Rome was not built in a day, nor did it fall suddenly to a horde of screaming, blue-painted savages. Some scholars argue that Rome never really “fell” at all, at least as we imagine the “Fall of Rome.” Instead, the Empire slowly succumbed to its own weight and rot, like an old drunk with a three-pack habit and a crappy diet. What killed the Empire? Everything and nothing. There were spasms of violence and disruption, but Rome just stumbled, tipped over and died with a whimper, not a scream.
Maybe that’s us in the 21st Century.
We seem to have lost our mojo when it comes to doing big things and doing them well. A nation that built the interstate highway system in the 1950s can’t fix the potholes in the streets or keep bridges from falling into rivers. Our health care system is complex, expensive, and increasingly falling behind. It’s true, as has been famously noted, that health care is “complicated,” but Americans used to be known for figuring out how to do complicated, difficult and challenging things. Now there are many nations in the world — democratic nations with market economies — who have health care systems that are much less expensive than ours, that are easier to navigate and that deliver better outcomes.
The economy is perking along right well, isn’t it? But as Rullman notes in The Abundance Bomb, there’s much that is suspect in an economic model where…
…This abundance, this giant ticking bomb, is the result of steadfast belief in the growth economy, hyper-efficient economies of scale, and the seduction of nearly every one of us into the role of dedicated — one might say blindly addicted — consumer.
Robert Bunker, a 4th-generation-warfare scholar and analyst asserts that there is a “Plutocratic Insurgency” underway, where the realization that the 1% have won the “class war” resonates like…
…“a ‘double-tap’ to the skull of the American middle class after the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has now passed in the U.S. Senate… The social contract between the governed and the government, which is derived from the consent of the people and conveys legitimacy to our political system, is becoming increasingly imperiled. Not only in this Bill have the taxes of the rich once again been reduced but to offset this plutocratic economic boon the taxes of the middle class have been brazenly raised to subsidize it.”
That’s not coming from some Marxist malcontent snarling in his garret — Bunker is an Adjunct Research Professor, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College.
Strategic thinkers understand that a society where a large proportion of the population has little or no stake or faith in its own institutions is going to become increasingly unstable. The speed wobbles can only grow with the advent of Artificial Intelligence and robotics in the workplace. Automation is already displacing workers, and the trend toward job insecurity and a gig economy with few employment-related benefits will grow. Education is, of course, key to adapting to such structural changes, but — take it from the father of a college freshman — college education is EXPENSIVE.
It scarcely requires mentioning that our political culture has slid from dysfunctional to farcical. We elected a celebrity reality TV star and real estate developer to the highest office in the land with ZERO qualifications for the job, yet the new hope of the #Resistance is to … elect another celebrity?
Apparently we don’t elect leaders in the Republic anymore; we just recast the lead.
Dooming you out yet? Sorry. That’s not my intent. Quite the opposite, in fact. For, as Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project so eloquently puts it:
It’s not the apocalypse, of course, it’s just history, but if you thought the shape of history was meant to be an upward curve of progress, then this feels like the apocalypse.
Maybe we’re going through something we’ve already gone through a couple of times. The United States has crashed and reset before. In the middle of the 19th Century, the country literally split apart in Civil War and was put back together by force. The reset changed the country, setting us on the irrevocably on the course of free-labor industrial capitalism.
And we crashed hard in 1929, when the Great Depression swept across the land, threatening the very underpinnings of the American economy and society. World War II provided the reset — and we emerged from that great conflict a different country than we were before. More united than perhaps ever before, but also confronted with a massively empowered federal government and a national security state that took a much more active role in the day-to-day life of Americans.
We’re crashing again, tumbling down a long slope starting when we stumbled over the rock of the Vietnam War. That conflict divided America deeply — divisions that are far from healed — and called into question every institution of our society.
The fire next time could be apocalyptic — we certainly have the capacity to destroy our own civilization in the virtual blink of an eye. Dealing with a truly catastrophic end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it collapse is pretty straightforward: Most of us die and the rest of us are completely absorbed in the effort to survive another day. The more likely scenario is that things keep lurching along, increasingly wobbly, but never really falling down. There may be periods of significant disruption, sometimes severe, but life as we know it carries on.
So the key is to live well, every day. Live with honor in a dishonorable time. Be strong and self-reliant in a culture that valorizes weakness and victimhood. Live free in an era of constraint. Live with verve and joy in the face of decline.
So… how ?
This requires a shift in thinking and outlook. Insisting that “it’s not supposed to be this way” doesn’t help. In fact, it can be fatal. Lawrence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival, identifies a key trait of those who survive perilous situations:
“They immediately begin to recognize, acknowledge, and even accept the reality of their situation.”
We were all raised to believe that “the shape of history was meant to be an upward curve of progress” — that things would always get better, always “advance.” We equate ever-increasing technological sophistication and dominance of the natural environment with “improvement” — and find ourselves dismayed when it looks like, in some ways, things aren’t just failing to improve but are getting worse. Time to recognize, acknowledge and accept.
And then do something.
Your editors here at Running Iron Report aren’t setting ourselves up as oracles or gurus. It’s always a work in progress, for us as much as anybody. Here are some small things that I try to practice day-to-day:
• Shut off the noise. I’m a newsman and I can’t just completely tune out; I have to inform myself. But instead of shooting up the Daily Dose of Outrage, I try to dig a little deeper and hit sources that are doing serious reporting and analysis instead of indulging in yet another round of gasbaggery. I find that shutting off the stuff that provides more noise and heat than light leaves me less agitated and pissed off, and delving into stuff that has real meat on the bones makes me feel better, stronger and maybe bit wiser.
You’ll find some links below.
• Avoid “entertainment.” I try to spend my relaxation time with meaningful Story — whether it’s fiction or non-fiction; book or movie or music. Story that feeds the soul and doesn’t leave me with a sugar high and syrup-stomach like I just gobbled down an entire bag of peanut butter cups.
• Focus on the generative. This is related to the entertainment thing: I’ve been striving to devote my time to work that feeds into the kind of life I’m striving to build. For example, I’ve hardly watched a football game this season. It’s astounding how much writing can get done, or wood split and stacked, or music played in the 3.5 hours it would take to watch other men do something.
There’s probably more, and I reckon we’ll touch on all of it at some point here at RIR. You get the idea: Incremental adjustments of outlook and action that address the world as it is, not as we might wish for it to be, that align with values and virtues that we cleave to whether or not they’re in fashion.
Turns out, it’s a pretty satisfying path to walk.