Wednesday, January 27, 2010

This Presupposition of Passivity

The conversation about community that’s unfolded in the peak oil blogosphere over the last couple of weeks has quite a few interesting features. Perhaps the most interesting, at least to me, is the unanimity with which so many voices, coming from so many different viewpoints, have agreed that the role played by ordinary Americans in the collapse of American community is that of passive victim.

That unanimity, it has to be said, does not extend much further. Any number of circumstances, and no shortage of malevolent schemes, have been offered up as the reason why Americans have had their communities taken away from them. Still, the Archdruid Report post that started the recent conversation made an entirely different suggestion: that Americans, by and large, had not “had their communities taken away from them” at all, but actively walked away from their communities, and in fact continue to do so. It’s the fact that this suggestion is apparently about as welcome as a slug in a garden salad that fascinates me.

It’s not as though this presupposition of passivity is limited to this one topic, either. Show me a social problem in America today and it’s better than even odds that the debate around it focuses on whether it’s caused by circumstances outside of anyone’s control, on the one hand, or by the machinations of some sinister cabal on the other. That such problems might occasionally, or more than occasionally, be the logical consequence of actions actively pursued by the majority of Americans is right off the radar screen of our collective conversation – and if anybody has the bad taste to suggest that unwelcome view, the usual response is to insist that some circumstances or cabal was responsible for making Americans do whatever it was they did.

I’ve come to think, as it happens, that the portrayal of ordinary Americans as helpless victims may be one of the most significant barriers in the way of the constructive changes we desperately need to make. This is as true of community as anything else. Until we understand why it is that Americans like to speak movingly about community in the abstract, but more often than not want nothing to do with it in any concrete sense, efforts to build new communities or conserve the few we’ve got left are going to go precisely nowhere. For this reason, I want to talk a little about the reasons why people in America don’t actually want community.

One of those reasons, as I’ve suggested over the last couple of weeks, is that community costs. The benefits you get from it are exactly commensurate with the investment you make in it – in time, effort, money, commitment, and more – and as with any other kind of investment, you pay in first and get paid back later. People who don’t want to pay what community costs up front, or don’t think the payback is worth the investment, are not going to invest in it. For many reasons, some of which I’ve discussed in previous posts, the great majority of Americans have embraced these attitudes in recent decades.

Still, there’s more going on here than a simple cost/benefit analysis. In my experience, there are at least two things essential to any viable community that the vast majority of Americans find completely unacceptable. The first is an accepted principle of authority; the second is a definite boundary between members and nonmembers.

You see? Odds are you bristled with outrage the moment you read that last sentence.

Consider a traditional Quaker meeting and you can see how both these requirements function, and how necessary they are. In a Quaker meeting, the principle of authority is consensus, guided by tradition and also, much more often than not, by a core of experienced and influential members. To be a member of a meeting is to accept the authority of the “sense of the meeting” in those matters it claims the right to govern. Only those who accept that authority have the right to contribute to the consensus or participate in the life of the community. Those who consistently refuse to accept the authority of the meeting’s consensus generally get disfellowshipped – that is, they find themselves on the outside of the boundary between members and nonmembers.

The same thing is true of the communities I discussed in last week’s post, the old fraternal lodges. In a Masonic lodge, for example, the principle of authority is elective democracy limited by tradition. Certain officers, elected for annual terms, are responsible for making some decisions; others must be made by a majority vote of the lodge at a regular meeting; still others are reserved to the state grand lodge, which consists of representatives from local lodges, or to the officers the grand lodge elects. A number of issues are not subject to decision at all; they belong to what Masons call the landmarks of the Craft, core traditions accepted by every regular Masonic lodge, and cannot be changed by anyone for any reason. To be a Mason is to accept the authority of the landmarks, the lodge and grand lodge, and their officers, in that very limited sphere over which they have any say – in effect, within the four walls of a Masonic lodge. To refuse to accept that authority within its proper sphere is ultimately to cease being a brother.

Now of course it’s not too hard to think of communities in which there are more abusive principles of authority and more invidious distinctions between members and nonmembers. In contemporary discourse about social issues, these bad examples get very nearly all the air time, as a result of the very common contemporary belief that authority is by definition illegitimate and boundaries are made to be broken. Still, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it’s worth noting that attempts at community that have not established some effective means for making and enforcing decisions, and some firm distinction between those who invest their time and energy in the community and those who simply show up for the benefits and vanish when it’s time for work to be done, pretty consistently go under.

Ultimately, as this suggests, the need for a principle of authority and a boundary between members and nonmembers is a practical issue, distinct from the moral issues often confused with it. Of course moral issues apply here, as to all other human choices, but the principle of authority can be as egalitarian as the sense of a Quaker meeting or as autocratic as “il Duce is always right;” equally, the boundary between members and nonmembers, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, can be anything from the color of their skins to the content of their characters, and much else besides; but a community that has some version of both has a good chance of success, and a community that tries to do without them will fail.

I’ ve come to think that this is perhaps the single most important reason why all the enthusiastic talk about communities in the peak oil scene, or for that matter in similar subcultures, has produced so few results. Page through the archives of The Oil Drum, or any other peak oil site that’s been around for a while, and you’ll find plenty of people talking about how “we” ought to imitate the Amish, or medieval monasteries, or some other classic example of resilient community. Yet you won’t find a lot of proposals that such imitations ought to adopt the principles of authority and the very strict boundaries between members and nonmembers that have played so large a role in making these communities as successful as they have been, because very, very few people in our culture are willing to accept the core presupposition that underlies these things – the necessity, especially but not only in times of crisis, of placing the needs of the community ahead of the wants of the individual.

There’s much that could be said along these lines about the murky psychological roots of the American assumption that all authority is illegitimate and all boundaries unreasonable, and even more that could be said about the drastic spiritual consequences of that belief system, but neither of these conversations is really in keeping with the theme of this blog. Instead, I’d like to talk a bit about how the recent abandonment of community plays into the trajectory of decline our civilization is now following.

Arnold Toynbee, whose massive A Study of History remains the most comprehensive study of historical cycles, has a great deal to say about what he calls “the schism in society.” As civilizations tip over the brink into decline, he suggests, one of the core symptoms of decay is a split between the dominant minority and the rest of society. The dominant minority has lost whatever capacity it once had to inspire loyalty and emulation, but its hold on the institutions of power remains strong enough that it can’t be unseated; the rest of society, alienated from the values of the dominant minority, becomes an “internal proletariat” ripe for alternative values. When those new values emerge, usually in the form of a new religious movement, they become the framework around which new social patterns begin to coalesce – and about the time this gets well under way, the old social framework of the dying civilization, abandoned from within and assailed from without, comes messily apart.

It’s an intriguing analysis. One wrinkle Toynbee doesn’t discuss, though, is the fate of the people in between the dominant minority and the emergent internal proletariat. There are usually quite a few of them; they manage people, information, and resources within the sprawling complexity of a mature civilization; compared to the laboring classes, they have a tolerably high level of wealth and privilege, and even some influence over the political process, though nothing as much as the members of the dominant minority have at their disposal. As the schism in society opens, the ground on which they stand begins to slip away beneath their feet. On the one hand, many of them find it increasingly hard to believe in the ideals and loyalties that motivated their equivalents in earlier generations; on the other, many of them are unwilling to abandon the concrete privileges and benefits that accrue to them in their current positions. Some turn to cynicism, others to a range of uneasy attempts to serve two masters, and still others – normally the majority – simply muddle through as best they can.

Eventually, as the new value system takes shape and rises from the bottom of the internal proletariat, a good many of them will break away and align themselves with it, and provide it with the managerial and intellectual resources it needs to fulfill its own trajectory. Until a fairly late stage in the game, though, those who make that leap can count on giving up all the benefits of their place in the social order. The history of Roman Christianity provides one good example out of many. Until late in the third century, Christianity in the Roman world was largely a slave religion with a sprinkling of middle-class converts, who were regarded with the same sort of pitying contempt that most Americans direct toward those who join the Hare Krishnas. Not until the institutions of Roman society came seriously unglued did Christianity turn from a despised cult to the one remaining source of viable community in much of the Roman world; only after that happened could a Roman rhetor become a Christian bishop, say, without relinquishing the comforts of his middle-class lifestyle.

We have not reached that latter point yet. The “new values” proposed by an assortment of middle-class intellectuals in recent years all share the presuppositions of the old values they seek to replace; in terms of the Roman experience, they correspond to Stoicism, Epicureanism, and the other philosophical schools, which played a major role in the intellectual life of the Empire but contributed almost nothing to the radically different religious vision that supplanted them. A great many middle-class people in America and other industrial nations are caught in the familiar bind, no longer committed to the ideals of a declining civilization, but not yet willing to sacrifice the very tangible material benefits they get from their positions in the established order; rejecting the system in their hearts while supporting it with their actions. It’s a very awkward place to be; eventually, it will become intolerable; but until this latter point arrives, a great many people will try to have it both ways.

I’ve come to think that this dynamic lies behind a great many of the less useful cultural shifts and social trends of recent decades, and the habits of thought sketched out in this post are among these. No doubt there were plenty of Romans who responded to the conflicting demands of political and religious authority by rejecting the entire concept of authority, and dismissed the need for boundaries in the half-conscious hope that this evasion would allow them to keep a foot in both worlds while committing to neither. Certainly this sort of thing is very common today. The obsessive fixation on the isolated and supposedly independent ego that pervades contemporary culture, which Christopher Lasch once anatomized in a book more often discussed than read, has many roots; still, I suspect one of the crucial factors driving it is precisely this attempt, on the part of a great many people, to have their cake and eat it too – to enjoy the benefits of the existing order while claiming to despise its principles.

The presupposition of passivity I mentioned at the beginning of this post is one way to deal with the cognitive dissonance of this awkward position. There are already a good many others, and as the forces that are tearing modern industrial civilization apart build around us, there will doubtless be more. To the extent that it’s possible to recognize them for what they are, though, it will be easier to sidestep their more unproductive results and direct effort toward those tasks where it’s still possible to make a difference for the future.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Secret Handshakes

Last week’s Archdruid Report post on the costs of community called up an interesting simulacrum of community in one corner of the peak oil blogosphere, as Sharon Astyk, Rob Hopkins, and Dmitry Orlov all joined in the conversation with blog posts in response. This didn’t exactly come as an unbearable surprise; the role of community in the deindustrial world of the imminent future has been a hot-button issue in the peak oil scene since before there was a peak oil scene, and a fair percentage of the posts here that have fielded more than the usual flurry of comments have been on that confused and contested subject.

Still, it interests me that so much of the discussion, as so often happens, went on as though history has nothing to teach us. One example out of many, and by no means the worst, is Astyk’s suggestion that the reason community has fallen apart in recent decades is that so many people work so hard, and are too tired to get involved. This echoes a common plaint, but the fact remains that a century ago most Americans worked 50, 60, or more hours a week as a matter of course, and most of those hours were spent at hard physical labor. Somehow that didn’t keep a dizzying array of community groups from flourishing to an extent I think few people remember today.

I want to focus here on one particular set of those community groups, partly because they’re tolerably well documented, partly because they offer some intriguing possibilities for an age of economic contraction and social fragmentation, and partly because I happen to know a fair amount about them, and not just from my usual eccentric historical reading. In fact, most Monday evenings you’ll find me helping to preserve one of the few survivals from an all-but-forgotten world, as I don one of the few neckties I own and head over to the old brick Masonic lodge here in Cumberland.

Yes, I’m a Freemason. Some years back a series of accidents clued me in to the huge role that the old fraternal orders had in structuring American communities a century ago, and in the process I also learned that the handful of fraternal orders that still survive are rapidly going under for lack of new members. The obvious response was to apply for membership in a lodge, which I did. The results have been an experience, in almost every possible sense of the word. I’ve given and received quite a range of secret handshakes, and worn some very exotic headgear; I’ve spent evenings in mostly empty lodge halls while a handful of elderly members try to remember the details of initiation ceremonies none of them have had a chance to perform in twenty years; I’ve seen old men, proud as hawks, get teary-eyed as they reminisced about the days when the rest of the community responded to the lodges and their charitable work with something other than total indifference.

Now of course this is not the way lodges, and particularly Masonry, are portrayed in today’s popular culture, and I’m quite aware that to a certain percentage of my readers, my Masonic affiliation defines me as one or more of the 31 flavors of evil incarnate. It doesn’t matter that membership in Masonry has been dropping like a rock for decades, that most Masonic lodges are struggling to find enough members to keep their doors open, or that Freemasonry has less influence in this country than at any time since the Revolutionary War – the last Mason in the White House was Gerald Ford, for heaven’s sake. There are still plenty of people who use the Craft, as Masons like to call their oddball institution, as the perfect inkblot onto which they can project their fantasies of organized wickedness, whatever those happen to be. At a time when people can get million-dollar book contracts and all the radio air time they want to bash Masonry, it may seem a little odd that they can insist that Masons control the media and the rest of American society to boot – when’s the last time you saw something favorable about Masons on the media, by the way? – but contradictions of that sort are pretty much par for the course in our collective discourse these days.

The irony here is that all this vituperation is being flung at the last struggling remnant of what was once a huge social force in America. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, by reliable estimates, half of all adult Americans – counting, by the way, both genders and all ethnic groups – belonged to at least one fraternal lodge. The Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Grange, and many other orders – some 3,500 different organizations, all told – formed a crucial element in civil society in America; they had a similar role elsewhere in the English-speaking world, where they were called “friendly societies,” and a somewhat less active presence elsewhere.

What makes this explosion of voluntary communal organization particularly relevant to our time is that the old lodges weren’t simply social clubs. With few exceptions – Freemasonry, interestingly enough, was one of those – they had a vital economic role. In an age when governments didn’t consider people starving in the streets a matter of public concern, in fact, the fraternal lodges filled many of the same roles now filled by the welfare state.

Here’s how it worked. If you belonged to a local lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, let’s say, you would be expected to attend lodge meetings one evening a week, and you’d pay weekly dues – the standard rate was 25 cents a week in the days when a quarter bought about as much as a $20 bill does today. The money was collected by the lodge’s financial secretary and invested by its treasurer, under the watchful eye of trustees elected by the lodge. If you became too sick to work, the lodge provided you with sick pay at an established rate; if you died, the lodge paid for your funeral, and if you left a widow and children behind, the lodge made sure they had enough money to get by, and that the children got an education.

Lodges also provided health care to their members. The arrangement, once known as “lodge trade” among doctors, makes an interesting contrast with the corrupt monstrosity masquerading as health care reform currently lumbering its way through the US Congress. Each lodge simply went out and hired a doctor, usually on an annual contract. The doctor received a flat monthly salary from the lodge, and in return provided whatever general medical care the lodge members and their families needed. If it had a large enough membership, the lodge might also hire a couple of visiting nurses and a dentist on the same basis. Notice that this arrangement gave the patients a meaningful voice in health care quality, and imposed an effective limit on prices: a doctor who provided substandard care or charged more than the lodge wanted to pay would simply find himself out of a job when his annual contract came up for renewal.

Was it a perfect system? Of course not. Those who were too poor to afford lodge membership, in particular, had few choices open to them. Those who were excluded from the mainstream lodge organizations on the basis of color or gender, interestingly enough, had more options; it’s not accidental that of the 3500 or so lodge organizations that existed in America at the beginning of the last century, some 1500 were African-American, nor that there were also many hundreds of women’s lodge organizations, some of them completely independent of male-dominated lodge organizations at a time when such independence was a very rare thing for women’s activities of any kind. There were inevitable inequities; there were lodges for the rich, lodges for the middle class, and lodges for the working class, and the benefits varied accordingly. Still, the system worked well enough to make lodges a massive social presence in 19th and early 20th century America.

It’s when we trace the decline and fall of the lodge system that the lessons for today’s predicament start to stand out. Membership in many lodge organizations began to fall off in the 1920s, as relative prosperity and the emergence of the first, very limited public welfare programs began to cut away at the basic rationale behind the system. That decline turned into freefall with the coming of the New Deal, and became all but total with the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Of those 3500 lodge organizations, maybe two dozen survived to the end of the 20th century.

The core weakness of the lodge system turned out to be the issue I brought up in last week’s post: the cost of community. As I mentioned then, too much talk about communities in recent years has focused on their benefits, and ignored the money, time, effort, and commitment that has to go into making those benefits happen. Membership in one of the surviving fraternal orders is a great corrective for this sort of fuzzy thinking. You can get community there, but it costs; there are dues to pay, meetings to attend, work to be done, and jobs that are paid only in old-fashioned titles and a sense of belonging. Lodges are also, by their nature, governed by tradition, which means that younger members generally have to develop a certain tolerance for the social habits of an earlier time. (The necktie I mentioned earlier is one example; I dislike wearing neckties, but the custom of wearing jacket and tie to lodge is fiercely upheld by elderly members who consider it a sign of basic respect, and matters are unlikely to change much while they live.) All these factors militate against the survival of lodges in today’s culture.

Now it’s only fair to mention that as the lodges began their decline, they found the skids liberally greased by several outside factors. The American Medical Association, for example, spent much of the twentieth century in a sustained campaign to break the lodge trade system. Look through back issues of the Journal of the American Medical Association from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s and you’ll find any number of editorials denouncing lodge trade, and for good reason: the lodge trade system placed the concerns of health care consumers ahead of the financial interests of the medical profession. In the 1920s, the average doctor made only a little more than the average plumber; the end of lodge trade, and of a variety of other arrangements that subjected health care to the economic discipline of the market, was central to the shifts that produced today’s six- and seven-figure incomes for doctors.

Another outside factor not often remembered these days was the impact of the political prosecutions that broke out at intervals in 20th century America. Belonging to a group that was, or was merely accused of being, a front for a proscribed political movement too often had serious social, economic, and legal consequences during those outbreaks, and the gyrations of American cultural politics made it impossible to define much of any ground as safe. Twice – during the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, and again in the McCarthy era – leftist attitudes that had been fashionable and socially acceptable not that long before suddenly turned into a massive liability for those who had held them; once – during the mass sedition trials of the early 1940s – those who were sympathetic to fascism before the war, when it looked to many people like the only alternative to Marxist revolution, found themselves in the same sort of trouble. That’s one of the factors that helped drive the anxious conformity and social detachment of the 1950s; the perceived risks of belonging to anything outside of work, and maybe a recreational association or two, were simply too high for many people.

Still, the core factor was simple enough; the fraternal orders went away because most Americans didn’t need them any more, and were no longer willing to pay the costs of maintaining them. Once labor unions won the right of collective bargaining, employers rather than lodges started to cover sick pay; social security and other government welfare programs provided a social safety net much sturdier than the one the lodges were able to weave from their own resources; more broadly, the immense general prosperity of American society in the wake of the Second World War made starving to death in the street a good deal less pressing a threat than it had been not too long before.

The Freemasons weathered these changes a little better than most other fraternal orders, and the reason is instructive. The Craft never offered sick pay or other direct financial benefits to its members, and its main functions were self-improvement, networking, and fundraising for public charities, which weren’t entirely rendered surplus by the social changes of the 1930s and 1960s. Thus Masonry’s decline was slower, and it still maintains a modest fraction of the infrastructure of lodge buildings and local groups that it had during its glory days – something that very few other fraternal orders can say these days. Even so, the steady influx of young men who used to join the Masons as a standard coming-of-age ritual has almost entirely come to a halt, because very few of those young men see any value in investing the time and energy that Masonic membership requires.

More generally, of course, that’s what happened to community in America. The suburbanization of the country after the Second World War has many aspects, but one of the most important was a deliberate flight from community. A great many people who had grown up in compact urban neighborhoods or small towns fled to the anonymity of the suburbs just as quickly as they could, because in their eyes, the costs of community made it more of a burden than a benefit.

I’d like to suggest, in turn, that the reason that all the talk about community in recent years has produced so few results is that this equation still holds. Very few of the people reading this blog in America just now have ever gone hungry, or slept under a cardboard box in a back alley, or lived six to a room in a tumbledown tenement infested by rats and cockroaches, as so many people did in America as recently as the 1930s. The social safety nets established in the New Deal and Great Society eras are shredding, and they will likely shred a lot further in the not too distant future, but most Americans have not yet adjusted their thinking to the exigencies of a world where losing a job may once again mean a desperate and often futile struggle against starvation, and where those who end up on the losing side of economic change can no longer count on help from anybody.

The old fraternal orders offer a useful example of some of the things that can be done by people working together in such a world. In order to make use of that example, though, it’s going to be necessary to face up to some of the most basic, and most dysfunctional, assumptions about community in American culture today – a task I intend to address in next week’s post.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Costs of Community

The point to be made in this week's post is a bit complex, and I hope that my readers will have the patience to read through an apparently unrelated story that leads to it. A few years back, I researched and wrote a book on the UFO phenomenon, somewhat unimaginatively titled The UFO Phenomenon. It was an intriguing project, not least because the acronym "UFO" has all but lost its original meaning – something seen in the sky that the witnesses don't happen to be able to identify – and become a strange attractor for exotic belief systems that fuse the modern myth of infinite progress with archaic religious visions of immanent evil and apocalyptic renewal.

Behind the myths, though, I noted the intriguing fact that the "alien spacecraft" of each decade had quite a bit in common with whatever secret aerospace projects the US military was testing at that time. From the round silver shapes of the late 1940s, when high-altitude balloons were the last word in strategic reconnaissance, to the black triangles of the early 1980s, when stealth planes were new and highly secret, the parallels were remarkable, as was the involvement of the US military in fostering the UFO furore. While plenty of things fed into the emergence of the UFO mythology, it seems pretty clear that this mythology was used repeatedly for the kind of strategic deception the Allies used to bamboozle the Germans before D-Day, to provide cover for secret aerospace projects in the US and elsewhere, not to mention plenty of less exotic situations where it was inconvenient to talk about who was flying what in whose airspace.

What interested me most about the project in retrospect was the reaction it got. I ended up on – well, let's just say a very well known radio talk show about the paranormal, and leave it at that. The host asked the usual questions, and got to the one about what I found most fascinating about the topic, so I sketched out the hypothesis I've just mentioned.

He instantly changed the subject.

I was intrigued, and as soon as the conversation allowed, I brought up the same point. He changed the subject again, so fast he must have left skidmarks on the airwaves. So I brought it up again, and the same thing happened. We had a commercial break, and after that he suddenly wanted to talk about my other books; I humored him, chatted about my other titles, worked the conversation back around to UFOs, and then brought up my hypothesis again. He changed the subject again. As soon as the next break arrived, I was off the air half an hour early, and he was inviting listeners to call in to share their favorite paranormal experiences. It's probably unnecessary to mention that I've never been invited back.

That experience was typical of the book's reception by the UFO community, and it taught me something worth knowing about that community, which is that a significant number of people who insist they believe in alien spaceships in Earth's skies don't actually believe in anything of the kind. I did hear back from some UFO believers who defended their faith in alien visitation in spirited terms. With them I have no quarrel, though I disagree with their beliefs; but much more often, the reaction I got was the one that used to be typical of liberal clergymen who no longer believed in any sort of god, but got uncomfortable, scuffed their feet, and looked out the nearest available window when anyone openly avowed atheism.

Now the point of this story is not to rehash the issue of whether UFOs are or are not alien spacecraft. It's to provide an example of a particular kind of bad faith, as the existentialists used to call it, that pervades discussions of the point I want to raise this week.

What, dear reader, if I were to propose a citizen's strategy for carrying out constructive social change in the United States that has worked in the past, not just once but repeatedly? A strategy that works from the grassroots up, requires next to no money or media coverage to set in motion, and uses off-the-shelf social technology? A strategy that also has the proven side effect of building community on a grand scale? Would you jump on it like a duck on a June bug, as my grandfather used to say, and get it under way as soon as possible? Let's make the experiment.

Glance back through American history from colonial times to the present and you'll discover that the one consistently effective strategy for citizens who seek to change the direction of their society is to organize. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America not long after the Revolution, one of the things he found most remarkable about the new republic was the way that ordinary citizens who wanted to bring change to their society did it by organizing societies, lodges, movements, political parties, or any other kind of citizen's group you care to name. The same thing has been true ever since; glance back along any wave of change in American life and you'll find an organized group of citizens behind it.

It's popular to insist these days that such organizations can't possibly muster the clout needed to overwhelm, say, the power of big corporations. History says otherwise. In the 1880s, for example, corporations had even more unrestricted power in the United States than they do now, and the railroad corporations were the richest and most powerful of the lot. The Grange, an organization of farmers, took on the improbable task of breaking railroad monopolies that were forcing farm families into poverty by keeping the cost of shipping farm produce to urban markets artificially high. The short version? The Grange achieved total victory, and the railroad corporations lost the monopoly status that made their fortunes.

The key to understanding the power of citizens' organizations is that representative democracy doesn't respond to the will of individuals; it responds to pressure exerted by groups. Those who organize to put pressure on the system generally get at least some of what they want, and the longer and harder they push, the more of it they get. Those who don't organize, by their lack of organization, make themselves irrelevant to the political process.

You know this perfectly well, dear reader. Odds are you've grumbled about the influence of pressure groups in Washington DC, or your state's capitol, or city hall, or wherever. You may even support a pressure group or two yourself with the occasional donation. The obvious question, then, is why the torrent of vocal dissatisfaction with the political status quo these days or so hasn't resulted in another round of citizens' organizations rising from the grassroots, as the Abolitionists and the Grange and the Progressives and the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights movement and so many others did in their time, to influence the political process by turning popular dissatisfaction into a force for change. If it takes a pressure group to have a voice in American politics, why not organize a pressure group to give voice to those who consider themselves voiceless? For that matter, instead of griping about the lack of a viable third party, why not start one, instead of waiting for some political equivalent of Wal-Mart to package one in plastic and display it enticingly on a convenient shelf?

These aren't rhetorical questions. Much of what's wrong with the current American political system is the result of a vacuum at the center of that system – a very large empty space where organized pressure from the public used to go. Consider, for example, how political parties used to work in the United States. The basic unit was the precinct caucus, where neighbors would get together, debate issues and candidates, and organize publicity and get-out-the-vote activities for the next election. Each precinct elected representatives to the county convention, where this process was repeated, and cascaded upward through state and national conventions. These last weren't the pointless media spectacles they've become; they were working sessions where the candidates and proposals that rose up from the grassroots finally got sorted out into the slate and platform the party would offer the voters come election day.

These days precinct caucuses are moribund, and county and state conventions are little more than exercises in going through the motions; policy initiatives and candidacies begin, not with neighbors meeting in living rooms, but with media campaigns orchestrated by marketing firms and strategy sessions among highly paid party officials. Yet it wasn't some conspiracy of corporate minions who brought about that state of affairs; what happened, by and large, was that most Americans dropped out of the party system, and the professionals filled the resulting void.

It's interesting to speculate about why that took place. I suspect many of my readers have encountered Robert Putnam's widely discussed book Bowling Alone (2000), which traced the collapse of social networks and institutions straight across American society. The implosion of the old grassroots-based party system is simply one example of the trend Putnam documented. Putnam's book sparked a great deal of discussion, some of it in the peak oil community, but nearly all of that discussion fixated on the benefits that might be gained by reinventing community, and left out a crucial factor: the cost.

By this I don't mean money. Communities need regular inputs of time and effort from their members, or they collapse into mass societies of isolated individuals – roughly speaking, what we've got now. Communities also need subtler inputs: a sense of commitment, of shared purpose, of emotional connection, of trust. To gain the benefits of living in community, it's necessary to sacrifice some part of the autonomy that so many Americans nowadays guard so jealously. The same thing is true of those subsets of community already discussed – political parties, for example, or citizens' organizations, or any other framework for collective action that's more than a place for people to hang out and participate when they feel like it.

I know a fair number of people in activist circles who speak in glowing terms about community; most of them don't belong to a single community organization. I also know a fair number of people who've tried to launch community projects of one kind or another; most of these projects foundered due to a fatal shortage of people willing to commit the time, effort, and emotional energy the project needed to survive. Most, but not all; some believers in community have taken an active role in trying to build or maintain it; some projects have managed to find an audience and build a community, or at least the first rough draft of one. One of the reasons I don't dismiss the Transition Town movement, though I have serious doubts about some aspects of it, is precisely that many of the people involved in it have committed themselves to it in a meaningful sense, and the movement itself has succeeded in some places in building a critical mass of commitment and energy.

It's important, I think, to assess the ventures toward community that are under way now or have been tried in the recent past, both the successful ones and the ones that have failed, and try to get some sense of the factors that tip the balance one way or the other. It's also crucial, though, to recognize that there's a difference between fantasies of community that provides all the benefits with none of the costs, and the reality of community in which each benefit must be paid for by a corresponding commitment. I suspect the common passion among some peak oil activists for lifeboat communities that just happen to be too expensive ever to get off the ground, which often goes hand in hand with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for participation in real communities of real people that exist right now, is simply one way of evading the difference.

This is why I didn't spend this week's post advocating, say, the founding of Citizens Unions to give ordinary people pressure groups to exert influence on local, state and national governments, as so many successful citizens' pressure groups have done in the past. I think this would be an excellent idea, but if people were willing to invest time, energy, and commitment into such organizations, we'd likely already have them.

The problem we face now, though, is that uncomfortable looks, scuffing feet, and abstracted gazes out the nearest convenient window are no longer adequate responses to a situation that's rapidly spinning out of control. The costs of community may not be something most of us want to pay, but in the world that is taking shape around us, the alternative for a great many of us may be much worse. I plan to talk about that in next week's post.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Housebreaking the Corporations

One obstacle to constructive change in the face of peak oil I didn’t discuss recently on The Archdruid Report is the role of corporate influence in contemporary society. That factor is of course real – the influence of large corporations has checked, and at times checkmated, quite a few useful reforms in recent decades – but it has been overstated fairly often; the same thing could be said with equal truth of nearly any other large and well-funded institution in American life, from the retiree lobby to the American Medical Association.

The principle behind that effect is simple enough to grasp. Whenever power has been diffused to the point that no one power center can carry out its agenda without the consent of many others, any well-organized faction becomes a power broker. It can drive whatever bargains it wishes in exchange for supporting the agendas of other factions, and use that clout to defend those positions it considers nonnegotiable.

A good deal of the stalemate that puts necessary reforms out of reach in Washington DC just now is a function of this process; it’s hard to think of any such reform that won’t step on the toes of at least one well-funded power center, and so business as usual proceeds on its merry way, even though almost everyone recognizes that the end result will be to nobody’s benefit. Consider, as one example out of many, the way that the retiree lobby keeps the single sanest response to America’s looming budget crisis – a simple means test on Social Security and Medicare – from ever coming up for discussion. The same logic, enforced by one or another power center, keeps every other effective reform out of reach.

This is not, to be sure, the way a significant fraction of today’s radicals describe the situation. Since I first started The Archdruid Report, and more particularly since economics began to move toward center stage in these essays, I’ve received a regular stream of comments and emails insisting that corporations play the role of Sauron the Dark Lord in an updated remake of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Another example of the species showed up in the inbox a few days ago; this one insisted that corporations had become the new dominant life form on Earth, and were ruthlessly squeezing out all the others, including us.

The Tolkien metaphor may not be quite on target in that case, as the author seems to have taken his metaphors from the Terminator movies instead. Still, the quest to identify somebody in today’s society as evil incarnate, and blame him, her, or it for the world’s problems, is much the same. (I ought to write a post someday on the way that a plot device Tolkien adopted for literary effect has been stood on its head and turned into one of our time’s most misleading metaphors, but that’s a job for another day.) The problem with such identifications, as I’ve suggested repeatedly in these essays, is that the root of most of today’s problems is the simple fact that most of the people on our badly overcrowded planet demand lifestyles that the Earth’s resources will not support for much longer. Until that changes, nothing else is going to change – and nobody has yet suggested a plausible way for that change to happen that doesn’t involve a vast number of deaths and the decline and fall of industrial society.

That being the case, we’re in for a rough future. Still, as I’ve also suggested here rather more than once, this unwelcome news doesn’t make constructive change pointless. Bad as the unraveling of the industrial age will inevitably be, there’s still plenty of room for choices that could make matters noticeably better, or noticeably worse, in the deindustrial age beginning around us. One of those changes, I suggest, has to do with the way corporations relate to society as a whole – for it’s not necessary to project mythic images of absolute evil onto today’s corporations to realize that there are significant problems with that relationship.

The core difficulty is simple enough to describe. Corporations, under the laws of the United States and most other nations, are legal persons; they have many, though not all, of the same rights that “natural persons” – that is, you and me – have under the law. Still, the most obvious difference between corporate persons and natural persons these days is that the corporate kind are noticeably more antisocial. They pursue their purposes – primarily, making money – with a single-mindedness and a lack of concern for consequences that, in natural persons, would be accurately labeled psychopathic; they’ve proven themselves consistently willing to lie, cheat, steal, and kill whenever the likely return on these acts outweighs the risk of punishment.

Any number of writers in recent years have pointed this out, of course. Some of them have simply turned up the rhetoric of moral denunciation, with the usual results – that is, a warm glow of self-righteousness on the part of the denouncer, and no effect at all on the denouncee. Others have proposed various means for forcing corporate persons to behave themselves. One popular proposal would subject corporations to regular review by some independent body which could annul the charter of any corporation that refused to be properly housebroken, forcing its dissolution. What would keep this body honest in the face of the fantastic potential for corruption, the proponents of this notion do not say, but there’s another issue here: we’ve actually got a tolerably effective way of responding to antisocial behavior; we just don’t apply it to corporate persons the way we do to natural persons.

A glance back into the history of law may help clarify the matter. I’m not sure how many people these days know that the earliest version of English common law, from which our American legal system descends, operated entirely on the basis of fines. The principle of wergild, as it was called, gave each person a cash value; if a murder took place, the murderer had to pay the family of the victim that cash value as wergild for the death. Lesser injuries and insults called for lesser fees. The same thing was true of nearly all the old Indo-European tribal law codes. It didn’t work very well, not least because anyone who had enough money could act the way mainstream economists think we all ought to act, on the basis of a simple cost-benefit analysis. If you could afford to pay the wergild for killing somebody, and decided it was worth the expense, why not?

So as the Dark Ages gave way to less chaotic times, legal codes in England and elsewhere replaced wergild with punishments that were a good deal less easy to shrug off. This is why natural persons who are convicted of felonies, by and large, can’t get away with just paying a fine; they go to jail, or if the crime is heinous enough and it happens in a jurisdiction with capital punishment, they die. While it has its failings, this approach to antisocial behavior generally works a good deal more effectively than the wergild principle.

From this perspective, the problem with corporate persons is simple enough: the only risk they run in breaking the law is that they have to pay wergild, and that doesn’t constrain antisocial behavior any more effectively now than it did in Anglo-Saxon times.

My more perceptive readers may be wondering at this point whether I’m seriously proposing that corporations should be thrown in jail or put to death. Yes, that’s what I’m proposing, with the adjustments needed to account for the differences between corporate persons and natural persons. What’s the essential nature of imprisonment for a crime, after all? The criminal ceases to be a free person; for a specified period of time, he is a chattel of society, and society has the right to profit from his labor during that period. And capital punishment? The criminal, having proven that he isn’t willing to abide by even the most minimal standards of social existence, ceases to exist by act of society. Both of these can be applied to corporations easily enough.

Imagine, then, that a corporation – we’ll call it the Shyster Company – has just been caught selling worthless securities to widows and orphans. The district attorney files charges of felony fraud and theft. The trial date arrives, the lawyers bicker, the jury finds the defendant guilty as charged and the judge sentences the corporation to the equivalent of ten years in the slammer. The judge appoints a trustee, who takes control of Shysterco and all its assets. For the following ten years, Shysterco is a wholly owned subsidiary of the state government. Its stock pays no dividends and has no voting rights, its directors have to find something else to do with their time, and if the trustee decides that the CEO and other overpaid office fauna get to find new jobs, they get to find new jobs – assuming that they’re not doing time themselves, as they probably should be. All profits earned by Shysterco during its period of imprisonment go to the state government, subject to set-asides that pay restitution to the victims of the crime.

Meanwhile another conglomerate – we’ll call this one Dirty Rotten Scoundrel Inc. – has been caught knowingly selling food products tainted with deadly bacteria, and a dozen people have died. This time the district attorney files charges of aggravated first degree murder. The trial date arrives, the media has a field day, the lawyers bicker, the jury returns a verdict of guilty as charged, the judge sentences DRSI to death and the appeals court upholds the sentence. On the scheduled date of execution, DRSI ceases to exist. Its stock becomes worthless, its assets are sold off in an auction in which no former shareholder is allowed to bid, its name and trademarks can never again be used by anybody under penalty of law, and its creditors get whatever scraps are left once the victims’ families receive their settlements.

It’s crucial that the stockholders in both cases, and the creditors in the latter case, suffer for the behavior of the corporation. The stockholders of a corporation are its owners, in fact and law; they profit from its activities, and therefore should pay for its crimes. The laws governing corporations limit the liability of stockholders to the value of their investment, and there’s no need to overturn that principle; it simply needs to be applied to criminal cases in the same way that responsibility is applied in cases involving natural persons. Notice that under this system, if word gets out that a corporation is pushing the limits of legality, the stockholders have a very strong incentive to sell, driving down the value of the stock. Notice also that if lenders become aware that a corporation is engaging in really egregious behavior, they have a very strong incentive to charge higher interest rates or even to stop loaning money to the corporation. Neither has any such incentive under the current system, which is one reason why corporations act as though their quarterly profit statements are the only things that matter; to their stockholders and creditors, this is essentially the case.

Finally, notice that the government has a powerful incentive to enforce the law, which current corporate regulation schemes generally lack. Governments always need money; raising taxes is unpopular, but catching a crooked corporation that has violated the law and making the rascals pay for their crime will make excellent press, and five or ten years of corporate income in the state treasury is likely to gladden the heart of even the most unregenerate corporate stooge in the state legislature.

My more perceptive readers may be wondering at this point whether I seriously think such a proposal has the chance of a snowball in Beelzebub’s back yard of being enacted. Yes, as it happens, I do. One of the repeated lessons of history is that the political power of business waxes during times of relative stability, and crumples in times of turmoil and crisis. The long European peace of the 19th century saw business interests dominate most Western governments; when that peace shattered in 1914, it took the power of big business with it, and by the time the rubble stopped bouncing after 1945, every Western country had either embraced some degree of socialism outright, or adopted radical economic reforms that would have been considered unthinkable before a flurry of bullets at Sarajevo tipped the world into chaos.

We are facing a similar age of crisis now, in case you haven’t noticed, and it’s worth noting that a number of countries have already seen governments square off against corporate powers and win. (Consider Russia, where the seizure of the nation’s fossil fuel reserves by local magnates backed by multinational corporations drew a brutally effective counter from the government once Putin took office.) When the power of money faces off against the power of violence, money comes out a distant second. As the Great Recession deepens, the peaking and decline of world petroleum production begins to bite, and rising world powers contend with declining America and each other to settle whose will be the next global empire, this equation is likely to play a major role in the balance of political power. I suspect that by the time the current mess gets any deeper, business interests will be facing organized efforts to do things much more drastic to them than simply hold corporations responsible for their crimes, and may be willing to bargain in the hope of survival in exactly the same way their predecessors did in that earlier time of troubles.

Yet there’s another factor that needs to be addressed. As I suggested toward the beginning of this essay, the power of corporate interests might more usefully be seen as a response to the general weakness of all other parties. That weakness is the product of a power vacuum at the core of the American political system, and this vacuum will be the theme of next week’s post.