In my last post I brought up the state of our infrastructure. It is much bemoaned, but not much has been done to address its corrosion. As the social contract has been torn in an attempt to maximize profit for our owners, even the appearance of concern over the state of roads, bridges, and all publicly owned infrastructure has melted away behind ineffectual rhetoric.
We look at the remains of the distant past and marvel at the heights of past achievements or mourn over their loss. Some ruins are the result of quick catastrophe. These are understandable to us. Pompeii destroyed by a volcano in an afternoon is a good example. “Poor dears,” we may say as we secretly congratulate ourselves on our good fortune; to have escaped, and to have such treasures stored away for millennia to be available for our enjoyment. But most ruins, whether buried or open to the sky, were the results not of cataclysm, but of slow decline and creeping irrelevance. Conimbriga, the Luso-Roman town in Portugal I’ve visited a number of times since childhood, is a prime example. It suffered from a long decline punctuated by sharp crises. In the end, it was abandoned, left to crumble. The ideas behind its existence no longer meant anything to the people who still lived there. Its rationale no longer matched up with their realities. This led to neglect, perhaps even a hatred for a past system that had been shown to have failed its people. A similar evolution of attitude occurred across the Mediterranean world. Over a couple of centuries it led to the collapse of Rome and the dissolution of its political, social, and cultural norms.
In the east there was another response to the growing irrelevance, another response to despair over the failures of existing norms that no longer met people’s needs. Byzantium went on to last another thousand years. It did so while failing just as spectacularly as Rome had. The difference was a greater ability to repress and suppress its people’s hopes and maintain “order.” Extreme corruption and a rigid stratification of society – even beyond the ancient Empire’s norms – allowed Byzantium to hold together an Empire-of-Fear in which no-one trusted anyone and the struggle for power-at-all-costs played itself out above a general population that suffered from piecemeal collapse below a veneer of extremely centralized wealth and ostentatious opulence.
I spent my late childhood and adolescence reading Alas Babylon, expecting annihilation to come as a brilliant and blinding flash in the sky. I never expected to live to this age. Not out of some 60’s rebellious desire to live fast and die young. I just didn’t see how the world could make it through the gauntlet laid in its path by the Post-War realities of extreme ideological conflict armed with thermonuclear weapons. I don’t think I was alone in this fear, a dread held private, as if it were too obscene to contemplate openly. Perversely it was considered wonderfully Patriotic to work towards facilitating doomsday.
This same complex of private fear held behind a hidden shame, surrounded by public pride at “accomplishments” that have fed an accelerating rate of destruction, has spread and blossomed upon our age. Nuclear extinction has lost its unique pride-of-place in a widening pantheon of pathways to bring about massive destruction and total annihilation. That private dread and public pride is only now beginning to unravel. How does this connect with the state of our infrastructure?
There is a tremendous lag, an inertia, at work in taking a once-vital culture and turning it into an irrelevant and despised ruin. The irrelevance, the disconnect between real needs and the particular avenues a culture allows its people to explore, is long in building. Rome was rotten before the end of the Republic. The rest, in many ways, was just a long drawn out unraveling of its inconsistencies. Early on it’s easy to either call for reform to progress us out of the decline or to call for a return to some earlier state of glory. These “answers” don’t work, but they keep people occupied, entertained with the spectacle, as the competing ideologies push and pull to convince everyone of their particular fantasy. Progressives and conservatives each play out their roles with a growing sense of doubt at the rationale behind the struggle, replacing conviction with vehemence and fundamentalism. A search for hope devolves into a shallow wishing that what they’ve dedicated their lives to will hold true even as they despair in ever arriving at their goal. All sorts of “cheer-leading” is brought to bear to prop up the old beliefs. In the end this only sharpens the decline.
We tend to bemoan the results. “Oh my! A sharp decline!” “That’s bad, right?”
Is it? In the end the reasons for decline are that the old ways are out of synchronization with the reality of people’s lives. They are so far out of synch that even their most loyal adherents begin to lose their belief. If this is the case then the quicker the denouement the sooner some other viewpoint has a chance to tackle the causes of dislocation. The quicker the decline the sooner a new point of stability is reached, perhaps at a lower overall cost. – This is not discussing “electives!” It’s not a question of choosing between decline and a status quo. Decline is coming anyway. The only question is in choosing how to respond to it. There is a parallel in the way depression works in individuals. They are both signs that a high-cost change – in the short term view – needs to be made for the overall health and integrity of the individual or population – in this case for the entire potential for life on earth. Delaying this adjustment by propping up the old system with “healthy doses of optimism!” or any of a number of dodges that maintain a semblance of short-term equilibrium are, in effect, counterproductive. We run the risk that the depression escalates into suicide or wider mayhem.
We are currently somewhere along this path. We cannot know exactly where, the results are only apparent in hindsight, that fall-guy for our Promethean Age.
What we can do is lean into it and try to nudge things along in an attempt to sway our course so that it more closely follows the Conimbriga model rather than the Byzantine model. If this “dinosaur” totters along for another thousand years – that doesn’t seem physically possible, but neither did surviving the 1950’s and ’60’s! – then its legacy will be even more devastating, the lasting destruction it wreaks will be that much more overkill.
This isn’t a naked call for joining the Suebians on a frontal assault on our culture’s ramparts. Though there might be worst things…. It does call for us to be more judicious when we lament over signs of a decline that is well underway, a decline that brings with it essential corrections – no matter how hard their short-term cost might be to contemplate. Rebuilding highways is hubris taken beyond the realm of tragedy on into complete farce. This applies to so many attempts to repair so much of what is falling apart. It took wealthy Conimbriganense perhaps a generation or longer to admit, even after they pulled down their own villas to augment the new wall to “save” their city; that irrelevance, even to those who had benefited from its promulgation in the past, had overtaken their system and it was time to let it go.
Nostalgia is one of the easy emotions. It gets bundled up in Kitsch. It’s no accident that kitsch is the art-of-choice for the most reactionary elements of any age. Accept a willing embrace of deception, even self-deception, as a virtue and the rest all falls into place. The earliest stirrings of this slackening of judgement need to be taken as a warning of the need to look more closely at one’s motivations and double-check one’s assumptions. The failure to do so condemns one to an ersatz life – funny how German always seems to have the right words for this kind of thing! Those Suebians were probably already smirking over the shift in die weldschmerz even then!
Futility is our reaction to doing what we suspect will not work simply because we are unwilling or unable to see an alternative. Recognizing this is the first step out of the trap of futility. We don’t need an increase in optimism, but an increase in genuine hope. This is our task today. We need to navigate our growing realizations of the irrelevance of all of the “answers” we’ve been chasing. This will build our sense of hope, but it will only come if we are willing and able to abandon the false-dichotomy that sees the only alternative to optimism as pessimism and despair.
The wealthy Conimbriganense; breaking a nail, carrying on with a torn toga and bleeding from fresh calluses on their once lily-white hands while they struggled to fortify their wall; knew despair. Their hopelessness was much greater than what their descendants felt as they picked up their lighter burdens and simply walked away. Beneficiaries of an inheritance of collapse, they had regained the ability to hope. They had something to look forward to as they raised their eyes with fresh hope. They were free of the trap of futility, no longer caught-up in a reflexive panic looking backwards towards lost, ill-gained, advantages while desperately closing their eyes to the inevitable as their parents had.
The “defenders” of the status-quo always like to categorize such a recognition of the need to get on as “wishing” for “bad things” to come! They are the one’s caught up in wishing. Their wishing does lead to bad things. It’s not in our hands to “make” reality turn out one way or another. Apologies to all the cheerleaders out there who make a buck denying it! We don’t control our world. We simply have to live in it. How we deal with this has a great impact on how we live. On this depends whether we serve life or propagate death and destruction. This is the only field on which we can have a beneficial impact. The rest is sheer folly.
When we look around us at deteriorating infrastructure we are looking at the products of creeping irrelevance. These are ruins in the making. This is a hard concept for Americans to accept – and since globalization has worked so hard to make us all at least a little bit “American” this attitude has spread around the world. Propping up ruins is a definitively futile act. It only hampers whatever efforts we can make to soften our descent and to accommodate the inevitable. It is the act of children, bereaved and angry at the loss of toys they had already begun to neglect, wishing in a fit of pique to have their will trump the demands of a shifting reality.