Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dark Age America: The Suicide of Science

Last week’s discussion of facts and values was not as much of a diversion from the main theme of the current sequence of posts here on The Archdruid Report as it may have seemed.  Every human society likes to think that its core cultural and intellectual projects, whatever those happen to be, are the be-all and end-all of human existence. As each society rounds out its trajectory through time with the normal process of decline and fall, in turn, its intellectuals face the dismaying experience of watching those projects fail, and betray the hopes so fondly confided to them.

It’s important not to underestimate the shattering force of this experience. The plays of Euripides offer cogent testimony of the despair felt by ancient Greek thinkers as their grand project of reducing the world to rational order dissolved in a chaos of competing ideologies and brutal warfare. Fast forward most of a millennium, and Augustine’s The City of God anatomized the comparable despair of Roman intellectuals at the failure of their dream of a civilized world at peace under the rule of law. 

Skip another millennium and a bit, and the collapse of the imagined unity of Christendom into a welter of contending sects and warring nationalities had a similar impact on cultural productions of all kinds as the Middle Ages gave way to the era of the Reformation. No doubt when people a millennium or so from now assess the legacies of the twenty-first century, they’ll have no trouble tracing a similar tone of despair in our arts and literature, driven by the failure of science and technology to live up to the messianic fantasies of perpetual progress that have been loaded onto them since Francis Bacon’s time.

I’ve already discussed, in previous essays here, some of the reasons why such projects so reliably fail. To begin with, of course, the grand designs of intellectuals in a mature society normally presuppose access to the kind and scale of resources that such a society supplies to its more privileged inmates.  When the resource needs of an intellectual project can no longer be met, it doesn’t matter how useful it would be if it could be pursued further, much less how closely aligned it might happen to be to somebody’s notion of the meaning and purpose of human existence.

Furthermore, as a society begins its one-way trip down the steep and slippery chute labeled “Decline and Fall,” and its ability to find and distribute resources starts to falter, its priorities necessarily shift. Triage becomes the order of the day, and projects that might ordinarily get funding end up  out of luck so that more immediate needs can get as much of the available resource base as possible. A society’s core intellectual projects tend to face this fate a good deal sooner than other, more pragmatic concerns; when the barbarians are at the gates, one might say, funds that might otherwise be used to pay for schools of philosophy tend to get spent hiring soldiers instead.

Modern science, the core intellectual project of the contemporary industrial world, and technological complexification, its core cultural project, are as subject to these same two vulnerabilities as were the corresponding projects of other civilizations. Yes, I’m aware that this is a controversial claim, but I’d argue that it follows necessarily from the nature of both projects. Scientific research, like most things in life, is subject to the law of diminishing returns; what this means in practice is that the more research has been done in any field, the greater an investment is needed on average to make the next round of discoveries. Consider the difference between the absurdly cheap hardware that was used in the late 19th century to detect the electron and the fantastically expensive facility that had to be built to detect the Higgs boson; that’s the sort of shift in the cost-benefit ratio of research that I have in mind.

A civilization with ample resources and a thriving economy can afford to ignore the rising cost of research, and gamble that new discoveries will be valuable enough to cover the costs. A civilization facing resource shortages and economic contraction can’t. If the cost of new discoveries in particle physics continues to rise along the same curve that gave us the Higgs boson’s multibillion-Euro price tag, for example, the next round of experiments, or the one after that, could easily rise to the point that in an era of resource depletion, economic turmoil, and environmental payback, no consortium of nations on the planet will be able to spare the resources for the project. Even if the resources could theoretically be spared, furthermore, there will be many other projects begging for them, and it’s far from certain that another round of research into particle physics would be the best available option.

The project of technological complexification is even more vulnerable to the same effect. Though true believers in progress like to think of new technologies as replacements for older ones, it’s actually more common for new technologies to be layered over existing ones. Consider, as one example out of many, the US transportation grid, in which airlanes, freeways, railroads, local roads, and navigable waterways are all still in use, reflecting most of the history of transport on this continent from colonial times to the present. The more recent the transport mode, by and large, the more expensive it is to maintain and operate, and the exotic new transportation schemes floated in recent years are no exception to that rule.

Now factor in economic contraction and resource shortages. The most complex and expensive parts of the technostructure tend also to be the most prestigious and politically influential, and so the logical strategy of a phased withdrawal from unaffordable complexity—for example, shutting down airports and using the proceeds to make good some of the impact of decades of malign neglect on the nation’s rail network—is rarely if ever a politically viable option. As contraction accelerates, the available resources come to be distributed by way of a political free-for-all in which rational strategies for the future play no significant role. In such a setting, will new technological projects be able to get the kind of ample funding they’ve gotten in the past? Let’s be charitable and simply say that this isn’t likely.

Thus the end of the age of fossil-fueled extravagance means the coming of a period in which science and technology will have a very hard row to hoe, with each existing or proposed project having to compete for a slice of a shrinking pie of resources against many other equally urgent needs. That in itself would be a huge challenge. What makes it much worse is that many scientists, technologists, and their supporters in the lay community are currently behaving in ways that all but guarantee that when the resources are divided up, science and technology will draw the short sticks.

It has to be remembered that science and technology are social enterprises. They don’t happen by themselves in some sort of abstract space insulated from the grubby realities of human collective life. Laboratories, institutes, and university departments are social constructs, funded and supported by the wider society. That funding and support doesn’t happen by accident; it exists because the wider society believes that the labors of scientists and engineers will further its own collective goals and projects.

Historically speaking, it’s only in exceptional circumstances that something like scientific research gets as large a cut of a society’s total budget as they do today.  As recently as a century ago, the sciences received only a tiny fraction of the support they currently get; a modest number of university positions with limited resources provided most of what institutional backing the sciences got, and technological progress was largely a matter of individual inventors pursuing projects on their own nickel in their off hours—consider the Wright brothers, who carried out the research that led to the first successful airplane in between waiting on customers in their bicycle shop, and without benefit of research grants.

The transformation of scientific research and technological progress from the part-time activity of an enthusiastic fringe culture to its present role as a massively funded institutional process took place over the course of the twentieth century. Plenty of things drove that transformation, but among the critical factors were the successful efforts of scientists, engineers, and the patrons and publicists of science and technology to make a case for science and technology as forces for good in society, producing benefits that would someday be extended to all. In the boomtimes that followed the Second World War, it was arguably easier to make that case than it had ever been before, but it took a great deal of work—not merely propaganda, but actual changes in the way that scientists and engineers interacted with the public and met their concerns—to overcome the public wariness toward science and technology that made the mad scientist such a stock figure in the popular media of the time.

These days, the economic largesse that made it possible for the latest products of industry to reach most American households is increasingly a fading memory, and that’s made life a good deal more difficult for those who argue for science and technology as forces for good. Still, there’s another factor, which is the increasing failure of institutional science and technology to make that case in any way that matters.

Here’s a homely example. I have a friend who suffered from severe asthma. She was on four different asthma medications, each accompanied by its own bevy of nasty side effects, which more or less kept the asthma under control without curing it. After many years of this, she happened to learn that another health problem she had was associated with a dietary allergy, cut the offending food out of her diet, and was startled and delighted to find that her asthma cleared up as well.

After a year with no asthma symptoms, she went to her physician, who expressed surprise that she hadn’t had to come in for asthma treatment in the meantime. She explained what had happened. The doctor admitted that the role of that allergy as a cause of severe asthma was well known. When she asked the doctor why she hadn’t been told this, so she could make an informed decision, the only response she got was, and I quote, “We prefer to medicate for that condition.”

Most of the people I know have at least one such story to tell about their interactions with the medical industry, in which the convenience and profit of the industry took precedence over the well-being of the patient; no few have simply stopped going to physicians, since the side effects from the medications they received have been reliably worse than the illness they had when they went in. Since today’s mainstream medical industry makes so much of its scientific basis, the growing public unease with medicine splashes over onto science in general. For that matter, whenever some technology seems to be harming people, it’s a safe bet that somebody in a lab coat with a prestigious title will appear on the media insisting that everything’s all right; some of the time, the person in the lab coat is right, but it’s happened often enough that everything was not all right that the trust once reposed in scientific experts is getting noticeably threadbare these days.

Public trust in scientists has taken a beating for several other reasons as well. I’ve discussed in previous posts here the way that the vagaries of scientific opinion concerning climate change have been erased from our collective memory by one side in the current climate debate.  It’s probably necessary for me to reiterate here that I find the arguments for disastrous anthropogenic climate change far stronger than the arguments against it, and have discussed the likely consequences of our civilization’s maltreatment of the atmosphere repeatedly on this blog and in my books; the fact remains that in my teen years, in the 1970s and 1980s, scientific opinion was still sharply divided on the subject of future climates, and a significant number of experts believed that the descent into a new ice age was likely.

I’ve taken the time to find and post here the covers of some of the books I read in those days. The authors were by no means nonentities. Nigel Calder was a highly respected science writer and media personality. E.C. Pielou is still one of the most respected Canadian ecologists, and the book of hers shown here, After the Ice Age, is a brilliant ecological study that deserves close attention from anyone interested in how ecosystems respond to sudden climatic warming. Windsor Chorlton, the author of Ice Ages, occupied a less exalted station in the food chain of science writers, but all the volumes in the Planet Earth series were written in consultation with acknowledged experts and summarized the state of the art in the earth sciences at the time of publication.

Since certain science fiction writers have been among the most vitriolic figures denouncing those who remember the warnings of an imminent ice age, I’ve also posted covers of two of my favorite science fiction novels from those days, which were both set in an ice age future. My younger readers may not remember Robert Silverbergand Poul Anderson; those who do will know that both of them were serious SF writers who paid close attention to the scientific thought of their time, and wrote about futures defined by an ice age at the time when this was still a legitimate scientific extrapolation

These books exist.  I still own copies of most of them, and any of my readers who takes the time to find one will discover, in each nonfiction volume, a thoughtfully developed argument suggesting that the earth would soon descend into a new ice age, and in each of the novels, a lively story set in a future shaped by the new ice age in question. Those arguments turned out to be wrong, no question; they were made by qualified experts, at a time
when the evidence concerning climate change was a good deal more equivocal than it’s become since that time, and the more complete evidence that was gathered later settled the matter; but the arguments and the books existed, many people alive today know that they existed, and when scientists associated with climate activism insist that they didn’t, the result is a body blow to public trust in science.

It’s far from the only example of the same kind. Many of my readers will remember the days when all cholesterol was bad and polyunsaturated fats were good for you. Most of my readers will recall drugs that were introduced to the market with loud assurances of safety and efficacy, and then withdrawn in a hurry when those assurances turned out to be dead wrong. Those readers who are old enough may even remember when continental drift was being denounced as the last word in pseudoscience, a bit of history that a number of science writers these days claim never happened. Support for science depends on trust in scientists, and that’s become increasingly hard to maintain at a time when it’s unpleasantly easy to point to straightforward falsifications of the kind just outlined.

On top of all this, there’s the impact of the atheist movement on public debates concerning science. I hasten to say that I know quite a few atheists, and the great majority of them are decent, compassionate people who have no trouble accepting the fact that their beliefs aren’t shared by everyone around them. Unfortunately, the atheists who have managed to seize the public limelight too rarely merit description in those terms.  Most of my readers will be wearily familiar with the sneering bullies who so often claim to speak for atheism these days; I can promise you that as the head of a small religious organization in a minority faith, I get to hear from them far too often for my taste.

Mind you, there’s a certain wry amusement in the way that the resulting disputes are playing out in contemporary culture. Even diehard atheists have begun to notice that whenever Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, a dozen people decide to give religion a second chance. Still, the dubious behavior of the “angry atheist” crowd affects the subject of this post at least as powerfully as it does the field of popular religion. A great many of today’s atheists claim the support of scientific materialism for their beliefs, and no small number of the most prominent figures in the atheist movement hold down day jobs as scientists or science educators. In the popular mind, as a result, these people, their beliefs, and their behavior are quite generally conflated with science as a whole.

Theimplications of all these factors are best explored by way of a simple thought experiment. Let’s say, dear reader, that you’re an ordinary American citizen. Over the last month, you’ve heard one scientific expert insist that the latest fashionable heart drug is safe and effective, while three of your drinking buddies have told you in detail about the ghastly side effects it gave them. You’ve heard another scientific expert denounce acupuncture as crackpot pseudoscience, while your Uncle Henry, who messed up his back in Iraq, got more relief from three visits to an acupuncturist than he got from six years of conventional treatment. You’ve heard still another scientific expert claim yet again that no qualified scientist ever said back in the 1970s that the world was headed for a new ice age, and you read the same books I did when you were in high school and know that the expert is either misinformed or lying. Finally, you’ve been on the receiving end of yet another diatribe by yet another atheist of the sneering-bully type mentioned earlier, who vilified your personal religious beliefs in terms that would probably count as hate speech in most other contexts, and used an assortment of claims about science to justify his views and excuse his behavior.

Given all this, will you vote for a candidate who says that you have to accept a cut in your standard of living in order to keep research laboratories and university science departments fully funded?

No, I didn’t think so.

In miniature, that’s the crisis faced by science as we move into the endgame of industrial civilization, just as comparable crises challenged Greek philosophy, Roman jurisprudence, and medieval theology in the endgames of their own societies. When a society assigns one of its core intellectual or cultural projects to a community of specialists, those specialists need to think, hard, about the way that  their words and actions will come across to those outside that community. That’s important enough when the society is still in a phase of expansion; when it tips over its historic peak and begins the long road down, it becomes an absolute necessity—but it’s a necessity that, very often, the specialists in question never get around to recognizing until it’s far too late.

Thus it’s unlikely that science as a living tradition will be able to survive in its current institutional framework as the Long Descent picks up speed around us. It’s by no means certain that it will survive at all. The abstract conviction that science is humanity’s best hope for the future, even if it were more broadly held than it is, offers little protection against the consequences of popular revulsion driven by the corruptions, falsifications, and abusive behaviors sketched out above. What Oswald Spengler called the Second Religiosity, the resurgence of religion in the declining years of a culture, could have taken many forms in the historical trajectory of industrial society; at this point I think it’s all too likely to contain a very large dollop of hostility toward science and complex technology. How the scientific method and the core scientific discoveries of the last few centuries might be preserved in the face of that hostility will be discussed in a future post.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Facts, Values, and Dark Beer

Over the last eight and a half years, since I first began writing essays on The Archdruid Report, I’ve fielded a great many questions about what motivates this blog’s project. Some of those questions have been abusive, and some of them have been clueless; some of them have been thoughtful enough to deserve an answer, either in the comments or as a blog post in its own right. Last week brought one of that last category. It came from one of my European readers, Ervino Cus, and it read as follows:

“All considered (the amount of weapons—personal and of MD—around today; the population numbers; the environmental pollution; the level of lawlessness we are about to face; the difficulty to have a secure form of life in the coming years; etc.) plus the ‘low’ technical level of possible development of the future societies (I mean: no more space flight? no more scientific discovery about the ultimate structure of the Universe? no genetic engineering to modify the human genome?) the question I ask to myself is: why bother?

“Seriously: why one should wish to plan for his/her long term survival in the future that await us? Why, when all goes belly up, don't join the first warlord band available and go off with a bang, pillaging and raping till one drops dead?

“If the possibilities for a new stable civilization are very low, and it's very probable that such a civilization, even if created, will NEVER be able to reach even the technical level of today, not to mention to surpass it, why one should want to try to survive some more years in a situation that becomes every day less bright, without ANY possibilities to get better in his/her lifetime, and with, as the best objective, only some low-tech rural/feudal state waaay along the way?

“Dunno you, but for me the idea that this is the last stop for the technological civilization, that things as a syncrothron or a manned space flight are doomed and never to repeat, and that the max at which we, as a species and as individuals, can aspire from now on is to have a good harvest and to ‘enjoy’ the same level of knowledge of the structure of the Universe of our flock of sheeps, doesen't makes for a good enough incentive to want to live more, or to give a darn if anybody other lives on.

“Apologies if my word could seem blunt (and for my far than good English: I'm Italian), but, as Dante said:

“Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.”
 (Inferno - Canto XXVI - vv. 112-120)

“If our future is not this (and unfortunately I too agree with you that at this point the things seems irreversibles) I, for one, don't see any reason to be anymore compelled by any moral imperative... :-(

“PS: Yes, I know, I pose some absolutes: that a high-tech/scientific civilization is the only kind of civilization that enpowers us to gain any form of ‘real’ knowledge of the Universe, that this knowledge is a ‘plus’ and that a life made only of ‘birth-reproduction-death’ is a life of no more ‘meaning’ than the one of an a plant.

“Cheers, Ervino.”

It’s a common enough question, though rarely expressed as clearly or as starkly as this. As it happens, there’s an answer to it, or rather an entire family of answers, but the best way there is to start by considering the presuppositions behind it.  Those aren’t adequately summarized by Ervino’s list of ‘absolutes’—the latter are simply restatements of his basic argument.

What Ervino is suggesting, rather, presupposes that scientific and technological progress are the only reasons for human existence. Lacking those—lacking space travel, cyclotrons, ‘real’ knowledge about the universe, and the rest—our existence is a waste of time and we might as well just lay down and die or, as he suggests, run riot in anarchic excess until death makes the whole thing moot. What’s more, only the promise of a better future gives any justification for moral behavior—consider his comment about not feeling compelled by any moral imperative if no better future is in sight.

Those of my readers who recall the discussion of progress as a surrogate religion in last year’s posts here will find this sort of thinking very familiar, because the values being imputed to space travel, cyclotrons et al. are precisely those that used to be assigned to more blatantly theological concepts such as God and eternal life. Still, I want to pose a more basic question: is this claim—that the meaning and purpose of human existence and the justification of morality can only be found in scientific and technological progress—based on evidence? Are there, for example, double-blinded, controlled studies by qualified experts that confirm this claim?

Of course not. Ervino’s claim is a value judgment, not a statement of fact.  The distinction between facts and values was mentioned in last week’s post, but probably needs to be sketched out here as well; to summarize a complex issue somewhat too simply, facts are the things that depend on the properties of perceived objects rather than perceiving subjects. Imagine, dear reader, that you and I were sitting in the same living room, and I got a bottle of beer out of the fridge and passed it around.  Provided that everyone present had normally functioning senses and no reason to prevaricate, we’d be able to agree on certain facts about the bottle: its size, shape, color, weight, temperature, and so on. Those are facts.

Now let’s suppose I got two glasses, poured half the beer into each glass, handed one to you and took the other for myself. Let’s further suppose that the beer is an imperial stout, and you can’t stand dark beer. I take a sip and say, “Oh, man, that’s good.” You take a sip, make a face, and say, “Ick. That’s awful.” If I were to say, “No, that’s not true—it’s delicious,” I’d be talking nonsense of a very specific kind: the nonsense that pops up reliably whenever someone tries to treat a value as though it’s a fact.

“Delicious” is a value judgment, and like every value judgment, it depends on the properties of perceiving subjects rather than perceived objects. That’s true of all values without exception, including those considerably more important than those involved in assessing the taste of beer. To say “this is good” or “this is bad” is to invite the question “according to whose values?”—which is to say, every value implies a valuer, just as every judgment implies a judge.

Now of course it’s remarkably common these days for people to insist that their values are objective truths, and values that differ from theirs objective falsehoods. That’s a very appealing sort of nonsense, but it’s still nonsense. Consider the claim often made by such people that if values are subjective, that would make all values, no matter how repugnant, equal to one another. Equal in what sense? Why, equal in value—and of course there the entire claim falls to pieces, because “equal in value” invites the question already noted, “according to whose values?” If a given set of values is repugnant to you, then pointing out that someone else thinks differently about those values doesn’t make them less repugnant to you.  All it means is that if you want to talk other people into sharing those values, you have to offer good reasons, and not simply insist at the top of your lungs that you’re right and they’re wrong.

To say that values depend on the properties of perceiving subjects rather than perceived objects does not mean that values are wholly arbitrary, after all. It’s possible to compare different values to one another, and to decide that one set of values is better than another. In point of fact, people do this all the time, just as they compare different claims of fact to one another and decide that one is more accurate than another. The scientific method itself is simply a relatively rigorous way to handle this latter task: if fact X is true, then fact Y would also be true; is it? In the same way, though contemporary industrial culture tends to pay far too little attention to this, there’s an ethical method that works along the same lines: if value X is good, then value Y would also be good; is it?

Again, we do this sort of thing all the time. Consider, for example, why it is that most people nowadays reject the racist claim that some arbitrarily defined assortment of ethnicities—say, “the white race”—is superior to all others, and ought to have rights and privileges that are denied to everyone else. One reason why such claims are rejected is that they conflict with other values, such as fairness and justice, that most people consider to be important; another is that the history of racial intolerance shows that people who hold the values associated with racism are much more likely than others to engage in activities, such as herding their neighbors into concentration camps, which most people find morally repugnant. That’s the ethical method in practice.

With all this in mind, let’s go back to Ervino’s claims. He proposes that in all the extraordinary richness of human life, out of all its potentials for love, learning, reflection, and delight, the only thing that can count as a source of meaning is the accumulation of “‘real’ knowledge of the Universe,” defined more precisely as the specific kind of quantitative knowledge about the behavior of matter and energy that the physical sciences of the world’s industrial societies currently pursue. That’s his value judgment on human life. Of course he has the right to make that judgment; he would be equally within his rights to insist that the point of life is to see how many orgasms he can rack up over the course of his existence; and it’s by no means obvious why one of these ambitions is any more absurd than the other.

Curiosity, after all, is a biological drive, one that human beings share in a high degree with most other primates. Sexual desire is another such drive, rather more widely shared among living things. Grant that the fulfillment of some such drive can be seen as the purpose of life, why not another? For that matter, why not more than one, or some combination of biological drives and the many other incentives that are capable of motivating human beings?

For quite a few centuries now, though, it’s been fashionable for thinkers in the Western world to finesse such issues, and insist that some biological drives are “noble” while others are “base,” “animal,” or what have you. Here again, we have value judgments masquerading as statements of fact, with a hearty dollop of class prejudice mixed in—for “base,” “animal,” etc., you could as well put “peasant,” which is of course the literal opposite of “noble.” That’s the sort of thinking that appears in the bit of Dante that Ervino included in his comment. His English is better than my Italian, and I’m not enough of a poet to translate anything but the raw meaning of Dante’s verse, but this is roughly what the verses say:

“Consider your lineage;
You were not born to live as animals,
But to seek virtue and knowledge.”

It’s a very conventional sentiment. The remarkable thing about this passage, though, is that Dante was not proposing the sentiment as a model for others to follow. Rather, this least conventional of poets put those words in the mouth of Ulysses, who appears in this passage of the Inferno as a damned soul frying in the eighth circle of Hell. Dante has it that after the events of Homer’s poem, Ulysses was so deeply in love with endless voyaging that he put to sea again, and these are the words with which he urged his second crew to sail beyond all known seas—a voyage which took them straight to a miserable death, and sent Ulysses himself tumbling down to eternal damnation.

This intensely equivocal frame story is typical of Dante, who delineated as well as any poet ever has the many ways that greatness turns into hubris, that useful Greek concept best translated as the overweening pride of the doomed. The project of scientific and technological progress is at least as vulnerable to that fate as any of the acts that earned the damned their places in Dante’s poem. That project might fail irrevocably if industrial society comes crashing down and no future society will ever be able to pursue the same narrowly defined objectives that ours has valued. In that case—at least in the parochial sense just sketched out—progress is over. Still, there’s at least one more way the same project would come to a screeching and permanent halt: if it succeeds.

Let’s imagine, for instance, that the fantasies of our scientific cornucopians are right and the march of progress continues on its way, unhindered by resource shortages or destabilized biospheres. Let’s also imagine that right now, some brilliant young physicist in Mumbai is working out the details of the long-awaited Unified Field Theory. It sees print next year; there are furious debates; the next decade goes into experimental tests of the theory, and proves that it’s correct. The relationship of all four basic forces of the cosmos—the strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism, and gravity—is explained clearly once and for all. With that in place, the rest of physical science falls into place step by step over the next century or so, and humanity learns the answers to all the questions that science can pose.

It’s only in the imagination of true believers in the Singularity, please note, that everything becomes possible once that happens. Many of the greatest achievements of science can be summed up in the words “you can’t do that;” the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics closed the door once and for all on perpetual motion, just as the theory of relativity put a full stop to the hope of limitless velocity. (“186,282 miles per second: it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.”) Once the sciences finish their work, the technologists will have to scramble to catch up with them, and so for a while, at least, there will be no shortage of novel toys to amuse those who like such things; but sooner or later, all of what Ervino calls “‘real’ knowledge about the Universe” will have been learnt; at some point after that, every viable technology will have been refined to the highest degree of efficiency that physical law allows.

What then? The project of scientific and technological progress will be over. No one will ever again be able to discover a brand new, previously unimagined truth about the universe, in any but the most trivial sense—“this star’s mass is 1.000000000000000000006978 greater than this other star,” or the like—and variations in technology will be reduced to shifts in what’s fashionable at any given time. If the ongoing quest for replicable quantifiable knowledge about the physical properties of nature is the only thing that makes human life worth living, everyone alive at that point arguably ought to fly their hovercars at top speed into the nearest concrete abutment and end it all.

One way or another, that is, the project of scientific and technological progress is self-terminating. If this suggests to you, dear reader, that treating it as the be-all and end-all of human existence may not be the smartest choice, well, yes, that’s what it suggests to me as well. Does that make it worthless? Of course not. It should hardly be necessary to point out that “the only thing important in life” and “not important at all” aren’t the only two options available in discussions of this kind.

I’d like to suggest, along these lines, that human life sorts itself out most straightforwardly into an assortment of separate spheres, each of which deals with certain aspects of the extraordinary range of possibilities open to each of us. The sciences comprise one of those spheres, with each individual science a subsphere within it; the arts are a separate sphere, similarly subdivided; politics, religion, and sexuality are among the other spheres. None of these spheres contains more than a fraction of the whole rich landscape of human existence. Which of them is the most important? That’s a value judgment, and thus can only be made by an individual, from his or her own irreducibly individual point of view.

We’ve begun to realize—well, at least some of us have—that authority in one of these spheres isn’t transferable. When a religious leader, let’s say, makes pronouncements about science, those have no more authority than they would if they came from any other more or less clueless layperson, and a scientist who makes pronouncements about religion is subject to exactly the same rule. The same distinction applies with equal force between any two spheres, and as often as not between subspheres of a single sphere as well:  plenty of scientists make fools of themselves, for example, when they try to lay down the law about sciences they haven’t studied.

Claiming that one such sphere is the only thing that makes human life worthwhile is an error of the same kind. If Ervino feels that scientific and technological progress is the only thing that makes his own personal life worth living, that’s his call, and presumably he has reasons for it. If he tries to say that that’s true for me, he’s wrong—there are plenty of things that make my life worth living—and if he’s trying to make the same claim for every human being who will ever live, that strikes me as a profoundly impoverished view of the richness of human possibility. Insisting that scientific and technological progress are the only acts of human beings that differentiate their existence from that of a plant isn’t much better. Dante’s Divina Commedia, to cite the obvious example, is neither a scientific paper nor a technological invention; does that mean that it belongs in the same category as the noise made by hogs grunting in the mud?

Dante Alighieri lived in a troubled age in which scientific and technological progress were nearly absent and warfare, injustice, famine, pestilence, and the collapse of widely held beliefs about the world were matters of common experience. From that arguably unpromising raw material, he brewed one of the great achievements of human culture. It may well be that the next few centuries will be far from optimal for scientific and technological progress; it may well be that the most important thing that can be done by people who value science and technology is to figure out what can be preserved through the difficult times ahead, and do their best to see that these things reach the waiting hands of the future. If life hands you a dark age, one might say, it’s probably not a good time to brew lite beer, but there are plenty of other things you can still brew, bottle and drink.

As for me—well, all things considered, I find that being alive beats the stuffing out of the alternative, and that’s true even though I live in a troubled age in which scientific and technological progress show every sign of grinding to a halt in the near future, and in which warfare, injustice, famine, pestilence, and the collapse of widely held beliefs are matters of common experience. The notion that life has to justify itself to me seems, if I may be frank, faintly silly, and so does the comparable claim that I have to justify my existence to it, or to anyone else. Here I am; I did not make the world; quite the contrary, the world made me, and put me in the irreducibly personal situation in which I find myself. Given that I’m here, where and when I happen to be, there are any number of things that I can choose to do, or not do; and it so happens that one of the things I choose to do is to prepare, and help others prepare, for the long decline of industrial civilization and the coming of the dark age that will follow it.

And with that, dear reader, I return you to your regularly scheduled discussion of decline and fall on The Archdruid Report.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dark Age America: The Hoard of the Nibelungs

Of all the differences that separate the feudal economy sketched out in last week’s post from the market economy most of us inhabit today, the one that tends to throw people for a loop most effectively is the near-total absence of money in everyday medieval life. Money is so central to current notions of economics that getting by without it is all but unthinkable these days.  The fact—and of course it is a fact—that the vast majority of human societies, complex civilizations among them, have gotten by just fine without money of any kind barely registers in our collective imagination.

One source of this curious blindness, I’ve come to think, is the way that the logic of money is presented to students in school. Those of my readers who sat through an Economics 101 class will no doubt recall the sort of narrative that inevitably pops up in textbooks when this point is raised. You have, let’s say, a pig farmer who has bad teeth, but the only dentist in the village is Jewish, so the pig farmer can’t simply swap pork chops and bacon for dental work. Barter might be an option, but according to the usual textbook narrative, that would end up requiring some sort of complicated multiparty deal whereby the pig farmer gives pork to the carpenter, who builds a garage for the auto repairman, who fixes the hairdresser’s car, and eventually things get back around to the dentist. Once money enters the picture, by contrast, the pig farmer sells bacon and pork chops to all and sundry, uses the proceeds to pay the dentist, and everyone’s happy. Right?

Well, maybe. Let’s stop right there for a moment, and take a look at the presuppositions hardwired into this little story. First of all, the narrative assumes that participants have a single rigidly defined economic role: the pig farmer can only raise pigs, the dentist can only fix teeth, and so on. Furthermore, it assumes that participants can’t anticipate needs and adapt to them: even though he knows the only dentist in town is Jewish, the pig farmer can’t do the logical thing and start raising lambs for Passover on the side, or what have you. Finally, the narrative assumes that participants can only interact economically through market exchanges: there are no other options for meeting needs for goods and services, no other way to arrange exchanges between people other than market transactions driven by the law of supply and demand.

Even in modern industrial societies, these three presuppositions are rarely true. I happen to know several pig farmers, for example, and none of them are so hyperspecialized that their contributions to economic exchanges are limited to pork products; garden truck, fresh eggs, venison, moonshine, and a good many other things could come into the equation as well. For that matter, outside the bizarre feedlot landscape of industrial agriculture, mixed farms raising a variety of crops and livestock are far more resilient than single-crop farms, and thus considerably more common in societies that haven’t shoved every economic activity into the procrustean bed of the money economy.

As for the second point raised above, the law of supply and demand works just as effectively in a barter economy as in a money economy, and successful participants are always on the lookout for a good or service that’s in short supply relative to potential demand, and so can be bartered with advantage. It’s no accident that traditional village economies tend to be exquisitely adapted to produce exactly that mix of goods and services the inhabitants of the village need and want.

Finally, of course, there are many ways of handling the production and distribution of goods and services without engaging in market exchanges. The household economy, in which members of each household produce goods and services that they themselves consume, is the foundation of economic activity in most human societies, and still accounted for the majority of economic value produced in the United States until not much more than a century ago. The gift economy, in which members of a community give their excess production to other members of the same community in the expectation that the gift will be reciprocated, is immensely common; so is the feudal economy delineated in last week’s post, with its systematic exclusion of market forces from the economic sphere. There are others, plenty of them, and none of them require money at all.

Thus the logic behind money pretty clearly isn’t what the textbook story claims it is. That doesn’t mean that there’s no logic to it at all; what it means is that nobody wants to talk about what it is that money is actually meant to do. Fortunately, we’ve discussed the relevant issues in last week’s post, so I can sum up the matter here in a single sentence: the point of money is that it makes intermediation easy.

Intermediation, for those of my readers who weren’t paying attention last week, is the process by which other people insert themselves between the producer and the consumer of any good or service, and take a cut of the proceeds of the transaction. That’s very easy to do in a money economy, because—as we all know from personal experience—the intermediaries can simply charge fees for whatever service they claim to provide, and then cash in those fees for whatever goods and services they happen to want.

Imagine, by way of contrast, the predicament of an intermediary who wanted to insert himself into, and take a cut out of, a money-free transaction between the pig farmer and the dentist. We’ll suppose that the arrangement the two of them have worked out is that the pig farmer raises enough lambs each year that all the Jewish families in town can have a proper Passover seder, the dentist takes care of the dental needs of the pig farmer and his family, and the other families in the Jewish community work things out with the dentist in exchange for their lambs—a type of arrangement, half barter and half gift economy, that’s tolerably common in close-knit communities.

Intermediation works by taking a cut from each transaction. The cut may be described as a tax, a fee, an interest payment, a service charge, or what have you, but it amounts to the same thing: whenever money changes hands, part of it gets siphoned off for the benefit of the intermediaries involved in the transaction. The same thing can be done in some money-free transactions, but not all. Our intermediary might be able to demand a certain amount of meat from each Passover lamb, or require the pig farmer to raise one lamb for the intermediary per six lambs raised for the local Jewish families, though this assumes that he either likes lamb chops or can swap the lamb to someone else for something he wants.

What on earth, though, is he going to do to take a cut from the dentist’s side of the transaction?  There wouldn’t be much point in demanding one tooth out of every six the dentist extracts, for example, and requiring the dentist to fill one of the intermediary’s teeth for every twenty other teeth he fills would be awkward at best—what if the intermediary doesn’t happen to need any teeth filled this year? What’s more, once intermediation is reduced to such crassly physical terms, it’s hard to pretend that it’s anything but a parasitic relationship that benefits the intermediary at everyone else’s expense.

What makes intermediation seem to make sense in a money economy is that money is the primary intermediation. Money is a system of arbitrary tokens used to facilitate exchange, but it’s also a good deal more than that. It’s the framework of laws, institutions, and power relationships that creates the tokens, defines their official value, and mandates that they be used for certain classes of economic exchange. Once the use of money is required for any purpose, the people who control the framework—whether those people are government officials, bankers, or what have you—get to decide the terms on which everyone else gets access to money, which amounts to effective control over everyone else. That is to say, they become the primary intermediaries, and every other intermediation depends on them and the money system they control.

This is why, to cite only one example, British colonial administrators in Africa imposed a house tax on the native population, even though the cost of administering and collecting the tax was more than the revenue the tax brought in. By requiring the tax to be paid in money rather than in kind, the colonial government forced the natives to participate in the money economy, on terms that were of course set by the colonial administration and British business interests. The money economy is the basis on which nearly all other forms of intermediation rest, and forcing the native peoples to work for money instead of allowing them to meet their economic needs in some less easily exploited fashion was an essential part of the mechanism that pumped wealth out of the colonies for Britain’s benefit.

Watch the way that the money economy has insinuated itself into every dimension of modern life in an industrial society and you’ve got a ringside seat from which to observe the metastasis of intermediation in recent decades. Where money goes, intermediation follows:  that’s one of the unmentionable realities of political economy, the science that Adam Smith actually founded, but was gutted, stuffed, and mounted on the wall—turned, that is, into the contemporary pseudoscience of economics—once it became painfully clear just what kind of trouble got stirred up when people got to talking about the implications of the links between political power and economic wealth.

There’s another side to the metastasis just mentioned, though, and it has to do with the habits of thought that the money economy both requires and reinforces. At the heart of the entire system of money is the concept of abstract value, the idea that goods and services share a common, objective attribute called “value” that can be gauged according to the one-dimensional measurement of price.

It’s an astonishingly complex concept, and so needs unpacking here. Philosophers generally recognize a crucial distinction between facts and values; there are various ways of distinguishing them, but the one that matters for our present purposes is that facts are collective and values are individual. Consider the statement “it rained here last night.” Given agreed-upon definitions of “here” and “last night,” that’s a factual statement; all those who stood outside last night in the town where I live and looked up at the sky got raindrops on their faces. In the strict sense of the word, facts are objective—that is, they deal with the properties of objects of perception, such as raindrops and nights.

Values, by contrast, are subjective—that is, they deal with the properties of perceiving subjects, such as people who look up at the sky and notice wetness on their faces. One person is annoyed by the rain, another is pleased, another is completely indifferent to it, and these value judgments are irreducibly personal; it’s not that the rain is annoying, pleasant, or indifferent, it’s the individuals who are affected in these ways. Nor are these personal valuations easy to sort out along a linear scale without drastic distortion. The human experience of value is a richly multidimensional thing; even in a language as poorly furnished with descriptive terms for emotion as English is, there are countless shades of meaning available for talking about positive valuations, and at least as many more for negative ones.

From that vast universe of human experience, the concept of abstract value extracts a single variable—“how much will you give for it?”—and reduces the answer to a numerical scale denominated in dollars and cents or the local equivalent. Like any other act of reductive abstraction, it has its uses, but the benefits of any such act always have to be measured against the blind spots generated by reductive modes of thinking, and the consequences of that induced blindness must either be guarded against or paid in full. The latter is far and away the more common of the two, and it’s certainly the option that modern industrial society has enthusiastically chosen.

Those of my readers who want to see the blindness just mentioned in full spate need only turn to any of the popular cornucopian economic theorists of our time. The fond and fatuous insistence that resource depletion can’t possibly be a problem, because investing additional capital will inevitably turn up new supplies—precisely the same logic, by the way, that appears in the legendary utterance “I can’t be overdrawn, I still have checks left!”—unfolds precisely from the flattening out of qualitative value into quantitative price just discussed.  The habit of reducing every kind of value to bare price is profitable in a money economy, since it facilitates ignoring every variable that might get in the way of making money off  transactions; unfortunately it misses a minor but crucial fact, which is that the laws of physics and ecology trump the laws of economics, and can neither be bribed nor bought.

The contemporary fixation on abstract value isn’t limited to economists and those who believe them, nor is its potential for catastrophic consequences. I’m thinking here specifically of those people who have grasped the fact that industrial civilization is picking up speed on the downslope of its decline, but whose main response to it consists of trying to find some way to stash away as much abstract value as possible now, so that it will be available to them in some prospective postcollapse society. Far more often than not, gold plays a central role in that strategy, though there are a variety of less popular vehicles that play starring roles the same sort of plan.

Now of course it was probably inevitable in a consumer society like ours that even the downfall of industrial civilization would be turned promptly into yet another reason to go shopping. Still, there’s another difficulty here, and that’s that the same strategy has been tried before, many times, in the last years of other civilizations. There’s an ample body of historical evidence that can be used to see just how well it works. The short form? Don’t go there.

It so happens, for example, that in there among the sagas and songs of early medieval Europe are a handful that deal with historical events in the years right after the fall of Rome: the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, the oldest strata of Norse saga, and some others. Now of course all these started out as oral traditions, and finally found their way into written form centuries after the events they chronicle, when their compilers had no way to check their facts; they also include plenty of folktale and myth, as oral traditions generally do. Still, they describe events and social customs that have been confirmed by surviving records and archeological evidence, and offer one of the best glimpses we’ve got into the lived experience of descent into a dark age.

Precious metals played an important part in the political economy of that age—no surprises there, as the Roman world had a precious-metal currency, and since banks had not been invented yet, portable objects of gold and silver were the most common way that the Roman world’s well-off classes stashed their personal wealth. As the western empire foundered in the fifth century CE and its market economy came apart, hoarding precious metals became standard practice, and rural villas, the doomsteads of the day, popped up all over. When archeologists excavate those villas, they routinely find evidence that they were looted and burnt when the empire fell, and tolerably often the archeologists or a hobbyist with a metal detector has located the buried stash of precious metals somewhere nearby, an expressive reminder of just how much benefit that store of abstract wealth actually provided to its owner.

That’s the same story you get from all the old legends: when treasure turns up, a lot of people are about to die. The Volsunga saga and the Nibelungenlied, for example, are versions of the same story, based on dim memories of events in the Rhine valley in the century or so after Rome’s fall. The primary plot engine of those events is a hoard of the usual late Roman kind,  which passes from hand to hand by way of murder, torture, treachery, vengeance, and the extermination of entire dynasties. For that matter, when Beowulf dies after slaying his dragon, and his people discover that the dragon was guarding a treasure, do they rejoice? Not at all; they take it for granted that the kings and warriors of every neighboring kingdom are going to come and slaughter them to get it—and in fact that’s what happens. That’s business as usual in a dark age society.

The problem with stockpiling gold on the brink of a dark age is thus simply another dimension, if a more extreme one, of the broader problem with intermediation. It bears remembering that gold is not wealth; it’s simply a durable form of money, and thus, like every other form of money, an arbitrary token embodying a claim to real wealth—that is, goods and services—that other people produce. If the goods and services aren’t available, a basement safe full of gold coins won’t change that fact, and if the people who have the goods and services need them more than they want gold, the same is true. Even if the goods and services are to be had, if everyone with gold is bidding for the same diminished supply, that gold isn’t going to buy anything close to what it does today. What’s more, tokens of abstract value have another disadvantage in a society where the rule of law has broken down: they attract violence the way a dead rat draws flies.

The fetish for stockpiling gold has always struck me, in fact, as the best possible proof that most of the people who think they are preparing for total social collapse haven’t actually thought the matter through, and considered the conditions that will obtain after the rubble stops bouncing. Let’s say industrial civilization comes apart, quickly or slowly, and you have gold.  In that case, either you spend it to purchase goods and services after the collapse, or you don’t. If you do, everyone in your vicinity will soon know that you have gold, the rule of law no longer discourages people from killing you and taking it in the best Nibelungenlied fashion, and sooner or later you’ll run out of ammo. If you don’t, what good will the gold do you?

The era when Nibelungenlied conditions apply—when, for example, armed gangs move from one doomstead to another, annihilating the people holed up there, living for a while on what they find, and then moving on to the next, or when local governments round up the families of those believed to have gold and torture them to death, starting with the children, until someone breaks—is a common stage of dark ages. It’s a self-terminating one, since sooner or later the available supply of precious metals or other carriers of abstract wealth are spread thin across the available supply of warlords. This can take anything up to a century or two before we reach the stage commemorated in the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer:” Nearon nú cyningas ne cáseras, ne goldgiefan swylce iú wáeron (No more are there kings or caesars or gold-givers as once there were).

That’s when things begin settling down and the sort of feudal arrangement sketched out in last week’s post begins to emerge, when money and the market play little role in most people’s lives and labor and land become the foundation of a new, impoverished, but relatively stable society where the rule of law again becomes a reality. None of us living today will see that period arrive, but it’s good to know where the process is headed. We’ll discuss the practical implications of that knowledge in a future post.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Dark Age America: The End of the Market Economy

One of the factors that makes it difficult to think through the economic consequences of the end of the industrial age is that we’ve all grown up in a world where every form of economic activity has been channeled through certain familiar forms for so long that very few people remember that things could be any other way. Another of the factors that make the same effort of thinking difficult is that the conventional economic thought of our time has invested immense effort and oceans of verbiage into obscuring the fact that things could be any other way.

Those are formidable obstacles. We’re going to have to confront them, though, because one of the core features of the decline and fall of civilizations is that most of the habits of everyday life that are standard practice when civilizations are at zenith get chucked promptly into the recycle bin as decline picks up speed. That’s true across the whole spectrum of cultural phenomena, and it’s especially true of economics, for a reason discussed in last week’s post: the economic institutions and habits of a civilization in full flower are too complex for the same civilization to support once it’s gone to seed.

The institutions and habits that contemporary industrial civilization uses to structure its economic life comprise that tangled realm of supposedly voluntary exchanges we call “the market.” Back when the United States was still contending with the Soviet Union for global hegemony, that almost always got rephrased as “the free market;” the adjective still gets some use among ideologues, but by and large it’s dropped out of use elsewhere. This is a good thing, at least from the perspective of honest speaking, because the “free” market is of course nothing of the kind. It’s unfree in at least two crucial senses: first, in that it’s compulsory; second, in that it’s expensive.

“The law in its majestic equality,” Anatole France once noted drolly, “forbids rich and poor alike to urinate in public, sleep under bridges, or beg for bread.” In much the same sense, no one is actually forced to participate in the market economy in the modern industrial world. Those who want to abstain are perfectly free to go looking for some other way to keep themselves fed, clothed, housed, and supplied with the other necessities of life, and the fact that every option outside of the market has been hedged around with impenetrable legal prohibitions if it hasn’t simply been annihilated by legal fiat or brute force is just one of those minor details that make life so interesting.

Historically speaking, there are a vast number of ways to handle exchanges of goods and services between people. In modern industrial societies, on the other hand, outside of the occasional vestige of an older tradition here and there, there’s only one. Exchanging some form of labor for money, on whatever terms an employer chooses to offer, and then exchanging money for goods and services, on whatever terms the seller chooses to offer, is the only game in town. There’s nothing free about either exchange, other than the aforesaid freedom to starve in the gutter. The further up you go in the social hierarchy, to be sure, the less burdensome the conditions on the exchanges generally turn out to be—here as elsewhere, privilege has its advantages—but unless you happen to have inherited wealth or can find some other way to parasitize the market economy without having to sell your own labor, you’re going to participate if you like to eat.

Your participation in the market, furthermore, doesn’t come cheap. Every exchange you make, whether it’s selling your labor or buying goods and services with the proceeds, takes place within a system that has been subjected to the process of intermediation discussed in last week’s post. Thus, in most cases, you can’t simply sell your labor directly to individuals who want to buy it or its products; instead, you are expected to sell your labor to an employer, who then sells it or its product to others, gives you part of the proceeds, and pockets the rest. Plenty of other people are lined up for their share of the value of your labor: bankers, landlords, government officials, and the list goes on. When you go to exchange money for goods and services, the same principle applies; how much of the value of your labor you get to keep for your own purposes varies from case to case, but it’s always less than the whole sum, and sometimes a great deal less.

Karl Marx performed a valuable service to political economy by pointing out these facts and giving them the stress they deserve, in the teeth of savage opposition from the cheerleaders of the status quo who, then as now, dominated economic thought. His proposed solution to the pervasive problems of the (un)free market was another matter.  Like most of his generation of European intellectuals, Marx was dazzled by the swamp-gas luminescence of Hegelian philosophy, and followed Hegel’s verbose and vaporous trail into a morass of circular reasoning and false prophecy from which few of his remaining followers have yet managed to extract themselves.

It’s from Hegel that Marx got the enticing but mistaken notion that history consists of a sequence of stages that move in a predetermined direction toward some as-perfect-as-possible state: the same idea, please note, that Francis Fukuyama used to justify his risible vision of the first Bush administration as the glorious fulfillment of human history. (To borrow a bit of old-fashioned European political jargon, there are right-Hegelians and left-Hegelians; Fukuyama was an example of the former, Marx of the latter.) I’ll leave such claims and the theories founded on them to the true believers, alongside such equally plausible claims as the Singularity, the Rapture, and the lemonade oceans of Charles Fourier; what history itself shows is something rather different.

What history shows, as already noted, is that the complex systems that emerge during the heyday of a civilization are inevitably scrapped on the way back down. Market economies are among those complex systems. Not all civilizations have market economies—some develop other ways to handle the complicated process of allocating goods and services in a society with many different social classes and occupational specialties—but those that do set up market economies inevitably load them with as many intermediaries as the overall complexity of their economies can support.

It’s when decline sets in and maintaining the existing level of complexity becomes a problem that the trouble begins. Under some conditions, intermediation can benefit the productive economy, but in a complex economy, more and more of the intermediation over time amounts to finding ways to game the system, profiting off economic activity without actually providing any benefit to anyone else.  A complex society at or after its zenith thus typically ends up with a huge burden of unproductive economic activity supported by an increasingly fragile foundation of productive activity.

All the intermediaries, the parasitic as well as the productive, expect to be maintained in the style to which they’re accustomed, and since they typically have more wealth and influence than the producers and consumers who support them, they can usually stop moves to block their access to the feed trough. Economic contraction, however, makes it hard to support business as usual on the shrinking supply of real wealth. The intermediaries thus end up competing with the actual producers and consumers of goods and services, and since the intermediaries typically have the support of governments and institutional forms, more often than not it’s the intermediaries who win that competition.

It’s not at all hard to see that process at work; all it takes is a stroll down the main street of the old red brick mill town where I live, or any of thousands of other towns and cities in today’s America. Here in Cumberland, there are empty storefronts all through downtown, and empty buildings well suited to any other kind of economic activity you care to name there and elsewhere in town. There are plenty of people who want to work, wage and benefit expectations are modest, and there are plenty of goods and services that people would buy if they had the chance. Yet the storefronts stay empty, the workers stay unemployed, the goods and services remain unavailable. Why?

The reason is intermediation. Start a business in this town, or anywhere else in America, and the intermediaries all come running to line up in front of you with their hands out. Local, state, and federal bureaucrats all want their cut; so do the bankers, the landlords, the construction firms, and so on down the long list of businesses that feed on other businesses, and can’t be dispensed with because this or that law or regulation requires them to be paid their share. The resulting burden is far too large for most businesses to meet. Thus businesses don’t get started, and those that do start up generally go under in short order. It’s the same problem faced by every parasite that becomes too successful: it kills the host on which its own survival depends.

That’s the usual outcome when a heavily intermediated market economy slams face first into the hard realities of decline. Theoretically, it would be possible to respond to the resulting crisis by forcing  disintermediation, and thus salvaging the market economy. Practically, that’s usually not an option, because the disintermediation requires dragging a great many influential economic and political sectors away from their accustomed feeding trough. Far more often than not, declining societies with heavily intermediated market economies respond to the crisis just described by trying to force the buyers and sellers of goods and services to participate in the market even at the cost of their own economic survival, so that some semblance of business as usual can proceed.

That’s why the late Roman Empire, for example, passed laws requiring that each male Roman citizen take up the same profession as his father, whether he could survive that way or not.  That’s also why, as noted last week, so many American jurisdictions are cracking down on people who try to buy and sell food, medical care, and the like outside the corporate economy. In the Roman case, the attempt to keep the market economy fully intermediated ended up killing the market economy altogether, and in most of the post-Roman world—interestingly, this was as true across much of the Byzantine empire as it was in the barbarian west—the complex money-mediated market economy of the old Roman world went away, and centuries passed before anything of the kind reappeared.

What replaced it is what always replaces the complex economic systems of fallen civilizations: a system that systematically chucks the intermediaries out of economic activity and replaces them with personal commitments set up to block any attempt to game the system: that is to say, feudalism.

There’s enough confusion around that last word these days that a concrete example is probably needed here. I’ll borrow a minor character from a favorite book of my childhood, therefore, and introduce you to Higg son of Snell. His name could just as well be Michio, Chung-Wan, Devadatta, Hafiz, Diocles, Bel-Nasir-Apal, or Mentu-hetep, because the feudalisms that evolve in the wake of societal collapse are remarkably similar around the world and throughout time, but we’ll stick with Higg for now. On the off chance that the name hasn’t clued you in, Higg is a peasant—a free peasant, he’ll tell you with some pride, and not a mere serf; his father died a little while back of what people call “elf-stroke” in his time and we’ve shortened to “stroke” in ours, and he’s come in the best of his two woolen tunics to the court of the local baron to take part in the ceremony at the heart of the feudal system.

It’s a verbal contract performed in the presence of witnesses: in this case, the baron, the village priest, a couple of elderly knights who serve the baron as advisers, and a gaggle of village elders who remember every detail of the local customary law with the verbal exactness common to learned people among the illiterate. Higg places his hands between the baron’s and repeats the traditional pledge of loyalty, coached as needed by the priest; the baron replies in equally formal words, and the two of them are bound for life in the relationship of liegeman to liege lord.

What this means in practice is anything but vague.  As the baron’s man, Higg has the lifelong right to dwell in his father’s house and make use of the garden and pigpen; to farm a certain specified portion of the village farmland; to pasture one milch cow and its calf, one ox, and twelve sheep on the village commons; to gather, on fourteen specified saint’s days, as much wood as he can carry on his back in a single trip from the forest north of the village, but only limbwood and fallen wood; to catch two dozen adult rabbits from the warren on the near side of the stream, being strictly forbidden to catch any from the warren on the far side of the millpond; and, as a reward for a service his great-grandfather once performed for the baron’s great-grandfather during a boar hunt, to take anything that washes up on the weir across the stream between the first  sound of the matin bell and the last of the vespers bell on the day of St. Ethelfrith each year.

In exchange for these benefits, Higg is bound to an equally specific set of duties. He will labor in the baron’s fields, as well as his own and his neighbors, at seedtime and harvest; his son will help tend the baron’s cattle and sheep along with the rest of the village herd; he will give a tenth of his crop at harvest each year for the support of the village church; he will provide the baron with unpaid labor in the fields or on the great stone keep rising next to the old manorial hall for three weeks each year; if the baron goes to war, whether he’s staging a raid on the next barony over or answering the summons of that half-mythical being, the king, in the distant town of London, Higg will put on a leather jerkin and an old iron helmet, take a stout knife and the billhook he normally uses to harvest wood on those fourteen saint’s days, and follow the baron in the field for up to forty days. None of these benefits and duties are negotiable; all Higg’s paternal ancestors have held their land on these terms since time out of mind; each of his neighbors holds some equivalent set of feudal rights from the baron for some similar set of duties.

Higg has heard of markets. One is held annually every St. Audrey’s day at the king’s town of Norbury, twenty-seven miles away, but he’s never been there and may well never travel that far from home in his life. He also knows about money, and has even seen a silver penny once, but he will live out his entire life without ever buying or selling something for money, or engaging in any economic transaction governed by the law of supply and demand. Not until centuries later, when the feudal economy begins to break down and intermediaries once again begin to insert themselves between producer and consumer, will that change—and that’s precisely the point, because feudal economics is what emerges in a society that has learned about the dangers of intermediation the hard way and sets out to build an economy where that doesn’t happen.

There are good reasons, in other words, why medieval European economic theory focused on the concept of the just price, which is not set by supply and demand, and why medieval European economic practice included a galaxy of carefully designed measures meant to prevent supply and demand from influencing prices, wages, or anything else. There are equally good reasons why lending money at interest was considered a sufficiently heinous sin in the Middle Ages that Dante, in The Inferno, put lenders at the bottom of the seventh circle of hell, below mass murderers, heretics, and fallen angels. The only sinners who go further down than lenders were the practitioners of fraud, in the eighth circle, and traitors, in the ninth: here again, this was a straightforward literary reflection of everyday reality in a society that depended on the sanctity of verbal contracts and the mutual personal obligations that structure feudal relationships.

(It’s probably necessary at this point to note that yes, I’m quite aware that European feudalism had its downsides—that it was rigidly caste-bound, brutally violent, and generally unjust. So is the system under which you live, dear reader, and it’s worth noting that the average medieval peasant worked fewer hours and had more days off than you do. Medieval societies also valued stability or, as today’s economists like to call it, stagnation, rather than economic growth and technological progress; whether that’s a good thing or not probably ought to be left to be decided in the far future, when the long-term consequences of our system can be judged against the long-term consequences of Higg’s.)

A fully developed feudal system takes several centuries to emerge. The first stirrings of one, however, begin to take shape as soon as people in a declining civilization start to realize that the economic system under which they live is stacked against them, and benefits, at their expense, whatever class of parasitic intermediaries their society happens to have spawned. That’s when people begin looking for ways to meet their own economic needs outside the existing system, and certain things reliably follow. The replacement of temporary economic transactions with enduring personal relationships is one of these; so is the primacy of farmland and other productive property to the economic system—this is why land and the like are still referred to legally as “real property,” as though all other forms of property are somehow unreal; in a feudal economy, that’s more or less the case.

A third consequence of the shift of economic activity away from the institutions and forms of a failing civilization has already been mentioned: the abandonment of money as an abstract intermediary in economic activity. That’s a crucial element of the process, and it has even more crucial implications, but those are sweeping enough that the end of money will require a post of its own. We’ll discuss that next week.

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Finally, here's a note from the volunteer moderator of the Facebook page for my latest book, Twilight's Last Gleaming. By all means check it out.

"The Facebook Page for Twilight’'s Last Gleaming can be found at https://www.facebook.com/TwilightsLastGleaming.  You are not required to have a Facebook account if you simply want to view the Page.  To promote the book, the plan is for the Page to run a series of posts which will briefly describe interesting events in American history.  Three posts (A.K.A. Status Updates) have already added, two on the Civil War and its aftermath and one about our earliest involvement with Russian Communists.  The readership of this blog is invited to submit entries for these Status Updates.  The entries should be less than 500 words, describe a specific event in American history that should have some relevance to the book, however tenuous, and end with a variant of the following tag line “And to find out what happened XXX years later read Twilight’s Last Gleaming.”  The events described should hopefully crisscross all over the political and social spectrum and be written in a way that engages the reader.

"To submit an entry via Facebook, please use the Message button at the lower right of the Cover Photo on the Facebook Page.  You can also add a photograph or picture file that has a horizontal orientation to the message. That will be become the new Cover Photo while your post is new.  Please only send pictures or photos are not covered via copyright and can be considered in the public domain.  If you want to submit an entry but do not have a Facebook Account, then send it as a comment to this blog with the header “Twilight’s Last Gleaming Post”.  We look forward to seeing your entries!

"The Facebook Page also accepts Posts To Page, which should deal with any other thoughts or issues relating to Twilight’s Last Gleaming.  Posts To Page entries will be moderated with guidelines similar to what JMG uses for comments to this blog.

"We would be delighted if Facebook users Liked the Page so they can get the Status Update posts.  If you  read one that you like, please Share it with your Facebook Friends, or even your non-Facebook friends.  Enjoy the book!"

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Dark Age America: Involuntary Simplicity

The political transformations that have occupied the last four posts in this sequence can also be traced in detail in the economic sphere. A strong case could be made, in fact, that the economic dimension is the more important of the two, and the political struggles that pit the elites of a faliing civilization against the proto-warlords of the nascent dark age reflect deeper shifts in the economic sphere. Whether or not that’s the case—and in some sense, it’s simply a difference in emphasis—the economics of decline and fall need to be understood in order to make sense of the trajectory ahead of us.

One of the more useful ways of understanding that trajectory was traced out some years ago by Joseph Tainter in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies. While I’ve taken issue with some of the details of Tainter’s analysis in my own work, the general model of collapse he offers was also a core inspiration for the theory of catabolic collapse that provides the  basic structure for this series of posts, so I don’t think it’s out of place to summarize his theory briefly here.

Tainter begins with the law of diminishing returns: the rule, applicable to an astonishingly broad range of human affairs, that the more you invest—in any sense—in any one project, the smaller the additional return is on each unit of additional investment. The point at which this starts to take effect is called the point of diminishing returns. Off past that point is a far more threatening landmark, the point of zero marginal return: the point, that is, when additional investment costs as much as the benefit it yields. Beyond that lies the territory of negative returns, where further investment yields less than it costs, and the gap grows wider with each additional increment.

The attempt to achieve infinite economic growth on a finite planet makes a fine example of the law of diminishing returns in action. Given the necessary preconditions—a point we’ll discuss in more detail a bit later in this post—economic growth in its early stages produces benefits well in excess of its costs. Once the point of diminishing returns is past, though, further growth brings less and less benefit in any but a purely abstract, financial sense; broader measures of well-being fail to keep up with the expansion of the economy, and eventually the point of zero marginal return arrives and further rounds of growth actively make things worse.

Mainstream economists these days shove these increments of what John Ruskin used to call “illth”—yes, that’s the opposite of wealth—into the category of “externalities,” where they are generally ignored by everyone who doesn’t have to deal with them in person. If growth continues far enough, though, the production of illth overwhelms the production of wealth, and we end up more or less where we are today, where the benefits from continued growth are outweighed by the increasingly ghastly impact of the social, economic, and environmental “externalities” driven by growth itself. As The Limits to Growth  pointed out all those years ago, that’s the nature of our predicament: the costs of growth rise faster than the benefits and eventually force the industrial economy to its knees.

Tainter’s insight was that the same rules can be applied to social complexity. When a society begins to add layers of social complexity—for example, expanding the reach of the division of labor, setting up hierarchies to centralize decisionmaking, and so on—the initial rounds pay off substantially in terms of additional wealth and the capacity to deal with challenges from other societies and the natural world. Here again, though, there’s a point of diminishing returns, after which additional investments in social complexity yield less and less in the way of benefits, and there’s a point of zero marginal return, after which each additional increment of complexity subtracts from the wealth and resilience of the society.

There’s a mordant irony to what happens next. Societies in crisis reliably respond by doing what they know how to do. In the case of complex societies, what they know how to amounts to adding on new layers of complexity—after all, that’s what’s worked in the past. I mentioned at the beginning of this month, in an earlier post in this sequence, the way this plays out in political terms. The same thing happens in every other sphere of collective life—economic, cultural, intellectual, and so on down the list. If too much complexity is at the root of the problems besetting a society, though, what happens when its leaders keep adding even more complexity to solve those problems?

Any of my readers who have trouble coming up with the answer might find it useful to take a look out the nearest window. Whether or not Tainter’s theory provides a useful description of every complex society in trouble—for what it’s worth, it’s a significant part of the puzzle in every historical example known to me—it certainly applies to contemporary industrial society. Here in America, certainly, we’ve long since passed the point at which additional investments in complexity yield any benefit at all, but the manufacture of further complexity goes on apace, unhindered by the mere fact that it’s making a galaxy of bad problems worse. Do I need to cite the US health care system, which is currently collapsing under the sheer weight of the baroque superstructure of corporate and government bureaucracies heaped on top of what was once the simple process of paying a visit to the doctor?

We can describe this process as intermediation—the insertion of a variety of intermediate persons, professions, and institutions between the producer and the consumer of any given good or service. It’s a standard feature of social complexity, and tends to blossom in the latter years of every civilization, as part of the piling up of complexity on complexity that Tainter discussed. There’s an interesting parallel between the process of intermediation and the process of ecological succession.  Just as an ecosystem, as it moves from one sere (successional stage) to the next, tends to produce ever more elaborate food webs linking the plants whose photosynthesis starts the process with the consumers of detritus at its end, the rise of social complexity in a civilization tends to produce ever more elaborate patterns of intermediation between producers and consumers.

Contemporary industrial civilization has taken intermediation to an extreme not reached by any previous civilization, and there’s a reason for that. White’s Law, one of the fundamental rules of human ecology, states that economic development is a function of energy per capita. The jackpot of cheap concentrated energy that industrial civilization obtained from fossil fuels threw that equation into overdrive, and economic development is simply another name for complexity. The US health care system, again, is one example out of many; as the American economy expanded metastatically over the course of the 20th century, an immense army of medical administrators, laboratory staff, specialists, insurance agents, government officials, and other functionaries inserted themselves into the notional space between physician and  patient, turning what was once an ordinary face to face business transaction into a bureaucratic nightmare reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s The Castle.

In one way or another, that’s been the fate of every kind of economic activity in modern industrial society. Pick an economic sector, any economic sector, and the producers and consumers of the goods and services involved in any given transaction are hugely outnumbered by the people who earn a living from that transaction in some other way—by administering, financing, scheduling, regulating, taxing, approving, overseeing, facilitating, supplying, or in some other manner getting in there and grabbing a piece of the action. Take the natural tendency for social complexity to increase over time, and put it to work in a society that’s surfing a gargantuan tsunami of cheap energy, in which most work is done by machines powered by fossil fuels and not by human hands and minds, and that’s pretty much what you can expect to get.

That’s also a textbook example of the sort of excess complexity Joseph Tainter discussed in The Collapse of Complex Societies, but industrial civilization’s dependence on nonrenewable energy resources puts the entire situation in a different and even more troubling light. On the one hand, continuing increases in complexity in a society already burdened to the breaking point with too much complexity pretty much guarantees a rapid decrease in complexity not too far down the road—and no, that’s not likely to unfold in a nice neat orderly way, either. On the other, the ongoing depletion of energy resources and the decline in net energy that unfolds from that inescapable natural process means that energy per capita will be decreasing in the years ahead—and that, according to White’s Law, means that the ability of industrial society to sustain current levels of complexity, or anything like them, will be going away in the tolerably near future.

Add these trends together and you have a recipe for the radical simplification of the economy. The state of affairs in which most people in the work force have only an indirect connection to the production of concrete goods and services to meet human needs is, in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future. The unraveling of that arrangement, and the return to a state of affairs in which most people produce goods and services with their own labor for their own, their families’, and their neighbors’ use, will be the great economic trend of the next several centuries.

That’s not to say that this unraveling will be a simple process. All those millions of people whose jobs depend on intermediation, and thus on the maintenance of current levels of economic complexity, have an understandable interest in staying employed. That interest in practice works out to an increasingly frantic quest to keep people from sidestepping the baroque corporate and bureaucratic economic machine and getting goods and services directly from producers.

That’s a great deal of what drives the ongoing crusade against alternative health care—every dollar spent on herbs from a medical herbalist or treatments from an acupuncturist is a dollar that doesn’t go into feeding the gargantuan corporations and bureaucracies that are supposed to provide health care for Americans, and sometimes even do so. The same thing is driving corporate and government attacks on local food production, since every dollar a consumer spends buying zucchini from a backyard farmer doesn’t prop up the equally huge and tottering mass of institutions that attempt to control the production and sale of food in America.

It’s not uncommon for those who object to these maneuvers to portray them as the acts of a triumphant corporate despotism on the brink of seizing total power over the planet. I’d like to suggest that they’re something quite different. While the American and global economies are both still growing in a notional sense, the measures of growth that yield that result factor in such things as the manufacture of derivatives and a great many other forms of fictive wealth.

Subtract those from the national and global balance sheet, and the result is an economy in contraction. The ongoing rise in the permanently jobless, the epidemic of malign neglect affecting even the most crucial elements of America’s infrastructure, and the ongoing decline in income and living standards among all those classes that lack access to fictive wealth, among many other things, all tell the same story. Thus it’s far from surprising that all the people whose jobs are dependent on intermediation, all the way up the corporate food chain to the corner offices, are increasingly worried about the number of people who are trying to engage in disintermediation—to buy food, health care, and other goods and services directly from the producers.

Their worries are entirely rational.  One of the results of the contraction of the real economy is that the costs of intermediation, financial and otherwise, have not merely gone through the roof but zoomed off into the stratosphere, with low earth orbit the next logical stop. Health care, again, is among the most obvious examples. In most parts of the United States, for instance, a visit to the acupuncturist for some ordinary health condition will typically set you back well under $100, while if you go to an MD for the same thing you’ll be lucky to get away for under $1000, counting lab work and other costs—and you can typically count on thirty or forty minutes of personal attention from the acupuncturist, as compared to five or ten minutes with a harried and distracted MD. It’s therefore no surprise that more and more Americans are turning their backs on the officially sanctioned health care industry and seeking out alternative health care instead.

They’d probably be just as happy to go to an ordinary MD who offered medical care on the same terms as the acupuncturist, which happen to be the same terms that were standard a century ago for every kind of health care. As matters stand, though, physicians are dependent on the system as it presently exists; their standing with their peers, and even their legal right to practice medicine, depends on their willingness to play by the rules of intermediation—and of course it’s also true that acupuncturists don’t generally make the six-figure salaries that so many physicians do in America. A hundred years ago, the average American doctor didn’t make that much more than the average American plumber; many of the changes in the US health care system since that time were quite openly intended to change that fact.

A hundred years ago, as the United States moved through the early stages of its age of imperial excess, that was something the nation could afford. Equally, all the other modes of profiteering, intermediation, and other maneuvers aimed at maximizing the take of assorted economic sectors were viable then,since a growing economy provides plenty of slack for such projects. As the economics of growth gave way to the economics of stagnation in the last quarter of the 20th century, such things became considerably more burdensome. As stagnation gives way to contraction, and the negative returns on excess complexity combine with the impact of depleting nonrenewable resources, the burden is rapidly becoming more than the US economy or the wider society can bear.

The result, in one way or another, will be disintermediation: the dissolution of the complex relations and institutions that currently come between the producer and the consumer of goods and services, and their replacement by something much less costly to maintain. “In one way or another,” though, covers a great deal of ground, and it’s far from easy to predict exactly how the current system will come unglued in the United States or, for that matter, anywhere else.

Disintermediation might happen quickly, if a major crisis shatters some central element of the US economic system—for example, the financial sector—and forces the entire economy to regroup around less abstract and more local systems of exchange. It might happen slowly, as more and more of the population can no longer afford to participate in the intermediated economy at all, and have to craft their own localized economies from the bottom up, while the narrowing circle of the well-to-do continue to make use of some equivalent of the current system for a long time to come. It might happen at different rates in different geographical areas—for example, cities and their suburbs might keep the intermediated economy going long after rural areas have abandoned it, or what have you.

Plenty of people these days like to look forward to some such transformation, and not without reason. Complexity has long since passed the point of negative returns in the US economy, as in most other aspects of American society, and the coming of disintermediation across a wide range of economic activities will arguably lead to significant improvements in many aspects of our collective life. That said, it’s not all roses and affordable health care. The extravagant rates of energy per capita that made today’s absurdly complex economy possible also made it possible for millions of Americans to make their living working in offices and other relatively comfortable settings, rather than standing hip deep in hog manure with a shovel in their hands, and it also allowed them to earn what currently passes for a normal income, rather than the bare subsistence that’s actually normal in societies that haven’t had their economies inflated to the bursting point by a temporary glut of cheap energy.

It was popular a number of years back for the urban and suburban middle classes, most of whom work in jobs that only exist due to intermediation, to go in for “voluntary simplicity”—at best a pallid half-equivalent of Thoreau’s far more challenging concept of voluntary poverty, at worst a marketing gimmick for the consumption of round after round of overpriced “simple” products. For all its more embarrassing features, the voluntary simplicity movement was at least occasionally motivated by an honest recognition of the immediate personal implications of Tainter’s fundamental point—that complexity taken past the point of diminishing returns becomes a burden rather than a benefit.

In the years ahead of us, a great many of these same people are going to experience what I suppose might best be called involuntary simplicity: the disintermediation of most aspects of economic life, the departure of lifestyles that can only be supported by the cheap abundant energy of the recent past, and a transition to the much less complex—and often, much less comfortable—lifestyles that are all that’s possible in a deindustrial world. There may be a certain entertainment value in watching what those who praised voluntary simplicity to the skies think of simple living when it’s no longer voluntary, and there’s no way back to the comforts of a bygone era.

That said, the impact of involuntary simplicity on the economic sphere won’t be limited to the lifestyles of the formerly privileged. It promises to bring an end to certain features of economic life that contemporary thought assumes are fixed in place forever: among them, the market economy itself. We’ll talk about that next week.

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In other news, I'm pleased to report that Twilight's Last Gleaming, my novel of the fall of America's empire based on 2012's "How It Could Happen" series of posts, is hot off the press and available from the publisher with free shipping worldwide. The novel also has its own Facebook page for fans of social media. By all means check it out.