Glen W. Bowersock hit the nail on the head when he observed that:
"From the eighteenth century onward, we have been obsessed with the fall (of the Roman Empire): it has been valued as an archetype for every perceived decline, and, hence, as a symbol for our own fears."
The parallels between the collapsing US Empire and Ancient Rome are staggering. The Roman Empire was brought to its knees through a confluence of factors, notably a decline in moral values, environmental degradation and associated health problems, political corruption, unemployment, inflation and military spending.
Not much has changed in a couple of thousand years.
The Romans lived in one of the most stratified societies in history. Around 1% of the population controlled the government, military and economy. The remaining 99% – commoners, slaves and others – were largely silent.
We’ve been silent, too, until recently. The Occupy Movement is the voice of today’s 99%.
George Monbiot likens our contemporary eco-social denial to Faustus’ pact with the devil, selling his soul for twenty-four more years of living “in all voluptuousness.”
He feels that self-initiated change can’t be sufficiently effective. “What is the point”, he says, “of cycling into town when the rest of the world is thundering past in monster trucks?”
Monbiot is an advocate of a top-down solution.
I disagree. The top–the 1%–don’t really care if the planet burns up. There’s probably money to be made on the biggest fire sale on Earth. The 1% doesn’t really care about sustainable futures. Their game is about profit. If change is going to come, it’s going to be from the bottom-up.
The bottom–the 99%–is beginning to draw a line in the sand.
In his 2006 book, Endgame, Derrick Jensen reminds us that if we don’t put a halt to it, mainstream culture–The Man–will continue to eviscerate the vast majority of us and to degrade the planet until it collapses.
Jensen’s not a lone wolf. There are plenty of people saying this. And, it’s not even a particularly recent theme.
Herbert Marcuse, for example, sang the same song in the late 1960′s in An Essay on Liberation when he argued that traditional conceptions of human freedom have been rendered obsolete by the development of advanced industrial society–the elite Corporatocracy.
It’s time for us all to draw a line in the sand. It’s time to realize that there really isn’t any fixing the corporate whore that we call the government.
As Marcuse wrote, “The Great Refusal takes a variety of forms.”
One form is the Occupy Movement.
Another form is something I call unplugging from The Man. Scott Nearing put it succinctly when he wrote that he:
"must reduce wants and even needs to a minimum; wherever possible, serve myself, raise and prepare my own food, wash my own clothing, do my own building and repairing, maintain the best of health to avoid the heavy costs involved in sickness, keep down such fixed costs as rent, interest and taxes; never borrow and take on interest slavery, but always pay cash; build up a capital reserve sufficient to cover a full year of unemployment, and be prepared for emergencies."
There are dozens of ways to pull the proverbial plug. We can all do it differently and still make a collective impact. We can even do it incrementally and progressively as we get more comfortable with new lifestyle behaviors.
There’s no point in expecting The Man to change. It’s not going to happen. The corrupt system works for him. He’s getting richer and fatter. So, we have to find a way to wave goodbye to The Man who’s never paid more than lip service to any of our attempts to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” anyway.
The more we unplug, the more we’ll find ourselves, in the words of Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life.
I’ve done a lot of unplugging and I don’t feel as if I’ve given anything up. I feel, conversely, as if I’m liberated from things that I never really needed in the first place. I feel as if I’m coming back to life.
Martin Heidegger’s big idea was that most people get so lost in das Man (The Man) that they never really examine their lives and, consequently, they don’t know themselves. Totally exteriorized, they’re easy to enculturate, to condition, and to propagandize. It’s easy for The Man to keep people subdued in the golden handcuffs of convenience, comfort and consumer goods.
But, one day the handcuffs start to feel tight. They might even chafe the wrists. A bubble-priced home is suddenly under-water. The warranty wears off the new SUV while paychecks can’t keep pace with rising food and fuel prices. Workers get furloughed and their kids can’t afford college. Many start to wonder, Is this the American dream?
A few realize that they’ve been lied to while The Man has laughed all the way to the bank. That’s when they might decide to draw a line in the sand—to Unplug from the Man—and march to the beat of a different drummer. This is the threshold of Transition.
In order to unplug we need to change our thinking. This is huge: much bigger than most people realize. Most people, in fact, have no real idea what they’re thinking. They’re on remote control, auto-pilot, creatures of habituated behavior that hasn’t been examined in decades. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they’re fully conditioned robots.
Unplugging begins in the head. We have to mentally unplug before we can physically unplug. I’m talking about making conscious decisions to change deeply entrenched patterns of behavior. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Every time people run out of an item, they automatically assume that they need another one. The same is true of things that get broken, lost or worn-out. The meme is that everything has to be replaced: always, forever.
This is simply not true. We already have enough stuff in our garages, attics, cellars and storage sheds to patch-in for anything that really needs to be replaced. The first question, though, is, “Do we really even need this item?” Chances are, we don’t. Chances are, we already own a dozen other items that can do the same task. Next step: use one of those.
If, however, the answer is that we really do need the item, the question becomes, “Do we have anything with which to ‘make do’ in place of this item?”
My Grandmother was a master of making-do. I thought of her the other day when I needed a small embroidery hoop. Mine had gone missing and I wasn’t about to buy another one. How could I make do? What would Grandma have done? After a bit of thrashing around, I seized upon the idea of using the ring from a lid of a wide-mouth canning jar and a rubber band. Worked just fine!
But to pull this off, we have to stop the automatic impulse to go get it and, instead, cultivate an impulse to create it. We have to replace buying with making. After a person switches to this type of thinking, it’s not only liberating–it’s downright fun! We’re the artists of our own lives–lives that truly belong to us, not to The Man.
While we’re talking about changing our minds, we need to look at how we view people.
Do we fire our snow-shoveler (even though he’s given us 20 years of loyal service) because a new guy will do it cheaper? Or, do we let our experienced teachers get laid off and be replaced by rookies because they’ll work for no benefits? Do we evict our tenant with whom we have an informal rent-control agreement in order to raise the rent on a newbie?
This happen every day of the week. But people aren’t objects. Let me say that again: people aren’t objects.
There’s more to our business relationships than business. There is humanness. We’re human beings first; landlords, tax payers, and property owners second.
Do you remember where your grandfather worked? Everybody in the shop knew each other back then–and each other’s children. They cared about each other’s families. They were community. If someone fell into hard times, everyone passed the hat. If a neighbor couldn’t pay the rent, solutions were found by which he could remain in his home and work it out.
They guy who plowed the snow was part of the family–he got a big box of cookies for the holidays and a rag-doll for his child. Sure, people watched their pennies. But, that wasn’t all that they watched. They knew they needed each other and that their community was only as strong as the weakest member.
This is going to require a big shift in the head. Contemporary Americans feel justified in getting the cheapest–no matter the hidden cost of the so-called bargain. We have to start looking at the big picture again. Enlightened self-interest needs to replace simple self-interest.
Marcuse called it choosing not to participate in one-dimensional society. I’m calling it unplugging from The Man. No difference.
It’s about becoming truly free. Seeking liberation from a system that’s choking the life-blood out of our humanness.
Once we’ve made up our minds to unplug, we need to map out a blueprint for doing it. There’s a lot to do and we can only do a bit at a time. So, jump in wherever works best for you–but keep at it. Keep unplugging one step at a time until you start to feel free. Fewer bills, less rushing around, better health and more happiness!