The Purpose of Decadence and the Pleasures of Coercion
I guess you’ve noticed by now that the center didn’t hold. Instead of a secure platform for political premises like tradition, precedent, rationality, and cultural norms, you see a fiery maw of sheer emotion between the camps of the so-called Left and the so-called Right.
I say so-called because the campus Left and the Trump Right have escaped the categorical corrals they formerly occupied. And they may have left their customary official parties stranded and dying too. It may be fatuous to say whether that is a good or bad thing; it just is, for the moment. They are two halves of a polity so broken and so far apart that it is also hard to see how they might ever come back together into a consensus about how a society might operate successfully.
Not having a consensus — some substantial overlap between circles of perspective — it’s not surprising that America can’t construct a coherent view of what is happening, or make a plan for what to do about it. Mainly what’s happening is the running down of fossil fuel based techno-industrial economies, and the main symptom is falling standards of living, with fading prospects for future happiness and security.
As I’ve said before, our economic picture is basically untenable due to the falling energy-return-on-investment of the crucial oil supply (shout-out to Steve St. Angelo). At the high point of 1920s oil production the ratio was around 100-1. The shale oil “miracle” is good for about 5-1. The aggregate of all oil these days is under 30-1. Below that number, you’ve got to shed some activities in our complex economy (or they just get too expensive to support) — things like high-paying labor jobs, medical care, tourism, college, commuting, heating 2500 square foot homes…). Oddly the way it’s actually working out is that America is simply shedding its whole middle class and all its accustomed habits and luxuries. At least that’s how it adds up in effect. Naturally, that produces a lot of bad feeling.
President Trump is unlikely to be able to fix that essential problem, unless he can pilot the whole political-economy into a glide-path leading toward neo-medievalism — what I call the World Made By Hand. Trump’s call for restoring the factory economy of 1962 is a low-percentage prospect. Instead, he’ll be saddled with the collateral damage caused by the dishonest effort of his recent predecessors to borrow from the future to pay for the way we live now — that is, racking up debt. This mighty debt-load, never before seen in history, and the accounting fraud that enables it, has helped produce all kinds of distortions, perversities, and fragilities in our money system (finance and banking) which can easily slip into collapse if a crucial prop fails here or there, and that is exactly what I think will happen under Trump. It will not be his fault, but he’ll get blamed for it. And when it happens, he won’t be able to give his attention to anything but that.
In the meantime, society shows all the symptoms of this literal economic disease in the political and cultural fissures of the day. The political Right failed in its role as prudent conservator of values, resources, and practical custom; the political Left has taken refuge in sentimental fantasy, using the semantic ploys of the graduate school seminars to pretend that reality is whatever they wish it to be. Uncomfortable with the age-old tensions of sexuality? Then pretend that you can opt out of the dynamics of biology by declaring yourself “non-binary,” a term with a pleasing science-y flavor. Tensions gone? Not really. You’ve only made them worse as, for instance, expressed in “non-binary” suicide rates. The perversities of transsexual triumphalism are related directly to the falsehoods of Federal Reserve trans-monetarist triumphalism, and all parties are subject to the matrix of racketeering that has taken the place of plain dealing in goods, money, and ideas in this society — especially ideas grounded in reality.
Societies may not exactly be organisms with intentions, but they move in a particular direction because they are emergent phenomena. That is, they are self-organizing according to the circumstances and forces they are subject to at a certain time and place in history. Decadence is specifically the decay of social and cultural boundaries, a process that is manifestly accelerating now. Both sides of the political spectrum are acting out this dynamic, with the vacuum in the middle sucking vitality out of each side. The Left has become a kind of pagan religion of sacred victims and victimhood, collecting sacred injuries and martyrs. Its dark secret, though, is that these sacred things are only straw-dogs and wicker-men. The real animating motive for the Left these days is simply the pleasure of coercion, of exercising the power to punish their adversaries and watch them suffer.
The Trump Right also enjoys the writhings and sufferings of its adversaries, squashed bug style, as it goes forth in the quixotic battle to bring back 1962 at all costs. Both the Left and the right show not a little sadism in their methods. In the background of these histrionics, the great groaning machine of Modernity lurches toward collapse — not the end-of-the-world as many foolishly imagine, but the end of a phase of history when things that used to work, don’t. At a certain point, we’ll have to try other ways of being with each other on this planet, and then for a while things will come together again.