The Great Unraveling: Using Science and Philosophy to Decode Modernity
“Forty percent of the United States drains into the Mississippi. It’s agriculture. It’s golf courses. It’s domestic runoff from our lawns and roads. Ultimately, where does it go? Downstream into the Gulf.”
— -Sylvia Earle
Our civilization is headed for a downfall, to be sure, in part due to the massive gulf between our hopes for the future and the omnipresent inertia regarding social change in mainstream politics, though a more apt analogy for our society might be circling the drain. The dark, shadow side of our industrial farming practices in the US has resulted in the hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately the size of New Jersey and growing every year. Caused by excess nitrates, phosphates, and various chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides draining from farmland into the Mississippi river basin, toxic algal blooms kill millions of fish, shrimp, shellfish, and, almost certainly, thousands of marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico every year. There are hundreds of these dead zones around the world’s oceans, caused by agribusiness and sewage runoff from the world’s largest cities. There are also garbage patches in the Pacific (actually diffuse swathes of ocean littered mainly by microplastics) comparable to the size of Mexico.
Meanwhile on land, we have lost half of our wildlife in the past 40 years. The implications are inconceivable and beyond words, and calls for global action on a coordinated scale beyond anything that has been seriously considered by the so-called political leaders of the “world community”. This will require an immediate mobilization of international resources (a Global Marshall plan, which will need trillions of dollars of aid redistributed to the developing nations over decades) to combat three main crises: global warming, habitat loss, and accelerating species extinction rates, all of which are interconnected.
All of this ecological destruction has been driven by America’s most popular exports: capitalism and imperialism. Eight individuals have as much wealth as 3.5 billion, with approximately 20 million worldwide at risk of starvation. This is not simply unfair: it is an immoral and indefensible state of affairs. It must be acknowledged by the general public that capitalism, buttressed by the propaganda of “liberal democracy” in the West, uses moral relativism as its framework. The externalities of a pillaged, ravaged planet, billions in poverty, and diminished resource base are not taken into account by mainstream economics. If rare earth minerals and metals were properly accounted for, a car would likely cost six figures, and a computer five figures. This would be an unobtainable and untenable situation for the average middle-class American, as only the rich could afford such luxuries, and thus, the majoritarian tyranny of our narcissistic and ahistorical culture continues.
There are half-baked refutations which reactionaries trot out to defend US hegemony, but do not carry much weight: other nations besides the US are consumerists and warlike as well, the socialist nations of the Eastern bloc had horrendous environmental records, China and Russia are also imperialistic and environmentally deranged, etc.
All of these arguments have grains of truth, but they elide the greater picture: America drives the global economy and holds it hostage at the same time, continually punishing vassals who defy it and using the World Bank and IMF as economic vampires, sucking continents dry through crushing debts, privatizations, austerity measures, as well as using diplomatic blackmail, covert espionage, and proxy death squads. Three of the most illuminating works in this realm are Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, Michel Chossudovsky’s The Globalization of Poverty, and John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman.
Examples from Political Philosophy
Thus the US certainly stands out as an “exceptional” nation, pillaging the Earth and forcing other countries to do so, so as to forestall economic depression and stave off extreme poverty in the developing nation-states which must compete or die. Concomitant with this Western-led death-impulse is Agamben’s “state of exception”, where the citizen has been stripped of all notions of rights and justice in a permanent state of emergency. Under the Patriot Act and NDAA, any notion of due process has been shredded for US citizens, and of course the situation is beyond mad when considering the psychopathic torture carried out at Bagram AFB outside Kabul, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the globe-spanning “rendition archipelago” which has to be assumed is still ongoing, despite Obama’s past-tense use of the phrase “we tortured some folks”, spoken back in 2014.
If the culmination of the totalitarian impulse is the gulag or concentration camp, the infernal apotheosis of education in the United States would have to be the School of the Americas, the US Army base in Georgia which was and still remains the paragon of higher learning for torturers, right-wing death squads, fascists juntas, and drug traffickers looking to make a mark in Latin America. The US exports death-education (practical skills for legions of buzz-cut military/ intelligence clones/clowns, not just theoretical book-learnin’) at an industrial scale, which led to hundreds of thousands of desaparicidos (the disappeared) in the 1970s and 80s who were shot, hung, drowned, or thrown from planes throughout South and Central America.
Of course, if you want to peer into our dystopian future domestically, we will be experiencing more and more “blowback” from disaffected citizens and terrorists angered at our imperialism: look no further than the attack and reaction to the Boston bombing of 2013. Citizens of the greater Boston area were told to “shelter in place” and be on the lookout, creating a de-facto lockdown in the 10th largest metro area of our nation. The whole situation was Bradburyian (Bradburyesque?) and an out-of-control response to a few deaths that would barely cause a blink in terms of law-enforcement response for most parts of the world.
We are now faced with Bentham’s panopticon: an open air prison of a country where we work, shop, party to escape our drudgery and captivity, and go home to hide from the storms raging outside our doors. “Fun” is encouraged, but genuine fulfillment, spiritual and psychological health, are scorned. We are faced with a fascism that cannot be named as such, and rather than face the music, brave-hearted citizens, activists, and dissidents are faced with what Phil Rockstroh dubbed the “tyranny of amiability” when discussing issues that may cause anger, sadness, and discomfort. Personally, I have noticed this is particularly bad among the Baby Boomers, even those who’ve faced economic or personal hardships. Generally speaking, they are addicted to a cult of positivity, where any honest portrayal of our social and ecological crises is deemed “cynical” and “pessimistic”. GenXers and Millennials are not much better, with the latter crowd (my own age group) being much more amenable to socialist policies, at least. Yet there is, of course, a huge majority indulging in escapism, through our digital devices and social media: so much for a so-called “Christian nation”, where it is expressly pointed out to “put away childish things”.
We are told that the elites are continually “manufacturing consent” as Herman (RIP) and Chomsky pointed out, using Walter Lippmann’s phrase. Yet I believe it’s worth asking to what extent this applies: don’t most American consumers know and acknowledge there is “slavery stitched into the fabric of our clothes”, as Brett Dennen pointed out? We know child slave labor in the Congo provides the coltan for our cell phones, yet we do nothing. False consciousness and false needs only explain so much: many Americans seem to relish their place in the hierarchy of the global economy, which necessarily involves exploiting the proletariat in far-off countries. Apathy and lack of empathy seem to be fundamental features at play here. While we may be in an “inverted totalitarian” system, it is by and large one of our own acquiescence.
What does this tell us? For one thing, it seems to indicate that this academic terminology does not viscerally describe what is going on here: in blunter vocabulary, a brutal campaign of dehumanization, mind-control, and brainwashing of the public has been ongoing for centuries, led by the Western imperial nations.
What is needed, then, is a form of “cognitive mapping” as Jameson spelled it out. Part of this involves sketching the psychogeography of the cityscape that the Situationists had in mind. Another avenue pertains to anyone who has taken a cross-country road trip in the US, or visited a drug-infested rust belt town, or dilapidated urban area: the endless monotony of the same crappy chain restaurants, strip-malls, and convenience stores, and documenting the utter alienation from a sense of place and time that results.
The sense of transience and utter meaninglessness of living under corporate American control can be overwhelming at times. There is a “need for roots”, and if our system does not provide it, our collective culture must be reoriented or undergo a revolution, as Simone Weil wrote:
“There are collectivities which, instead of serving as food, do just the opposite: they devour souls. In such cases, the social body is diseased, and the first duty is to attempt a cure; in certain circumstances, it may be necessary to have recourse to surgical methods.”
This feeling of a being a consumer, floating above the world but never really grasping it, induces a sense of vertigo. Christy Rogers is on point when she writes that: “This is the capitalist utopia: the absolute antithesis of home.” Economic precarity is omnipresent, leading to severe stress in the poor and working classes, resulting in anomie and a rise in various criminal behaviors, as explained by Robert Merton’s Strain Theory. Peter McLaren (giant of critical pedagogy along with Freire and Giroux) and Ramin Farahmandpur write of the “Vertigo of Global Capitalism”, and Jock Young writes of this feeling as well:
“Vertigo is the malaise of late modernity: a sense of insecurity of insubstantiality, and of uncertainty, a whiff of chaos and a fear of falling. The signs of giddiness, of unsteadiness, are everywhere…”
I believe this explains the illogic behind the comments of scientific experts like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk: they feel the vertigo, realize the unstable height our civilization has reached, and yet their answer is based out of fear: to travel to other planets and solar systems rather than cleaning up our own home.
Towards a New Science: Holism and Convergence
Mapping our natural, local environment is of vital importance. The best model I can give to you all is the “Where You At?” quiz, which asks the reader to investigate bioregionalism, including your local soil, farming methods, geology, climate, local flora and fauna, and more. I first came across the quiz in Carolyn Merchant’s Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World, which I recommend for everyone.
The return to sustainable, organic agriculture, cooperatively owned, has to be rapidly increased, starting yesterday. Pesticide use from glyphosate (Round-Up) and atrazine are making our entire planet a toxic environment, with cancer and chronic health conditions rising in the general population. We are still dealing with the depravations of past generations, as well. Myself and others have postulated that millions have and continue to die early from the atmospheric nuclear testing of the 50s and 60s; for me, this was confirmed as true when a top former scientist in the NIH agreed with me in private conversation.
Only a rationally planned and ecologically-aware system, locally organized and at the same time globally integrated, can solve our crises. This will require fostering an internationalist outlook: we are interconnected with human societies worldwide, and as Western nations exploit the Global South, economies are destroyed, the Earth degraded, and millions of innocents suffer and die from preventable illness and climate and ecologically-related catastrophes each year. To anesthetize the masses in the West, pharmaceutical companies will attempt to market more and more painkillers and psychotropic pills to create an ever more docile, idiotic, and ill society.
People of color continue to suffer the most. As this brilliant study tragically shows, psychological and social stressors among minorities and environmental exposures to toxic and carcinogenic pollutants have a negatively synergistic effect on minority communities, leading to cascades of disease and epidemics of suffering. Unsafe industries are and were zoned irrationally or de-facto illegally in inner cities, with housing projects and low-income areas forced to suffer the consequences.
Albert Einstein made a terrific explanation for scientific and democratic planning of society in his essay “Why Socialism?”. It should be noted that if past political and business leaders in the mid-twentieth century would not listen to the greatest scientist of their time, there is no reason why today citizens should ask, on bent knee, to try and hold power accountable simply using rational arguments. A peaceful revolution must be stoked among the populace in the West.
Obsessing over the big names in science sometimes obscures the lesser-known greats: one of my personal favorite trail-blazers was Lynn Margulis, creator and popularizer of the endosymbiotic theory (in spite of the paternalistic douchebaggery and resistance from her colleagues), which postulates that bacteria merged with the precursors of animal and plant cells (eukaryotes) in a mutually beneficial way. This applies also at the extra-cellular level (symbiosis and reciprocal altruism) and a few popular examples are lichen, corals, clownfish and sea anemone, and many species of sharks and cleaner fish. Interconnectedness and cooperation, not just random mutations, are the drivers of evolution and sustain the material existence of myriad species. We are not exempt from this rule of nature, and we call learn to model societies via biomimicry, to create a regenerative, not degrading, culture.
Today, the natural sciences are so complex that it is impossible to be at the cutting-edge of research with a narrow specialty in one field: microbiologists are in constant collaboration with geneticists who integrate advancements with biochemists, and botanists must rely on help from mycologists when examining soil ecology. E.O. Wilson explains this much better than I could, and foresees the rise of a sort of unified theory of the social sciences in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. I think Convergence Theory has a better ring to it. As Wilson says, ethics is everything, and ecology is the keystone science which explains the interconnectedness of all things, which was obvious to all ancient societies and the Earth-centered indigenous ones of today: a world culture steeped in ecological ethics is our only chance for survival.
Cooperation, reciprocation, and kindness towards strangers were the rule for 99.9% of human existence. As Pulitzer-prize nominated author Barry Brown explains in his book Humanity: The World Before Religion, War & Inequality, complex trade routes of our common ancestors existed 400,000 years ago on the east coast of Africa, and there are no records or archaeological evidence of large-scale warfare before 4000 BCE. Human society was almost totally peaceful and egalitarian throughout history.
Many other great thinkers have called for a return to harmonious and peaceful existence: Fritjof Capra, E.F. Schumacher, and James Lovelock come to mind. Yet what these authors point out is antithetical in one important sense to the mass of Westerners: advocating for de-growth, followed by a rationally, planned, sustainable, steady-state economy which distributes aid internationally based on need.
Thus the mainstream Left (we need a living wage!) and mainstream Right (bring back the manufacturing jobs!) are both deluded: our economic system is suicidal for the planet and our own species in the long term. As long as the masses cry out in favor of short-term economic growth instead of the need for generational rational planning of society, neoliberal hegemony will continue.
Decentralization and direct democracy are key here, although a hierarchy of scientists must be able to inform the public through deliberative councils, spreading environmental information as it evolves, explaining the consequences in layman’s terms. Thus we avoid the issue of false balance, where the media provides “equal space” to sides of issues like global warming, where an IPCC scientist is countered with an oil executive or lobbyist in a debate for “fair and balanced” reporting.
Further, a Green constitution must be put in place as a safeguard against majoritarian voting which threaten the environment. This is called the precautionary principle, totally needed in any Green society. The conversion to a vegetarian based diet, and the voluntary depopulation of overcrowded parts of the planet through a campaign of women’s education, gender and racial equality, free contraceptives, and monetary incentives is needed to lower the strain on the Earth’s resources. Gender equality is a pillar of the Green agenda, and rules should be in place to provide half of senior government positions to women, which would immediately create a more peaceful, egalitarian, and environmental-friendly community of nations.
Then there are issues of labor and social participation. There is the idea that a Universal Basic Income will solve all our problems, which is a fallacy. I’m overall in favor of a UBI, but there are limitations here which must be discussed, especially considering elites like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are coming out in favor of UBI.
Although it may seem like a pipe-dream today, it’s my opinion that the “left-wing” (say, Sanders/Warren) of the Democratic Party could one day promote policies such as the UBI to dismantle what remains of the welfare state. It’s also possible that more carrots will be introduced down the line such as healthcare for all, free college, and an end to student debt. The catch is that it will be a bribe to promote stability domestically, while meanwhile the American Empire will march on overseas, continuing to use economic leverage to exploit the Global South, and also deploying military force with drones and special forces to continue to destabilize entire regions and displace millions.
Also, I am wary of any imagined utopian society based on UBI which is fully-automated, the “Star Trek socialism” which I believe many Lefties secretly pine for. Let me be frank: I am by no means anti-progress: science and technology have their place if managed properly outside of a capitalist framework. Yet, I believe this must be stated clearly: I value manual and mental labor that informs, inspires, and feeds the community as sacred work. I don’t want to live in a society where rooftop solar panels power our hydroponic veggies grown in factory warehouses, or synthetic meat in our Petri dishes in labs, while we push buttons.
I am not entirely against this turn towards an automated economy, but I think there are limitations here in which the techno-futurists are not accounting for: namely, more worker alienation as our machines widen the gap between nature and ourselves, breeding further specialization and vertical hierarchical civic relations, which are inherently damaging to the social fabric.
Chaos Politics and a Viable Alternative
Finally, after hundreds of years of capitalism and colonialism, we’ve arrived at the great unraveling. As István Mészáros brilliantly explained, “Capital’s Historic Circle is Closing”. He writes that, our “sustainable alternative can only be a radically different social metabolic order” and correctly notes that “the requirements of sustainability imply a societal reproductive order with its consciously articulated-autonomously planned and exercised-mode of decision making”. This will require, for him, “the total eradication of the Leviathan state”.
This will mean the breakup of the USA, which of course makes many people extremely uncomfortable. Yet America is a historical aberration: land stolen from Native Americans, an early textile economy based on chattel slavery, global imperial wars, one hundred years of segregation, structural racism against people of color including a prison-industrial complex and blighted inner cities, etc. There are good reasons that, due to its internal contradictions, in a generation or two the US could go the way of the USSR or Yugoslavia, or face a crippling recession spanning decades which would reduce the vast majority of the population to increasing economic precarity.
In the event we seriously consider reorienting our culture, social justice could likely require some sort of framework of law for the return of Native lands to form their own countries or autonomous regions. Reparations and redistribution of wealth are vital, as studies have shown that white households have total assets ten or more times the amount of African-American and Hispanic families.
Where’s the money to pay for all this? There is about 32 trillion dollars stashed by the super-rich is offshore bank accounts. Just a fraction of this amount, distributed worldwide, could solve world hunger, homelessness, poverty, preventable disease, and provide a 100% renewable energy grid for the globe if properly managed. However, if this is not done, the super-rich will soon own everything, and it’s quite possible in the coming decades that significant parts of the globe could ignite into Hobbesian anarchy due to lack of food, access to clean water, and infrastructural damage due to deadly weather and global warming-driven events.
Collapse has happened many times in great civilizations, and the masses had no idea what was coming, doing little to prepare, as academics like Tainter and Diamond have explained. Through systems theory, the best scientists have explained time and time again that our world is entering a period of crisis never seen before. Politically, you can see this chaos emerging, personified in leaders like nationalist neo/proto-fascists such as Trump, Le Pen, Erdogan, Putin, Xi, Modi.
Consider Trump: many adjectives come to mind such as buffoon, clown, con-man. Yet what come to mind for me are the chthonic, atavistic impulses he embodies. This is a dark ages brand of politics.
Luckily, there may be glimmers of hope in the chaos politics Trump encourages. Thankfully, he does not seem to have any hard ideology, but is rather an opportunist, largely concerned with his petit-bourgeois hotel and real estate empire. Embodying a more venal form of capital in these very weird times, he along with his far-right brethren nonetheless around the world are forming what in chaos theory is known as a “strange attractor”: a basin (swamp pit might be the more appropriate term for these thugs) in which all points in the system of global capital are revolving in multiple dimensions. Eventually, in many of these non-linear mathematical models, bifurcations occur in the system: in a political system where “all politics is populist” as Mouffe might say, new alternatives to the system spring into existence, personified by Trump and Sanders, Corbyn and Farage, Melenchon and Le Pen.
Amazingly, non-linear dynamics in physics and biochemistry result in a higher state of order: this is how life emerged from the pre-biotic soup of fatty membranes, nucleotides, and proto-amino acids of the ancient Earth billions of years ago. In the same way, our highly complex social system allows for the possibility of seemingly disparate and splintered citizen movements, non-governmental organizations, and non-profit cooperatives to coalesce and resist.
We must combat the irrationality and “higher immorality” of the elites (Mills) by eliminating their hegemony in the areas of media, the military, and the corporate world. This won’t be accomplished by top-down government, even by well-meaning figures such as Corbyn or Sanders, who offer little fare in the realm of the anti-imperialist struggle worldwide.
Spiritual and psychological awakening among the public must be stoked by civil society in a grassroots manner: the cults of celebrity and social-media obsessions must be called out as superficial substitutes of an atomized culture, not a liberating digital space. Mindfulness and discernment must begin in early education, and a worthy model for personal reflection and social transformation is the Contemplative Mind Tree, which explores the means for actualization individually and collectively as well as the commonalities of seemingly different spiritual and cultural movements.
Necessarily, this will require disentangling from the virtual world of our screens, portals into an unreality which commodifies social alienation, fetishisizes technology, and relies on a grid powered by fossil fuels. This will mean using technology and money as means to the ends of living a meaningful life, not as ends in themselves. Nature must be defended, and regarded as having intrinsic value, not exploited for the false needs of global capitalism. Internationalism, solidarity, and reconciliation and cooperation between nations must be fostered in the public sphere via constructive debate and by progressive media dialogue.
We are a long way from this vision, and things will most likely get worse before they get better. In this period of transition, Westerners should be prodded to examine their priorities and basically accept a program of voluntary poverty regarding our extravagantly wasteful material possessions and fossil fuel use to help redistribute aid and resources to the Global South. If this were to happen, in the process, our lives would get qualitatively healthier, deeper, richer and fuller of meaning as the ethics of charity, reciprocity, and sustainability nourish our minds, bodies, and souls.
The longer we wait, the worse things are going to get, especially in terms of future effects from global warming. Westerners must overcome our apathy, renounce our privileged position in transnational capitalism, get out in the streets, use our power in numbers, and form a social movement centered on internationalism, radical democracy, gender and racial equality, and social and environmental justice.
Originally published at CounterPunch, Dec 22 2017 https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/12/22/the-great-unraveling-using-science-and-philosophy-to-decode-modernity/