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Hope in a cold season

Last week’s post on the empty promise of December 21, 2012 and other apocalyptic fantasies fielded me a fair number of denunciations. That was predictable enough; the parallels I mentioned in that post between apocalyptic beliefs and bubble economics include the awkward fact that in both cases, those with the most to lose by buying into the delusion du jour are pretty consistently also the ones least willing to hear any questioning of their misplaced dreams.

Under other circumstances I’d simply have shrugged and filed the resulting tirades with the ones I get on a more routine basis from those who can’t stand some other aspect of this blog’s project. Still, one of this latest batch made an accusation that I found baffling at first glance, and then indicative of something worth attention just now. The commenter in question, to be precise, insisted that by criticizing the industry that has sprouted around the fake-Mayan prophecies of 2012, I was treating "love, joy, hope, and inner well-being" as so many delusions.

It probably needs to be said first off that this assertion involves a very odd definition of the concepts just named. Let’s imagine, to put the same logic in a different context, the plight of an unemployed single mother in today’s America during the holidays. She has, we’ll assume, barely enough money to pay the most basic expenses for herself and her children, and the clock is ticking on her unemployment benefits, which will run out after 99 weeks. Her desperate efforts to land any job at all have gone nowhere—that’s common enough these days—and it’s become plain, as the holidays draw near, that if she’s going to be able to afford to keep her children fed and clothed and housed into the new year, there aren’t going to be any Christmas presents.

What does she say to the children? According to the logic offered by my commenter, she presumably ought to insist to them that Santa Claus will show up on Christmas Eve with a big sack full of presents for all. It’s certainly true that this will fill the children with love, joy, hope, and a sense of inner well-being, for the moment. It might even seem like a good idea, as long as you don’t think about what’s going to happen on Christmas morning, when eyes that had been sparkling with delight the night before look up tearfully from the bare floor to their mother’s face.

I think most people recognize that the right thing to do instead in a situation of that kind is to tell the truth, or as much of it as the children are old enough to grasp, and do it early enough in the season that they can get past the inevitable misery and go to work making the best of things. Talk to people who grew up during the last Great Depression and you’ll hear stories of this kind over and over again—the holiday decorations pieced together from wrappers and scraps, the depressingly plain meal livened up with a few little touches or sheer make-believe, the little doll handmade from rags and burlap sacking that’s still treasured three quarters of a century later, and so on. If love, joy, hope, and authentic inner well-being are to be had in such a difficult situation, they’re going to come that way, not by way of making gaudy promises that are never going to be fulfilled.

Still, that sort of ethical clarity—so obvious to most Americans in the 1930s—is apparently far from obvious to a great many Americans today. The speculative bubbles of the last decade, again, offer an uncomfortably clear look at the popularity of delusion in American public life just now. When John Kenneth Galbraith wrote his brilliant and very funny history The Great Crash 1929 back in 1954, he noted that the best preventive for the miserable economic aftermath of a speculative bubble was a clear memory of just how miserable that aftermath had turned out to be. In 1954, he was quite correct; a generation raised in the Depression years kept Wall Street on a very tight leash back then, and indeed Galbraith’s own testimony before a Senate subcommittee in 1955 on the implications of the 1929 experience was enough all by itself to pop a stock market boomlet—a circumstance Galbraith recounted in wry terms in the foreword to the second edition. The memory of 1929 had an immunizing effect so potent that it took until the 1960s for the US stock market to blow its first very tentative bubbles, and it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that a really classic stock market boom and bust followed the traditional path, up with the rocket and down with the stick.

Consider today’s economic scene and the contrast is hard to miss. The tech-stock bubble inflated all through the second half of the 1990s and crashed to earth between 2000 and 2002. No sooner had the rubble stopped bouncing than an even more gargantuan bubble in real estate took off. That crashed in 2008, and even though the rubble’s still bouncing, it’s doing so right alongside a bouncing baby bubble in shale gas. If some clever promoter comes up with a way for ordinary investors to speculate in shale gas leases or something of the kind—and I’ll be surprised indeed if that fails to happen in the coming year—it’s a safe bet that millions of people will take all the money they’ve got left and plunge into the shale market, driving another economically devastating cycle of boom and bust.

Part of the difference between then and now is that the 1929 crash came on the heels of a spectacular bubble in Florida real estate, which crashed in 1925, and that followed another nasty little bubble and crash in the stock market in 1921; thus we’re only just now at the point where the idiocy of trying to get rich off bubbles should be sinking in. Another part of the difference is that the financial authorities in 1929 responded to the implosion of the bubble by letting investors crash and burn, where today’s basically wet themselves trying to make sure that investors don’t lose money, even if keeping them solvent means that the economy goes down in flames. Still, I think there’s more to it than that.

In 1929, America was still an expanding society, with an economy that was still producing something other than fiscal hallucinations, and a standard of living that had been moving raggedly upward for a good long time. The delusion that drives bubbles—the notion that it’s reasonable to expect to get rich on unearned wealth—could seize the population now and then, as it’s done since market economies got abstract enough that speculative bubbles became possible in the first place. Still, most Americans could reasonably expect that with hard work and prudence, they could expect to have a better standard of living in the future than they had in the past, and their children could expect to do better still.

Those days are long past. For the great majority of Americans, living standards have been declining since the early 1970s, upward mobility is increasingly a nostalgic dream, and it’s becoming harder even for government flacks to keep pretending that training prople for jobs that don’t exist will make those jobs miraculously appear. Ours is a contracting society, and outside of the narrowing circle of privilege—itself facing, a little further down the road, a far more drastic form of downward mobility—most people realize that hard work and prudence, the road to a better future in past generations, are merely a slightly slower road to impoverishment than the one everyone else seems to be taking.

Combine that with the modern cult of celebrity that showers randomly chosen individuals with brief but spectacular bursts of wealth for the most absurd of reasons—would anybody care to explain to me just what the Kardashians did in 2010 that was worth an income of $65 million?—and the frantic marketing of consumer gewgaws that pervades American culture, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for a society in which an increasingly desperate populace will gamble all they have at increasingly long odds for a shot at unearned wealth. That’s what drove the speculative bubbles of the recent past, and will drive those of the near future. It’s also what drives the fixation on apocalyptic events that will supposedly dump history’s ultimate jackpot into the laps of those lucky enough to draw the winning ticket, whether that ticket is marked "Rapture," or "Singularity," or "December 21, 2012."

Now it’s fair to say there are those—and the commenter mentioned above may be among them—for whom a fixation of that sort is readily confused with hope. It may even be that it’s the closest thing to hope that some of them have left. Still, it’s not actually hope in any meaningful sense of the word. To understand why, we’re going to have to take a hard look at just what hope is.

That’s a vexed question just now, and not only because the current US president used the word to get into office via one of the most monumentally cynical political campaigns of modern times. Even before it got stripped of its remaining content by Obama’s marketing team, the old virtue of hope had gotten tangled up in America’s culture of entitlement, and twisted completely out of shape in the service of cynical marketing disguised as cheap sentimentality. "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you..." Readers of a certain generation will remember hearing that bit of doggerel out of the mouth of an animated insect. I knew a small boy who, after seeing the movie in question, took to singing, "When you wish upon a star, you don’t see things as they are." Like most children, he knew better, and hated being on the receiving end of lies. I sympathized, having had exactly the same reaction a quarter of a century earlier.

We have, to be more precise, confused hope with the facile optimism of the privileged, the sort of thinking that insists that nothing really unpleasant can ever actually happen, not to us. A great many Americans, for example, think that being hopeful in the face of the depletion of fossil fuels means assuming against all the evidence that some ample replacement will be found in time to allow us to keep our energy-intensive lifestyles running. A great many of us more generally think that being hopeful in the face of the limits to growth means trying to convince ourselves that those limits don’t apply to us, or that there will turn out to be some way around them, or that somebody or other will bail us out before our refusal to deal with those limits lands us in consequences harsher than we want to think about.

It’s interesting by contrast to consider the historical conditions that surrounded the evolution of the concept of hope in the ethical thought of the Western world. Like so much of postclassical Western culture, it emerged out of the creative collision between Greek philosophy and Christian religious ideas in the late Roman world. That was not an age of economic expansion and rising standards of living. Quite the contrary; as the Roman Empire ran up against its own limits to growth, and then drove itself into bankruptcy and collapse trying to defend borders defined in a more expansive age, economic crises and a soaring tax burden sent standards of living steadily downwards while the Empire lasted. Its fall in turn brought an age of chaos in which whole regions that had once known widespread literacy, busy market economies, and such amenities as central heating devolved into fragmented, impoverished and drastically underpopulated successor states in which eking out a bare subsistence was an achievement not everyone managed.

The current American concept of hope would not have lasted long in the protracted downward spiral of the Roman world. The concept of hope as an ethical virtue, by contrast, became universally accepted during that same downward spiral. Why? Because hope, to translate its definition out of the ornate moral philosophy of the day, isn’t a sense of entitlement that insists that good things will inevitably come one’s way. Rather, it’s the recognition that some good can be achieved no matter what the circumstances might be, combined with a sustained willingness to try.

Compare hope to any of the other ethical virtues celebrated in that harsh time and the distinction is even clearer. Courage, for example, isn’t a facile assurance that one is destined to win. It’s the quality of character and the act of will that does the right thing in the face of danger and fear. This is, among other things, the opposite of the conviction that victory is inevitable. That’s a logical point—if someone recognizes no danger and feels no fear, he’s not courageous no matter how many risks he unknowingly runs—but it’s also a practical one. One of the commonplaces of military history, for example, is the army that believes it can’t lose, and then collapses in panic when the battle turns against it because it has never had to grapple with the possibility of defeat.

In the same way, hope doesn’t depend on a sense of entitlement that insists the universe is obligated to provide us with whatever happy ending we think we want, and in any real sense, it’s incompatible with notions of that kind. Hope is the quality of character and the act of will that finds some good that can be achieved, no matter what the circumstances, and then strives to achieve it. The sense of entitlement, in turn, is precisely equivalent to the belief that victory is inevitable, and it produces the same sort of brittleness; it’s for that reason that it tends to collapse into despair, and it’s despair, ultimately, that feeds fantasies of the apocalyptic event that will make everything different.

It’s for this reason that apocalyptic fantasies always flourish in the aftermath of grandiose movements for social and spiritual transformation. Behind the current flurry of 2012 prophecies lies the New Age movement’s conclusive failure to create its own reality, just as the parallel flurry of Rapture prophecies mark the bitter endpoint of a trajectory that began with the buoyant optimism of the "Jesus freaks" and the Good News Bible, when enthusiastic young Christians believed they could remake the world in Christ’s image. Hubris disguised as one kind of hope always ends up giving way to despair disguised as another kind of hope. In the process, the concept of hope itself risks being discredited.

That’s profoundly unfortunate, because it’s when overblown ambitions crash to the ground that hope in the true sense of the word is most needed. Behind the rise and fall of the New Age and the Evangelical movements stands the vaster rise and fall of another attempt to build Utopia here on Earth, the attempt we call industrial civilization. Right now, as the limits to growth tighten around us like a noose and an economy geared to perpetual expansion shudders and cracks in the throes of decline, one of the things that’s needed most is the willingness, in a time of gathering darkness, to locate what lamps can still be found, and light them. To return to the metaphor I offered earlier, we need to listen to the voice that tells us, "Honey, I’m really sorry, but Santa Claus isn’t coming this year"—and having heard that, and done whatever grieving we need to do, we need to draw in a deep breath, accept the hard fact, and get to work to spread at least a little light and warmth in a cold season.


End of the World of the Week #2

Say what you will about the paired prophetic hysterias surrounding 2012 and the Rapture, not even their most extreme forms get quite as dotty as the apocalyptic beliefs retailed in the early 19th century by French philosopher Charles Fourier. One of those people for whom the word "crackpot" might as well have been invented, Fourier spent his working life as a traveling salesman and his off hours elaborating the Harmonial Philosophy, a dizzyingly complex theory of everything that included a set of colorful predictions about the impending total transformation of the Earth and everything on it.

There were many other thinkers in Fourier’s time who were convinced that their ideas marked a vast turning point in the history of the world. Nobody else, as far as I know, took it to the extent of thinking that the general acceptance of his philosophy would turn the oceans into lemonade. That was just one of the great transformations that, according to Fourier, would happen once a significant minority of the Earth’s human population embraced the Harmonial Philosophy and ushered in the era of Harmony, the fulfillment of Earth’s history. Torrents of "cosmic citric acid," he claimed, would then descend from heaven to turn the seas tart and tasty. Meanwhile four additional moons that ran away from Earth orbit—they were embarrassed to be seen with a planet whose inhabitants hadn’t accepted Fourier’s ideas—would come swinging gaily back to their places; lions would turn into cuddlesome, vegetarian antilions; and human beings, freed from drudgery by Fourier’s discovery that economic problems could be solved by "passional attraction," would devote their time to gourmet dining and orgiastic sex.

Odd as these ideas sound today, they were hugely popular in Europe and America, and something like a hundred Harmonial communes—"Phalansteries," as they were called—were organized by enthusiasts hoping to make the dream real. Alas, neither the cosmic citric acid nor the antilions showed up, and the communes folded promptly once it became clear that passional attraction wasn’t up to the task of producing enough food, clothing, and other necessities for even the most devoted believers. At its peak in the 1820s, the movement unraveled thereafter, feeding erstwhile followers still eager for Utopia into other radical movements of the time. There was a brief attempt to revive Fourier’s ideas in the 1960s—something about his ideas, not to mention his prose style, seems to mesh well with the popular drugs of the time—but outside of that, he remains one of the forgotten ancestors of today’s Utopian beliefs.

—story from Apocalypse Not

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