14.07, Wednesday 26 Oct 2005

New Puritans are the subject of Just Say 'No' [via philgyford] in the Observer magazine. So: a New Puritan does not binge drink, smoke, buy big brands, take cheap flights, eat junk food, have multiple sexual partners, waste money on designer clothes, grow beyond their optimum weight, subscribe to celebrity magazines, drive a flash car, or live to watch television. There's another aspect to this trend: Arguably, these personal codes of conduct would be an arresting enough story on their own, but the New Puritan's curbs must also be extended to other people's behaviour, and wherever possible enshrined by legislation - for New Puritans do not fear the nanny state.

Which sounds like it's the end times. It could be the first appearance of what Strauss and Howe term the Hero generation. Generations, they say, occur in cycles of Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist. The current Hero generation consists of those folks born from 1982 to the present, and they are conventional, uber-powerful, homogeneous and devoted to serving the state, having a deep trust in authority and being the perfect soldiers for a major war.

Contrast that to the cynical Nomads preceding them (Generation X), or the 1960s Prophets before that. And if they are indeed a civic Hero generation, that means our society is currently experiencing an Unravelling (alienation, wild times), and will shortly - pretty much around now - be entering a Crisis. New value systems will replace the old order with a new one. Previous Crisis periods include the American Civil War, and World War II--in a Crisis, everything is up for grabs, and the Hero generation are the ground troops.

In The Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter lists some characteristics of collapse, which are reproduced in this essay, What Is "Collapse". There are two themes in that list I want to pick out. One is a move to less overall coordination and control, and another is less investment in the epiphenomena of complexity such as monumental architecture.

On the first theme: One point Tainter makes in his book is that collapse isn't an accident; collapse isn't some failure mode like taking a wrong turn off a cliff. Collapse is a reduction in complexity that makes economic sense. As much as I admire the current view that there is no centre, no authority, no archetype for communities, I wonder whether this pursuit of heterogeneity is exactly the reduction of control hierarchy that has characterised other social collapses. To put it another way: It currently makes economic sense for us to work toward a less Fordist, more networked world. We have large corporations working towards cellular organisation, each cell following rules instead of top-down management. We have to do this because, even with computers, we don't believe we can handle the complexity of such huge machines. It makes economic sense. Oh dear. By their nature, societies are near-decomposable. They are multiple units that have hooked together and become inter-dependent for good reasons. What if we've gone through a reconfiguration, and our units are now - because of telecommunication - above geography? What if there's been a shake-out, and these units can decompose into self-sufficient groups? The libertarian tendency is just another aspect of this trend. I argue: If our society was at the peak of its powers, we would be solving the problems of complexity by delegating the choreography of the social and industrial machines to vast computers. But we tried that, and failed, and poststructuralism won, and that will be our downfall.

Second theme. The creation of monumental architecture, as Tainter describes it, acts a store of energy and effort. Monuments are capacitors of industrial capacity, built to keep a society's strength up, and that excess strength diverted to essentials on rainy days. It feels to me like the last monument in the West was the space programme in the 1960s (come on, the Saturn V was hardly pragmatic). Since then, wages have gone down (two members of a household need to work), and market forces have squeezed every ounce of value out of what we produce. Environmentalism (as recycling) and the fight against patents (or intellectual property) are, again, things we want, and more than that, things we describe as good--but really they're just more ways of making sure the produce/consume cycle gets tighter, every possible good is manufactured, and every side-effect is monitized. The United States now looks like it's wearing the baggy clothes of a much more prosperous society that has slimmed down these past 30 years. It has peaked, and can no longer touch the zenith surface.

I know I'm now arguing in favour of movements that generally concern me: Ownership, inequality in social roles, top-down control, integration, and waste. But these are signifiers of complex societies that can attain more glorious heights. So long as they can occur in good ways, why not pursue them? (More ownership, but more spaces and more fronts; more inequality, but more different social roles; more control, but also more degrees of freedom; more energy use, but from huge microwave beams coming from the Sun.) If we can all do more - whether it's moving faster with cars, or building our own houses using exoskeletons - doesn't that mean we can submit to more control too? This isn't a zero-sum game.

It's odd to see environmentalism and industry on the same side of the argument, of heading towards efficiency and low-impact, and being against monument and control. I really am scared that we see these points as morally good, that they make sense. It's this world view the Heroes will adopt, mindlessly, and take us into Crisis.

Fortunately, institutions will save us. Driven by the Cold War, our complex of society produced institutions that calcified and persist. As the pressure drops on the outside, and the complexity threatens to reduce, these large institutions (government, the media, the military-industrial-entertainment complex) will produce new pressures to shore it up. They have every incentive to fight. For us, it's only a minor reduction in control. For these institutions, it would be death. And look, we have new enemies already.

Or perhaps that's part of the pattern too. You can't escape Crisis. We can only hope to be a bad influence on the coming Hero generation. Do everything once. Twice if you like it.

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