There are definite advantages to writing the main ideas of this blog in weekly series. In the era before the Internet, when many weekly magazines provided the same free mix of ideas and opinions that fill the blogosphere today, many writers were busy writing articles and essays for weekly publications, and the benefits were not only financial: reader feedback was more than sufficient. , on the one hand, and contributions from other writers in related fields, on the other hand, do make it easier to continue a writer’s lonely work.
This week’s trial benefited from this latter effect in a somewhat unexpected way. In recent weeks, here and there in the corners of the Internet that I frequent, another series of essays and comments have appeared in forums emphasizing that it is time for middle-class intellectuals, who are often involved in environmental and climate movements, to address violence against women. industrial system. This may not seem to have anything to do with the theme of the current message-empty sequence that currently occupies a place in our collective imagination where there have been meaningful visions of the future-but there is a connection, and following it will help explain one of the central themes I want to talk about.
The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov said that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. This is half-truth at best, because there are situations in which effective violence is the only tool that will do what needs to be done-we’ll get there in a moment. However, it turns out that a certain type of incompetence does tend to degenerate into violence when all other options fail and end in a final explosion of senseless bloodshed. At this point, it is extremely likely that the climate change movement, or parts of it, will eventually follow this path into the dustbin of history; again, we will return to this a little later in this article.
It should probably be said at once that the arguments I propose to make here have nothing to do with the ethics of violence, but have everything to do with its pragmatics as a means of achieving social change. Ethics in general is a complete quagmire in contemporary society. Nietzsche’s sly description of moral philosophy as the art of reinforcing inherited prejudices with bad logic has not lost its force since he wrote it, and since his time we have also witnessed the rise of professional ethicists. whose job it is to make plausible excuses for everything their business masters want to do this week. The ethical issues surrounding violence are at least as confusing as those surrounding other disordered realities of human life, and in some respects even more confusing than most.
I myself believe that violence is quite appropriate in certain situations. Many of my readers may have heard, for example, of an event that occurred not too long ago in Kentucky when a sex worker was attacked by a serial killer. While he was strangling her, she managed to get his gun and shoot him. In my opinion, his actions were morally justified. Once he attacked her, no matter what she did, someone was going to die, and killing him not only returned violence to his perpetrator, but also saved the lives of many other women the guy could have killed. before the police got to him-if they never did; crimes against sex workers and, for that matter, crimes against women are tacitly ignored by quite a few American police departments these days.
In the same spirit, one could argue that revolutionary violence against a political and economic system is morally justified if the harm caused by that system is high enough. However, that is not the debate I am interested in exploring here. Again, I want to discuss pragmatics rather than ethics, because whether or not revolutionary violence is justified in the abstract moral sense is now much less important than whether it is an effective response to the situation in which we find ourselves. This is not a question that is asked, let alone answered, by people who encourage environmental and climate change activists to think about violence against the system.
Violence is not a panacea. It is a tool, and like any tool, it is good for certain tasks and completely useless for others. Political violence, in particular, is a remarkably fragile and limited tool. Even when they have the support of the government’s resource base, they regularly fail or have unpleasant consequences, and a group that resorts to political violence without the resources and technical assistance of government must play their part very well somewhere or they will fail. Also, in many cases, violence is useless as a means of social change because other tools can do their job more effectively.
Pay attention to the history of successful revolutions, and it is easy to see how to bring political violence to an end-and, more importantly, how not to. The most important point to learn from history is that successful violence in a political context does not happen in a vacuum. It is the final act of a long process, and the more carefully this process is carried out, the less violence is needed in a moment of crisis. Let’s take a few paragraphs to go through the process and see how it is done.
The first and most important step in the transformation of any society is the delegitimization of the existing order. This does not involve violence, and in fact violence at this initial stage of the process is disastrously counterproductive-a lesson, incidentally, that the U.S. military has never been able to learn, so their attempts to delegitimize their enemies (usually phrased in such language than “to win minds and minds”).hearts”) has always been so uncomfortable with incompetence and inefficiency. The struggle to delegitimize the existing order must be fought on the fields of cultural, intellectual, and ideological battles, not physical ones, and its targets should not be people or institutions, but the aura of legitimacy and inevitability that surrounds any established political and economic order.
Those of my readers who want to know how this is done may want to know about the cultural and intellectual life of France in the decades before the revolution. This is a useful example, not least because the people who wanted to overthrow the French monarchy came from almost the same social background as today’s green radicals: disaffected middle-class intellectuals who had few resources other than intelligence and erudition. This proved enough, for they subjected the monarchy-and, more importantly, the institutions and values that supported it-to a constant and precise attack from constantly shifting positions, resorting one day to cruel ridicule and the next day to serious calls for reform, exploiting every weakness and scandal to maximum effect. By the time the crisis finally arrived in 1789, the monarchy was so completely defeated on the battlefield of public opinion that almost no one stood up for it until the revolution was a fait accompli.
Delegitimizing the existing order is only the first step in this process. The second step is political and involves creating a network of alliances with existing and potential centers of power and pressure groups that might be willing to support revolutionary change. Every political system, regardless of its formal institutional form, in practice consists of such a network of centers of power-that is, groups of people with significant political, economic, or social influence-and pressure groups-that is, other groups of people who do not have such influence but who can give or withhold their support in ways that sometimes benefit from the centers of power.
For example, in America today, the main centers of power are in what we might as well call the bureaucratic-industrial complex, the revolving door system of relationships that connects large corporations, especially big investment banks, with large federal bureaucracies, particularly the Treasury and the Pentagon. There are other centers of power-such as the oil complex, which has its own ties to the Pentagon-that take turns cooperating and competing with the New York-D.C. axis of influence-and then there are all sorts of lobby groups, some more powerful, some less, others reduced to constituency status, whose only role in the political process is to hold a re-vote every four years and see their agenda ignored by their supposed friends in power in between electoral The network of power centers, lobby groups, and closed groups that support the existing order of things is the true core of political power, and it is what needs to be displaced if systemic change is to occur.
Effective revolutionaries know that to overthrow the existing social order they must create a comparable network that will support them against the existing order and develop it to the point where it begins to draw key centers of power from the network of the existing order. This is a challenge, but not an impossible one. In any turbulent society, there are always many potential centers of power that have been excluded from the existing order and its source, and are therefore interested in supporting changes that will give them the power they want and do not have. For example, in France before the Revolution, there were many rich middle-class people who were excluded from the political system by the aristocracy and the royal court, and philosophers tried their best to win their support and gain their support. This paid off as soon as the crisis hit.
In any society, turbulent or not, there are also always pressure groups, many of whom are interested in gaining more access to the various goodies the power centers can hand out, and may be forced to ally themselves with a growing pro-revolutionary faction. The more completely delegitimized the existing order of things, the easier it is to create such alliances, and the alliances, in turn, can be used to fuel the ongoing process of delegitimization. Again, as in the first phase of the process, violence is an obstacle, not a help, and it is better that this topic never even come up; it is much easier to build the necessary network of alliances when no one has yet had to face the enormous risks people face. revolutionary violence.
Thus, by the time the end game arrives, you will have an existing order that no longer requires the respect and loyalty of the majority of the population, as well as a vast network of pressure groups and potential centers of power supporting a revolutionary agenda. Once the situation reaches this stage, the question of how to organize the transfer of power from the old regime to the new becomes a matter of tactics, not Strategy. Violence is only one of the options available, and, again, it is by no means always the most useful option. There are many ways to loosen the last grip of the existing order on the institutions of power, once this grip is loosened by the steps already mentioned.
What, on the other hand, happens to groups that fail to do the necessary work first and resort to violence anyway? Again, history has something to say about this, and in abbreviated terms they lose. Without delegitimizing the existing social order and building support networks between pressure groups and potential centers of power, the transition to political violence guarantees total failure.
For some reason, for much of the past century, the left has been unable or unwilling to learn this lesson. Instead, what has happened time and again is that a movement seeking radical change has walked away convinced that the existing social order already lacks popular legitimacy and therefore cannot stand up for anyone outside its own ranks. Having failed at the first stage, he tries to pressure the existing centers of power and lobby groups to support his agenda, instead of building a competing network around his own agenda, to no avail. Finally, having failed in the two preliminary stages, he either completely collapses or engages in unnecessary outbursts of violence against the system, which are quickly and violently suppressed. All my readers who remember the sad story of the New Left in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s are already familiar with this story to the smallest detail.
With this in mind, let’s look at how the climate change movement has followed the same trajectory of egregious failure over the past fifteen or so years.
The task of the climate change movement at the dawn of the twenty-first century was difficult, but by no means impossible. Their stated goal was to build a consensus in the industrialized world that would support phasing out fossil fuels and moving toward the less energy-intensive lifestyles that renewable resources could provide. This would require a significant number of wealthy people to come to terms with a decline in their standard of living, but it is far from the insurmountable obstacle that many people seem to think it is. When Winston Churchill told the British people, “I have nothing to offer but blood, labor, tears, and sweat,” his listeners roared with approval. For reasons probably rooted far back in our evolutionary past, the call for shared sacrifice usually elicits an enthusiastic response if the people being asked to sacrifice themselves have reason to believe that something worthwhile will come of it.
Nevertheless, this is exactly what the climate change movement has failed to provide. It is difficult, but I think it is not unfair, to describe the movement’s true agenda as an attempt to create a future in which the middle classes of the industrialized world could continue to enjoy the benefits of their privileged lifestyle without destroying the atmosphere in the process. Of course, it is not really easy to convince everyone in the world to put aside all their own aspirations for the sake of the already privileged, and so the representatives of the Climate Change Movement did not usually talk about what they hoped to achieve. Instead, they fell into the most persistent bad habit of the left and instead exclaimed how terrible the future would be if the rest of the world did not take their side.
If any of my readers have revolutionary ambitions, can I give you some helpful advice? If you want people to follow your example, you must tell them where you are going to lead them. Talking solely about what will happen if they don’t follow you is not helpful. Repeating the same series of topics to discuss how everyone is going to die unless the whole world persistently rallies around you will not help. The place you direct them to may be difficult and dangerous, the path may be full of traps, victims and suffering, and they will always flock to your banner-in fact, young people will respond to such a future with more enthusiasm than to any other, especially if you can relieve their suffering. a beer drive and the occasional barbecue-but you must be willing to talk about where you are going. You should also remember that the phrase “shared sacrifice” includes the word “common,” and don’t expect everyone to give up something so you don’t have to do it.
Thus, the climate change movement entered the arena with one hand tied behind his back and a heavy suitcase full of middle-class privilege in his other hand. Its subsequent behavior did nothing to overcome this initial flaw. When defenders of the existing order struck back, which they certainly did, the climate change movement did nothing to regain the initiative and undermine its opponents; preaching to the green choir replaced any attempt to address the concerns of the general public; again and again climate change activists let the other side determine the terms of the debate and then complained about the eventual defeat rather than learning from it. Of course, the other side used all the techniques in the book and then some; So? Here’s how the game is played. Successful movements For Change realize this and plan accordingly.
We don’t even need to go into the horrible failure of the climate change movement to look for allies among the many lobbying groups and potential power centers that would support it if it could win the first and most important fight in the arena of public opinion. My point is that at this point in the failure curve, violence really is the last refuge for the incompetent. Which is,after all, what would be the result if some middle-class intellectuals who form the core of the climate change movement collected guns, gathered the raw materials for a few bombs, and tried to use violence to make their point? They might well kill people before the FBI shoots them or sentences them to life in Leavenworth; they would probably stop fighting climate change altogether, making most Americans afraid and suspicious of anyone who talks about it-but would their actions do anything to slow the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the resulting climate chaos? Of course not.
What makes the failure of the climate change movement so telling is that during the same years that it peaked and collapsed, another movement successfully ran a pre-revolutionary campaign of the classic type here in the United States. While the Green Left was spinning its wheels and preparing for failure, right-wing populists implemented an extremely effective program of delegitimation against the federal government and, more importantly, the institutions and values that support it. Over the past fifteen years or so, largely as a result of this program, large numbers of Americans have gone from a normal, healthy distrust of politicians to a complete loss of confidence in the entire American project. To a remarkable degree, those average Americans from the rocky shores who used to insist that, of course, the U.S. political system was the best in the world are now convinced that the U.S. political system is their enemy and the enemy of all that they value.
The second stage of the pre-revolutionary process, the creation of a network of alliances with pressure groups and potential centers of power, is also at an advanced stage. Look at which groups these days are joining forces with each other on the right, and you will see a competent revolutionary strategy in action. This is not something I find reassuring-in fact, quite the contrary; apart from my own admittedly old-fashioned feelings of patriotism, one of the characteristics of revolutions is that a government that comes to power after a shouting and cease-fire is always more repressive than the government that was in power before. Nevertheless, based on the way things stand, it seems likely to me that the United States will see the collapse of its present system of government, probably accompanied by a violent revolution or civil war, within a decade or two.
Meanwhile, as far as I can tell, the climate change movement has effectively come to a standstill, and we no longer have time to move anything forward before the escalating spiral of climate catastrophe-as my readers may have noticed, it has already happened well advanced. At this point, it is probably safe to say that anthropogenic climate change will accelerate until the prophecy of growth constraints is fulfilled and brings the global industrial economy to its knees. Any attempt to bring human society back into some kind of equilibrium with ecological reality must be made during and after this enormous crisis. It requires a long game, but in any case it will be necessary to do what the climate change movement has failed to do, and this time to do it right.
With that in mind, I’m going to steer this blog in a slightly different direction next week and for at least a few weeks to come. In previous articles, I’ve talked about intentional technological regression as an opportunity, not just for individuals, but as a matter of public policy. I have also talked at some length about the role that storytelling plays in helping to imagine an alternative future. With this in mind, I will use the tools of fiction to suggest a future that diverges perpendicularly from expectations at both ends of the current political spectrum. Pack your bags, dear readers; your tickets will be waiting for you at the train station. Next Wednesday night we will take the train to Retrotopia.