Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The impotence of politics

I have just finished a round of elections which have kept me from writing for a while – that and a rather nasty breakup. Overall, it turned out the way I wanted – the election, not the breakup. I didn't get elected, but then that never was the point. The second round opposed the Greens to the old socialist party, which was quite an event in itself, and by openly supporting the former, I put myself in a good position for the 2014 municipal election. This required a lot of advance planning, but it has worked so far.

If this sounds cynical, it's normal, at least in part. That's only a part of the story, however.

Activists and radicals are prone to dismiss mainstream politicians as cynical and self-serving, but this comes from a distorted view of what politics are and can do. We may live in offices and eat processed food, our social behavior is still rooted in our evolutionary history as pack hunters and primates. Archaic human societies were ruled by coalitions, most of the time a strongman and his lieutenants, with a number of social devices designed to make sure he is dependent upon his followers for his continued dominance.

With the Neolithic revolution, our societies have grown far beyond what a single coalition could reasonably manage and have become fractal as a result. Modern societies are a hierarchy of nested coalitions all built upon the same model, from your average nuclear family to the G8. Inside those coalitions, everyone is jockeying for position and fighting for access to scarce resources. This the way all human groups work, even anarchies. In fact, it is far more brutal among anarchists – especially the Randite subtype – because by rejecting institutionalized power, they destroy the various social devices our species evolved to check the pack leader's dominance.

A consequence is that our leaders' power is utterly dependent upon the support of their allies and followers. The chieftain of a Cro-Magnon tribe could theoretically browbeat his fellow hunters into submission. A modern politician must give his supporters what they want – or at least tell them what they want to hear – lest they desert him. That means he must cater to the delusions and obsessions of his electorate if he does not want to become a very lone voice crying in a very empty desert.

That is why even the few politicians who know the truth about our situation cannot do anything meaningful about it. If they did they would soon find themselves out of a job, in the manner of Ben Ali.

The Greens, which I supported, are basically a revitalization movement. The closest historical example – at least from an American point of view – was Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa's confederacy. Quitting drinking and opposing a united front to the settlers was clearly a good idea, but even a total success on that front would not have been enough to keep the settlers at bay. Piling up symbolic acts – even if some of them are actually good ideas – won't prevent, or even significantly slow, the decline of industrial civilization, not this late in the game. The only thing which could have some effect, that is deliberately diminishing our consumption, is every bit as unthinkable among the Greens as it is in the other political parties – including mine, it has to be said.

I am, in fact, quite sure that at least some Greens (as well as some of us) are aware of this. The problem is that going so blatantly against the wish and expectations of their (and our) electors will make them run away in less time than one needs to say “Mubarak”.

Even those who officially support degrowth are forced to disguise it as progress, lest they lose whatever small support they have. There is no way to support extensive public services without an industrial economy, yet degrowthers feel obliged to claim the contrary because most of them come from the left and being on the left here means maintaining that state funding for your lifestyle is an inalienable right.

Should a left winger (or anybody else for that matter) state the truth — that is, that the years of affluence are nearing their end and that we, as a people, are going to have to live with far less — he would be immediately branded as a dangerous extremist and an accomplice of whatever conspiracy is fashionable at the moment.

In fact, politicians' options are far more limited than laymen's.

Acting openly to prepare for the future is impossible – we would be quickly out of a job. We can, of course, prepare covertly for the future. I am persuaded that a few leaders, and at least some services, do this. The problem is that the changes needed to adapt to the end of the industrial society are so drastic that one cannot implement them stealthily. Moreover, even a gradual implementation is likely to be met with fierce resistance... and there would be no shortage of would-be presidents to capitalize on that.

In France, the most likely winner would be Marine Le Pen – think Nick Griffin with a brain, and a skirt.

The role of intellectual exile is another option, and a tempting one. Walking out of the political scene and writing for the future enables you to keep your intellectual integrity. It may also give you a greater influence upon the future. After all, Augustine of Hippo's writings have had a far greater impact than the actions of the Western Emperor Honorius or the Vandal king Geiseric. The problem is that not everybody is Augustine of Hippo, and that whatever you write is far more likely to end up in a recycle bin than in a neo-monastic library.

Besides, politicians are often dependent on the power structure for their livelihood. They are as free to leave as your average middle manager – especially after a nasty and costly breakup. Incidentally, this is also true for radicals. Could a Marxist or the head of a women's studies department diverge from the party line without endangering his or her job? Hardly.

The end result is that those of us who are aware of the situation just muddle through, and try to quietly advance policies we know might help without jeopardizing the social order or our ability to pay our mortgages.

And sometimes, we think of Augustine of Hippo.