VI / Rebellion
One of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity. ... It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.
—ALBERT CAMUS, "An Absurd Reasoning"
ALEKSANDR HERZEN, speaking a century ago to a group of anarchists about how to overthrow the czar, reminded his listeners that it was not their job to save a dying system but to replace it: "We think we are the doctors. We are the disease." All resistance must recognize that the corporate coup d'état is complete. We must not waste our energy trying to reform or appeal to systems of power. This does not mean the end of resistance, but it does mean very different forms of resistance.
The economic devastation of global capitalism will soon be matched by ecological devastation. The liberal class's decision to abet the destruction of the global economy was matched by its tacit decision to abet the corporate destruction of the ecosystem on which human life depends. The valiant efforts of a few liberal activists, such as Bill McKibben, to organize worldwide demonstrations to pressure industrial and political leaders from the polluting nations to act swiftly at the Copenhagen Conference in December 2009, and thereby to thwart catastrophic environmental disaster, failed. The voices of the people did not register. The liberal class continued to bind itself to systems that, in theological terms, have become systems of death.
Our environment is being dramatically transformed in ways that soon will make it difficult for the human species to survive. We must direct our energies toward building sustainable, local communities to weather the coming crisis, since we will be unable to survive and resist without a cooperative effort. The liberal class, which clings to the decaying ideologies used to justify globalism and imperialism, which has refused to defy the exploitation or galvanize behind militants to halt the destruction of the ecosystem, has become a useless appendage. The decimation of our manufacturing base, the rise of the corporate state, and the contamination of our environment could have been fought by militant movements and radicals, but with these voices banished, there were no real impediments to the selfrdestructive forces of corporate power.
The liberal class, which sought consensus and was obedient when it should have fought back, continues to trumpet a childish faith in human progress. It continues to peddle the naive belief that technology and science will propel us forward into greater eras of human prosperity and save us from ourselves. But Enlightenment rationality does not and will not dominate human activity. The human race is about to be abruptly reminded of the fragility of life and the danger of hubris. Those who exploit human beings and nature are bound to an irrational lust for power and money that is leading to collective suicide.
The liberal class assumed that by working with corporate power it could mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism and environmental degradation. It did not grasp, perhaps because liberals do not read enough Marx, the revolutionary and self-destructive nature of unfettered capitalism. American society, although it continues to use traditional and sentimental iconography and language to describe itself, has in fact been so radically transformed by liberal gullibility and unchecked corporatism that it bears no resemblance to its self-image. Corporate forces, whether in Copenhagen or the U.S. Congress, ignore the needs and desires of citizens. Corporate interests have seized all mechanisms of power, from government to mass propaganda. They will not be defeated through elections or influenced through popular movements. The working class has been wiped out. The economy is in ruins. The imperial expansion is teetering on collapse. The ecosystem is undergoing terrifying changes unseen in recorded human history. The death spiral, which will wipe out whole sections of the human race, demands a return to a radical militancy that asks the uncomfortable question of whether it is time to break laws that, if followed, ensure our annihilation.
The corporation state is now as cornered as the rest of us. The decimation of the working class and, increasingly, the middle class, means that corporations must employ ever greater levels of corruption and coercion to continue to increase profits. Human misery is being compounded — indeed, it is itself viewed as a source of profit. Corporations such as Bechtel are attempting to buy and control the world's supply of clean water. All essential elements for existence offer corporations the potential for profit. The demand for capitalist expansion, in a time of growing scarcity and environmental collapse, means we will endure harsher forms of abuse and repression.
By silencing those who clung to moral imperatives, the liberal class robbed itself of the language and analytical means to make sense of the destruction. Liberals assumed that the engines of capitalism could be persuaded to exercise a rational self-control and beneficence — a notion that would have gotten anyone who proposed it laughed out of old militant labor halls. The liberal class, seduced by the ridiculous dictum that the marketplace could be the arbiter of all human political and economic activity, handed away the rights of the working class and the middle class. Even after the effects of climate change became known, the liberal class permitted corporations to continue to poison and pollute the planet. The liberal class collaborated with these corporate forces and did so with a stunning gullibility. The short-term benefits of this collaboration will soon give way to a systems collapse.
The true militants of the American twentieth century, including the old communist unions, understood, in a way the liberal class does not, the dynamics of capitalism and human evil. They knew that they had to challenge every level of management. They saw themselves as political beings. They called for a sweeping social transformation that would include universal health insurance, subsidized housing, social reforms, deindustrialization, and worker-controlled factories. And for this they were destroyed. They were replaced by a pliant liberal class that spoke in the depoliticized language of narrow self-interest and pathetic "Buy American" campaigns. Our collapse, economic and environmental, might not have been thwarted by anarchists and others, but at least someone would have fought against it. The liberal class was useless.
The coup d'état we have undergone is beginning to fuel unrest and discontent. With its reformist and collaborative ethos, the liberal class lacks the capacity or the imagination to respond to this discontent. It has no ideas. Revolt, because of this, will come from the right, as it did in other eras of bankrupt liberalism in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Tsarist Russia. That this revolt will be funded, organized, and manipulated by the corporate forces that caused the collapse is one of the tragic ironies of history. But the blame lies with the liberal class. Liberals, by standing for nothing, made possible the rise of inverted and perhaps soon classical totalitarianism.
As communities fragment under the weight of internal chaos and the increasingly dramatic changes caused by global warming and economic despair, they will face a difficult choice. They can retreat into a pure survivalist mode, a form of primitive tribalism, without linking themselves to the concentric circles of the wider community and the planet. This retreat will leave participants as morally and spiritually bankrupt as the corporate forces arrayed against us. It is imperative that, like the monasteries in the Middle Ages, communities nurture the intellectual and artistic traditions that make possible a civil society, humanism, and the common good. Access to parcels of agricultural land will be paramount. We will have to grasp, as the medieval monks did, that we cannot alter the larger culture around us, at least in the short term, but we may be able to retain the moral codes and culture for generations beyond ours. As those who retained their identity during slavery or the long night of twentieth-century fascism and communism discovered, resistance will be reduced to small, often imperceptible acts of defiance. Music, theatre, art, poetry, journalism, literature, dance, and the humanities, including the study of philosophy and history, will be the bulwarks that separate those who remain human from those who become savages.
We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity. The elites, who successfully convinced us that we no longer possessed the capacity to understand the revealed truths presented before us or to fight back against the chaos caused by economic and environmental catastrophe, will use their resources to create privileged little islands where they will have access to security and goods denied to the rest of us. As long as the mass of bewildered and frightened people, fed images by the organs of mass propaganda that permit them to perpetually hallucinate, exist in this state of barbarism, they may periodically strike out with a blind fury against increased state repression, widespread poverty, and food shortages. But they will lack the ability and self-confidence to challenge in big and small ways the structures of control. The fantasy of widespread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is just that — a fantasy.
Radical anarchists often grasp the extent of the rot in our cultural and political institutions. They know they must sever the tentacles of consumerism. But many also naively believe it can be countered with physical resistance and violence. There are debates within the anarchist movement about acceptable degrees of violent resistance. Some argue, for example, that we should limit ourselves to the destruction of property. But that is a dead end. Once you start using plastic explosives, innocent people get killed. The moment anarchic violence begins to disrupt the mechanisms of governance, the power elite will use these acts, however minor, as an excuse to employ disproportionate and ruthless force against real and suspected agitators, only fueling the fear and rage of the dispossessed.
There are times — and this moment in humane history may turn out to be one of them — when human beings are forced to respond to repression with violence. I was in Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia. We knew what the Serbian forces ringing the capital would do to us if they broke through the defenses and trench system around the besieged city. We had the examples of the Drina Valley or the city of Vukovar, where about a third of the Muslim inhabitants had been killed and the rest herded into refugee or displacement camps. The only choice, if one wanted to defend your family and community, was to pick up a weapon.
But violence has inherent problems. Those who proved most adept at defending Sarajevo came from the criminal class. When they were not shooting at Bosnian Serb forces, they were looting the apartments of ethnic Serbs in Sarajevo and often executing them, as well as terrorizing their fellow Muslims. When you ingest the poison of violence, even in a just cause, it corrupts, deforms, and perverts you.
Violence is also a drug. Those most addicted to violence are those who have access to weapons and a penchant for force. And killers rise to the surface of all armed movements, even those that could be defined as just, and contaminate them with the intoxicating and seductive power that comes with the capacity to kill and destroy. I have seen it in war after war. When you go down that road, you end up pitting your monsters against their monsters. And the sensitive, the humane, and the gentle, those with a propensity to nurture and protect life, are pushed aside and often murdered.
The romantic vision of war and violence is as prevalent among many on the radical left as it is in the mainstream culture. Those who resist with force cannot hope to defeat the corporate state. They will not sustain the cultural values that must be sustained if we are to have a future worth living. Armed resistance movements are always mutations of the violence that spawned them. I am not naive enough to think I could have avoided these armed movements had I been a landless Salvadoran or Guatemalan peasant, a Palestinian in Gaza, or a Muslim in Sarajevo. Threatened on all sides with violence and destruction, I probably would have taken up a gun. But violent response to repression, whether it achieves its goals or not, is counterproductive. It always results in the brutal sacrifice of innocents and the destruction of the culture and traditions that make us human. Violence must be avoided, although finally not at the expense of our own survival. Nonviolent acts of disobedience and the breaking of laws to disrupt the corporate assault on human life and the ecosystem will keep us whole. Once we use violence against violence, we enter a moral void.
Democracy, a system designed to challenge the status quo, has been corrupted to serve the status quo. The abject failure of activists and the liberal class to push corporate, industrialized states toward serious environmental reform, to thwart imperial adventurism, or to build a humane policy toward the world's poor stems from an inability to face these new configurations of power.
Our passivity is due, in part, to our inability to confront the awful fact of extinction, either our own inevitable mortality or that of the human species. The emotional cost of confronting death is painful. We prefer illusion. In the wars I covered, highly educated and intelligent people, whether in the cafes in Sarajevo or later in Pristina in Kosovo, insisted that war would not break out. They, like us, failed to grasp that the paradigm of power had irrevocably altered and that the paradigm of resistance had to change as well. They, too, failed to envision the death of their society and their own mortal danger, although the edifice was also physically collapsing around them. It is a common human frailty that severs those within dying civilizations from their terminal condition.
The election of Obama was one more triumph of illusion over substance. It was a skillful manipulation and betrayal of the public by a corporate power elite. We mistook style and ethnicity — an advertising tactic pioneered by Calvin Klein and Benetton — for progressive politics and genuine change. The goal of a branded Obama, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake a brand for an experience. And this is why Obama was named Advertising Age's marketer of the year for 2008, beating out Apple and Zappos.
Obama had almost no experience besides two years in the Senate, where his voting record was a dismal capitulation to corporate power. But, once again, the electronic hallucinations that assault us rendered most voters incapable of thought and response. The superficial, the trivial, and the sensational mask our deep cultural, economic, political, and environmental disintegration as well as the newest political diversion approved by the corporate state. We remain hypnotized by flickering images we mistake for reality.
"Celebrity culture is a culture of faux ecstasy, since the passions it generates derive from staged authenticity rather than genuine forms of recognition and belonging," Chris Rojek writes:
Materialism, and the revolt against materialism, are the only possible responses. Neither is capable of engineering the unifying beliefs and practices relative to sacred things that are essential to religious belief. The cult of distraction, then, is both a means of concealing the meaninglessness of modern life and of reinforcing the power of commodity culture. Celebrity culture provides monumental images of elevation and magic. The psychological consequence of this is to enjoin us to adjust to our material circumstances and forget that life has no meaning.
The belief that we can make things happen through positive thoughts, by visualizing, by wanting them, by tapping into our inner strength, or by understanding that we are truly exceptional, is peddled to us by all aspects of the culture, from Oprah to the Christian Right. It is magical thinking. We can always make more money, meet new quotas, consume more products, and advance our careers. This magical thinking, this idea that human and personal progress is somehow inevitable, leads to political passivity. It permits societies to transfer their emotional allegiance to the absurd — whether embodied in professional sports or in celebrity culture — and ignore real problems. It exacerbates despair. It keeps us in a state of mass self-delusion. Once we are drawn into this form of magical thinking, the purpose, structure and goals of the corporate state are not questioned. To question, to engage in criticism of the corporate collective, is to be seen as obstructive and negative. And these cultural illusions have grossly perverted the way we view ourselves, our nation, and the natural world. This magical thinking, coupled with its bizarre ideology of limitless progress, holds out the promise of an impossible, unachievable happiness. It has turned whole nations, such as the United States, into self-consuming machines of death.
We can march in Copenhagen. We can join the International Day of Climate Action and its worldwide climate protests. We can compost in our backyards and hang our laundry out to dry. We can write letters to our elected officials. We can vote for Obama and chant, "Yes We Can," but the corporate power elite is no longer concerned with our aspirations. Appealing to their better nature, or seeking to influence the internal levers of power, will no longer work.
The rot of imperialism, which is always incompatible with democracy, militarizes domestic politics. This militarization, as Sheldon Wolin writes, combines with the cultural fantasies of hero worship and tales of individual prowess, eternal youthfulness, beauty through surgery, action measured in nanoseconds, and a dream-laden culture of ever-expanding control and possibility, to sever huge segments of the population from reality. Those who control the images control us. And while we have been entranced by the celluloid shadows on the walls of Plato's cave, these corporate forces have effectively dismantled Social Security, unions, welfare, public health services, and public housing — the institutions of social democracy. They have been permitted to pollute the planet, long after we knew the deadly consequences of global warming.
We are living through one of civilization's seismic reversals. The ideology of globalization, like all "inevitable" Utopian visions, has imploded. The power elite, perplexed and confused, clings to the Utopian dreams and outdated language of globalization to mask the political and economic vacuum. Massive bailouts, stimulus packages, giveaways, and short-term borrowing, along with imperial wars we can no longer afford, will leave the United States struggling with trillions in debt. Once China and the oil-rich states begin to walk away from our debt, which one day has to happen, interest rates will skyrocket. Eventually, the Federal Reserve will become the buyer of last resort. The Fed has printed perhaps as much as two trillion new dollars in the last two years. Forcing the Fed to buy this much new debt will see it, in effect, print trillions more. This is when inflation, most likely hyperinflation, will turn the dollar into junk. And at that point the entire system, beset as well by environmental chaos, breaks down.
Our mediocre and bankrupt elite, concerned with its own survival, spends its energy and our resources desperately trying to save a system that cannot be saved. Once credit dries up for the average citizen, once massive joblessness creates a permanent and enraged underclass, once the cheap manufactured goods that are the opiates of our commodity culture vanish, once water and soil become too polluted or degraded to sustain pockets of human life, we will probably evolve into a system that closely resembles classical totalitarianism, characterized by despotic fiefdoms. Cruder, more violent forms of repression will be employed as the softer mechanisms of control favored by inverted totalitarianism prove useless. And, as with collapsed civilizations in the past, the huge bureaucracy that sustained empire will cease to function as communities collapse into localized enclaves. The great monuments of capitalism, like the abandoned temples at Tikal, will stand as deserted relics of a lost age.
During its brief time on Earth, the human species has exhibited a remarkable capacity to kill itself off. The Cro-Magnons displaced or dispatched the Neanderthals. The European colonialists, with the help of smallpox and firearms, decimated the native populations in the Americas. Modern industrial warfare in the twentieth century took at least one hundred million lives, most of them civilians. And now we sit passive and dumb as corporations and the leaders of industrialized nations ensure that climate change will accelerate to levels that could mean the end of our species. Homo sapiens are the "future-eaters," as the biologist Tim Flannery points out in The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People.
In the past, when civilizations went belly-up through greed, mismanagement, and the exhaustion of natural resources, human beings migrated somewhere else to pillage anew. But this time the game is over. There is nowhere else to go. The industrialized nations spent the last century seizing half the planet and dominating most of the other half. We giddily exhausted our natural resources, especially fossil fuel, to engage in an orgy of consumption and waste that poisoned the Earth and degraded the ecosystem on which human life depends.
Collapse this time around will be global. We will disintegrate together. The ten-thousand-year experiment of settled life is about to come to a crashing halt. And humankind, which thought it was given dominion over the Earth and all living things, will be taught a painful lesson about the necessity of balance, restraint, and humility. There is almost no human monument or city ruin more than five thousand years old. Civilization, Ronald Wright notes in A Short History of Progress, "occupies a mere 0.2 percent of the two and a half million years since our first ancestor sharpened a stone."
We view ourselves as rational creatures. But is it rational to wait like sheep in a pen as oil and natural gas companies, coal companies, chemical industries, plastics manufacturers, the automotive industry, arms manufacturers, and the leaders of the industrial world, as they did in Copenhagen, steer us toward mass extinction? It is too late to prevent profound climate change. But why allow our ruling elite, driven by the lust for profits, to accelerate the death spiral? Why continue to obey the laws and dictates of our executioners?
The news is grim. The accelerating disintegration of Arctic Sea ice means that summer ice will probably disappear within the next decade. The dark open water will absorb more solar radiation than reflective white ice, significantly increasing the rate of global warming. The Siberian permafrost will disappear, sending up plumes of methane gas from underground. The Greenland ice sheet and the Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers will melt. Jay Zwally, a NASA climate scientist, declared in December 2007: "The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming. Now, as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines."
But reality is rarely an impediment to human folly. The world's greenhouse gases have continued to grow since Zwally's statement. Global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels since 2000 have increased by three percent a year. At that rate, annual emissions will double every twenty-five years. James Hansen, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world's foremost climate experts, has warned that if we keep warming the planet, it will be "a recipe for global disaster." The safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere, Hansen estimates, is no more than 350 parts per million (ppm). The current level of CO2 is 385 ppm and climbing. This guarantees terrible consequences even if we act immediately to cut carbon emissions.
For three million years, the natural carbon cycle has ensured that the atmosphere contained less than 300 ppm of CO2, which sustained the wide variety of life on the planet. The idea now championed by our corporate elite, at least those in contact with the reality of climate change, is that we will intentionally overshoot 350 ppm and then return to a safer climate through rapid and dramatic emission cuts. This, of course, is a theory designed to absolve the elite from doing anything now.
In his book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, Clive Hamilton warns that even "if carbon dioxide concentrations reach 550 ppm, after which emissions fell to zero, the global temperatures would continue to rise for at least another century. Moreover, once we reach 550 ppm a number of tipping points will have been crossed, and all efforts humans then make to cut their greenhouse gas emissions may be overwhelmed by 'natural' sources of greenhouse gases. In that case, rather than stabilizing at 550 ppm, 550 will be just another level we pass through one year on a trajectory to who knows where — 1000 ppm perhaps."
Copenhagen was perhaps the last chance to save ourselves. Barack Obama and the other leaders of the industrialized nations blew it. Radical climate change is certain. If annual emissions stop immediately, the past carbon emissions that remain in the atmosphere will still be enough to elevate global temperatures for centuries. It is only a question now of how bad it will become. The engines of climate change, climate scientists have warned, will soon create a domino effect that could thrust the Earth into a chaotic state for thousands of years before it regains equilibrium. "Whether human beings would still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point," Hamilton writes. "One thing is certain: there will be far fewer of us."
We have fallen prey to the illusion that we can modify and control our environment, that human ingenuity ensures the inevitability of human progress, and that our secular god of science will save us. The "intoxicating belief that we can conquer all has come up against a greater force, the Earth itself," Hamilton writes. "The prospect of runaway climate change challenges our technological hubris, our Enlightenment faith in reason and the whole modernist project. The Earth may soon demonstrate that, ultimately, it cannot be tamed and that the human urge to master nature has only roused a slumbering beast."
We face a terrible political truth. Those who hold power will not act with the urgency required to protect human life and the ecosystem. Decisions about the fate of the planet and human civilization are in the hands of moral and intellectual trolls such as BP's former chairman Tony Hayward. These political and corporate masters are driven by a craven desire to accumulate wealth at the expense of human life. They do this in the Gulf of Mexico. They do this in the factories in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. The leaders of these corporations now determine our fate. They are not endowed with human decency or compassion. Yet their lobbyists make the laws. Their public relations firms craft the propaganda and trivia pumped out through systems of mass communication. Their money determines elections. Their greed turns workers into global serfs and our planet into a wasteland.
As climate change advances, we will face a choice between obeying the rules put in place by corporations, and rebellion. Those who work human beings to death in overcrowded factories in China and turn the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone are the enemy. They serve systems of death. They cannot be reformed or trusted.
The climate crisis is a political crisis. We will either defy the corporate elite, which will mean civil disobedience, a rejection of traditional politics for a new radicalism, and the systematic breaking of laws, or see ourselves consumed. Time is not on our side. The longer we wait, the more assured our destruction becomes. The future, if we remain passive, will be wrested from us.
If we build small, self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as possible to the environment, we can perhaps weather the collapse. This task will be accomplished through the creation of communities with access to sustainable agriculture, able to sever themselves as much as possible from commercial culture and largely self-sufficient. These communities will have to build walls against the electronic propaganda and fear that will be pumped out over the airwaves. Canada will probably be a more hospitable place to do this than the United States, especially given America's undercurrent of violence. But in any country, those who survive will need isolated areas of farmland distant from urban areas, which will see food deserts in the inner cities, as well as savage violence, spread outward across the urban landscape as produce and goods become prohibitively expensive and state repression becomes harsher and harsher.
Acts of resistance are moral acts. They take place because people of conscience understand the moral, rather than the practical, imperative of rebellion. They should be carried out not because they are effective, but because they are right. Those who begin these acts are always few. They are dismissed by those in the liberal class, who hide their cowardice behind their cynicism. Resistance, however marginal, affirms the sanctity of individual life in a world awash in death. It is the supreme act of faith, the highest form of spirituality. Those who have carried out great acts of resistance in the past sacrificed their security and comfort, often spent time in jail, and in some cases were killed. They understood that to live in the fullest sense of the word, to exist as free and independent human beings, even under the darkest night of state repression, means to defy injustice. Any act of resistance is its own justification. It cannot be measured by its utilitarian effect. And the acts of resistance that sustain us morally are those that disrupt systems of power but do not violate the sanctity of human life—even, finally, the lives of those who enslave us.
When in April 1945 the dissident Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken from his cell in a Nazi prison to the gallows, his last words were: "This is for me the end, but also the beginning." Bonhoeffer knew that most of the citizens in Germany were complicit through their collaboration or silence in a vast enterprise of death. But however hopeless it appeared in the moment, he affirmed what we all must affirm. He did not avoid death. He did not, as a distinct individual, survive. But he understood that his resistance and even his death were acts that nurtured life. He gave, even to those who did not join him, another narrative. His defiance and his execution condemned his executioners.
Significant structural change will not occur in our lifetime. This makes resistance harder. It shifts resistance from the tangible, the immediate, and the practical, to the amorphous and the indeterminate. But to stop resisting is spiritual and intellectual death. It is to surrender to the dehumanizing ideology of totalitarian capitalism. Acts of resistance keep alive another way of being. They sustain our integrity and empower others, whom we may never meet, to stand up and carry the flame we pass to them. No act of resistance is useless, whether it is refusing to pay taxes, fighting for a Tobin tax, working to shift the neoclassical economics paradigm, revoking a corporate charter, holding global Internet votes, or using Twitter to catalyze a chain reaction of refusal against the neoliberal order. We must resist and trust that resistance is worthwhile. Our communities will sustain us, emotionally and materially. They will be the key to a life of defiance.
Those who resist, who continue to practice moral autonomy, will become members of the underclass. The remnants of traditional liberal institutions, including the media, labor, the church, the universities, the arts, and political parties will merge with the instruments of corporate oppression. As long as they collaborate with the power elite, liberal institutions will continue to offer a few collaborators positions of comfort and privilege. But all those who seek to work as artists, journalists, professors, labor organizers, dissident politicians, or clergy will increasingly struggle without adequate health insurance or reliable incomes. They will be unable to send their children to elite colleges. Their mortgages will be foreclosed. They will be denied credit cards. Their salaries, if they get any, will be miserable. They will no longer be members of the liberal class.
The death of the liberal class has been accompanied by a shift from a print-based culture to an image-based culture. The demise of newspapers — along with that of book publishing — coupled with the degradation of our educational system for all but the elites, has created a culture in which verifiable fact, which is rooted in the complexity and discipline of print, no longer forms the basis of public discourse or our collective memory. It has been supplanted by the blogosphere, the social media universe, and cable television. Print-based culture, in which fact and assertion could be traced and distinguished, has ceded to a culture of emotionally driven narratives where facts and opinions are interchangeable. This is a decline and a degeneration that has crippled the reality-based culture, in which fact was the foundation for opinion and debate, and ushered in a culture in which facts, opinions, lies, and fantasy are interchangeable. This shift has denied many citizens the intellectual tools for critical thought and civic dialogue — the discourse that creates informed citizens. Images and words defy the complex structures of print when isolated from context.
Language, as the cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, "makes sense only when it is presented as a sequence of propositions. Meaning is distorted when a word or sentence is, as we say, taken out of context; when a reader or a listener is deprived of what was said before and after." Images, while giving the appearance of reality, distort it. The image dismembers reality. It "recreates the world in a series of idiosyncratic events." And it will be difficult to communicate with those within a culture that are fed hefty doses of emotionally charged images and words taken out of context. Reality, once it is disconnected from print, is no longer placed in context. This will leave dissidents speaking in a language that will often be unintelligible to the wider society.
A populace entranced by these fragments, images, and spectacles, a populace that can no longer find the words to articulate what is happening to it, is cut off from rational discourse. It expresses reality through the use of selected and isolated facts, half-truths or lies, that do not make sense. Illusion becomes true. Artifacts from the print-based culture, such as newspapers, books, or classical drama — artifacts rooted in the complexity of print — attempt to present, examine and explain reality as something intimately related to the past. These print-based artifacts are based on the assumption that we cannot understand the present if we do not understand the past. Images and facts used to fuel a frenzy of chatter and melodrama speak in a different form. This visual language engenders confusion. It offers an endless whirlwind of emotion and cant. It fosters historical amnesia. As the culture has shifted from print to image, the old artifacts grounded in print have become as obtuse and unintelligible as hieroglyphics. Those who resist will be able to do so only as long as they wall off the new forms of communication and remain wedded to the complexity of print. But this will also result in rebels becoming foreigners in their own land.
The Internet, held out by many as a new panacea, is accelerating this cultural decline, as Matthew Hindman illustrates in his book The Myth of Digital Democracy. Internet traffic is dominated by a few principal corporate sites, Yahoo, Bing and Google, which aggregate and reproduce existing journalism and creative work. The goal, of course, is profit. The Web efficiently disseminates content, but it does not protect intellectual property rights. And this means financial ruin for journalists, academics, musicians, and artists. Creative work is released for free to Web providers who use it as bait for corporate advertising. And those who create reap little or nothing.
The great promise of the Internet — to open up dialogue, break down cultural barriers, promote democracy, and unleash innovation and creativity — is yet another Utopian dream. The Internet is only accelerating our division into antagonistic clans, where we are sucked into virtual tribal groups that chant the same slogans and hate the same enemies. The Web, like the cable news outlets, forms anonymous crowds to vent collective rage, intolerance, and bigotry. These virtual slums do not seek communication or dialogue. They speak in the new absurdist language. They do not enrich our culture. They create a herd mentality in which those who express empathy for some perceived "enemy" — whether left or right — are denounced by their fellow travelers for their impurity. And the liberal class has become as corrupted by the Web as the right wing. Racism toward Muslims is as evil as anti-Semitism, but try to express this simple truth on a partisan Palestinian or Israeli Web site. These kinds of truths, that acknowledge human complexity, are what the liberal class once sought to protect. Social scientists have a name for this retreat into ideologically pure and intolerant ghettos: cyberbalkanization.
I spoke with Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual-reality technology. He warns of this frightening new collectivism in You Are Not a Gadget. He notes that the habits fostered by the Internet have further reconfigured how we relate to one another. He writes that the philosophy behind terms of art such as Web 2.0, open culture, free software, and the long tail have become enablers of this new collectivism. He sites Wikipedia, which consciously erases individual voices, and Google Wave, which permits users to edit what someone else has said in a conversation, as well as watch others as they input, as technologies that accelerate mass collective thought and mass emotions. Privacy, honesty, and self-reflection are obliterated in favor of image.
On the Internet, as in the wider society, the value and status of tastes and information are determined by the crowd, in what Lanier calls the "hive mentality." Music, books, journalism, commercials, bits of television shows and movies, along with inane YouTube videos, are thrust onto our screens and into the national consciousness based on their level of Internet traffic. Lanier says that one of the biggest mistakes he and other early computer scientists made while developing the Internet was allowing those whose works are displayed on the Internet to go unpaid. He says this decision has made it more difficult for those who create intellectual or artistic works to make a living or receive credit for their work. It has furthered the cultural rout against individual expression.
Twenty music tracks are downloaded illegally for every one bought online. It is a similar story for films and photographs. Pirated versions of newly released movies are available along with last week's New York Times bestsellers. lournalists, once able to sell articles to publications overseas, now see their work flash around the globe without hope of compensation. We are starving our professional critics and artists. We are turning culture and art over to part-time amateurs. And as creative artists and journalists vanish, so do the editors and producers who distill and give focus to creative and journalistic expression. The only journalism and art that will endure will be that which draws advertising. Cultural and artistic expression will be replaced by the tawdry, banal, and often idiotic distractions that draw huge numbers of YouTube hits or public-relations-created propaganda. And any work that cannot gain corporate sponsorship or attract advertising dollars will be ignored.
While disregard of intellectual property rights denies those who create the capacity to make a living from their work, aggregators such as Google make profits by collecting and distributing content to lure advertisers. Original work on the Internet, as Lanier points out, is almost always cut and mutilated. It is "copied, mashed up, anonymized, analyzed, and turned into bricks in someone else's fortress to support an advertising scheme." Lanier warns that if this trend is not halted, it will create a "formula that leaves no way for our nation to earn a living in the long term." The Internet has begun the final and perhaps the deadliest assault on the arts and intellectual inquiry.
"All of a sudden people have lost sight of the fact that people need to be paid for the work," Mark Kurlansky, who is the author of Cod, Salt and 1968, told me:
I was doing a book signing in Boston for my book The Food of a Younger Land based on WPA food writing. I told the audience that this was the best of it, and I had discarded half of the stuff. This young guy came up to me afterwards and said, "Why don't you take the stuff you discarded and post it on the Internet?" I was thinking, there are a couple of obvious problems, and why doesn't he see them? First of all, if I discarded it, it was because I didn't think it was any good. And second of all, to be crude, what's in it for me? The public has this attitude that this is above money. It is not a coincidence that the only successful print medium left economically is financial journalism. It is a world that worships money. You pay your money, and you get your story.
Digital collectivism, Lanier warns, is destroying the dwindling vestiges of authentic journalism, creativity, and innovation that require time, investment, and self-reflection. The only income left for most of those who create is earned through self-promotion and the orchestration of celebrity. But, as Lanier points out, this turns all culture into a form of advertising. It fosters a social ethic in which the capacity for crowd manipulation, for the art of seduction, is valued more than truth, beauty, or intellect. Writers, musicians, artists, journalists, and filmmakers must transform themselves into celebrities to earn money, or vanish from public consciousness.
"Funding a civilization through advertising is like trying to get nutrition by connecting a tube from one's anus to one's mouth," Lanier says:
The body starts consuming itself. That is what we are doing online. As more and more human activity is aggregated, people huddle around the last remaining oases of revenue. Musicians today might still be able to get paid to make music for video games, for instance, because games are still played in closed consoles and haven't been collectivized as yet.
Lanier is not opposed to the Internet. He is opposed to how it has evolved. He fears that if we fall into an economic tailspin, the Internet, like other innovative systems of mass communication such as television, will be used to exacerbate social enmity.
"The scenario I can see is America in some economic decline, which we seem determined to enter into because we are unable to make any adjustments, and a lot of unhappy people," Lanier said:
The preponderance of them are [located in] rural areas and in the Red States, the former slave states. And they are all connected and get angrier and angrier. What exactly happens? Do they start converging on abortion clinics? Probably. Do they start converging on legislatures and take them over? I don't know, maybe. I shouldn't speak it. It is almost a curse to imagine these things. But any intelligent person can see the scenario I am afraid to see. There is a potential here for very bad stuff to happen.
The Utopian promoters of the Internet insist that the "hive mind," the vast virtual collective, will propel us toward a brave new world. Lanier dismisses such visions as fantasies that allow many well-intentioned people to be seduced by an evolving nightmare.
"The crowd phenomenon exists, but the hive does not exist," Lanier explained:
All there is, is a crowd phenomenon, which can often be dangerous. To a true believer, which I certainly am not, the hive is like the baby at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a supercreature that surpasses humanity. To me, it is the misinterpretation of the old crowd phenomenon with a digital vibe. It has all the same dangers. A crowd can turn into a mean mob all too easily, as it has throughout human history.
"There are some things crowds can do, such as count the jelly beans in the jar or guess the weight of the ox," Lanier said:
I acknowledge this phenomenon is real. But I propose that the line between when crowds can think effectively as a crowd and when they can't is a little different. If you read [James] Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, he, as well as other theorists, say that if you want a crowd to be wise, the key is to reduce the communication flow between the members so they do not influence each other, so they are truly independent and have separate sample points. It brings up an interesting paradox. The starting point for online crowd enthusiasts is that connection is good and everyone should be connected. But when they talk about what makes a crowd smart, they say people should not be talking to each other. They should be isolated. There is a contradiction there. What makes a crowd smart is the type of question you ask. If you ask a group of informed people to choose a single numeric value such as the weight of an ox, and they all have some reason to have a theory that is not entirely crazy, they will center on the answer. You can get something useful. This phenomenon is what accounts for price-fitting in capitalism. This is how markets can function. If you ask them to create anything, if you ask them to do something constructive or synthetic or engage in compound reasoning, then they will fail. Then you get something dull or an averaging-out. One danger of the crowd is violence, which is when they turn into a mob. The other is dullness or mundaneness, when you design by committee.
Humans, like many other species, Lanier says, have a cognitive switch that permits us to be individuals or members of a mob. Once we enter the confines of what Lanier calls a clan, even a virtual clan, we revert to the basest instincts within us. Technology evolves, but human nature remains constant. The twentieth century was the bloodiest in human history because human beings married the newly minted tools of efficient state bureaucracies, mass propaganda, and industrial slaughter with dark impulses that have existed since the dawn of the human species. "You become hypersensitive to the pecking order and to your sense of social status," Lanier said of these virtual clans:
There is almost always the designated loser in your own group and the designated external enemy. There is the enemy below and the enemy afar. There become two classes of disenfranchised people. You enter into a constant obligation to defend your status, which is always being contested. It is time-consuming to become a member of one of these things. I see a lot of designs online that bring this out. There is a recognizable sequence, whether it is pianos, poodles, or jihad; you see people forming into these clans. It is playing with fire. There are plenty of examples of evil in human history that did not involve this effect, such as Jack the Ripper who worked alone. But most of the really bad examples of human behavior in history involve invoking this clan dynamic. No particular sort of person is immune to it. Geeks are no more immune to it than Germans or Russians or Japanese or Mongolians. It is part of our nature. It can be woken up without any leadership structure or politics. It happens. It is part of us. There is a switch inside of us waiting to be turned. And people can learn to manipulate the switch in others.
"The Machine Stops," a story published by E.M. Forster in 1909, paints a futuristic world where people are mesmerized by virtual reality. In Forster's dystopia, human beings live in isolated, tiny subterranean rooms, like hives, where they are captivated by instant messages and "cinematophoes" — machines that project visual images. The subterranean masses cut themselves off from the external world and are absorbed by a bizarre pseudoreality of voices, sounds, evanescent images, and abstract sensations that can be evoked by pressing a few buttons. The world of the Machine, which has replaced the real world with a virtual world, is accessed through an omniscient, impersonal voice.
We are, as Forster understood, seduced and then enslaved by technology, from the combustion engine to computers to robotics. Human ingenuity is always hijacked by slave masters. They use the newest technologies to keep us impoverished, confused about our identity, and passive. The Internet, designed by defense strategists to communicate after a nuclear attack, has become the latest technological instrument of control. Technology is morally neutral. It serves the interests of those who control it. And those who control it today are destroying journalism, culture, and art while they herd the population into clans that fuel isolation, self-delusion, intolerance, and hatred.
"A common rationalization in the fledgling world of digital cultures back then was that we were entering a transitional lull before a creative storm — or were already in the eye of the storm," Lanier writes in his book. "But we were not passing through a momentary calm. We had, rather, entered a persistent somnolence, and I have come to believe that we will escape it only when we kill the hive."
The media, the arts, scholarship, and political and social movements must become conduits for unvarnished moral outrage and passion. We must defy systems, and even laws, that permit corporations to strangle our culture and the natural world. But, at the same time, all who speak in a moral voice, one tied to facts rather than illusions, will become freaks. It will be difficult to live with a conscience in an age of nihilism. Journalism will reach tiny audiences, just as the plays of Aristophanes or Racine attract small crowds in obscure theaters. Art and journalism will seek wealthy patrons who will come and go according to the dictates of their fortunes and their whims, but will not reach the larger society, which will be deluged with illusions and spectacles. A culture, once it no longer values truth and beauty, condemns its most creative and moral people to poverty and obscurity. And this is our destiny.
The French existentialist Albert Camus argued that our lives are meaningless. We cannot influence fate. We will all die, and our individual beings will be obliterated. But we have a choice in how we live.
"A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object," Camus wrote. "But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object."
The rebel, for Camus, stands with the oppressed — the unemployed workers thrust into impoverishment and misery by the corporate state, the Palestinians in Gaza, the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, the disappeared who are held in our global black sites, the poor in our inner cities and depressed rural communities, immigrants, and those locked away in our prison system.
The elites and their courtiers in the liberal class always condemn the rebel as impractical. They dismiss the stance of the rebel as counterproductive. They chastise the rebel for being angry. The elites and their apologists call for calm, reason, and patience. They use the hypocritical language of compromise, generosity, and understanding to argue that we must accept and work with the systems of power. The rebel, however, is beholden to a moral commitment that makes it impossible to compromise. The rebel refuses to be bought off with foundation grants, invitations to the White House, television appearances, book contracts, academic appointments, or empty rhetoric. The rebel is not concerned with self-promotion or public opinion. The rebel knows that, as Augustine wrote, hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage — anger at the way things are and the courage to change them. The rebel knows that virtue is not rewarded. The act of rebellion justifies itself.
"You do not become a 'dissident' just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career," Vaclav Havel said when he battled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia:
You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. ... The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public. He offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin — and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.
The corporate elite does not argue that the current system is just or good, because it cannot, but it has convinced the majority of citizens that there is no alternative. But we are not slaves. We have a choice. We can refuse to be either a victim or an executioner. We have the moral capacity to say no, to refuse to cooperate. Any boycott or demonstration, any occupation or sit-in, any strike, any act of obstruction or sabotage, any refusal to pay taxes, any fast, any popular movement, and any act of civil disobedience ignites the soul of the rebel and exposes the dead hand of authority.
"There is beauty and there are the humiliated," Camus wrote. "Whatever difficulties the enterprise may present, I should like never to be unfaithful either to the second or the first."
"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop," Mario Savio said in 1964 during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. "And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."
The capacity to refuse to cooperate offers us the only route left to personal freedom and a life with meaning. Camus is right about the absurdity of existence. He is also right about finding meaning and self-worth in acts of rebellion that eschew the practical for the moral.
"Oh my soul," the ancient Greek poet Pindar wrote, "do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible."
Acts of rebellion permit us to be free and independent human beings. Rebellion chips away, however imperceptibly, at the edifice of the oppressor. Rebellion sustains the capacity for human solidarity. Rebellion, in moments of profound human despair and misery, keeps alive the capacity to be human. Rebellion is not the same as revolution. Revolution works towards the establishment of a new power structure. Rebellion is about perpetual revolt and permanent alienation from power. And it is only in a state of rebellion that we can hold fast to moral imperatives that prevent a descent into tyranny. Empathy must be our primary attribute. Those who retreat into cynicism and despair, like Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, die spiritually and morally. If we are to be extinguished, let it be on our own terms.
The dispassionate, objective creed of the liberal class, which made them mere photographers of human reality, is useless to the rebel. It is an ideology that serves those we must defy. The cri de coeur for reason, logic, and truth, for a fact-based society, for political and social structures designed to protect the common good, will be the flag carried by forlorn and militant remnants of our dying civilization. Cicero did this in ancient Rome. But he was as despised by the crowd as he was by the power elite. When his severed head and hands were mounted on the podium in the Colosseum, and his executioner Mark Antony announced that Cicero would speak and write no more, the tens of thousands of spectators roared their approval. Tyranny in an age of chaos is often greeted with palpable relief. There often is no public outcry. The rebel must, for this reason, also expect to become the enemy, even of those he or she is attempting to protect.
The indifference to the plight of others and the cult of the self is what the corporate state seeks to instill in us. That state appeals to pleasure, as well as fear, to crush compassion. We will have to continue to fight the mechanisms of that dominant culture, if for no other reason than to preserve, through small, even tiny acts, our common humanity. We will have to resist the temptation to fold in on ourselves and to ignore the injustice visited on others, especially those we do not know. As distinct and moral beings, we will endure only through these small, sometimes imperceptible acts of defiance. This defiance, this capacity to say no, is what mass culture and mass propaganda seek to eradicate. As long as we are willing to defy these forces, we have a chance, if not for ourselves, then at least for those who follow. As long as we defy these forces, we remain alive. And, for now, this is the only victory possible.
1. Albert Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus," in The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, and Selected Essays (New York: Everyman, 2004), 536.
2. Chris Rojek, Celebrity (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), 90-91.
3. Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (New York: Carroll & Gr»f, 2005), 55.
4. Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, "Data Show 'Arctic Is Screaming,'
Scientists Say," New York Sun, December 12, 2007, http:www.nysun.com/ foreign/data-show-arctic-is-screaming-scientists-say/67928.
5. James Hansen, "Global Warming Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near," speech to the National Press Club, Washington, June, 23 2008, www.columbia.edu/~jehi/2008/TwentyYearsLater_20o8o623.pdf.
6. Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2010), 27-28.
7. Ibid., 22.
8. Clive Hamilton, "Is It Too Late to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change?," lecture, Royal Society of the Arts, Sydney, Australia, October 21,20o9, http:www.clivehamilton.net.au/cms/index.php?page=articles.
9. Letter of October 13,1953, from Payne Best to George Bell, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, trans, by Lisa E. Dahill (Minneapolis, NM: Fortress Press, 2006), 468.
10. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), 73.
11. Jason Lanier, interview, San Francisco, February 12, 2010.
12. E. M. Forester, "The Machine Stops," in Selected Stories (New York: Penguin, 2001), 91-123.
13. Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans, by Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage, i9s6), 238.
14. Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against State in Central Europe, ed. John Keane (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, i99o), 63.
15. Albert Camus, "Return to Tipasa," in Lyrical and Critical Essays, ed. Philip Thody, trans, by Ellen Conroy Kenny (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, i968), 169-170.
16. Mario Savio, speech on the steps of Sproul Hall, University of California, Berkeley, California, Free Speech Movement Sit-in, December 2, i964. http:www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mariosaviosproulhallsitin.htm.