Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The breaking of the ancient Western code

Mauer, Berlin, 2010

We love to look for stability. There's always some ideal past state when things stayed where they were put. Perhaps it's the Roman Empire, or the 1950's, or the Victorian era, or China, depending on your inclinations. Utopias are imaginary futures where things stay where they're put too. Dystopias, also. The world order George Orwell imagined in 1984 was nothing if not unshakably stable, as is The Brave New World, Iain M. Banks's Culture or Plato's Republic.
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and St Paul
I've seen the future, brother:
it is murder.
The funny thing about those stable states is that when you look for them, they go away. At one time, I studied history fairly seriously, and I still do some occasional reading into it. I was struck by the way those stable orders turned out to be anything but, when you zoomed in and looked at what was actually happening.

Take that most enduring and stable of civilizations, China. From a sufficient distance, it looks like an almost-eternal cycle of dynasties rising and falling; change, if it is there at all, is gradual; society is well-ordered; the state is centrally administered. Periods of disunity and chaos have been exceptional interludes between dynasties that rise to return it to its natural state.


Just by the calendar, China has been split up just about as long as it has been united, and this by a generous definition of "united." Instead of looking at it as a continuity interrupted by periods of disunity, you could just as well look at it as disunity interrupted by periods of rigid centralization hold it together for a while against forces constantly pulling it apart. The European Union now is more unified and centrally administered than China has been for most of its history.

What's more, even when you look more closely at those periods of unity and stability, they turn out to be not quite that either. There are foreign conquerors, domestic uprisings, provinces that are independent in all but name, new philosophical, religious, and technological ideas both domestically produced and imported that are constantly threatening to overturn the order. If you look closely, there's, like, maybe, one period for a few decades or maybe a century or so in the Ming dynasty that's something like the idea of China we—and, I suspect, the Chinese—like to have.

There is a malaise in the air.

The post-industrial, consumerist society we incredibly fortunate Westerners have grown up in is hitting its limits. There just aren't enough raw materials to go around to keep producing, consuming, and throwing away as we're used to. We're starting to wake up to this, with the dissenting voices sounding ever shriller as their fantasy of ever-abundant cheap oil and conspicuous consumption with no downside falls apart.
Your servant here, he has been told
to say it clear, to say it cold:
It's over, it ain't going
any further
Likewise, the West's global dominance is ending. It lasted just long enough that it seemed like a stable state from the gnat's perspective of an individual human life. Only, it wasn't quite that either. It started out as British dominance, then turned into imperial rivalry between European powers, then collapsed into war and revolution, started to pick itself up, and collapsed into war and revolution again, which left the USA and the USSR as the last men standing. When the USSR collapsed, the USA had its brief moment of unchallenged global dominance. What's stable about that chaotic mess?

In all of this, the consumer society as we know it only really existed from, maybe, 1950 to now, and that only in the country where it started. That's 60 years. Two generations. Less than one lifespan. And for most people who ever got to experience it, less than that. A lot less, even. That'll barely register on the historical timescale. Hell, it's less than the experiment of Soviet Communism, which lasted the better part of a century.

Stability is an illusion. Everybody lives in a time of transition. Orders rise and fall. The rate is just slow enough to make it look like there's something stable there, some of the time. That many of us have lived without experiencing war, revolution, or famine is rare in the extreme.
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival
Even so, there is a sense that one narrative is winding down to a close, with no new one emerging yet to take its place. We're starting to figure out that happiness can't be found at amazon.com. That's good, because for a quite a while—in individual human terms—most of us behaved as if we thought it could.

There's a reactionary backlash going on in much of the world. The great financial crisis of 2008 looked like a revolutionary moment, for a while. Complete meltdown was averted (and yes, I think that's a good thing; the usual outcome of economic collapse is tyranny and war, not a better, juster, wiser order rising from the ashes), but it's dawning on most of us that the structural causes that led to the meltdown are still there. There's no going back to how things were, but it's quite natural that lots of people want to. So they flock to populists fanning the flames of that anxiety, frustration, and anger. They don't have the answers either, though, and I think most people do realize that at some level. Things will get ugly for parties in power in elections during the coming year at least, and that will have been well deserved.

Nobody has the answers. Not political parties. Not populists. Not scientists. Not churches, priests, imams, preachers, Popes, lamas, roshis, nor Venerables. The best that some of them can do is come straight out and say that they don't have the answers. The fantasies spun by New Agey groups that have attracted people of a certain mindset are looking increasingly threadbare too. That's frightening.

It's also an opportunity. For very long, we've had enormous barriers in place that have effectively blocked any search for meaning. They're breaking down now. This particular time of transition sees a confluence of structures that is quite new. Technology is connecting people across geographic and cultural barriers like never before. Proportionately fewer people than ever are living at the subsistence minimum, which gives more people than ever the physical means to embark on that search. Old answers fail to satisfy. This is the kind of dynamic that takes us places, and not knowing where is exactly what drives it.
There'll be the breaking of the ancient
western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There'll be phantoms
There'll be fires on the road
and the white man dancing
The ancient western code is a fiction, although a compelling one. That fiction is coming apart. As always, other fictions will take its place. About time too, as far as I'm concerned.

There's been a raft of articles about the benefits of meditation lately, even in our local evening papers. There's a renewed interest in spiritual practices in a variety of traditions. This is a big shift from old-time Western religion, which is a matter of belief and identity. Things were pretty crowded for Tuesday zazen last week. That's part of it. Zen doesn't have any answers either, but it has kept alive a set of means for searching for them that have been sadly neglected in our neck of the woods for generations. It is, indeed, interesting to see how this will play out.


"The Future" by Leonard Cohen. He wrote that in 1992. Was that prophetic or what?


  1. It was over 40 years ago when Chögyam Trungpa spoke in Colorado, saying that people were getting tired of materialism and looking for change.

    Well, some people were. And some people are getting tired right now. But on a large scale? I don't know.

  2. The difference is that consumerism is hitting its physical limits now. Oil, phosphates, rare earth metals... not enough to go around, not without pretty radical changes to the way we use them.

    So tired or not, 'it ain't going any further.' That's a bigger change than alt-culture people voluntarily opting out. Everybody will have to come to terms with it, and I think that process has already started.

  3. Yes, surely certain raw materials will go "extinct" (i.e. become prohibitively expensive for their current uses) in the near future. But somehow I think many of these issues will just be worked around, by using alternative materials and technologies, increasing recycling etc. I think that the fundamental limitations are more likely to be forced by drastic ecological changes, such as global warming, and economic issues.

    In other words: as long as human ingenuity will allow consumerism to continue, I think that it will.

  4. You can always get me to visit w/ a Leonard Cohen reference in the title. :-)

    Seriously, of course you're right, - impermanence you know, is pervasive.

    But the fact remains some folks get this stuff a whole heck of a lot better than others. The Chinese considered seriously how to maintain a stable state from antiquity, and, um, it largely worked until it didn't. That's actually saying a lot. Only perhaps Egypt had a greater continuity of civilization, and they were lucky to have been bordered by a huge desert.

    There are principles of control systems engineering. And although eventually we will go extinct as a species and the sun will go supernova, in the short term there simply are things you can do better than others. Some ways lead to enhanced stability and growth, others lead to chaos and disorder. Much of this falls out of the math, I'm sorry to say. Or to put it more positively, there are choices.

  5. For sure. I picked China precisely because they're the best example we have of a stable and continuous civilization—and even they're not quite as stable as all that.

    I also agree about the rest. My main argument is about that "breaking of the ancient western code"—the end of a particular narrative that's been more or less taken as a given for a generation or two.

  6. Enjoyed the post, the poetry and the music.

    "I've also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through..."

    I'm smiling.