Breaking the System: A Review of Surviving the Future

June 28, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Stalin was only one of many revolutionaries to think that you have to break a few eggs to solve big problems. Today, some activists think that you have to break the capitalist system to save humanity from runaway climate change. Photo: Zak Greant/Flickr CC.

A couple months ago, while Hillary and Bernie were still duking it out in the presidential primaries, I was having coffee with a friend. My friend — let’s call him Jason — was serving as the head of the local Sanders campaign in my liberal-ish town in rural Virginia. Since I serve on the local city council, my friend wanted me to speak at a rally he was planning in town in support of Bernie.

I thanked him for his kind invitation and told him that before I could accept, I’d have to check with my wife to see if she had anything planned for us that day. I told Jason that I hoped that Sanders would win, but I had to admit that I wasn’t Bernie-or-bust. I explained that I’d change my support to Clinton if she won the nomination.

Since he was quite obviously feeling the Bern, Jason had a different plan.

If Sanders wasn’t able to secure the Democratic nomination, then Jason was going to vote for Trump. After all, Hillary had so many things wrong that he couldn’t forgive. At the top of the list were a too-cozy relationship with Wall Street, a taste for militarism and a failure to oppose Keystone XL and take a public stand against fossil fuel companies.

America’s political system is broken, Jason told me, and Hillary is a big part of why it’s broken. She’s just a business-as-usual friend of plutocrats. The only way to change things, if Bernie doesn’t win, will be for Trump to win.

Yes, Trump’s absolutely batshit crazy, Jason agreed. But he explained that Trump’s insanity was exactly what made him useful in today’s intolerable political situation.

Trump will “break the system” Jason said. And nothing short of breaking the system is what it will take to stop the madness and have any hope of saving humanity from climate chaos, neo-serfdom for the 99% or World War III.

According to a recent poll, nearly ten percent of Bernie supporters are planning to vote for Trump (assuming that Trump actually makes it to the ballot in some form despite GOP plots to push him aside). I can only guess that these Bernie-to-Trump voters also want to break the system.

I agree that the system is already pretty well broken in many ways. But is trying to break society the rest of the way really such a good idea?

We’ll Miss the Market Economy Once It’s Gone

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Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy by David Fleming, Chelsea Green, 288 pp, $20. Forthcoming Sept. 2016.

The three-century-long reign of the market economy is nearing its end whether we like it or not, wrote late British economist David Fleming in Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy.

Transitioner Shaun Chamberlin compiled the volume, which will come out in September of 2016, from a longer book called Lean Logic, which Fleming completed just before his death in 2010. This thought-provoking book is well worth a read.

For Fleming, who wrote about peak oil and the environment and shared the Transition movement’s vision of a lower-energy economy based in local communities, the end of global industrialism is certainly a cause for celebration.

But for Fleming, the twilight of the market economy is also an occasion for sadness.

“The end is in sight; during the early decades of the century, the market will lose its magic” as the economic growth that the market needs to survive hits the limits of the earth’s ability to provide resources and absorb our pollution, Fleming writes.

Only the superstition that we can bring back prosperity by tweaking the system keeps ordinary people everywhere from abandoning the industrial economy en masse.

“Every civilization has had its irrational but reassuring myth,” Fleming writes. “Previous civilizations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used mathematics to prove it.”

What makes Surviving the Future different and better than many Plan B or Civilization 2.0 books is Fleming’s nuanced understanding that when you lose something bad you also risk losing much that is good.

Many Transition-y writers seem to look forward to a “new paradigm,” and predict that the future will be mostly awesome for everybody except plutocrats, because, once we work out the kinks, the future will be more local, more natural and more democratic.

While Fleming sees big change as inevitable and even welcomes it as a way to solve the problems of today’s industrial economy, he also mourns what’s passing.

“When this relatively short-lived market-society is gone, we will miss its essential simplicity, its price mechanism, its self-stabilizing properites, its impersonal exchange, the comforts it delivers to many and the freedome it underwrites. Its failure will be destructive.”

And compared to what came before the market economy — namely late feudalism — early capitalism looked pretty good to people who valued freedom, honesty and fairness. In 17th century Europe and America, getting rich by trading stuff for money with anybody you wanted regardless of religion, language (and later on, of race and sex) must have seemed like a big step forward from the old-school way of building wealth through church tithes or rents on peasants.

“Douce commerce,” sweet commerce, wrote Jacques Savary, an early management consultant, in a 1685 textbook for businessmen, “makes for all the gentleness of life.” The authorities themselves agreed: commerce is the most “innocent and legitimate way of acquiring wealth,” observed an edict of the French government in 1669; it is “the fertile source which brings abundance to the state and spreads it among its subjects.”

A Revolution Mindful of the Past

I’ve always been skeptical of fellow Transitioners who apply utopian visions from New Age spirituality to political activism. These folks say that they are fighting for a revolution that will entirely dethrone industrial capitalism and replace it with eco-feminism, nature-religion inspired by Wicca, or an entirely new order that will somehow live in complete harmony with the earth while expunging any trace of social hierarchy.

The new paradigm will be post-patriarchical, post-racial, post-logocentric and even post-democratic, they declare. Democracy was just an invention by the ancient Greeks to preserve private property anyway. Let’s throw it out, along with voting by ballot, these revolutionaries say, in favor of a radically egalitarian system of decision-making by consensus. It’s as if Occupy Wall Street was still holding teach-ins outside the tents in Zucotti Park.

Fleming’s view of the future is refreshingly different. He agrees with many in the left-green-local movement that to survive, future societies will have to become less global and more local and their economies will have to use much less energy than we do today — even if some electricity remains available in the future through renewables.

But he disagrees that tomorrow will be entirely different than either today or yesterday.

Indeed, Fleming sees a big role for yesterday as a guide to tomorrow. In particular, he’s a fan of the institution that takes perhaps the most guff from lefty eco-activists after the institution of an industrial economy powered by fossil fuels. That reviled institution is, of course, religion.

Messy Pluralism or Strength through Unity?

As one of the oldest social creations in all human civilizations worldwide, Fleming thinks that religion probably will survive the collapse of industrial capitalism. And even further, he hopes that religion will make a comeback.

Fleming is no fan of the silly and unconvincing religion the developed after the Enlightenment, a faith that has surrendered the poetic truth which was its strongest feature in past centuries in a vain effort to try to compete with science.

“Argued on science’s own terms, the religions that have been exposed to the debate in any serious way have been routed,” Fleming writes, as he laments the fate of the West’s leading faith:

Christian religion in the market economy has found itself drawn into the idolatry of reducing complex meaning and the reflective Imitation of Christ to an iconic Imitation of Marketing, falling for a technique which it can only do with breathless and piteous amateurism, in place of what it used to do with assured and numinous skill.

Instead, Fleming calls for a return to that old-time religion, complete with scriptures that provide stories (“narrative and allegorical truths”) to unite a community around a common meaning of life and death. And he thinks that each place will have to find a way to balance building community through common faith and preserving religious freedom, which he calls pluralism, and views as not entirely a good thing.

“Pluralism…has introduced a sense of branding” into religion, replacing the experience of growing up in the depth of one faith with a shopping-mall approach to choosing whatever path (including no faith) that appeals to people at any one time or place.

Pluralism also means that society itself dare not favor one story over another, so collective expression of any one religion becomes an offense to the rest: many turns into none. Society is thus largely excluded from the benign shared vocabulary of ceremony, celebration, solidarity, spirit and belief provided by religion; the culture, scrubbed clean of allegory, is filled with secular kitsch.

To allow religion to become strong again, Fleming isn’t advocating an autocratic theocracy like Puritan Massachusetts or the Islamic Republic of Iran, but rather a gentler path, where citizens in an area try to find common ground among their different religions through art. “You cannot argue with a song.”

It does sound like Fleming is calling for a state religion here, if only on a local level. Sort of like the “Cuius regio eius religio” compromise in 1555 that ended the first wave of armed conflict over religion in the war-wracked principalities of the Holy Roman Empire by allowing the local ruler to decide whether his subjects would be Catholic or Lutheran.

Personally, I think that Fleming might be right, that communities require shared beliefs about life and death to be strong. But it doesn’t make me happy. As someone who practices both Buddhism and Christianity at the same time, I find it cold comfort for Fleming to assure me that my future community can cobble together a new common religion through peaceful compromise.

Once a society rejects religious pluralism, I fear a worse outcome. Uniting several religions into a single creed acceptable to all through an interfaith art project sounds much less likely than local officials under public pressure from the majority declaring an official dogma “cuius regio”-style.

Yet, I can see how many communities including my town would be stronger if we did all share stories of deep meaning that were healthier for living on a finite planet and brought us closer to our neighbors than the stories we do currently share, which mostly revolve around money and what it can buy.

>Après Nous, le Déluge

Meanwhile, I remain grateful for Fleming’s evenhanded view of the pluralist and capitalist world that’s now passing away. Yes, it’s got to go. And yes, when it does go, we may really miss the hot showers and the cold beer.

But now the question really is, will industrial capitalism fall under the weight of its own contradictions, as the Communists used to say, perhaps ahead of their time?

Or is the propaganda machine of the money economy still so powerful that the only way to free ourselves from it before it destroys the climate is to give capitalism a big push off the cliff of history?

Along with Fleming, I hope that global industrial capitalism will go away quickly enough to avoid climate catastrophe — but slowly enough to avoid, as far as possible, pestilence, war, famine and death. And of course, panic.

After all, revolutionaries since Oliver Cromwell have tried to break the system. And history shows us where that usually leads.

Breaking the French aristocratic system in 1789 led to Robespierre and guillotines hot with blood in the Place de la Concorde. Breaking the European imperial system in 1914 led to Lenin, Stalin and the Gulag, and later, to Hitler and Auschwitz. And there’s little reason to think that breaking the system of global industrial capitalism today, in a world with nuclear weapons, will lead to anything but suffering on horrific scale.

And surely only a cold-hearted ideologue could think that such suffering is a necessary sacrifice to reach some kind of attainable utopia. The rest of us, whether Christian, Buddhist, Wiccan or eco-feminist, must do what we can to reduce suffering not just in some vision of tomorrow, but in the imperfect world of today.

So, I vote with Fleming that we stop trying to break the system and start trying to reduce the suffering that industrial capitalism will bring as it continues to fall. Meanwhile, we should prepare for the future by building the world of tomorrow in our local communities.

We don’t exactly know what tomorrow will look like. So people who want to prepare for climate change and peak energy are probably safest supporting anything that uses less stuff and costs less money while bringing us closer to people in the communities where we live.

And by not voting for Trump, of course.

Back in Virginia, a few days after I had coffee with my friend Jason the Bernie organizer, he sent me an email. Jason had been thinking about our conversation. While he still hoped that Bernie would win, if he didn’t, then Jason wouldn’t vote for Trump after all. He agreed that though Hillary wasn’t his first choice, she was still much less risky than Trump.

Good news, I thought. Another good guy who’s decided against trying to break the system.

Erik Curren

Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group, an online marketing company. He is also partner in a solar energy development company. He has served on the city council of Staunton, VA since July 2012.  

Tags: limits to growth, market economy, Transition movement