Listen to my song,
It isn’t very long,
You’ll see before I’m gone
That everybody’s wrong.
(“Everybody’s Wrong”; Stephen Stills/Buffalo Springfield, 1966)
Winter is slowly turning to spring here; crocuses and snowdrops are up and trees are gradually budding out. The hibernation of the year’s round of activities is slipping off: Seedy Saturday, which I think of as the opening event in the warm season, is only two weeks and a bit away, and there is a ferment of activity around Powell River, with citizens engaging with the City’s plans for liquid waste management and its plan to rezone the former arena site in town. We’re in a municipal election year and people seem to gearing up for it.
Out there in the wider world, all hell appears to be breaking loose. I’m never sure whether my perception of an increase in general mayhem meshes with reality, but it does look as though instability throughout the global economic system is beginning to permeate the social and political sphere to a greater degree than usual. The flareup in North Africa and Wisconsin’s sudden desire to return to the 19th Century are visible signs of some kind of unusual tremors; but it’s the steady drumbeat of corruption, misdirected effort, make-work in high places, lies, idiocy, counterproductivity, bogus expertise, worn-out fairy tales, and infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies that just keeps sounding louder and more insistent to me. It’s hard to prove that things are any weirder or more unhinged than they have ever been: each new signpost stands alone and we can choose to explain them away as they emerge, or we can, without much effort, see them fit into a larger picture — just another brush-stroke on the canvas.
The danger here is to be as sure as we can be that the big picture is not a paint-by-numbers set, where the outcome is predetermined and our only task is to fit the paint to the pattern. I hope (although I know that this is a thwarted hope) that we all observe the world and the things that happen in it as pointed challenges to our worldview, as observations always in need of proper explanation and not just more data to slide easily into their assigned place in our static outlook. Once we stop paying real attention to the meaning of the things we see, choosing to treat them just as more evidence of what we already know to be true, we begin imposing a kind of internal conformity on our own minds. It’s bad enough to suffer from the need to suppress our own creativity in the face of overwhelming social pressure; but when the pressure to quiet our rebellious mental impulses comes from within, it’s a step along the road to complete shut-down. And this is where we find ourselves, more and more; a very sad and dangerous place to slide into. Especially without being aware that it’s happening.
I’m thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately, because I’m finding it a challenge to make sense of anything I see going on. The human motivations, the social reasons, the economic justifications for the ways we structure our activities and relate to one another are, if anything, getting harder to figure out and resolve so that I can comfortably put them into their place and move on to other things. They come too quickly, from strange new directions, bearing the signs of who knows what unforeseen arrangements of hidden forces.
I can only think that the systems we’ve developed, and the mind-boggling complexity of the ways they interact, reinforce, and contradict each other, are creating a kind of widespread counterproductivity that is making it harder all the time for anything genuinely useful and humane to flourish. Possibilities are closing off in the visible parts of the system, but new configurations are still struggling to be born. And I believe that, without having a vocabulary for this kind of rolling deadlock of ever-growing futility (and worse), many people are picking up on a feeling of dead-endedness. We have entered the doldrums and no wind is blowing us out of here. As is so often the case in human affairs, that which matters most is to be spoken of least. We keep mum for fear of appearing fearful, believing the others to know what we know we don’t. This is the borderline between comedy and tragedy that runs right up the middle of each mind and every society.
I just started to read John Restakis’ 2010 book Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, and it’s pretty hot stuff. John is the Executive Director of the BC Co-operative Association, and someone I would love to bring up to Powell River to talk and meet with people around here. The turnout and enthusiasm at Skookum’s recent public event suggests that there is a lot of pent-up interest in cooperatives around here.
Here is something I read last night resonated with this vague sense I’ve been having for months now that we need new ways out of predicaments we hardly know how to name:
The inability to imagine an alternative is the final triumph of ideology. As William Leach [in Land of Desire: Merchants, Powers, and the Rise of a New American Culture, Vintage 1994] put it so well, the enthronement of consumerism and the acceptance of corporate capitalism as its social mechanism has diminished public life, denying people everywhere “access to insight into other ways of organizing and conceiving life, insight that might have endowed their consent to the dominant culture … with real democracy.” It is here that the most difficult, the most necessary work must be done to advance a more fully human vision of what economies might be and how such economies might be constructed. (p. 26)
This really struck a chord with me, since I have come to believe very strongly that one of the causes of our culture’s growing brittleness is precisely this inability to conceive, or consider, or value alternative answers to the questions we ask — let alone all the questions we don’t know how to form — about who we are, individually and collectively, what we’re doing, and why. Lost opportunities to find alternatives consolidate existing problems, but we’re all too busy running along the predestined grooves to look up and take time for the frivolous exercise of our innate creativity. Keep running!
The promising shoots of new growth so often get blunted or neutralized by being drawn into the inertia of the system they’re meant to challenge, however weakly or unreflexively this challenge might be mounted. Our fear of being wrong is so powerful that we’d rather dither and burn out in the unheroic middle ground. Everywhere we look, promising new approaches wither away while the same old deadly, ridiculous, pointless methods and attitudes thrive and spread. The mere act of persisting in something that rubs against the grain is a necessary act; the only way to have a true purpose is to be wrong by wrong standards, to deliberately set out to confound and disturb the accepted wisdom (which is rarely wisdom, only unthinking habit pretending to rest on principles).
This week I read of a fine example of how unhinged things are, from Mark Bittman’s blog: a sidelong look at McDonald’s new breakfast offering, oatmeal, which, as you would expect, they manage to fuck up almost completely, turning a cheap and nutritious food into expensive junk. As Bittman notes, “Incredibly, the McDonald’s product contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin.” I come at this as a confirmed daily oatmeal-eater, and I know that picking holes in McDonald’s food and foodlike products is cheap sport. But what I thought of when I read this is how hard it is in this upside-down world to start up and fund a breakfast program for schoolchildren, one that might serve inexpensive healthful (and locally growable) foods like oatmeal. I know, from sitting at the table of the Nutrition Committee of the local School District, something about the hurdles that stand between hungry children and food. We tolerate them, although we know it’s wrong and a sign of a society in trouble that in the midst of extreme wealth and ostentation there are children showing up at school unfed. And we tolerate McDonald’s serving this nasty overpriced food, because after all there’s not much for us to say or do about it. It’s a free market. It’s wrong, but we’re stuck with it. And the alternatives are just too hard to imagine; if we can imagine them, they’re impractical or obviously crazy; and who are we to kick against the pricks?