What Is To Be Done?

on September 16, 2010

The story I’ve been telling for the past year is almost up to the present day, and I’m starting to think longingly of getting back to the Paleolithic. But there are still a few points left to cover.

There’s not a lot to be said about the period from 1993 to 2008. I see those years as equivalent to 1950-63, when the science-and-democracy partnership was at its peak of unchallenged dominance and chaos and holism were developing slowly at the margins.

In much the same way, democracy-and-chaos has been in the driver’s seat until just recently. The Clinton years brought us an emphasis on the touchy-feeliness of the domesticated chaos vision. The Bush years featured a late-stage, repressive, we-had-to-destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it obsession with democracy.

But the financial meltdown of 2008-2009 has brought the democracy-and-chaos partnership to a state of collapse. Democracy has become a hollow shell, and chaos is floundering without the steady hand of democracy to channel its hyper-individualism. Only the Tea Partiers, who pride themselves on their contempt for both government and the common good, appear to be fully in touch with the moment.

Adding to the current dilemma, holism is also not what it was in its glory days of the late 80’s. Environmentalism has become a central credo of the liberal wing of democracy-and-chaos, the stuff of Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth — and yet it seems incapable of even convincing people of the reality of climate change, let alone leading the way towards R. Crumb’s ecotopian future.

British activist Paul Kingsnorth recently mourned this decline in an article titled “Confessions of a recovering environmentalist.”

“Environmentalism, which in its raw, early form had no time for the encrusted, seized-up politics of left and right, has been sucked into the yawning, bottomless chasm of the ‘progressive’ left,” he writes. “We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called ‘sustainability’. … It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level which the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ which is needed to do so. … In a very short time — just over a decade — this worldview has become all-pervasive. … The success of environmentalism has been total — at the price of its soul.”

It appears that holism is in much the same predicament as chaos was in the late 50’s and early 60’s, when it had become the plaything of Hollywood hipsters and elite opinion makers. What chaos needed then — and what it got around 1964-65 — was a strong dose of holism to wrench it loose from its science-based obsession with cosmic futility and return it to a more visionary path.

In the same way, the demoralized holism vision of the present moment needs a shot of multiculturalism to extract it from the wreckage of democracy, rouse it from its stupor, and set it to constructing the next counterculture.

Multiculturalism is undeniably the strongest force for change in our culture right now. In the form of multi-ethnicity and the challenge to accommodate differences of race, gender, and religion, it is at the center of our most divisive controversies. In the form of globalization, it is steadily destroying our present way of life while presenting tantalizing but unfulfilled promises of something better.

And in the form of radically decentralized social structures, multiculturalism offers the hope of a self-organizing system of government that will be able to respond smoothly and efficiently to a fast-paced world that has rendered the clumsy legislative and bureaucratic mechanisms of democracy all but irrelevant.

The first hints of a system of social organization based on distributed networking go back as far as the multiculturalism vision itself. They were present, for example, when science fiction fandom was born in the 1930’s and quickly found its way to a structure based on autonomous clubs, conventions, and fanzines without any central governing body or concept of “membership.”

This fannish model has since spread widely, not only to subcultures directly influenced by sf fandom, like neo-pagans and computer hackers, but to the Netroots in general. Over the next few years, I expect to see the political possibilities of distributed networking going increasingly mainstream on both the progressive left and the libertarian right.

But multiculturalism alone cannot be the complete answer. The 60’s counterculture may have been primarily structured around chaos with a touch of holism, but it also owed a great deal to elements derived from 19th century occultism. Those elements gave the counterculture its sense of following a genuinely alternative path, provided the guidance for its psychedelic explorations, and pushed the chaos vision beyond its limits in ways that led to its own successor.

I expect that in much the same way, the do-it-yourself movement which began with the technological revolution of the late 40’s will furnish crucial aspects of the next counterculture.

The most sophisticated current expression of do-it-yourself-ism is the so-called maker movement — which I became aware of only recently, when I started looking into the Steampunk subculture. The maker movement is the source of the exquisitely retro mods of modern technology featured at sites like The Steampunk Workshop, but it extends well beyond Steampunk and has been developing actively for at least the last decade.

As defined in an article from last year, “Maker culture is a term that refers to a growing community of hobbyists and professionals dedicated to making their own functional devices, whether it be technological gadgets, open source hardware and software, fashion apparel, home decorating, or nearly any other aspect of physical life. … Maker culture is partially rooted in the do it yourself (DIY) values of a handful of subcultures, ranging from self described punks and goths to hippies and hackers. These diverse groups all held one value in common: subverting the impression that the individual is somehow dependent on consumerism for a sense of identity.”

There’s still another factor in play, however. If the 60’s are an accurate guide, the next counterculture can be expected to go through two distinct stages — the first comparable to the psychedelic counterculture of 1966-67 and the second to the Whole Earth Catalog phase, which began in 1968 and lasted into the 70’s.

That second phase will be dominated by multiculturalism rather than holism — and it is likely to press on even beyond multiculturalism, into radical new territory based on creative imagination and the Hacker Ethic.

One provocative indication of where things may be heading appears in a blog entry from a year ago:

“An even greater commitment to reuse (often through repurposing material) is found in the ‘maker movement.’ Celeste Headlee’s succinct description of the maker movement says it best: ‘On a basic level, the movement is about reusing and repairing objects, rather than discarding them to buy more. On a deeper level, it’s also a philosophical idea about what ownership really is.’ … The maker movement has a bill of rights which has caught the eye of several large industry players. It has a vibrant, interesting niche press lead by Make Magazine. It has Maker Faires that have now spread to every populated continent. They are celebrations of human ingenuity that honor some of the wildest artistic and engineering achievements executed with materials and objects that were discarded by the disposal-happy culture at large. These events are part science fair, part geekfest, part Burning Man… Note to world: this is not a fad.”

The phrase that jumps out at me here is “a philosophical idea about what ownership really is.” This question of ownership, I think, is going to do more than anything else to shake up our assumptions about the nature of society and force holism in the direction of its own successor.

There was a highly significant decision handed down last Friday by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that software manufacturers can prevent their programs from being resold by the buyer if they stipulate in the license that the work is only being leased. The implications of this decision are so wide-reaching that librarians are already worried it might be applied to prevent the resale of used books, music, and films.

This may seem at first glance like yet another victory for the corporations, but in fact it subverts the entire concept of “ownership.” Property right have been based for centuries on a implied social contract whereby you get to own your stuff as long as I get to own mine — and that contract is negated in a world in which corporations own everything and “consumers” own nothing.

The moment that ordinary people realize they don’t actually own the things they’ve paid for, the social order based on ownership will start giving way to one in which stuff is just passed around without anyone actually owning anything.

It will take a while for the full implications to sink in, of course. Even in the short term, a philosophical reorientation away from ownership will give increased legitimacy to the environmentalists’ insistence that we should not see ourselves as owning the land and its resources, but only as using them for a time and then passing them on intact to our children.

But in the long run, the ripples will spread out far more widely. I find it difficult to imagine, for example, how capitalism could survive a loss of belief in the reality of property rights.

I should emphasize, however, that although I can point to the pieces in play, I have no idea of how they will be assembled. I am certain that a new counterculture on its way — but what form it will take and what it will accomplish remain in the realm of uncertainty. I only know that a decade from now, the world will be very different.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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