When I started promulgating this notion of The Interregnum–“The old is dying and the new cannot be born;in this interregnum morbid symptoms abound”(Gramsci)–two years ago, I had no idea how morbid the symptoms would get.
The last week has been as depressing culturally and politically as any in my recent memory. On the political front, the whole Washington edifice seems so terminally broken that I can neither summon the energy to believe that passing this health care legislation which will force every American to pay 15% of their earnings to a private health insurer is worth the kind of energy I and my friends brought to the 2008 election campaign. Nor can I summon the vitriol to denounce the charlatans like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck–the Private Jet Populists–the new Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd–for their cynical manipulation of the paranoid conspiracy theorists that we call Teabaggers. The whole scene seems like some ancient Roman tragedy where King Pyrrhus upon defeating the Romans at such cost to his own followers turns to his general and says, “Another such victory and I am undone.”
And then I venture out in to the culture– the Hollywood Oscar parties–the reality TV–the Facebook posts–the TMZ front page–and I think that so little of it passes the “who cares” test. I met Guy Trebay a couple of years ago when we did a conference called Ready to Share. He writes about fashion with the acid vision of a 21st Century Trollope. This rung true.
And that was when someone else mentioned that fame is so cheap these days, that paparazzi fodder is so interchangeable, that celebrities are so dime-a-dozen, that often one has no idea whom the photographers are making a fuss about.
Perhaps, this person added, someone ought to invent celebrity Shazam, a fame app based on the music identification service available on cellphones.
That way, in a landscape prophesied with cold accuracy by Andy Warhol, one could point a camera phone at a given person and immediately learn which minor Italian soccer player or which trophy wife of which French intellectual or which former actor on a Jerry Bruckheimer crime-scene juggernaut one was gawping at.
It all seems so fucking inconsequential. Here we are stuck in two wars where our boys and girls, as young as the kids I teach at USC, are dying every day and it is as if they aren’t even real. What if the 26 year old coke sniffing Wall Street trader was in danger of being drafted? Would he then pay a bit more attention? A filmmaker like Paul Greengrass in Green Zone, puts evidence of the most treacherous deceptions by your government before you in the most wonderful style and panache and you ignore him. I feel like we are the collective victims of a huge heist of the collective wealth by Goldman Sachs, Halliburton, Wellpoint, Northrup Grumman, Merck and a few other duopolists and now we are celebrating the guys that picked our collective pockets in books like The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine and Karl Rove’s ironically titled Courage and Consequences.
The only things that give me any authentic joy are the concentric rings of my community–my wife and kids, linking out to my spiritual family and then out to my students and the community on this blog. I saw an authentic community of 600 at the Transmedia conference that my colleague Henry Jenkins organized today.
None of us seem to be in the kabuki play that is politics or celebrity and yet we realize that those two worlds filled with actors dominate our televisions and our computer screens. Why is J.D. Hayworth any different than Charley Sheen?
So I feel some despair from my sense that these families–these small groups–at the largest, 100 people in the same lecture hall–are being destroyed by this Savage Capitalism we live in. Kids are on edge at school because you know their parents are going through tough times. There are lots of stories of people out of work on Sundays. So I wrote my spiritual counselor. He’s a Texas Episcopalian rock and roll preacher named Jimmy Bartz. This is what he wrote me back to the question: Is capitalism destroying the family?
Initial answer. Probably? I think now that I would say modern American consumerism is destructive to the preservation of family. Probably has it’s unintended roots in Friedman. When consumerism runs wild, everything becomes a commodity or a product. Probably potential spouses (and children) are initially commodities. Over the course of a relationship (in our wildly consumerist culture) a person—spouse or child becomes a product, a what, rather than a who, and becomes replaceable when that product is no longer meeting our desires, changing tastes, or serving our dysfunction or airing “its” own dysfunction.
It gets articulated like, “she just didn’t give me what I needed.” “He just stopped meeting my needs.”
My Buddhist friend Martin Perlich talks about “waking up to the world”, and in that sense we are truly sleepwalking as a culture and a polity.
What is to be done?
Can community like ours, dedicated to simplifying our lives, making good guitars out of great wood, writing fine songs of “the weary kind”, writing open source software–can we resist the next inevitable wave of consumerist advertising onslaught needed to keep the sputtering mall open?
I keep thinking back to Stewart Brand and his wonderful experiment called The Whole Earth Catalog. It was essentially an act of resistance “Access to Tools” it was called. You don’t need to hire a fucking expert, you have to become your own expert. Years later Stewart joined up with Peter Schwartz at the Global Business Network (NB: I’ve done some consulting for them) they mapped out the two energy futures for the US. One, named “Scramble” was essentially we keep what we’ve been doing and “by the 2020s, life has become volatile and uncertain.” We may have arrived a bit early at this stage.
The other scenario, named “Blueprints”, is more hopeful.
The world of Blueprints shows what can happen when actions outpace events. Groups of seemingly disconnected people in California –- venture capitalists, farmers, politicians –- collaborate around opportunities for profitable action on climate change. Publics put international pressure on governments for change. Smart investments in modern facilities improve air pollution, energy efficiency, and greenhouse gas emissions all at the same time. This isn’t a sudden outbreak of altruism. It’s a recognition of shared interests, new opportunities for profitable business, and the benefits of taking action before it’s forced by circumstances. In the world of Blueprints, local actions spread and join up –- like the C40 megacities pact of mayors and others, experimenting and sharing good practices around carbon emissions, transport and energy efficiency. During the next decade, the Blueprints world is diverse. Different parts use different approaches to promote energy efficiency, and technology development. Some choose taxes. Others use mandates. Some look for voluntary action by businesses and consumers. The most successful approaches spread.
Here’s the deal. I know I am rambling a bit at 11 at night but I also I know we’re actually capable of “sudden outbreaks of altruism” despite the poisonous garbage spewed out by Ayn Rand and her sad acolytes like Alan Greenspan. I’ve seen it in my church and even in my school. California already knows its possible to radically conserve energy, if only to get us off the Arabian Oil Teat. The state saved over $16 Billion in the first few years of it’s efficiency experiment.
But first we need to wake up. Stop taking the Soma. Perform random acts of resistance. And then get on with the work of making these local actions to change our world more real. This is perhaps the promise of the New Federalism.