Does The Answer Lie With Politics?

By: Alton C. Thompson

Henry Giroux, in his recent “Authoritarian Politics in the Age of Casino Capitalism,” begins by painting a bleak picture of the current state of our society, and then makes these recommendations:

The issue should no longer be how to work within the current electoral system, but how to dismantle it and construct a new political landscape that is capable of making a claim on equity, justice, and democracy for all of its inhabitants.

And:

Yet, the current historical moment seems at an utter loss to create a massive social movement capable of addressing the totalitarian nature and social costs of a religious and political fundamentalism that is merging with an extreme market-fundamentalism.In this case, a fundamentalism whose idea of freedom extends no further than personal financial gain and endless consumption.Under such circumstances, progressives should focus their energies on working with the Occupy movement and other social movements to develop a new language of radical reform and to create new public spheres that will make possible the modes of critical thought and engaged agency that are the very foundations of a truly participatory and radical democracy.Such a project must work to develop vigorous educational programs, modes of public communication, and communities that promote a culture of deliberation, public debate, and critical exchange across a wide variety of cultural and institutional sites.Ultimately, it must focus on the end goal of generating those formative cultures and public spheres that are the preconditions for political engagement and vital for energizing democratic movements for social change—movements willing to think beyond the limits of a savage global capitalism.

His answers to the current problems of our society appear, then, to be:

  • . . . construct a new political landscape. . . .
  • . . . develop a new language of radical reform. . . .
  • . . . create new public spheres that will make possible the modes of critical thought and engaged agency that are the very foundations of a truly participatory and radical democracy.

Underlying these “solutions”’ is the assumption that there is a political answer to our problems.Not a conventional such answer, true—for Giroux eschews working “within the current electoral system,” and argues, rather, that we must “construct a new political landscape.”Giroux does not, however, clarify the “shape” of the “new political landscape” that he advocates.

That’s not the principal problem that I have with his solution, however, for:

  • Any political solution ignores the fact that societies are systems
  • At any given time, a societal system tends to be dominated by one of the components of that system.
  • The dominant component at present (and for the past several hundred years now) is the economy (its financial sector in particular at present).
  • The other components of the society—education, religion, culture, etc.—and political—play a subservient role to the economy.That is, they tend to serve the needs of the dominant element, rather than being independent of that dominant element.

From the facts that (a) our society is a system, and (b) dominated by the economic component, it follows that political innovation of the sort (whatever it is!) advocated by Giroux is unlikely to occur.I won’t say “impossible,” for history is full of surprises.But the likelihood that a movement for political innovation will succeed in our country is slight.

That’s not the end of the story, however.What talk of political innovation (among so many other topics!) ignores is that the world is changing, whether or not we want it to.The numbers cited by Bill McKibben in a recent article are frightening indeed.They suggest that at some point in the near future we will cross a global warming threshold (if we haven’t already!), after which the various phenomena associated with global warming will intensify—thereby making life more and more difficult for us humans.It’s likely, in fact, that at some point societies—including ours—will begin to collapse under the strain, with mass deaths occurring.

What this possibility suggests is that efforts to engage in political innovation would be misguided, for they would not be addressing the primary problem facing us humans at present.And as the problem of global warming itself can no longer be addressed in any meaningful way—i.e., a way that would halt, and perhaps even reverse it—it follows that our only choice today is to engage in adaptive efforts—with even such efforts coming with no guarantee that they will result in the “salvation” of many.It’s conceivable, in fact, that regardless of what we do, it will be “too little, too late”—and our species will go the way of the dinosaurs.

Despite that possibility, we must resolve to “give it the old college try” so far as adaptation is concerned.In doing so, there are two possible avenues—doing so (a) as individuals/households, or (b) as members of small communities.Training programs exist for those interested in wilderness survival, but such programs exemplify, and help perpetuate, one of the worst features of our society, its over-emphasis on individualism—on me and mine.What’s needed, rather, is an effort to retain some semblance of civilized existence while being engaged in the process of adaptation—and that can be accomplished only by creating small communities (of the right sort) within the existing society.

What principles should be followed in doing so (beyond the question of what would need to be done for adaptation purposes)?Having just completed a re-reading of Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads With an Indian Elder (given the name “Dan” in Nerburn’s book), I find it impossible to put out of my mind these statements by “Dan” to Mr. Nerburn:

You want to know how to be like Indians?Live close to the earth.Get rid of some of your things.Help each other.Talk to the Creator.Be quiet more.Listen to the earth instead of building things on it all the time. (p. 161)

And:

I think this is hard for you to understand.But our old people were our best people.Nowadays, the world is all for the young people.It wasn’t that way for us.We were taught that the old people and the babies were the closest to God and it was for them that we all lived. (p. 257)

The point today is not, of course, to “be like Indians” in a literal sense.Rather, it’s to recognize that they had sustainable ways of life—which we do not!—and to attempt to combine the best features of their ways of life with our own.Beyond attending to the matter of adaptation per se, I can’t imagine a better principle to follow than the one identified by “Dan” in the second quotation above—that rather than living for ourselves, we should live for the old and the very young in our society.Given that this is a “Christian” society in which the “commands” of Matthew 25 supposedly provide authoritative guidance—and that those “commands” are perfectly consistent the principle enunciated by Dan—following Dan’s principle should not be a controversial matter.

Ironically, however, rabid individualism—expressed well in vice presidential candidate Paul Ruin (the name given to Ryan by cartoonist Clay Bennett)—is the ruling “philosophy” in this society.Ruin—a “devout” Catholic—claims that his ideas have their basis in Catholic social teaching; however, noted Catholic theologian Daniel C. Maguire, e.g., begs to disagree—and vociferously—with that claim.With good reason!

The dominant mode of thinking in this country is not only greatly out of tune with the religious ideals of Christianity and other religions; it is the likely source of most of our problems.For that reason seeking to bring about political innovation á la Giroux would be fruitless, and the growing threat of global warming forces us to recognize that we must begin a process of adaptation.Once we realize that, we are forced to think about the “shape” that adaptation should take, and it is here that an opportunity arises—an opportunity to create a New Society within the shell of the Existing Order; a New Society built on a different—and far better—foundation than the one upon which the Existing Order is based.

This is our challenge today; and although only a few will take up that challenge, their “can do” spirit—which they will have as Americans—may result in the building of a New Society that is worth living in—unlike the Existing Order!The New Society is unlikely to be able to accommodate more than a few of us, but the selectivity involved in the creation of that New Society is likely to enable it to be successful.The “news” here has both bad and good elements—with the former being inevitable, and the latter being encouraging.

It’s conceivable, I suppose, that I am being unduly pessimistic regarding what global warming might do to societies (including ours, of course) and the human population, so that from that standpoint building a New Society will be unnecessary.However, I would argue that even if global warming fails to be as damaging as I anticipate, the building of a New Society would be desirable anyway:Our society is a miserable place to live, and likely to get even more miserable; given that it cannot be reformed, the only answer for societal improvement is to create a New Society within the shell of the existing one.The role that the threat(s) posed by global warming can do for us is to provide the impetus necessary for creating a New Society.Thus, even though the “deniers” may be right (unlikely!), belief that they are not may help propel us in a positive direction—and that’s why belief in global warming is so important.

If belief in global warming serves to propel us in the direction of building a New Society, we must keep in mind that the values that we have acquired in being a part of our society may very well steer us in the wrong direction—so that rather than creating a society worth living in, we simply replicate the Existing Order.Fortunately, those drawn to the task of creating a New Society are likely to be atypical in their values, which fact should help ensure that they do not create a mere “replica in miniature” of the Existing Order.

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.