The Monthly Salon: May
Changing the World vs living with it
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the notion of ‘changing the world’, and how it represents a kind of post-religious religious impulse. I’ll be writing in my next essay about the teleology of Progress, but a good question to ask of any culture, and of any person, is: what god do you worship? It’s a question that would have been easy enough to respond to in any previous time, and still is to most people worldwide. But to those of us raised by the Machine it’s inadmissable. We do worship gods, of course, but we don’t call them gods, because gods are superstitious things that our ignorant ancestors dealt in, whereas we, being grown-ups, deal in reason and facts and The Science.
Of course, we don’t really do anything of the sort, and the notion of ‘changing the world’ illustrates it. Progress is our God, and ‘changing the world’ is its liturgy. It’s a phrase I used to use all the time, but now I’m almost embarrassed even to look at it. Changing the world. Changing the world. Changing the world. It’s such an astonishing concept: that we have, or could ever have, the agency, ability or knowledge to change the nature of a vast, complex planet we barely understand, when most of us can’t even change ourselves. And that we imagine the results would be good if we did. What could be more superstitious?
‘Changing the world’ is of course a modern notion, and it has gone into hyperdrive since the 1960s, as religion, with its promise of perfected kingdom beyond this life, has been replaced by materialism, which requires us to try and achieve it in this one. But the prevalance of the ‘changing the world’ narrative has also become ubiquitous for another, more everyday reason: the world is getting worse. And the worse it gets, the more we are desperate to change it - or to believe that we can. With God gone, after all, what else is left to us?
This was the foundational argument of Uncivilisation, the manifesto which launched the Dark Mountain Project in 2009. I believed then what I believe now: modern civilisation is beginning to collapse under its own weight. There is nothing to be done about this; it is too late to alter our course, even if were inclined to, and we’re mostly not. Every civilisation, as Oswald Spengler and many others have repeatedly reminded us, has its own natural pattern of rise and fall. Only this time, it’s global.
What’s been notable to me is how much this has obviously begun to happen in the thirteen years since that manifesto was written. Back then, ‘collapse’ was an abstract notion. Now we can see it all around us, in supply chain shortages, rising food prices, runaway greenhouse gas emissions, record levels of deforestation … well, you name it. The American eco-druid John Michael Greer does a good job of naming it in his latest essay, in which he reflects on the same obvious pattern. I have read Greer’s work for many years; he’s read mine too, and sometimes we’ve had our arguments. But we’ve always seen eye to eye on this subject, on which he was something of a pioneer. More and more people are seeing the same things daily now. They are becoming as impossible to avoid as the gaps on the shelves and the rising prices everywhere.
The question then becomes: what now? That was a foundational Dark Mountain question, and it’s also a question that was posed in the comments section of my last essay by reader Mark Kutolowski, who has his own Substack, Metanoia of Vermont. Mark was interested in the reactions of others who frequent the Abbey to a simple but urgent question:
If/when I fully accept the reality of this time, how am I called to live a faithful, fully human life, here and now?
Needless to say, there are as many answers to this as there are people. But it is the question of the times. I’d also love to hear the thoughts of readers about how they respond to it. Over to you.
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Changing the world? Cat, please, these humans don't even live in the real world.
The West in general and its elites in particular, in and out of MSM, government and the military, live in a world increasingly consumed by symbol, spectacle and abstraction. Not only that, but they confuse wish-fulfillment with reality. Decide that you're going to identify as a different gender, race, ethnicity, hell, decide that you're a member of a different species and woe betide anyone who doesn't go along with the charade. They might even get themselves "cancelled".
Hell, even the consequences of their (symbolic) actions are themselves largely symbolic. Melvin didn't get to put on a TED talk because someone dug up an old Tweet of his and now he's "literal Hitler" for a while.
For that matter, the truly Great and Good rarely even face those kinds of consequences. They can cause institutions to fail everywhere they go - but as long as they parrot today's approved platitudes, they glide from internship to government sinecure to think tank to academia to to financial services to corporate board to to consulting gig to MSM Talking Head, sometimes more than one simultaneously. Most probably never having had a 9-5 job, much less done farm or factory work, in their lives. These days, they may never even physically show up to work, ever, but their bank accounts rarely seem to reflect this.
They can even engage in outright fraud, but a big enough fish will only pay a fine, a portion of his ill-gotten gains. Meanwhile, he remains as free as a bird, and probably doesn't even face social ostracism. Last I checked, Jon Corzine is not on the naughty list of the people who matter.
Since results don't matter and there are few consequences for losing, even for catastrophe, everything becomes a matter of spin. All problems can be solved with better P.R., and there is no greater triumph than when some newscaster recites that glib talking point you just coined or when your FB post went viral, your instagram noticed by the right kind of influencer. In other words, winning is a matter of successful symbol manipulation. Speaking of spin, virtue signaling is an obsession, even unto rank hypocrisy, and the Davos Set think nothing of flying a private jet to a conference where they can congratulate themselves on their commitment to stopping climate change. Again, if there are to be any consequences, then those are for the little people to deal with.
Even in their dwindling contact with the physical world, the elites live in a world of wish-fulfillment. Push a button and whatever food or whatever else you want is brought to your door by some peon, paid for seamlessly by some electrons exchanged between banks that may not even have a physical location within a thousand miles of your location, if they have locations at all. You can even get laid via internet, just swipe right on the lucky profile. Everything is taken care of in the background, your credit card billed and airline miles accumulated automatically and the food or the girl just show up. Somehow. By Uber, I guess. Mundane questions like "How do I feed the human kittens this week and pay for school supplies and still make the rent?" never come into the equation.
These are people who confuse their fantasies with reality to the point where they actually believe their own press releases. They give an order and it happens. They proclaim their puppets in Kabul to be wise and stable technocrats, their well-trained military striding from triumph to triumph and So Let It Be Done, So Let It Be Written. "So let it be written" - that's the word, that's all that need be done and the little people just somehow make it happen. For sheer lack of any kind of contact or reference with reality, these people make Louis XVI look like a medieval gong farmer or a pygmy tribesman by comparison.
Contrast the Taliban. Symbol, spectacle and abstraction mean very little to them. Doordash doesn't operate in their area and if a Talib wants a vegan option, he'll have to provide for it himself. It has probably never occurred to a Talib that he could cancel his enemies simply by digging up their old tweets that were innocuous at the time but are now politically incorrect, sent under a long discarded Twitter ID, and he doesn't have time for that, anyway. He lives in the world of concrete and material things, he thinks nothing of killing and in his world, there are bullets waiting to kill him quite literally dead and transport him to a very earthly and very earthy sort of paradise.
You can't wish those things away, your credit cards are no good and probably rifa, anyway, and the bullet flying towards him isn't concerned with word games, his upcoming struggle session to root out unconscious racism and cannot be reasoned with or convinced to bother someone less important.
The world of American elites collided with the world of the Taliban and got its ass kicked. Biden and his crew cannot deal with this, because that kind of reality does not select for success in symbol manipulation, any more than skill at football selects for an ability to do math problems.
The clownish Western response to the COVID is similar. The virus can't be negotiated with, can't be bought off, can't be distracted, and is unimpressed with you and how highly you may think of yourself.
As you may know, I've seen quite a lot of both worlds, I've lived in barns and crouched under the table in the room where the decisions were made, so I think I understand both mindsets pretty well. I prefer freedom to regular meals.
Speaking of, I got some mice to catch, or otherwise, I will surely be going hungry.
One of the most impactful (to me) essays of the past few years on this subject was written by Fr Freeman (an Orthodox priest from Tennessee): https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2020/06/01/the-violence-of-modernity/
I re-read that essay every month or two and it still rings true. It has given me a context to see what’s going on around me, and he even gives some useful rules of thumb on how to live at the end.