The Crunch

Unedited notes on the moment.

CRUNCH

Let’s start by saying you’re not alone and you’re not crazy. You’re not alone because, for example, Donald Trump did not win the popular vote. In terms of raw votes, Trump is a minority president. That doesn’t make him any easier to bear, but it does mean that if you’re an American who hates what’s happening in America, there are more like you than not. Hold to that, because Trump’s pantheon of monsters will tell you, over and again, that he won yuge, that your voice is a small voice, that your opinion is the fringe. He didn’t, and it ain’t, twice over.

The same is true in a different way of Brexit. The vote was narrow, the majority achieved by outright lies on an epic scale, and as the onward march of the lemmings reaches the cliff, more and more people are saying: “Hold it. This is NOT what I had in mind.”

These are my notes to myself and to you. They’re imperfect. I’m writing them to improve them, not to impose them. I’m writing them to understand the world, because — like you — I’m lost in it.

You are not alone, and you are not crazy.

You are not crazy if you want to cry all the time. You’re not going mad if nothing seems to make sense. You’re right. Nothing does. The decisions being made around you are out of sight. Things are going badly, there’s a lot to cry about. (That’s not to say that no one is clinically depressed. That is both a separate issue – it can happen to anyone at any time – and a related one, in that there are many stressors and downward pressures we are experiencing right now which could make us mentally and emotionally unhealthy. But do not let anyone tell you you’re wrong to be horrified, or feel that you have to medicate away the gut-punched pain you feel at the direction of the world. You may chose to, but you are not wrong to feel that way. There is much to be horrified about, and knowing that is – for me, at least – a huge help.)

It is greatly to the advantage of the Trumps and Farages and Bolsonaros of the world if you are led to believe the problem lies with you. Similarly, it is to their advantage if you accept that, for example, “Brazil is an enemy now.” Yes: Bolsonaro proposes to wreak appalling damage to the biosphere at precisely the moment we need to begin to heal it. Yes, he and his will, if unchecked, do hideous wrong to the vulnerable in Brazil. But nearly half the country voted against him. Don’t accept the notion of Brazil as a monolithic unit. It is, as every nation is, a patchwork of opinions, hopes and despairs. Political cartography is a strange and dangerous sleight of hand which makes millions of people into single physical units. Geography has no political opinions and humans are infinitely variable. We, those who object, are many, and we are global. We are everywhere. When totalitarians accuse the liberal centre and the left of being a conspiracy, they’re pandering to their own fears, but they’re also telling us something we ought to know already: we are, indeed, their enemy, and though we don’t conspire to wreck their designs in the way they propose, we endanger their agenda merely by existing, and more directly the moment we begin to be practice what we are, when we begin to assert the things they reject: compassion, cooperation, solidarity, openness, trust.

So that is my first note:

1. Reject the colours of the map. See the people it conceals. Let them see you.

Why “the Crunch”? Because many things are happening at once. I realise that, in a sense, I have been watching this moment arrive for my whole adult life. I was a student at the Global Security Programme in the 90s, where Gwynn Prins curated a cross-disciplinary crisis room of posited threats. Climate change was high on our agenda, as was the question of whether late capitalist liberal democracy was capable of apprehending and responding to the threat in a timely fashion. The verdict then: theoretically yes, but in practice, probably not. The outcome: no, and now here we are with one decade to do the work of four. If you take nothing else from this post, please take this: we’re out of time on climate, and everything must change – not tomorrow, but today. Our economies must change, our lifestyles, our way of thinking about what is worth having and making.

So:

2. We are not in a negotiation with the planet. We do what’s necessary or we do not survive.

By itself, that would merit the word “crunch”, but it’s not by itself. The climate crisis is the end point of a way of doing human life – let’s call it industrial consumer capitalism. It’s a set of assumptions which provide us with orientation in our lives: “I start here, I go here, I do this, my life will be good.” There are several such human vectors – arrows of direction and momentum – which no longer make any sense. We used to call this the “collapse of the grand narratives” but that makes it sound rather ethereal. Less academically, it’s the end of everything we thought we knew, and it is in many ways and in many directions bewildering and terrifying.

What’s happening?

There’s a much-hated book from a much hated pair of thinkers which answers that question. It’s called The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and it is every bit as annoying, obscure and thumpingly hard to read as the title would suggest, but in brief: once upon a time, we as human beings explained the world by saying that there were gods in pretty much everything. We said if it rained that was the rain god, if lighting struck that was the lightning god, if the crops grew that was the crop god, and so on. The world was a collection of events triggered by the will of entities we couldn’t see, and we just lived at their whim.

Then we began to notice patterns and we eventually came up with a new way of thinking about the world which underlies our present civilisation: science. We asked questions about everything, and then we answered them, and then we asked questions about those answers and we proposed answers to those and we tested those answers and so on and so on and from a flat earth and a collection of squabbling deities there emerged a new picture of the world as a globe orbiting a sun in a great starry splatter of similar suns, governed by immutable laws such Newton’s third: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you push against a heavy object, you can feel Newton’s law in the palm of your hand: you shove, and even as you move the object you’re shoving you also get pushed backwards.

Great. Except that if you keep asking these crisp, rational, scientific questions, you eventually realise that the Enlightenment itself a myth, a mountain climber pulling herself up the slope by her own bootstraps. There’s no strict logical reason to accept logic as better than illogic. Many of the things we believe are simply that: beliefs. Some are approximations, some are untested theories, some are just traditions.

Since it’s directly relevant, let’s take a quick look at Free Speech. Why is free speech a good thing?

There are (always) two answers. One is very simple: Free Speech is Good, with a capital G. It is good in and of itself, without needing to be supported. It is essentially good, and that goodness is baked in and irreducible. This means there’s no point arguing over it, we just implement it, and attempts to restrict it must be Bad. That’s fine until someone says: “Why? What is this essentialness, exactly? Show me where the laws of the universe make it so!”

Long story short: you can’t. There is no “ought” from “is”. Millions of words are expended on this by thinkers and reasoners of many different schools and a lot of them will say they’ve proved that there is, but in the end: if someone had clearly demonstrated morality as baked into the universe the way something like gravity is, it would be a breakthrough in human thought and society on a par with the first tool use, affecting everything we do, and it isn’t and they haven’t.

Which means Free Speech must be what philosophers call “contingent”. That’s to say that its goodness depends on something else, probably what that speech facilitates, and indeed, a lot of societies premise their Free Speech rights on the notion that Free Speech is a vital component of a functioning democracy. From which arise two more questions – inevitably – a) what’s so great about democracy? And b) what if Free Speech does not, in fact, promote democratic function? What if it retards it?

The answer to a) is again a consequential assertion: it’s the best way we have so far of creating free, fair, equal, just and happy lives. That loads a lot of responsibility onto a democracy to provide those things. If it can’t, it loses its legitimate status as Good. And b) is just as troubling – if Free Speech turns out to be a hinderance to a democracy providing these things, then Free Speech is not Good any more.

Reason is merciless.

And this is another component of the Crunch: our iterations of democracy aren’t delivering, and the institutions which should maintain them are in crisis. In many ways, our media aren’t informing, they’re inciting; they’re not trying to track the truth and relay it, they’re competing for attention in a marketplace of financial Darwinism. Politicians are not laying out the facts as they know them; they are misinforming the electorate, deliberately arousing emotions rather than intellect, appealing to the irrational and inspiring bad choices. The outcomes we get from this are predictably poor: those elected implement policies which will not deliver what they promise because they have promised things that cannot be had; the electorate becomes angrier and more afraid, and therefore more volatile and less inclined to reasonable consideration of issues. (And that’s not “them”, that’s all of us.)

It’s possible, by the way, to arrive at satisfactory answers to those questions and all the others like them, but those answers are not premised on a notion of solidity. They are answers we have to make — and in that detail is the devil: monsters and madmen can manipulate the fragility of reason to make all things equivalent, to make monstrosity a part of the political spectrum. It is not, because we say it is not, and we keep saying it and we keep acting on that statement even when it is hard, even when we want to do monstrous things, until we have locked monstrosity right back down again in its monster hole. Recently, we’ve slipped, and part of that slippage is that the structures which are supposed to deliver, don’t — and when that happens it is much harder to keep our monsters locked away.

So that’s my third note:

3. We are legitimately doing this wrong. The understanding of the world we grew up with is coming apart now because now is the moment at which we have reached the boundary of what works within that model.

We are, conceptually and societally, in free fall. In fact, part of the problem is that we have always been in free fall, and we’re just now noticing it. Imagine that your whole house, your neighbourhood, your town and everyone you have ever met was not, in fact, living on solid ground. You’ve been falling together, at the same rate, for your whole life, and just today you went to the edge of town and looked out expecting to see more of the same, and what you saw instead was nothing, and suddenly you became conscious of a sound of whistling and your first thought was that lots of air was rushing up from a vent in the ground, and the finally you got it. The air isn’t moving up, you’re falling down. And in that moment, the whole world is strange and dangerous. You’re looking at everything with new eyes and wondering: if the road breaks around your house — if you dig too deep in your garden — might your home flake off and be separated from the rest, sent spinning off in a new direction?

Yep.

This is part of what is known in political science (which is a bad name for a loose collection of more and less scientific disciplines) as “liquid modernity”. It’s another once-upon-a-time thing.

Once upon a time, you could expect to be born and grown up and die within a two miles circle (roughly speaking). You knew who you were because of where you lived, what your family did, what religion they were and everyone around you was, what state owned your allegiance, what your family name was. You could locate yourself in the universe by drawing lines between these things and where they met: WHAM. That was you. Simple.

Now, however, it’s not simple at all. What your parents did for a living does not necessarily tell you what you’ll do. You may not share their religion. You don’t have the same sense of yourself as a cog within a machine of family persistence and growth. You might live your whole life in one borough or one city, or you might end up on the other side of the world. These simple, stable points are neither simple nor stable any more, and some of them have been rendered complex in themselves. The conventional nuclear family structure can be seen through the lens of feminist critique as an expression of an arbitrary and violent patriarchy; your received trade or professional class might be either an imposed hinderance or an inequitable privilege. Perhaps it’s wrong that you should be defined by work at all… and so on.

And that’s nothing. Beyond the fading certainties of the early twentieth century’s framing of who we are, the future challenges even more fundamental things. What if human memory, far from being a reliable record of what occurred (it isn’t) were instead an editable mishmash of approximation constantly updated by your unconscious mind to guide your decision-making? (It is.) What if the way in which you make choices — not incidentally the basis of both democratic voting and capitalist market-based resource allocation — was acutely irrational to the point of absurd? (It is). What would it mean to the notion of being human if we could network our brains together the way we network computers? (The first “brain net” experiments are already taking place.) What if the simple, obvious Newtonian mechanical Universe just wasn’t what it appeared to be? What if matter itself existed only as a weird sequence of possible encounters, and time, emerging from the machinery rather than existing as a fundamental property, moved differently in different places? (All, in some sense, true.)

How do you locate yourself in a world where nothing is real?

4. We have to stop looking for solidity as a found object and start consciously constructing it.

Does that sound abstract? It’s not. It’s the most concrete statement of truth we have. We are in free fall. We always have been. The world is not something we find, it is something we make — not we individually; you are not the feckless author of all yourown suffering — we as a group, chaotic and unpredictable. We are like weather. And that is both terrifying and wonderful.

Why?

I said that our decision-making was absurd and bad. It is. That is to say that we are distractible, limited, and irrational. (Not exclusively, but undeniably.) That’s something we need to recognise, because — aside from having created a society which is effectively a distraction/attention engine — our received political forms are largely premised on the Enlightenment idea (much favoured by those all-conquering Victorians and their counterparts in the US and Europe) that we are at root rational minds riding in a grouchy, smelly, emotional carriage called “the body.” Our whole architecture of politics and economics is premised on this idea, and it’s essentially rubbish. Our cognition is mysterious, fractious, volatile and outright weird. How we make decisions as individuals is not the same as how we function in groups. It’s not the same in the morning as it is in the afternoon. It’s not the same when we’re sleepy, hungry, angry, afraid… We’re fundamentally wobbly.

And that is fine, so long as we know it and factor it into the mechanisms of democracy.

Here’s something democracy has going for it: there is a thing called a smart crowd. It’s demonstrable. Go to a village fair, play the game of guessing the weight of the cow. The individual guesses will for the most part be wrong, but the crowd’s guess as a whole, combined using complicated but tolerably well-understood mathematics, will be pretty good. Individually we have for the most part no idea what the cow weighs. Collectively we make good guesses. Surely that means that a parliament of six hundred, say, drawn from various walks of life and with different expertise and experience, is an ideal decision-making body? Well, yes and no.

Yes, because you definitely want a large-ish group with varied perspectives. But no, because we’ve configured our parliaments to do almost all of the things that destroy the smart crowd phenomenon. Smart crowds are wrecked by: -

popularity contests

payment or preferment for votes

tribal voting

tradition- or habit-based voting

voting on bad information

discussion between participants prior to the expression of an opinion, resulting in group-think.

Sadly, that means that almost all modern parliaments are by design as far from smart crowds as you can get them. And that is one example. The same kind of madness applies to education (why do we frame children’s education in a largely urban society along the lines of the agricultural calendar? Why, when we know that children and especially teens, need more sleep, do we start school in the early morning? Why do we test at fixed points in the year when we know that the younger kids will do less well as compared with their own actual potential than the older ones?) as well as health, economics, defence…

We inherited these systems, and we tend to think of them as solid, but that solidity is an illusion. We can change them and improve them at any time. We just don’t, because systemic reform is boring. So:

5. We have to start building fault-tolerant political architecture, and we have to do it right now, starting today.

We are in free fall and — assuming we don’t simply wipe ourselves out — that is not going to change. That being the case, we need to accept it, and begin to locate ourselves not according just according to the framing we received from the past, but according to the framing we want in the future. There are going to be shocks now. There are going to be storms. We know this. We are in one. But in these moments of societal unlocking brought on by crises which are not only political or even structural but conceptual, the vital thing is to be able to offer that which is concrete. This is the false promise of the Fascist: to offer certainty. That certainty is cold and hard and bleak. Ours must not be. It must be a certainty of construction, not of scrabbling in the ruins of old, bad ideas. We must be able to offer help at a local granular level. We must deliver compassion first. But it is not by itself enough. We must also frame a huge new mosaic premised on the idea of creating, not discovering, a good society. Not a received shape that was always waiting for us, that is inevitable; a shape that we agree and make together, in which we jointly invest, which we make real with our energy.

6. There is no utopia waiting on a mountain. It exists only in so far as we construct it, and as such it can emerge from this crisis just as easily as the ugly visions of hate which contend for our attention. It will do so only if we act it to make it real.

And that’s as far as I’ve got today.