Surviving the Future in America

December 26, 2017

Nonetheless, the tide is flowing.  The direction is mapped, very simply, in those little hexagons of the Wheel of Life.  Localization stands, at best, at the limits of practical possibility, but in has the decisive argument on its side that there will be no alternative. –David Fleming

To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon, between afternoon and night, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New.–Thomas Hardy

I recently had the pleasure of reading Shaun Chamberlain’s selections from David Fleming’s Lean Logic, organized into an indispensable volume entitled Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy—a book, I should say, that sits on the top of my “must read” list for this year.  As I was reading, my mind kept wandering back to my multiple trips to Europe as a child growing up in a Europhile academic family (my father was a historian of ancient and medieval science).  What, I started asking myself, was the great lure of Europe for Americans, and why was I wondering about it right now?

My most memorable moments were of course filtered through my parents’ commentary and responses, and subsequent slide shows, but are personally vivid nonetheless.  They include little, almost unremarkable moments, like the way we would stop the car so a shepherd and his sheep could slowly make their way up the country road from one pasture to another, or the one-lane tracks winding through the hedgerows of Devonshire, and the way one car would back up to reach a suitably wide point at which they might pass.  My memories include the 16th century Inn with floors so slanted the rolling suitcases might end up at the far end of the room.  I have images of strong and wizened old woman in babushkas tossing hay, of the parked moped beside the highway and the old man in the beret collecting young dandelions.  I recall an occasional oxcart, and the small towns of the Dordogne river valley in France, winding in impossible labyrinths around the steep riverside cliffs.  I hear the tinkling cowbells at dusk and recall the musty scent of hand-pulled draught ale or cork-bottled cider. When I lived in Oxford in 1978, our very typical house had a fridge small by the standards of college dorm rooms today, so that supper meant a separate daily stop at the baker, the butcher, the green-grocer, and sometimes the fishmonger too, each stop punctuated by lavishly reserved rituals of politeness. “Mmm quite, quite nice, really, this.  Thank you. Ta.  Good day.  Cheers.”

Europe, for us, was, I believe, what Italy was for E.M. Forster in novels like A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  What we might refer to as “charm” is, or was, the remaining vestiges what Fleming refers to as a slack economy, something that is all but non-existent in the United States, the land of the super-taut.  Our taut American economy paid for these trips (guided by Frommer’s Europe on Ten Dollars a Day), in which we gazed in wonder at the rustic beauty of life as it seemed meant to be lived–were it not for the barriers erected by our cosmopolitan worldliness and greater expectations that pulled us back to the land of giant fridges and weekly trips to the supermarket in our truck-sized station wagon.

One of Fleming’s predominant themes as he imagines a post-market economy, is a return to a slack economy.  The slack or lean economy is a central feature of his broader vision of energy descent, part of the “this steep winding down of the size of the industrial economy.”  The slack economy “strips away its burdens and complications, nurses the human ecology back to health, builds local competence and discovers a sense of place.”  As most readers of Resilience know, “The descent itself is inevitable, as is the breakage that follows, and yet,” says Fleming, “this is managed descent, in contrast with descent that forces itself on an economy blindly straining for growth” (4).  A slack economy is one that services needs, both economic and other, and thus must protect itself from the tightening forces of competition.  It is “held together by richly-developed social capital and culture, and is organized around the rediscovery of community” (19).  It is “protectionist” as in “an act of caring for something which you value, or for which you are responsible” (21).  It has an insulating quality, it does not offer free entry but requires a cultural conversion.  It does not equate freedom with the elimination of prohibitions on consumption or the escape from bonds of family or community.

The most prominent setting for the lean, slack economy is the village, and the presence of the English village can be felt throughout Chamberlain’s remarkable collection.  Although I recommend the book without hesitations, I must provide one cautionary remark: it is a very British book; but in that it may work to remind Americans of the short and depthless history of white people on this continent, and perhaps also our role as followers in the coming descent.

Picture by Saffron Blaze

Fleming is overt about the role of the village at times.  When, for instance, he expresses the plausibility of an economy not driven by taut market pricing and intensification, he writes: “the ‘normal’ state of affairs, before the era of the great civic societies, and in the intervals between them, has consisted of political economies—perhaps better known as villages—where the terms on which goods and services were exchanged were not based on price” (16).

When, thereafter, the book talks about the local, the small, or community “and its reciprocal obligations” that join it together, the image of the village is never far away.  This imagery is enhanced by a phrase here, or an aside there, throughout the book, or by the way he contrasts a slack economy to “urban economics” and even more so by the extended discussion of Carnival.  One needn’t explain to the reader that the carnivals in question have little to do with those urban productions put on today for the passive consumption of modern urban dwellers, complete with costumed actors, fried foods spiced in only in a slightly different manner and a variety of musical performances that may or may not have any cultural significance.

When Fleming discusses carnival as “the shared ritual [that] is crucial for social cohesion,” he is talking about the local and particular in ways that reminded me of scenes from the novels of Thomas Hardy and his vivid descriptions of local, often festive, culture.  And as Fleming writes, “celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilization descended like a frost on public joy” (53).

Like the Transition Movement that has taken much of its inspiration from Fleming’s articulation of the local and the sort of cultural change required for a successful energy descent and return to local resilience, Fleming is not naively Romantic about the past, though that is always a risk, and we may wish to think of him as a conservative if we can clear our minds of images of Tories and Republicans.  This is true even, or especially, as he revives the middle ages, reminding us that they “were also a time of inventive joy, an age of art, participation and festivals” (62).

As Fleming points out, we are taught to despise the Middle ages since finding value in it “violates our right to feel smug about the wonders of modernity,” but in the Middle Ages, an age where social bonds were enjoyed in a world of carnival rather than one bound only by the cash nexus, there was indeed a legitimate model of the village community which few people had any desire to escape.  Although the hierarchies of Medieval life rub our modern egalitarianism the wrong way, from our perspective we may forget a few things.  Most important may be that from within a market economy, equality may be absolutely necessary for a “good life” as moral philosophers are apt to call it (I would not contest this), because there are few obligations, not to mention nurturing relationships, within its competitive, often manipulative social order.  To express it with a skepticism towards modernity (and a bit of tongue in cheek) that is rarely uttered, freedom and equality is really the most we could hope for within the cold, taut, and impersonal drive for maximization.

But absent the callous demands of market competition, the security of a social role had an entirely different affective aspect.  Most people neither saw nor felt anything wrong with it, but rather would, if given the opportunity, have chosen it.   As philosopher and historian of ethics Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, medieval hierarchies contained an equally strong set of obligations and reciprocity.  Moreover, the autonomous and freedom-seeking “I” simply did not exist in the way we understand it until market forces dissolved communal bonds and cast people into competitive relationships as their traditional guilds and roles dissolved.  As MacIntyre puts it, “in much of ancient and medieval worlds, as in many other premodern societies, the individual is identified and constituted in and through certain of his or her roles, those roles which bind the individual to the communities in and through which alone specifically human goods are attained. . . . There is no ‘I’ apart from these” (After Virtue 172).

A deep historical sense, like this, helps prevent Fleming from lapsing into hazardous nostalgia.  More significant than the way he, like MacIntyre, helps us learn not to despise the Middle Ages, is the simple fact that the coming cultural contraction he predicts will also be a time “of famines, plagues and wars,” the main variable being the degree to which we participate in a “managed descent.”  For, as he points out, our current interval, in which we believe ourselves to have mastered nature and tyranny with our “great civic societies” is just that—a brief anomaly.  Villages, recall, represent the “normal” state of affairs and have the “decisive argument” of inevitability. Cities, and their worldly and cosmopolitan draw are but a blip on the more meaningful scale of history.

It may be true that the aspect of the village strikes me with particular poignancy because of my time spent in England, and largely with parents who were in fact besmitten with hazardous levels of nostalgia.  As a family, we spent an inordinate amount of time in places like the Cotswolds or Hardy’s Wessex, where at least in 1978, even the petrol stations had the look of limestone permanence.  The notion that our fleeting fashions and temporary structures are a passing moment of change amidst a great deal of permanence is given perpetual visual reminder in the shadow of a towering cathedral or when juxtaposed to the irregular solidity of an ancient half-timber public house.  I don’t know if natives are conscious of this or not, or what exactly they make of our tawdry neon physical landscape of perpetual movement and rebuilding, of burnt-out cities and abandoned ghost towns, when they visit North America.  But as a visitor to the British Isles and the rest of Europe, the possibility of viable premodernity is reinforced with great and humble structures alike.  Villages predating the taut economy remain.  As Nate Hagens has recently remarked, when future people look back on our age and what we used our immense wealth of energy to build, the answer will be nothing—for none if it will still be standing.

So amidst this sense of permanence in all its rustic and well-crafted solidity, we might be reminded that there is a vast premodernity in which people enjoyed life, thrived, experienced joy and meaning, where the local culture could supply everything people truly needed, where the rural world wasn’t always crippled by a stunted contrast to cosmopolitan centers towering over consciousness with their precarious piles of manufactured wants held together by the strains of never-ending competition.  Eustacia Vye may have longed for “what is called life—music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world” (from Return of the Native Book Fourth), but, Hardy argues, she is chasing fantasy and illusion.  As Clym Yeobright would respond, “but the more I see of life the more do I perceive that there is nothing particularly great in its greatest walks, and therefore nothing particularly small in mine of furze-cutting. . . . So I sing to pass the time.”  As Fleming might add, “you cannot argue with a song” (115).

None of this is available to most Americans and for a very simple reason: there never was a pre-market America.  This is visible on our landscape and palpable in our culture and sense of historical possibility.  And market growth and development in the Americas was accompanied and made manifestly possible by more violence than even jaundiced and skeptical American social critics are apt to remember.  I have been reading a lot of American history lately and have realized that it is not only in critical retrospect that we focus on issues such as slavery, “Indian removal,” land grabs, and ethnic mobs battling each other.  This was also what was on people’s minds at the time.  Uprooting, moving on, getting ahead–if not killing or removing–is the most consistent theme of our 19th century history.  Ours is a history of bloody, strong-armed robbery committed on both private and official levels.  Prior to becoming one of the Presidents most responsible for western expansion and Indian removal, Andrew Jackson led a number of illegal, but unpunished, massacres in his role as an officer in the U.S. army, presaging two hundred more years of illegal territorial expansion and CIA led coups.

Ours has likewise always been a history of movement and impermanence.  Like our current strip malls and poorly built McMansions, designed for a mere 40-year lifespan, our built landscape has always been thrown up in a great flurry of opportunism, perhaps to intersect the coming railroad or to house frenzied gold seekers.

Photo by Masjas

Oklahoma City was surveyed and plotted-out in a day, with the onslaught of tens of thousands of prospectors racing ahead as part of the Great Oklahoma Land Rush.  None of these buildings of course survive today.  We didn’t build stone villages with slate roofs, we threw-up rough wooden shacks.  American literature has no corollary to Thomas Hardy and nostalgia, here, is reserved for fools.

Because our national agriculture policy was so quick to embrace commodities and exports to fill the national treasury, often in order to protect the young republic from British and French aspirations it is true, we don’t have the same sort of tradition of self-sufficient villages that had at one point dotted all of Europe.  This isn’t to say that American pioneers couldn’t take care of their almost every need.  But it is to say that their hopes and aspirations almost always turned to the market, if they weren’t trained towards the West, and the trading of food for money so that they could buy vestiges and trinkets of a European commercial middle class.  I’m not saying that this didn’t become increasingly similar among European rural people, but that they have a visible history that predates the subsequent marketization of everyday life.

Foreigners, and now social-psychologists, have, beginning with de Tocqueville, noted that extroversion is valued more in America than most places.  We are a nation of fast-talking deal-makers, whose credibility was maintained by the sort of friendly extravagance F. Scott Fitzgerald created in his Gatsby.  Fitzgerald reminds us that although taking place on Long Island, his was a story of the West.  We are by the same token the land of branding and marketing, where the recognition of a symbol is our only marker of quality and consistency amidst the sea of unfamiliar faces, most of whom have no bond of obligation other than to their own self-maximization.  This may be true in the market economy wherever it has flourished, but America, as I reflect upon it, has been dominated by manipulative relationships from the very moment white people stepped ashore.  This is the land of winners and losers that has maintained its social fabric by dehumanizing and incarcerating the losers and expanding fast enough, at least until now, to let the winners form a majority just large enough to keep the whole circus rolling along.  The notion of the circus is more than a metaphor for our current politics.  We are not a land of carnival; we have long been the land of the sideshow, the boardwalk, Barnum and Bailey.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t strong counter-vailing influences in America, nor to dismiss their partial triumph.  American Christianity, then and now, could be as jubilant a participant in the economy of manipulation; but ours has also a country of betterment organizations and philanthropy.  We are nation of “Societies”–ones devoted to improving social conditions, alleviating poverty, abolition, enfranchisement, temperance, often led by the ministers and theologians who held a biblical mirror up to the American Republic, before they gave way to more secular progressives.  For every Andrew Jackson and William Armstrong Custer, there was also a William Ellery Channing and a Jane Addams.

The idea of the local was not, of course, absent from American political and social life.  Rather, it has always carried a weight of oppression absent, I think, from European local culture—though it would be prudent to recall the demographics of Hitler’s supporters.  Indeed, the antebellum debates between the Whig party (in many ways a predecessor to Lincoln’s Republicans) and the Democrats were divided over local versus national.  Nineteenth-century Democrats, following Jefferson and then Jackson, were committed to state’s rights and local decision-making as well as a more explicit commitment to white supremacy and imperial expansion.  Whigs, in contrast, were more interested in internal developments (banking, infrastructure, transportation) that would unify the nation into a more tightly knit whole.  The Democrats were more agrarian and rural, while the Republicans more urban and commercial, with a greater gravitation towards canals, railroads, a common set of laws enforced by federal authority.

In this divide, we can see the difficulty of finding an American parallel to British and European localization or any reclaiming of village culture.  There are of course exceptions, but the forces of justice and common good have mainly been nationalistic, cosmopolitan, and universalizing, while the local has far too often been the seat of the tyranny of a majority, the scene of racist uprisings and lynchings, often lying outside of the explicit laws of the nation, governed instead by local violence.  Though they were motivated principally by their opposition to slavery, progressives of that age, like ours, were suspicious of localism.  As William Ellery Channing, a prominent Minister with a decidedly Whig orientation explained in an 1841 lecture entitled “The Present Age,” “in looking at our age, I am struck immediately with one commanding characteristic,” he states hopefully, “and that is the tendency in all its movements to expansion, to diffusion, to universality.” He contrasts the universal, progressive, and modern, to the local and rural, even to the sort of “protectionism” (and thus micro-monopoly) that Fleming attributes to the slack economy: “This tendency is directly opposed to the spirit of exclusiveness, restriction, narrowness, monopoly, which has prevailed in past ages” (The Complete Works of William Ellery Channing, Volume 5, pp. 150-1).

Progressive politics employs the same metaphors and divisions today—and not without substantial merit.  For as long as the context is exclusively that of a market society, institutions that were modern, expansive, and universal were the place one might also find emancipatory energy.  As with Channing, we are not always wrong to talk of narrow-mindedness, backwards, rural, and racist in a single breath.  But when a market society was able to universalize and expand, Channing believed, science, art, and commerce might enhance “the grand doctrine, that every human being should have the means of self-culture, of progress, in knowledge and virtue, of health, comfort, and happiness, of exercising the powers and affections of a man” (151).

Today the same grand doctrine may find its highest home in Manhattan or San Francisco and find its most fearful enemies in West Virginia hamlets or the small tar-paper towns of Alabama and Mississippi.  There is of course lies the rub, one which Fleming articulates as well as anyone—that this grand doctrine may also require permanent economic growth and expansion, and a sort or surplus that only an ever-intensifying and taut economy can provide, its ecological unsustainability notwithstanding and its end coming into clear view.  As Fleming remarks, again showing his freedom from nostalgia, “when this relatively short-lived market-society is gone, we will miss its essential simplicity, its price mechanism, its self-stabilizing properties, its impersonal exchanges, the comforts it delivers and the freedom it underwrites” (180).  He mourns the loss of the market, but is, it seems, buoyed by vistas of pre-modern solidity and thus possibility.

During its run, the taut market economy did have great emancipatory success, these freedoms it underwrites.  Our current divide between north and south, urban and rural, commercial and agrarian, modern and traditional, progressive and conservative is nowhere as vividly evident as in the life, views, and works of Abraham Lincoln.  The Civil War was of course a war that further universalized the pronouncements of the Declaration of Independence and did so by insisting in the inviolability of a national union with a single set of laws and standards.  This was not only a war of northern white Protestants, with strong backing from the bourgeoning manufacturing class, against the south, it was a war against localism, against the repeated insistence of the slave states that slavery was an issue to be determined locally by white slave owners and their fearful neighbors.

But long before he was forced to confront Southern seccession and rebellion, Lincoln embraced positions that we might think of as cosmopolitan and thus a rejection of the small, local, and static.  Just as he pulled himself from a log cabin in the woods to the growing city of Springfield, Lincoln was a strong advocate of a tendency towards universalization and modernization.  As Daniel Walker Howe describes it in his admirable overview of the first half of the nineteenth century:

Within an economically developed and integrated nation, Lincoln believed, individual autonomy could flourish as never before.  As his biographer David Donald sums it up, the Whig Party embodied for Lincoln ‘the promise of American life,’ and opportunity for people to make something of themselves.  For Whigs like Lincoln, this meant more than material betterment or upward social mobility.  It meant a whole new kind of life away from the farm, the chance ‘to escape the restraints of locality and community,’ as the historians Allen Guelzo puts it, ‘to refashion themselves on the basis of new economic identities in a larger world of trade, based on merit, self-improvement, and self-control.’ (What God Hath Wrought   597)

Fredrick Douglass likewise found solace and freedom in the city: “’Going to live in Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity’” (Howe 646).  As Howe notes, the modern and technological revolution of transportation and communication allowed Douglass, as the abolition movement in general, to become part of a growing national movement.

We may be required to localize in the future as Fleming and the Transition Movement have articulated, but in America, the idea of re-localization doesn’t quite fit.  Our local cultures were, often for no fault of their own, the place where the dirty work of American continental imperialism was performed, while emancipatory relief has, from the civil war through the civil rights movement and beyond, been the work of national cosmopolitanism, serviced by advances in communication and travel.  Local resilience, from the perspective of American history, carries a lot of local prejudice.  And even if we were able to separate it from violence and hate, most remnants of a local past have been bulldozed many times over for the latest market trend.  We have no intact and standing models from which we might begin.  True, there is a strong, though now almost lost, tradition of self-reliance in America–of hacking a life out of wilderness with nothing more than a mule-load of tools and provisions.  But as far as a culture of peace and empathy and the sort of slack economy free from a bottom-line in the effort always to get ahead, we have very little to fall back upon.

This is not to ignore America’s small-town culture, especially in the North East, but it is to say that having never had a pre-market era, here in the United States, the village has been, in the balance, more of an outpost than a home.  We don’t have a strong village culture distinct from our frontier mentality of perpetual motion famously described by Frederick Jackson Turner and his “frontier thesis of American history.”  Because emancipation in a market economy requires autonomy and individual self-expression, the “narrowness” of the small town is something, Lincoln understood, we have always had a strong urge to escape.  As MacIntyre explains it, “for liberal individualism a community is simply an arena in which individuals each pursue their own self-chosen conception of the good life, and political institutions exist to provide that degree of order which makes such self-determined activity possible” (After Virtue 195).  This pursuit is more easily accomplished in the anonymity of the metropolis.  Indeed it most easily accomplished in the absence of inherited community altogether, while for someone like Douglass, or indeed any freed or escaped slave, the idea of safe local culture would have been beyond any consideration.  Native Americans had a strong local, village culture, but we know what fate befell it.

In our taut economy, it is difficult to accept a sense of moral good rooted in anything other than me and my autonomous goals, and this has been reinforced and been overdetermined by American history.  But this is thus to say that American history is limited by its youth and by the time and place in which it was born.  We are like children born in a refugee camp or in war-torn region and know nothing else.  So we ignore, out of our inability to form meaningful contrasts, the collateral damage—the alienation, the identity crises, the epidemic of teen suicides, caused largely by the sense of an unsuccessful quest for one’s own true, yet socially acceptable self in a market straining with tautness, groping for economic growth.

As Americans thinking about surviving the future, we must perhaps forego the habit of looking to our past for answers.  While Fleming, with his English village, provides a sort of true conservativism, one that includes the notion of conserving and preserving, of communing and caring, an American conservative is one who favors a more restrictive and less egalitarian version market economy, and thus is barely worth considering.  But amidst the limestone cottages of the Cotswolds, the narrow lanes and thatched houses of “Wessex,” or the sheep-dotted dales of Yorkshire, it possible to imagine, perhaps even reinhabit in some small ways, a conservativism that is rooted in obligation and loyalty, place and person, and the participation in a rich and full culture of food, drink, and festival.   But even then, American history may be of use as a reminder of the perils of localism from within the now inherited context of the globalized taut market.  

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: American way of life, building resilient communities, relocalization