Lower your sights, yeah, but raise your aim

By David Parkinson

A late rose, blossoming despite the cold weather.

Last night I attended Murray Dobbin‘s lecture at Vancouver Island University here in Powell River. The title of Murray’s talk was “Globalization, Local Food, and Powell River”, and most of it was about globalization: where it came from, what its intended effects were, and what it has accomplished (if that’s the right term) since the mid-70s when the whole idea began to take shape among western elites.

Since Murray has spent a good part of his career as a journalist and activist examining globalization, there was a lot of information packed into his presentation, and I won’t try to do it justice here. But one thing he said struck me very strongly: referring to the neoliberal project of stripping away social programs and redirecting government revenues away from the general population and towards corporations and their wealthy owner class, Murray pointed to polling research that shows how resilient Canadians’ values have remained throughout this retrograde thirty-five-year project. Our support for social democratic programs like unemployment insurance, Medicare, and government-guaranteed old-age pensions has remained high during the years in which these programs have been under attack by a series of governments both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’; at the same time, what has changed is our sense of whether or not the government can achieve these things.

The takeaway is that it is far easier to diminish or destroy people’s sense of the possible than their sense of the desirable. We cling fiercely to our vision of the world we want to live in, not surrendering our hopes even when everything everywhere tells us that it is unreasonable and impossible.

No wonder, then, that people put into such situations have typically fled to religion, since it offers a way of reconciling our vision of the world as it could be with the shortcomings of the world as it is — or as it is made to be by malevolent social forces. With the disenchanting of the world and increasing social isolation, the refuge of choice for the western world has been the consumerist lifestyle, which only ends up strengthening the forces deforming the world and making it intolerable: a classic positive feedback loop which is now tighter than ever.

But underneath it all — even among a population that seems disaffected, alienated, tuned-out — the desire for community, solidarity, and shared purpose persists, submerged but not eradicated. The French Situationists had an evocative phrase to express this powerful urge for liberty and beauty in everyday life: Sous les pavés la plage (“Beneath the paving stones, the beach”). We have been given a paved world — worse, we have been made complicit in paving the world — but nothing can destroy our sense of a world lurking just below the harsh man-made surface. For the moment, we don’t know how to dig for it, but we know it’s there, waiting…

How can we narrow the gap between our aspirations and what we are told is possible? Many of us feel trapped in a world of such complexity that we can never see a way to make our mark, to connect and create something with others, and to change the things that threaten the integrity of our lives as individuals and as members of a community. Everything is all so huge, interconnected, and obscured with jargon and specialized knowledge that we’re lucky if we can carve out any small section and make sense of it. Another good reason for retreating from engagement into an unsatisfying but controllable mini-world of superficial pleasures.

Those of us lucky to be living in a country like Canada have been raised on the belief, drummed into us from an early age, that we all have what it takes to make a mark on the world. Our job was to find our special gift, apply it, work hard, and persist; then with some luck our efforts would be rewarded. It feels now as though this sense of future possibility is draining away, and quickly: we worry that the generation of young people now coming up will fall short of their parents in health, wealth, longevity, satisfaction, and security. Unless we pull off some kind of societal reboot, we are at or past the cusp of the curve of social progress and starting the downward slide. Imagine how it must feel to be a young person who realizes this: our secular culture has rarely had to contend with the idea of the end of progress, but decline may become the backdrop of all our planning and action from this point forward — unless we manage to tackle the multiple serious challenges ahead of us. The steps our governments and large social institutions are taking in this direction so far are way too little, way too late, and it’s hard not to feel that we’re on our own for now.

Stoneleigh, one of the commentators at the rambling collage of symptoms known as The Automatic Earth, has this to say in a recent post about the decline of trust in our culture:

Over time institutions become sclerotic, unresponsive, self-serving and hostage to vested interests, at which point they cannot be reformed, as the reform would have to come from those entrenched individuals who have benefited most from the status quo. Institutions become demonstrably less effective, while consuming more and more of society’s resources. Corruption, abuses of power, lack of accountability and the loss of the rule of law become increasingly evident, exactly as we have seen with unauthorized wire-tapping, extra-ordinary rendition and many other actions undermining the open society. Once this happens, trust is living on borrowed time. That is very clearly the case in many developed societies today.

I can’t put it better than that. A more conservative mindset will look at the same set of facts that Stoneleigh is looking at and see some bugs in the code, minor hiccups, a periodic readjustment, but nothing on the scale of a social realignment. Nothing we can’t get out of by doing more of the same, only slightly different. Only time will show which outlook is the wiser: the one which says that many of our systems are reaching the breaking point; or the one which says to hang on, hunker down, and weather the storm, because we’ll soon be back to normal.

One thing is certain, as far as I’m concerned: the combination of a generalized decline in trust with a repressed but uneradicated desire for genuine social connection and a meaningful and decent culture is going to produce some real turbulence. (And this might be as much productive and positive as it will be negative.)

Since the beginning of the neoliberal era, we have been under orders to sit tight and wait for the dividends trickling down from the project of cutting social spending and rewarding the class of owners. These dividends never did show up for the majority; and as time goes on, more and more people see that they were swindled (if they don’t always see by whom). Worse, they fear that the next generations coming up are going to have it worse than they will. Trust is dying, and we don’t know what will take its place.

Stoneleigh continues:

Working within the trust horizon is important, as it means individual small-scale initiatives can benefit from the same kind of social support at a local level that larger-scale ones once did at a societal level, when trust was more broadly inclusive. Local currencies work for exactly this reason. While the task will still be difficult, it has a chance of being achievable, especially where the necessary relationships of trust have been established before hard times set in. It is very much more difficult to build such relationships after the fact, but relationships built beforehand may actually strengthen when put to the test.

Trying to maintain a positive and constructive focus at the local level, where trust has a chance to survive, and perhaps even thrive in hard times, and to avoid being drawn into a blame-game, will be an uphill battle. It is nevertheless something we need to do as a society, if we are to have a chance to preserve as much as possible of who we are through what is coming.

I think that Stoneleigh is dead-on here. We need to set our sights on simpler things, to draw in the radius of our world and build trust within arm’s reach as it evaporates at higher levels. People who lose faith in the social contract (because our supposed leaders have torn it up), but whose belief in a decent society remains undiminished, will be casting about for reasons to re-engage and find meaning and connection. We see the early shoots of this new meaning in the many small amateur efforts around us, many of which revolve around our food sources.

The outline of the next few years is vague. There is a dim sense that things are breaking down; maybe not completely, but to an extent that makes it hard to know how to plan, what to expect. Uncertainty can lead to fear, but it can also be liberating. When the social systems we thought were unavoidable turn out to be flimsy and short-lived after all, we are freed to experiment with new ways of configuring our own lives and of organizing our social relations. Someday we may look back on the present moment and trace the lineages of the new structures that emerged — small, hesitant, and hidden at first — from the old ones deliberately and maliciously pulled apart by those we thought were looking out for us.

The Situationists had another slogan which is relevant here: Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible! (“Be realistic, demand the impossible!”). This is good advice as we begin to learn that the so-called impossible might be possible after all — possible and desirable to us even though undesirable to those who no longer deserve our trust.

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A HOUSEKEEPING NOTE

I’ve decided to change my regular weekly posting day to Tuesday. Mondays belong to James Howard Kunstler; and Mondays are often holidays when it’s harder to get a post together. As always, I welcome a co-conspirator here, so if you relish the opportunity to blog about matters of interest to our little corner of the world, please get in touch with me.

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