Sunday, March 02, 2014

Holding back the tide in a late-stage Empire

As a middle-aged, middle-class, relatively privileged (white, educated, male, heterosexual, tenured) college professor, engaged in teaching music, cultural history, and critical thinking, in a late-stage Empire whose particular addictions--specifically to leisure, material possessions, and the cheap energy which fossil fuels make possible--is rapidly destroying both subaltern societies and the planet's own ecosystem, I sometimes imagine I know what it must have felt like to be a lector or ludus literatus in one of the frontier provinces of late-stage Rome: Valentia (Wales and NW England), say, or Brittaniae (Cornwall). In such a biography, you're a very long way from the centers of power, you can feel and observe (as someone trained and teaching historical consciousness and a degree of cultural analysis) the way in which the larger society, the vast superstructure of privilege, is creaking, groaning, and breaking down. And you can observe, and experience considerable frustration regarding, the psychotic short-term greed and lust for power which leads those at the top of the economic ladder to enact ever more radical, repressive, and short-sighted activities to try to maintain control and keep the addiction fed: clear-cutting Britain to build ships, hiring barbarian mercenaries to protect the homeland, steadily hollowing-out the middle class in order to enrich the oligarchs behind the politicians, creating Praetorian guards of private contractors to guard them, squirreling away their wealth in private troves or in vast estates remote from the centers of conflict.

In a late-stage Empire, there is no middle class, there is no democracy, there is no historical vision, there is no investment in future generations or future resources--human, natural, financial. There is only the ever-accelerating drive to maintain the status quo of the wealthy, and to hold at bay, just under the surface of consciousness, the panic they feel in the very clear, but repressed realization that all the wealth, power, privilege, impunity are going to go away even so.

In such a world, what would you, as a humble teacher, civil servant, carpenter, farmer, do, knowing that the powerful have no ears and no interest for any understandings except their own? What would you tell your kids, as you look at the disintegrating world you are bequeathing to them? What would you tell your students, as you try to impart the modest skills and insight you've spent a lifetime developing to hold back the tide of collapse? It's an enterprise doomed to failure, after all: the oligarchs will behave more and more flagrantly, greedily, and destructively; the subaltern communities will more and more be goaded to attack one another; the middle class will continue to disappear; the poor servant class will expand geometrically even as their standard of living plunges; the planet will continue to degrade. And there is nothing, nothing, (or almost) nothing you can do about it.

What would you do? Well, in your small distant corner of the world, very far from the centers of power, with nearly no voice and absolutely no influence in the public discourse of the day, you might just keep doing what you do: trying to directly impact those around you in positive ways; imparting the skills of critical reading, writing, listening, speaking, and thinking that help young people learn how to cope with changing, unknown, fluid, challenging problems requiring new and unique solutions; laying down in safekeeping, like bottles of wine in a cellar, the stocks of wisdom, history, literature, art, music, science, healing, that might otherwise be destroyed like the Library of Alexandria, and you might try to look forward, past peak oil or wealth, past societal breakdown and the fall of the oligarchs, past the destruction of the imperial Cities and their way of life, past the ensuing Dark Ages... a time when, possibly from the far distant provinces which were least touched by the Empire and soonest abandoned, a few peregrini, a few wandering travelers and scholars, might return toward the center, and begin to rebuild. The new society upon the ruins of the old. 

Because what else is there to do? Despair may be inevitable--but it is also irrelevant.