff in the book, and the palaeo-ecological angle comparing present circumstances to past climate change and extinction events was particularly interesting – a useful corrective to the aforementioned ecomodernists’ favourite ecology book, Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden.

I didn’t always agree with Barnosky and Hadly, and I was particularly irked by their failure to consider low tech and small-scale rather than hi tech and large-scale approaches to agriculture. Still, in chapter after chapter on population, resources, food, water, pollution, disease and war they lay down a set of sombre markers for the enormity of the challenge facing humanity. The positive message? Oh damn, I’d forgotten about that. Well not, I think, the falsely upbeat final chapter in which the authors get way too excited by the fact that California governor Jerry Brown is interested in their analysis, much as I empathise with the Stockholm syndrome that many of us exhibit when IMPORTANT PEOPLE occasionally choose to listen to us. It’s more about the nature and speed of the impending collapse that Barnosky and Hadly delineate – something that we’ve been batting around a bit in the comments section of some of my recent blog posts. Their analysis leads me to think that there will almost inevitably be blood, war, hunger, and immense human suffering in the years ahead – just as there have been for many in the years behind – but what there probably won’t be, even in some pretty bad ecological scenarios, is an immediate and total collapse of global civilisation. So that’s a comfort, huh?

People are people: I spent new year’s eve at a youth hostel in southern Portugal (it’s a long story), among a mixed crowd of English, Spanish, Portuguese, Australian and Germans, among others. A Lithuanian accordionist played the guitar, and sang cheerful American songs in English, English songs in Lithuanian, and Lithuanian songs in Spanish, I think. The Europeans made fun of the English for trying to pretend that we weren’t really European, and a fine old time was had by all. It made me think that for all the bitter political rhetoric and social media trolling, when people from different countries actually meet and talk to each other they’re often able to find ways to get along.

China sleeps: on new year’s day I came down with a bad cold. The shops were shut and I couldn’t get any Nurofen. Lying groggily in bed I realised to my horror that the only unread book in my possession was one primarily concerned with tax policy in early modern China. Cursing my intellectual pretentiousness – why hadn’t I brought a crime novel like a normal person? – but with few other options, I proceeded to learn more than could be reasonably expected of a man on his sickbed about the long-term machinations of the middle kingdom. A day or two later I saw the news of Donald Trump’s latest online China-baiting. And armed with my newfound knowledge, I took comfort from the fact that while Chinese regimes through history have certainly done their fair share of bullying and strong-arm stuff, they haven’t as a rule tended to go in for quixotic acts of military adventurism overseas or to lash out in revenge for slights – in contrast to, well, just as a wild example, let’s say, hmm, the USA. So that, I think, is another bit of good news as we contemplate the four years ahead.

Rationality: in other news, the former chief economist of the Bank of England has apologised for the bank’s overly pessimistic forecasts concerning Britain’s post-Brexit economic performance. Andrew Haldane said that the bank’s models were based on the assumption that people behaved rationally, but this turned out not to be the case. And the good news here is that Britain’s economy has emerged strong and triumphant in spite of all the doom-mongering over Brexit? No. We haven’t even left the EU yet – it’s far too early to tell. The good news is that senior economists are finally admitting that their models aren’t based on how people actually behave – something that thinkers from other disciplines (like him, and him, and even him) have been telling them for years. Even so, there’s something slightly pejorative about Haldane’s language of rationality and irrationality – maybe the real irrationality here relates to a discipline so fond of building behavioural models that aren’t based on how people actually behave. But perhaps I have to tread carefully here, since – to bring this post full circle – my critique of fascism is based largely on the fact that it’s irrational. I guess what I’d say is that politics is always unavoidably a matter of beliefs and values, and the belief that politics should be based on reason is at least as defensible as any other. That indeed was a key point of my Dark Mountain piece – that a liberal public sphere now has to be defended as a value. Economics, on the other hand, generally purports to be a value-neutral discipline that understands how humans behave. Clearly, however, it doesn’t. And the fact that the news is now out is…good.

Right, well that really is it. Happy new year. See you in February.

20 thoughts on “A sheep’s vigil

  1. Nice, I bought a couple Dark Mountain issues recently and am still reading through them; I can’t get enough.
    Regarding fascism though: I think the aspect of fascism that most liberalists have identified this epoch with is its stance of anti-intellectualism, and with that they’ve misunderstood what anti-intellectualism is. Fascism rejects the enlightenment notion of intellectualism as a rat-race of smarts and instead champions men of strong character–standard bearers who exemplify the strength of their culture and tradition etc. Great men are remembered as being Great, not necessarily as being smart.
    More and more often I think the scientific argument for this type of agriculture and producerism in general fails to move people because it makes solely an intellectual appeal, and intellectuals are often the least willing to actually work and change things in their lives because they think it beneath them (thanks to this false dichotomy of mind-over-matter, something issue 8 of the Dark Mountain goes well into). The people who will be the backbone of this future are those who are strong both physically and in character, not necessarily intellectually. I think the Dark Mountain makes an excellent approach to this because the essays and such it features often have little to do with science and more to do with culture and character. And so at least in this regard, I can appreciate someone like Donald Trump who’s greatest strength is not a strong intellect (though I’m certain he has plenty of that too), but a powerful character.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts Chris – I think the greatest lie of the past 30 years is the idea that Economics is value free like the laws of nature – a wonderful deciet that has allowed the politics of neoliberalism to run rampant over the planet.

    Your thoughts on transendence are interesting – that there are plenty of people who aren’t motivated by money/aquisitiveness is certainly true and that if one’s not its very hard to find a place to be in our culture – we after all social (and socially constructed?) beings. I was listening to Derrick Jensen quoting Joseph Cambell – something along the lines of if your cultures symbols of meaning have no meaning for you you’re fucked – I’m paraphrasing. Anyway its something that’s long interested me, both at the level of the values that a society holds, honours and cultivates but also for it’s contribution to sustainable societies. The sort of neo-peasant society you’d favour would require a stable population. Those sort of societies have existed before but have often had a strong monastic tradition within them which must be one way to limit the breeding population and to keep it from expanding beyond the carrying capacity of it’s landbase. But such a tradition can only thrive in a society that holds, honours and cultivates the values that such a tradition, however imperfectly, represents.

  3. Thanks for those comments. JCC, I think I have a very different view of fascism to you – in brief I’d say that I see its anti-intellectualism less as class conflict and more as a way of enforcing corporate political identity by silencing the dissent of judges, journalists, scholars, writers etc. It may be true that intellectuals tend to be reluctant to do physical work, but the same is true of non-intellectuals in contemporary society. Not everyone can be or wants to be an intellectual, but everybody has an intellect and I don’t see any good arguments against exercising it. I agree that character is important, but it’s not incompatible with intellect. I don’t agree that Trump has a strong character – to me, it seems immature, vain, and peevish.

    Bruce, thanks for that – an interesting point on the monastic tradition. I’m not sure how strong the effect of clerical celibacy was on the birth rate, though it certainly had a strong effect on the church’s coffers…which may not have been a good thing. I agree with you, though, on the need for an ascetic tradition in a neo-peasant society – something I wrote about a little in my Journal of Consumer Culture article, and which I hope to discuss on here in more detail later in the year.

  4. Our Greenpeace chapter has just released a detailed plan for national self-sufficiency in foodstuffs.
    Noone in Greenpeace would have spent a dime on a study like this even a few years ago. Too divisive, nationalistic, fear-mongering.

    Meanwhile, my collection of neophytes is growing. They do need to be either sweet or useful though.

      • It advocated for a ‘produce what we can, trade against what we can’t’ approach btw.
        And it featured a picture of an agroforestry system, without bothering to mention what that is.

  5. In speaking of a monastic tradition I was really thinking about SE Asia – it would be hard to say what effect it really had on the birth rate because the in many countries the monastic tradition is more flexible – one can become a monk for a time and then leave the monastery and return to family life – in Thailand most young men would spend some time living in a monastery, a tradition I suspect is now much weaker, but which served to inject non materialist values into the society. In Japan the celibate monastic tradition was eradicated and replaced by a non-celibate one – I can’t remember exactly when, but essentially the rulers of the day didn’t like a powerful organisation that existed outside of its control – sounds sort of like Henry VIII and our monastic tradition. With regards money and monasticism it’s a problem that Chinese monasteries are now facing – Shaolin receives massive donations and the Abbot is quite open about the corrupting effect this is having on the practice of the monks there.

    JCC – when I read your comments on intellectuals my first thought was of the leadership of the ANC in apartheid South Africa, many of whom held advanced degrees and were intellectually sophisticated. Then I thought it probably wasn’t fair to call them liberals, they were radicals. Derrick Jensen and DGR make the distinction and suggest that for the former the system is in need of reform and for the latter the system is in need of replacement. At this point in time we probably need more of the latter – although as Jensen says that work toward replacement can be many different things.

    I was more troubled by this “The people who will be the backbone of this future are those who are strong both physically and in character”. It suggests that we know the future and it’s needs, which I think could very possibly lead to our narrowing our options in uncertain times. Funnily enough the evening after I read your comments I watched “The Imitation Game”, a film about the life of Alan Turing. He was a gay man, probably autistic, incredibly intelligent, somewhat unstable and he committed suicide in in 1954, a year after being found guilty of gross indecency, publicly disgraced and put on hormone treatment to cure his homosexuality. Had he been found guilty of homosexuality 15 odd years earlier he’d never have worked for British Intelligence, never have broken the enigma codes, The Allies would probably have lost the war and I might not be using a computer to type this. But if, 15 years before his death, you’d asked people about the sort of man the country would need in the event of a war with Germany, you can bet he wouldn’t have been on the list.

    As for character…. Dmitry Orlov, writing about the collapse of the Soviet Union says that those who did worst in the aftermath were middle age men who’d been reasonably successful under the old system – they had very high suicide rates. That’s pretty consistent with ideas of a socially constructed self – when the supporting framework is removed what’s left is character and many people crumble. Its why unemployment can be so debilitating. Its inevitable that we all imagine we have it, but almost none of us have been in that position, so mostly we don’t know. Our consumerist culture encourages the social construction of identity and, returning briefly to the Thai monastic experience, one of the things that that time in the monastery may provide is some sense of self that is less dependent on external validation and which is therefor more stable in the face of life’s uncertainties.

    So with regards Trump I can’t see he’s really been tested – the son of a very rich man who’s risen to the top in an oligarchical system. I think what often gets defined as strength of character in our culture is actually the ruthlessness with which someone will act to perpetuate the conditions which validate their sense of who they are. Its one of the reasons why I think real change to a sustainable mode of existence is unlikely – too many people have too much invested in our current ways of being and real challenges to it will perceived as personal attacks.

    • A lot of nice points there. Interesting on Thai monasticism. I suppose you could argue that a traditional university education in the west can inject some non-material values – but increasingly less so. And as for the celibacy…

      Regrettably, I’m forced to agree with your concluding comments about the inertia of the status quo and the unlikelihood of a sustainable transformation.

    • Bruce, being strong physically and in character to many of us means someone able to tend his or her gardens and pastures and resisting the urge to blame anyone but him- or herself if something goes wrong during the season.
      Of course, if energy descent is not something one thinks about, that could be regarded as a narrowing-down of options.
      ‘Validating one’s sense of who one is’ cuts many ways, and not only oligarchs are practicing it.

      • Hi Michael – you’re absolutely right that “being strong physically and in character” can mean different things and I like your interpretation far more than the one I leapt to – I guess for me it’s a turn of phrase that conjures up ideas I find myself instinctively opposed to – that might have been JCC’s intent – and possibly I reacted to that feeling as much as to what was written – although the comment is preceded by mention of ‘standard bearers of the culture’ (who’s culture?) and ‘great men’ (from who’s perspective?) and that’s the context I read it in.

        As for validating one’s sense of who one is – I nowhere said that that applied to just oligarchs. In fact I think the preceding paragraph about the collapse of the Soviet Union makes it clear I was applying this to all of us.

        I’m mostly a Buddhist so the idea of a socially constructed self makes a lot of sense to me. I think our consumerist culture is designed to exploit this – just look at how advertising works to associate products with ideas about who one is – do you aspire to be driver of a Prius or a Mustang for example. In the context of energy descent, when many of these consumerist gewgaws are removed, how will we react – will we resist the urge to blame anyone or will we see depression, anger and violence? And what sort of politics will we be susceptible to?

        Personally I fear that in the context of an energy descent our culture won’t resist the urge to blame others or to use violence to try and insulate us from the that descent. Buddhism posits three poisons of the mind; greed, hatred and ignorance – they’re really inter-related – but I’m always amazed that I live in a culture that seems to want make virtues of all three. Anyway I’m off to meditate – see if I can’t loosen the bonds of my (socially) constructed self just a little 😉

        • Becoming a great man to me sounds like something to strive for, if one is actually willing to define it.
          How about:
          ‘Attempting to shoulder a portion of the work the hundred or so energy slaves whose energy is waning are currently performing for me.’
          Becoming a multitude – not in the way Deleuze might have envisioned it, yet much more down to earth.

          Shouldering that work, I contend, will neccesitate re-allocation of roles as well as resources.
          Unless steps are taken to find out who will feasibly be doing what in the communities of the future (‘kindergarten’ is an expensive concept), all you’re left with is the extreme right fantasizing about women’s proper role and the liberals/left angrily refusing to even accept this issue for discussion.
          With the first wave of PC students attempting to purge ‘white male oppressors’ Plato and Kant from philosophy curricula having just reached Britain’s shores, we’re not helping ourselves here.

          As for Buddhism, in me it tends to evoke pictures of Ashin Wirathu and eternally depressed urbanites; sorry about that 🙁

  6. Interesting debate. Michael’s definition of strong character in terms of tending the garden without blame works for me because it’s specific and grounded in the quality itself, whereas the implication in the earlier discussion seemed more of an abstraction applied as a class stereotype – ‘character’ is something that liberal intellectuals supposedly lack. In that sense, I think Bruce’s response is on the money.

    I like Michael’s idea of resisting the urge to blame anyone but oneself for misfortune in the garden – but only in the absence of nobilities/customers appropriating its product without sharing the risk.

    Michael’s definition of ‘great men’ (or women) also works for me inasmuch as it seems like an ethical injunction available to all – but that’s surely different from the ‘great man’ sensibility of the Caesarism-fascism nexus?

    Much as I agree about the excesses of a ‘PC’ canon, for me the ‘political correctness gone mad’ trope isn’t any kind of justification for the politics of Trump or Brexit.

    • Chris, I certainly meant failures related to one’s own planning 🙂

      As for the nexus of FascistCaesarism, the term inevitably will not be allowed to stray far from it, because the dominant public discourse won’t allow it to.

      Purveyors of said itemized discourse will only call themselves great men behind closed doors, for fear of being pursued.
      In times of crisis this yields predictable results, and is compounded by a strange belief developed quite recently by the left which states that character is something that they must lack because the right is claiming to have it.
      I remember a generation of left-wing intellectuals who’d have smacked their own people for that kind of defeatism.

      Lastly: I made no attempt to connect Brexit or Trump to this wave of leftist censorship, but was merely trying to point out it as a discourse among the privileged, for whom ‘family’ first and foremost means ‘lifestyle bouquet’ at a time when the energetic underpinnings of such loftiness is quickly eroding.

      • Mostly agree with all that. Not sure I’d cede the impetus of the fascist-Caesarism nexus to the repression worked on it by others, though.

        I think the issue of ‘character’ is interesting, and something that the right has made a much better fist of than the left. But maybe it’s an inherent problem for leftism, which tends to think in terms of collective human perfectibility – an impossible goal, I think, which is why I’m now more drawn to left populism than socialism as such. I don’t think this was your implication, but for what it’s worth I wouldn’t call a retreat on the left from the notion of collective human perfectibility defeatism so much as realism – this is the problem with Leigh Phillips’ left critique of environmentalism, which takes the notion of perfectibility to ridiculous extremes.

        Largely agree with your last point – I wasn’t especially seeking to connect your points to Brexit/Trump politics. Here’s someone seeking to complexify the issue of Plato/Kant and the ‘PC’ canon: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/10/soas-students-study-philosophy-africa-asia-european-pc-snowflakes. Thankfully I’m not an academic any more so I’m not in the thick of it and couldn’t really comment.

        • ‘complexify the ‘PC canon’…. ? …
          I won’t either, but not for lack of being an academic; mostly because I Kant.

          Start your New Year off with a pun. Place your favorite little mouse into one of those remote controlled helicopter thingies… let’s call your buddy mouse Bob (or Elle if it’s a female). Then once you have them airborne, would you refer to it as palindrone??

  7. Ashin Wirathu! Ah Michael you’re really not going to let me romanticise the Buddhist tradition are you ;-). Personally I much prefer the Chan hermit tradition – misfits growing their simple food half-way up a mountain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FumyvVOVbaY).

    I’m glad that we’re defining things, attempting to be precise and I like this idea; “Attempting to shoulder a portion of the work the hundred or so energy slaves whose energy is waning are currently performing for me”. I still struggle with the idea of ‘great men’ or that being one is something to strive for – the “attempting to shoulder a portion of the work…..” seems more like a willingness to be ordinary and humble – accepting of one’s portion of the work and not expecting more than one’s portion of the rewards. I believe a world with less greatness and more humilty might have fewer problems than ours (but I don’t know).

    With regards who might be doing what in the communities of the future I quite agree that this should be talked about openly and that falling into our well rehearsed positions isn’t going to serve us well . Wendell Berry wrote an essay addressing some of this – I can’t remember the title but it came about because he’d been vilified as sexist etc etc in some quarters when he’d mentioned that his wife typed up his writing. I can’t remember much of what he wrote in response except that it refused the assigning of simple roles and emphasised respect for individuals and for the work/knowledge involved in running a household in an agrarian setting. Damn, now I want to go an reread it.

    • Bruce, you can probably tell that I have a certain interest in geopolitics 🙂
      Everything’s fine by us, so long as the murderers are declaring to undertake a colour revolution (saffron, in this case).

      Speaking as an appointed pope of Discordianism (but also in my spare time):
      Greatness and humility always go together.

  8. Thanks for this thoughtful discussion, it’s such a welcome change from many comment feeds. For many years now I have come from a position of ‘both/and’ which inevitably lead me to seeing the value of developing resilience in the wake of the kind of world that is reflected back to us by much of the media. I think it is wise to concede that we do not know what the future holds and yet, we are the ones who have the power to create it. Can we keep an open mind and a vision at the same time? I really like the example of Alan Turing and what he achieved as being a reminder that ‘great men’ do not necessarily come in a set mold.
    I am currently reading Pena Chodron’s book, ‘When Things Fall Apart’. It is both tough and gentle at the same time. She declares, “if you are willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path.” This directive fits with the notion of character you discuss above. When all that signifies a person’s identity is gone, it is then that we will have some insight into true character.

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