Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

A widespread reaction to technological society is inevitable, a winning battle. There are too many interests in support of it.

In rural areas numerous populations are very aware that advanced technological development means the eradication of their values and their ways of life.

In urban areas, there is widespread support for environmentalism and a growing recognition that environmental protection and restoration is inherently at odds with continued industrial development.

Among the educated elite there is a loss of faith in all philosophical and religious traditions, a growing sense of boredom and purposelessness, and a corresponding need for danger and renewed purpose.

Even states have an interest in anti-technological revolt. They are recognizing more and more that the structure of their societies are leading them to the trash can. Industrial development is rapidly destroying wildlands and disrupting natural ecological processes, which is already having cascading effects on geopolitical, economic, and social stability. We know we need bigger and more connected wildlands to mitigate these problems, but we also know that bigger and more connected wildlands are at odds with industrial development. Furthermore, the same turmoil environmental destruction is causing makes it nearly inevitable that states will lose some of their territory to savagery. Climate change, for example, will take a few major cities down, at least a few economic notches, and will in some regions completely obliterate the hope for continued industrial-style living.

Faced with this outlook, what would you do as a state? I suspect that over the next few decades we will enter into an era of New Colonialism — not colonial power transformed to economic power, what people are calling “new colonialism” today. I mean a renewal of some of the old-fashioned colonial social relations: civilized islands, with barbarous outskirts. To some degree this has already been happening on a global scale — the whole purpose of the political disruptions in Africa and the Middle East was to increase political dependence on the global order and to make economic extraction easier — but pending disasters, the “big six” I write about in Repent to the Primitive (pp. 33-38), make it probable that states will begin to see the same kind of political arrangements within their territories. In the United States, for example, disasters like Katrina, the West Coast wildfires, the water crises in the Appalachians, etc. are creating territorial outskirts, which will only compound the social outskirts created by major inequalities in wealth and education. The two outskirts are, in fact, combining: Ferguson, Missouri; Flint, Michigan; Martin County, Kentucky…

And we shouldn’t think that the usually-proposed fixes will do anything to seriously mitigate the problems. The new rules and regulations that come with bureaucratic solutions only add more weight for the basic infrastructure of a civilization to support. I write:

Increased civilizational complexity in response to existential threats presents a problem: it makes complex societies less attractive for the classes who have to pick up the tab. For instance, when the Roman Empire increased the size of its military and bureaucratic structures, it raised taxes on the peasants, who, when they couldn’t pay the taxes, abandoned their lands. In response the Empire debased its currency, deferring its problems to the future, and used money it had already accumulated, the pot slowly diminishing. Of course, it eventually collapsed as a result. For many these facts are enough to motivate a search for new values.

No matter what one’s analysis, this search is for some irrefutably rational. Even if a global collapse is not in our future, localized collapses and general economic turmoil are inevitable. Examples like Syria and Somalia make this clear even in the present.

This underlines a fundamental lesson from the history of civilizational collapse: the fixes to these issues are unlikely to benefit the masses. Indeed, often the same who are worst affected will be taxed, killed, or marginalized by solutions. And even among those who do not face an imminent physical threat, there is a large faction discontented with life in industrial society. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Brooks compares this to the discontent colonists felt around the time many of them abandoned their way of life for Native societies, a trend that occurred well into the 18th century. “It wouldn’t surprise me,” he wrote, “if the big change in the coming decades [will be] . . . more people making the modern equivalent of the Native American leap.”

So, again, what would you do if you were a state? Of course, you would strengthen the civilized cores, and you would want radicals to blame the outskirts on. As a state you would be betting that these new savages will be easily controllable, that the outskirts will create a kind of zoo for them to at least feel like they are free. You would be betting that the scientific knowledge of behavioral and psychological control will remain within the civilized cores and function as one of the most powerful tools in the perpetual war of civilization. I imagine, too, that anthropologists, biologists, sociologists, and other scientists will view these outskirts as an opportunity for further study of human behavior.

The radicals, on the other hand, would be betting on the infrastructure of the civilized cores continuing to degrade from ecological disaster. They would be betting on asymmetric strategies, which in their most dramatic, physical forms look like the fight of the Vietcong (but there are less physical forms as well!). They would be betting that the barbarous outskirts will have their own forms of magic, as incomprehensible to the states as behavioral sciences would be to most in the outskirts. And of course, the radicals can’t just be on the savage side: just as states infiltrate their enemies’ ranks, so too must the radicals.

I’m speaking in the future tense here because I hope to paint a picture of the direction these tensions are going, whether or not they arrive at my painted destination. But it is important to emphasize that this whole process, this partitioning of society, this developing clash of wills, is happening right now.

I am betting on the wild, but the radicals must realize the positions they are taking and properly account for their weaknesses and strengths. As I write in “Refuting the Apartheid Alternative,” for example, the radicals will have to acknowledge that their efforts will be redirected toward disrupting economic stability in areas the state is already willing to sacrifice. Radicals must, then, be able to refocus their efforts, but also have an opportunity to create strongholds in places the state will have already said “we’re pretty sure we’ve lost these.”

Another example: radicals are very much weakened by the decreased scientific knowledge in the outskirts, and the success of their fight will at least partially depend on those with advanced technical knowledge. Today this looks like hacker subcultures. See, e.g., “The rise of SamSam, the hacker group shutting down entire cities.”

Finally, and this is the whole point of the post: radicals must realize where their interests overlap with others’ interests, even those with opposite intentions. A politic like this is making bets on long-term outcomes, but because we can only act in the present every step we take will be a gamble. Gambling smartly will look a lot like chess: positioning for attack and defense with as few moves as possible, redirected enemy attention, and recognizing the ticks you can exploit at the opportune moments. A clash of wills.


  • Robert McGuinn says:

    After reading a lot of your writing, I find that you consistently overplay the ‘movement’ and impact of the wild-will folks. To main stream society, this movement is essentially non-existent, both in theory, and more importantly, in effect. At best, they are seen as a minuscule group of non-consequential coffee-shop radicals, or, soon to be jailed terrorists and insane outcasts, and, at worst, they are totally invisible. This is a numbers game and the winning side, like it or not, is not even aware of the competition from ‘the movement’. Minor worlds always look like major worlds from the inside I’m afraid. I’m very much ‘on your side’, but I have no hope at all for the movement in reality. The beast will win until it collapses in upon itself. No amount of resistance will help slow or speed this ultimate inevitable correction. You and your ilk are simply pulling on the nose-hairs of a giant, with pretty much the same effect as doing nothing at all. But, play on, of course. Who am I, but a simple cog in the big machine? I do nothing at all, but gleefully, and with a great and secret purpose.

    • admin says:

      Hey Positive Bob,

      Thanks for commenting, as always. A few responses.

      1. Winning side not aware of the competition sounds like an advantage to me.
      2. “The beast will win until it collapses in upon itself.” And when do you think that will be?
      3. You seem to think I want a movement that will destroy technological society wholesale. No, I want a people who, when disaster strikes, when a region collapses, when The Machine is looking the other way at another disaster, another collapse, will not have any compunctions digging the boot in on the technological basis of their previous order. This requires creating people with confidence, a bit of recklessness, a special way of problem-solving, and skill. And if successful, such a region will not easily come under the purview of the powers that be again. These opportunities exist everywhere right now. The politics isn’t just one of waiting.

      But if in the meantime some radicals from any of the various ideologies succeeds at creating disaster, so much the better.

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