The Next Four YearsCory Panshin on November 13, 2016
Facebook has recently been serving up clothing ads in my sidebar, and though I’m not a potential customer, I take an interest in such things because fashion is a handy way of tracking the transitions in the cycle of visions that I’ve been detailing at this blog.
So I clicked through and what leaped out at me was how similar many of the styles were to those of 1968-69. There were the same free-floating shifts and tunics and smocks, all of them designed to conceal the natural curve of the waist and hips. And there were also a few extremely full-skirted items that have the same effect.
This is significant. Though I’ve never fully deciphered the fashion cues that go along with each phase of the cycle, I do know that styles like these invariably appear at a moment when all the familiar “grownup” solutions to current problems have failed. They evoke an adolescent appearance — in contrast with the more womanly silhouette that prevails at other times — and seemingly represent an attempt to summon up the fluidity and openness to alternatives of the adolescent brain.
That’s exactly the kind of crisis we’re in right now, and we need all the innovative solutions we can get.
However, such moments also give rise to violence and repression on the part of those who fear change and the loss of power and privilege. The Nixon administration, the Red Scare and Palmer Raids that followed the end of World War I, and the crushing of dissent in many European countries after the revolutions of 1848 are recent examples. And it appears we may be in for more of the same.
The good news is that these convulsions are generally brief. They burn out after a few years and a new social equilibrium is established with new founding principles. However, the bad news is that they can do a lot of damage while they last — and also that when empires go into terminal decline, it’s most often through a failure to respond to the challenges set by one of these transitions.
So looking at those ads suggested to me that it was time to post an analysis of our current situation in terms of the interplay of visions. My hope is that awareness of where we’re heading and what it means will help us navigate the crucial turning points more effectively.
The event that threw us into this crisis was the collapse of the venerable democracy vision, following its failure to deal effectively with the financial meltdown of 2008. The democratic ideals of freedom and equality are not about to perish, but it’s increasingly clear that those ideals cannot flourish in a system of unaccountable government and corporate power.
The terminal decline of one of the guiding visions of our society is generating a variety of reactions. On the extreme right, a motley collection of neo-fascists and other reactionaries has sprung up to proclaim that our long experiment in democracy has been a failure and that we need to abandon it and revert to a hierarchical system like those of the past.
But over on the left, the response is that we need more freedom and equality, not less, and that the solution lies in the horizontalism vision, which is the true successor to democracy. This is the vision that underlies most current protest movements, and it is closely associated with the ideals of multiculturalism and social justice.
In the long run, horizontalism will prevail over both the tattered remnants of democracy and those who would turn back the clock to some form of neo-feudalism. That’s simply the nature of the succession of visions. It represents a logical progression of thought and of problem-solving, with each failed vision giving way to the next in line, and it never goes in reverse.
But that doesn’t make our present moment any easier. Right now, horizontalism is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with those who believe they can maintain the old ways by force. Its closest ally in this is the holism vision — the ecologically-based view of nature that succeeded the failing paradigm of mechanistic science back in the 1960s. That alliance has been developing strongly over the last few years, and it presently serves as the nexus of opposition to everything that is backwards-looking and destructive.
And there’s one more vision that has to be taken into account. That’s the view of human nature that I’ve called the chaos vision. Chaos is younger than democracy but older than holism. It emerged in the eighteenth century, when the concept of the soul was fading out, and it is founded on the premise that the individual human mind is the ultimate unit of personhood.
Chaos reached its creative climax in the 1960s counterculture, after which it turned respectable and became one of the guiding visions of our culture, acknowledged by both left and right. However, chaos has something of a dual aspect. When allied with the democracy vision, it is closely associated with human rights and civil liberties. But taken in isolation, it promotes a view of human nature as fundamentally selfish and irrational. And now that the democracy vision is failing, that second aspect has been left to run amok.
The Ayn Randists and sovereign citizens of the far right take their inspiration from this socially irresponsible version of chaos. And though the left has maintained its faith in human rights, the basis for that faith has shifted from chaos to horizontalism. As a result, chaos is no longer able to bridge the divisions between left and right, which is why we are wracked by such a deep cultural divide.
That divide is not symmetrical. The aging chaos vision has grown rigid and uncreative, while holism and horizontalism have been developing rapidly and generating a burst of new ideas and solutions. But these younger visions have also been under steady assault — holism since the 1980s and horizontalism since the late 90s — and that is about to get a lot worse.
Right now, we’re in empire-strikes-back territory. The forces of repression are ruthless and conscienceless and have access to highly militarized police forces that are no longer restrained by the failing democracy vision. But there’s also a wild card in play.
The growing arrogance and brutality of the chaos vision has enabled its own successor to emerge more strongly. That is the creative imagination vision, which crystallized in the early 1970s out of an expanded view of human consciousness derived from psychedelics, occultism, and fantasy.
The creative imagination vision is still fairly vague and mystical, and the left isn’t altogether sure how it feels about it. I follow a number of anarchist groups on Facebook, and while the Pagan Anarchists are eager to welcome it into the alliance of holism and horizontalism, the Social Anarchists are a lot more skeptical.
But that may be changing, thanks to the water protectors at Standing Rock, who are motivated by what looks like a fruitful cross-breeding of native spirituality, holism and horizontalism, and Western popular culture. (“We’re the hobbits,” says Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “We’re the Rebel Alliance.”) They believe they can thwart the Dakota Access Pipeline through the power of peaceful prayer, and whether or not they succeed in the immediate struggle, they have brought something unstoppable into the world.
As I’ve frequently noted, the visions are of three types, based respectively on our experience of the physical world, of human society, and of our own dreams and intuitions. Any one vision can only reflect a fragment of our existence, which is why they tend to become narrow and rigid in isolation. But they gain a transcendent power when paired with visions of the two other types.
The power released by a pairing of two visions explains why the alliance of holism and horizontalism is so dynamic. But when all three types come together, as is happening now at Standing Rock, they can remake the world.
And yet the most profoundly transformational alliances are only temporary, because their members start with different premises and different goals. For example, there are irreconcilable differences between the rationalism of social ecology and the animism underlying indigenous spirituality. And those tensions, combined with an accelerating spasm of repression over the next few years, will tear the three-way alliance apart.
The environmentalists of the holism vision and the social justice warriors of the horizontalism vision will bear the brunt of the attack, and in fighting back they will become increasingly militant and perhaps violent. Just as happened in 1969-72, and before that in 1922-26, their idealism will give way to cynicism and a plunge into decadence. And creative imagination will back away from the other two in order to retain its own puriy.
But at the same time, this period of fragmentation will also be an era of alchemical transmutation, as the powerful energies summoned up by the short-lived three-way alliance are released into the world in multiple ways.
Holism will take on a new degree of moral authority that will enable it to step into the breach left by the failure of democracy and begin to rebuild society on an ecological basis.
Horizontalism will to some extent join holism in going mainstream, while leaving behind a disillusioned radical wing that will remain devoted to a goal of complete social transformation.
The creative imagination vision will become increasingly attractive as a refuge from the turmoil and corruption of the outside world and will become a center of intellectual ferment as it develops its own distinctive forms of art, literature, and philosophy.
And the seeds will be planted for still further changes to come.Read the Previous Entry: The Boundless Realms of Invention
Read the Next Entry: The Birth of a New World