Post-Carbon Politics

At Transition Milwaukee, we’ve been talking about politics lately. Our conversation was precipitated by the visit from the City of Milwaukee’s new “Sustainability Director” at our last Hub Meeting, as well as some discussion about the possibility of “Progressive Radio” in Milwaukee.

The upshot from our listserv discussion, here at Transition Milwaukee, is that there is no consensus, not even the sort of operating consensus that Greer might agree to, about what the appropriate or tactically astute involvement of a Transition group in electoral politics should be. We also discovered quickly that, despite the fact that nearly everyone in the group has emerged from a progressive or liberal background (as traditionally defined), the notion of Transition being a “progressive movement” would be to misrepresent considerable aspects of our collective vision and mission. It would not, I think, be correct to suggest that Transition is simply a more radical manifestation of progressive politics, in the way that the civil rights movement involved a logical and long overdue extension of basic principles stated in The Declaration of Independence or Treatise on the Rights of Man. What we are witnessing now is not a mere enhancement or updating of progressive principles caused by the influx of new information about our climate or our fossil fuels. Something more substantial is afoot.

The unsettled reality of Post-Carbon Politics will likely upset our current political labels and disrupt our familiar political categories. I believe that we will witness, in the near future, a great realignment that will perhaps be as momentous as the one from which Liberalism was birthed and manifested near the beginning of the industrial revolution and during the age of colonial expansion. Indeed my very suggestion that Liberalism is a product of the age of fossil fuels, while not novel, is nevertheless a sign of nascent retrospectiveness–that we have begun the process of looking back on political Liberalism as a historical artifact.

Revolutions and realignments, alike, are fought in the streets, negotiated in the halls of labor unions or workers’ guilds, at the market and the banks, in the furrows of the fields. Without adopting a “crude materialism,” I generally agree with Marx that the organization of the means of production (and thus the way the prominent sources of energy are channeled and refined) is the ultimate and radical source of political consciousness. But, following Hegel, Marx also believed that such shifts demanded vast amounts of intellectual labor, to perform the work of articulating these underlying forces and changes, of giving language and imagery to new social relations and community organization as well as emerging practices of exchange and commerce, to provide an analytics and an dynamic iteration of economic tectonics and their political and social quakes and tremors.

It is to this task, at a modest level, to be assured, that I will turn my attention for a series of posts that will continue as long as I think I have something valuable to say (or until other convince me that I do not).

Post Carbon Politics Part I: Sue Lowden’s Chickens

Choose any political and social issue. Without much thought you can probably determine what the contrasting liberal and conservative stance on it is likely to be. The entire world can, in a sense, be divided into liberal/conservative, whether the issue is economic, moral, religious, environmental, even scientific. This has been the case, certainly and dishearteningly, with climate change. So woefully under publicized is Peak Oil that we have too small a sample to know much at this point: whether one has even heard of it is a far more significant factor than how one has weighed the evidence or implications. But it too—or at least a Transition-type response–appears to have found greater acceptance in liberal circles.

Setting Peak Oil aside, for now, this apparent binary divisibility may lead us to assume that there is a fundamental liberal and conservative soul or spirit, a set of basic principles from which the specific liberal and conservative stances flow, a philosophical foundation which provides uniformity and coherence. One might, for instance, look to the valuation of a collective good vs. individual prosperity, or tolerance vs. adherence to a rigid set of laws or established social norms as a sort of governing meta-principle.

These principles, or ones like them, can provide fairly broad explanatory power. The liberal acceptance of larger government and more regulation would seem to have a direct link with the liberal value of public good, social justice, and the privileging of equality over freedom; in contrast, the conservative small government and lower taxes mantra is undergirded by the unswerving conservative commitment to individual rights and responsibilities. Cut a cross section through the landscape of either liberal or conservative political policies down through the underground levels of principles, values, and underlying philosophical beliefs and a fairly coherent picture emerges.

But the moment we view this sort of political archaeology along a historical axis, things take on a far more contingent aspect. The foundations and structures will appear to have been cobbled together, sometimes with the most readily available rubble or wreckage of the previous decade’s political alignments. What, for instance, connects the 21st century Republican Party’s worship of free markets and laisse-faire economic policy to British critics of the French Revolution such as Edmund Burke, or, for that matter to employment of Jesus as inspiration and guide?

The historical, genealogical view reveals that our cross-sectional snapshot of a given political view-point or ideology is, in fact, a coalition of ideas, mainly compatible and complimentary, though with some in tension or even in contradiction, those being kept mainly from view or held a tolerably low level. The liberal commitment to freedom of speech, for instance, if not sometimes at odds, is at least a reluctant bedfellow, with the equally important commitment to the sort of government regulation that serves a broader public good. Until events pit such values against each other in a higher stakes or unavoidable contest, the coalition can hold together.

The coalitions that have defined the liberal and conservative world-views, are in a constant state of shifting, self-adjustment; but they will, on the back-side of Hubbert’s curve, be jolted apart and realigned in a sudden and disjointed manner—in a way that will be unsettling, unpredictable, and thus disorienting. We need to start our new political cartography now, for a lost people are a menace. The slow continental drift, the immeasurable lifting of mountains and erosion of valleys will be devastated by a violent quake. Structures will crumble, connecting streets will buckle. We need to begin planning how we will navigate this political rubble.

We can do some background work, some initial reconnoitering, by replacing the liberal/conservative distinction with one that will prove more useful: progressive/conservative. “Progressive” is often used to designate a more intense, less moderate, liberalism, which is visible in our archaeological picture, frozen in time. Reality is far more dynamic and the value of these two terms is especially apparent in times of rapid change, for in these names, themselves, we can identify a sensitivity to the very fact of historical change; their inherently relational quality recognizes that the coalitions that they may unite are caused as much by events and historical conditions as by underlying values or policies, and are thus temporary and in continuous flux. Each bespeaks of an attitude or a way of responding to change: progressives thus accept change with either optimistic openness or pragmatic acceptance, believing that social norms and moral positions need to adapt to historical events. Conservatives, in contrast, are wary of this change, often seeing it in terms of narratives of decline or corruption, against which they propose a return to the traditional values in which they perceive an allegedly timeless wisdom or righteousness.

It is possible, in today’s politics to recognize some of the early rumblings of the shifts that will split the progressive mind-set from the liberal coalition as we have come to understand it. Consider, in this light the reception of Republican Senatorial candidate, Sue Lowden, and her suggestion that chickens be bartered for healthcare. Rachel Maddow, an unflinching champion of liberal causes, excoriated her for not being sufficiently up to date with this sort of crazy suggestion. Here liberalism and progressiveness are still holding together. A good progressive, at least by yesterday’s standards —and thus concerned with avoiding archaic solutions to modern problems–Maddow derided her by suggesting that this sort of bartering would only have been sensible in a 19th century context.

True enough, Lowden is probably more concerned with a sort of privatization that will maintain current gross inequalities in the distribution of health care. The part of myself that is still invested in today’s political distinctions and conflicts cannot help but agree with Maddow’s unabashed liberal view that our health care system needs to follow basic principles of equality that can be supported only by state intervention and bureaucratic control. It is hard to imagine a greater political disjunction than the one between bureaucracy and fowl. But an undivided commitment to this sort of liberal, big-government protection of equality sort of view would be possible for me only if I believed that something like our current industrial and commercial health care system would be the one in which I will grow old. To my Transition ears, her suggestion of both a barter system, and the implied wide-scale possession of chickens (something we’ve been fighting to legalize in Milwaukee) were immediately attractive, and certainly not worthy of being singled out for derision. This was also the case for my Transition friends.

While we haven’t, of course, thought through exactly how many chickens our yearly prostrate exams or a pain-free trip to the dentist would actually cost, and that is one among many reasons why Lowden is not fit for any public office today, we flinched at the supposition that bartering with chickens was, itself, a ridiculous proposition. This, we said to ourselves or grumbled to each other, was actually the stuff of the future. A true progressive, one that had taken into account thelikely change in our near and medium-term future—the end of the oil age and its manifest luxuries—would not be so dismissive of this otherwise retrogressive image. Maddow, like nearly anyone with a national voice, is either oblivious to Peak Oil or chooses to avoid this as an issue unsolvable through her current political ideolog–the one that would, in course, find the bartering of chickens to be absurd. To the Peak Oiler, she seems to be stuck in a sort of orthodox liberalism that is not, in fact, sufficiently progressive.

As comic as this whole “chicken for health care” episode may have been, it portends a cataclysmic change in our political categories. The uniqueness of our situation is exposed: the progressiveness that participants in Transition or other Post-Carbon movements display leads them to adopt values that can, in some cases, only be described as conservative. While the Republican Party does not, of course, adhere to a conservatism that sees livestock as anything other than a market commodity to be traded without regulation, our use, in Transition, of old-fashioned and traditional models of economics and self-sufficiency seem even further from the liberal program of equality through industrialization and development for all. Its “chicken in every pot” is a factory-raised chicken, no doubt. Because of the rapid nature of the change we in Peakoildom expect, we are likely to find necessary the sorts of practices and, I will argue in my next installment, virtues and values, that still may be seen in the conservative’s rear-view mirror, or at least in the recesses of their political imagination, just as our liberal friends have rounded the bend that would obscure any such vision.