The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The coming catastrophes and the Rawlsian veil of ignorance

A just society, according to Rawls, is a society whose structure, whose rewards and punishments, are set up before we know what position we will hold in it.  The Rawlsian veil of ignorance cuts deeper than most people realize.  Take for example old-fashioned meritocracy: grades, schooling, intelligence.  Should intelligence be highly rewarded?  Would you set up society to reward the smart heavily if you didn’t know you’d be smart?  Most of smart is your parents, in terms of nutrition, education and genetics.  You don’t choose your parents, you can’t know that you’ll be smart before you’re born.  Smart is mostly not a choice, neither is healthy, nor a type A personality, and so on.

The great problem we have today in improving our society, in fixing our economy, is that so many people don’t want to give up what they have.  If you work in the health insurance industry in the US, an evil industry whose job is to deny care in exchange for money, for example, your job needs to go away. It is a job which does more harm than good.  If you work in peteroleum extraction, well, most of those jobs need to go away.  If you work in a large bank or brokerage, well, your job needs to change in a way that will deprive you of your high bonuses, and which will leave many bankers and traders unemployed, because banking done in a way that build society rather than tears it down probably doesn’t need your skill set.  We need a lot less accountants, a lot less administrators at universities, a lot less soldiers, a ton less spies, far fewer people working in the military-industrial complex, and on and on.

But what the past 40 years have proven is this: if you lose your job, you’re on your own.  If you’re in your 40s and 50s and you lose a good job, you’ll probably never, ever, have a good job ever again.  People who are displaced by economic change, good or bad, aren’t taken care of.  We have reduced retraining, made welfare and unemployment insurance harder to get, increased university tuition, not made efforts to find or create new, good jobs.  We hire foreigners to take over the job of older techies, since they cost too much.

People know, they know and they are right, that economic change, in our society, could cost them everything.  Their job and any prospect of a good job.  Their house.  Their marriage.  Their health care and even their life.

So they grasp tightly to what they have, and everyone fights to make sure that nothing really changes.  Each person, with their little or big piece of the pie, fights viciously to keep it whether it’s good for society or not.  They are right to do so.

This is why we can only have change after catastrophe: after war and famine and revolution, because only in extremis, only when, as in WWII, people realize that everyone is in it together, will they be willing to take care of each other.  And only in time of catastrophe, when so many have lost everything, will they be willing to change society.  Catastrophe forms a Rawlsian veil on the future: you don’t know, after the age of catastrophe, what your position in society will be. Not knowing that, it behooves you to make that society as equitable as possible.

This is the argument for catastrophe: that we will not, cannot, make the changes required to avoid catastrophe until we have lost or truly, existentially, fear the loss of everything.  We will not be fair and kind to each other till we have no choice, we will not be fair and kind to others till we know we need that for ourselves.

This is sad, pathetic even, an indictment of humanity.  Does it have to be so?  I hope not, but I fear it does.

It is such issues I will discuss in my coming book.  Are we bound to the wheel of causality even in our own societies, or can we take control of our own destinies?


Iraq wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for oil, and Aaron Swartz died for oil too


A reminder


  1. Bruce Wilder

    If you work in the health insurance industry in the US, an evil industry whose job is to deny care in exchange for money, for example, your job needs to go away. It is a job which does more harm than good. If you work in petroleum extraction, well, most of those jobs need to go away. If you work in a large bank or brokerage, well, your job needs to change in a way that will deprive you of your high bonuses, and which will leave many bankers and traders unemployed, because banking done in a way that build society rather than tears it down probably doesn’t need your skill set.

    It isn’t just that people don’t want to give up “what they have”, it is that what they have, are jobs, which are extractive. The “haves” in the American economy “have”, precisely because they are extracting income and wealth in a basically parasitic way. It wasn’t always so. Many of these activities, including health care, petroleum, and banking were about adding value to the economy within the memory of many living.

    If you’re in your 40s and 50s and you lose a good job, you’ll probably never, ever, have a good job ever again. People who are displaced by economic change, good or bad, aren’t taken care of. We have reduced retraining, made welfare and unemployment insurance harder to get, increased university tuition, not made efforts to find or create new, good jobs.

    That isn’t a matter of becoming more selfish and uncaring as a society, independent of the kind of economy we have. It is part of the logic of parasitism, the logic of rent extraction. An economy of parasitism requires shoving more and more people out of a share in the shrinking bounty.

    Any policy the U.S. pursued, which reduced the parasitism of its economy, would immediately and radically deflate the wealth and power of its elite. But, that might actually be experienced as something of a relief to the larger mass, which is being fed upon.

    Things are arranged, of course, so that the mass of people feel threatened by any kind of imminent, systemic failure, just as they are the victims of keeping the system alive. The collapse of the banking system threatens the payment system, upon which people depend, literally, for their next meal. Continuing the banking system on a parasitic basis, though, means mass foreclosure, financial speculation in basic commodities, student loans, usury, pay-day loans, etc.

    Catastrophe offers a chance, because catastrophe may disempower or divide the elite. For the U.S. (the winners), WWII created a political solidarity and the Great Compression in income distribution, with high marginal tax rates, which limited the payoff for looting from the top. For Japan and Germany, it was a guillotine, which removed a large part of the elite from power and separated an oppressive elite from much of their “wealth”, their outsized claims on the production of society. Both results paid off. (The effect on the Soviet Union is left as an exercise.)

    The American/Euro/global economy doesn’t work for all that many, particularly among the young. Realizing that, realizing why, is an important preparation of the mind for the work of catastrophe, the opportunity that catastrophe presents.

  2. S Brennan

    True Ian, as you know, I gave up arguing with certain posters here that their undefined Utopian [and I am Utopian according to my facebook politics statement] dream was superior to the steady progress seen in the FDR years [1932-1978]. Without strong economic security, which require strong public investment [that’s government spending to 19th century economists…AKA Neo-liberals] progress slowed an then began reversing itself.

    Return to FDR policies and change is possible from there…but some unseen greater good requires a leap of faith that most will not consider. Selling FDR policies should be easy…we did it before and it worked….we can do it again.

  3. Excellent.

    It underscores the universality of responsibility.

  4. Bolo

    Yep. My wife and I had this discussion recently. Any avenues for significant change without catastrophe seem to have dried up. Therefore, we are left with catastrophe–or violent revolution, but that seems very remote at this time.

    My bet is that the catastrophe will be further financial and economic ruin–namely, another big dip since the economy is still effectively the same as before the crash, minus a lot of jobs. This time reaching Great Depression levels and finally kicking over China’s economy, thus bringing most of the world down.

    Climate change seems too slow for us to react as a catastrophe in the near term. Unless the effects are much more drastic than predicted in the next ten years or so. Maybe more years with Hurricane Sandy or Katrina-like effects, or more common severe weather that knocks power out for millions for significant amounts of time. Signs do seem to be pointing that way, but you never know…

  5. nihil obstet

    I think Bruce Wilder is right.

    I would add that one of the propaganda triumphs of the haves is to make the idea that “people don’t like change” common wisdom, even though we see everyday people embracing both technological and social change. However, most change affecting our economic lives is determined and managed by the haves, who are making changes that benefit them and that usually hurt the rest of us. Objections are dismissed as this CW that people just don’t like change.

    When objections to handing money to the rapacious financial firms ran 90% against in the country, it’s hard to see how everyone is fighting change. 70% wanted Medicare for All, and that’s with propaganda in full-throated cry against “socialized medicine”.

    There’s a difference between being against change and not knowing how to work effectively for change without damaging your life. I’d say in fairness we should remember that.

  6. Bruce Wilder

    When you make the hard political problem, human nature — when your ideology requires a New Man to make Utopia work — you’ve basically given up. The political problem centers on the nature of human society, and the central question, as always, is: who will guard the guardians? Human nature is plastic, and a good society, a caring community seems to improve human nature. A well-behaved individual is less then product of a good, idiosyncratic character, than a good community and religious magisterium.

    The veil of ignorance is useful in getting some insight into the political problem, but it has limited practical value, because we must navigate our actual politics with our eyes open. (And, having eyes wide open is not necessarily a practical handicap; our particular interests are a source of a lot of useful information about what is valuable and desirable, not just individually, but for the society.) But, even with our eyes open to our own particular interests, we can have sympathy with the Rawlsian frame, we can wish for an arrangement of rules and institutions, which are fair in the sense of mutually beneficial. We can still see the value of a politics of rules and institutions founded on the pursuit of a general, public good or interest, as opposed to a politics of pure power, exercised by the few for the few.

    The solidarity of catastrophe is a kind deus ex machina, not unlike the millennial age or revolution. I’m not convinced, I guess, that the chaos of catastrophe is likely to yield a dividend of fellow feeling, or that a deficit of fellow feeling in the broader swath of society is the root problem.

    It seems to me that we need strong imaginative elites, bound to the public interest, and what we’ve got, is selfish, vacuous elites, looking out for themselves, and barely capable of kicking the can down the road. There’s something to be said for the thesis that the crowd chooses its leaders, and I don’t object to such an argument. We are all responsible. Fine.

    Still, the problem we face, as Ian has articulated so well, is the classic problem of breaking the incentive bound, and that is the problem you need an elite for; that is, why it is beneficial to have a boss, a personal trainer, a coach, a capitalist manager. We need an elite that is willing to break the incentive bound for a global society facing a crisis of the commons, in a way that doesn’t involve immiseration of the masses to the point of extermination, while continuing to waste the common wealth. We’ve got the worst of all possible worlds in the making: a neo-feudalism for a new dark age.

  7. Ian Welsh


    essentially agreed, yeah, just more than I was tackling in this piece. (er, with your first comment, second I have some issues with, perhaps later. For now, human nature is more plastic than people make out. We have more choice over who we are than many wish to admit – as a society, anyway.)

  8. Alcuin

    I’d like to recommend, very highly, that everyone pick up a copy of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yeuen, and James Davis. It is a most excellent refutation of the politics of catastrophe and deserves to be read twice. It isn’t a big book – only 126 pages, but it is a devastating critique of the total uselessness of miring ourselves in catastrophic scenarios. It’s a PM Press imprint. Buy it. Now.

  9. Duncan Hare

    This is the argument for catastrophe: that we will not, cannot, make the changes required to avoid catastrophe until we have lost or truly…

    That’s just wrong. You have cause and effect in the wrong order. The catastrophic you’d like to avoid is unavoidable. No amount of management (management based on a fallacy of linearity or non-chaos) is possible. Management based on opportunism because of catastrophe can succeed.

    As we all have see over the past 10 years.

    In any non-liner system there are strange attractors which are the rapid changes of state in the non-linear or chaotic system. We live in a sea of chaotic systems.

    The abrupt changes are inevitable. There is no “make the changes to avoid catastrophe”, there is just “catastrophe happens, now make the best of it”. Or opportunism.

    The question is “how to set up the situation” so we are ready to be opportunistic to achieve the end we want.

    Our conservatives seem to excel at this opportunism.

  10. someofparts

    It’s hard to imagine the people around here helping me, or people like me, in any extremis. Gunning us down maybe, keeping us around and heaping contempt on us if there is hard work to do maybe, but not helping and equity, not for the likes me and mine – now or ever. If anything, they consider such sentiments marks of working class stupidity. Of course if the middle class were to adopt those values I’m sure they would flip about and declare such qualities fashionable for a while. As things stand now I think that when things get utterly desperate, the formerly prosperous and secure will still only help other formerly prosperous and secure folks. They will always exclude and swindle poor people of every variety, and any appearance otherwise will just be another of their swindles, where all the promised rewards will vanish like melted snow the moment they don’t need us. The appearance, and maybe even the strictly curtailed real existence of, equity and helping will only reappear when this becomes a much smaller country, after they literally, self-righteously and “bravely” finish killing off hundreds of millions of people like me.

  11. Terry Mock

    Great post. Regarding the stated question: “Are we bound to the wheel of causality even in our own societies, or can we take control of our own destinies?”….

    A Budding Model of a Truly Sustainable Community
    By Sustainable Land Development Initiative | January 30th, 2013

    We’ve witnessed thousands of communities heap praise on themselves for their virtues of “green” and “sustainability.” Most of these communities we’ve seen, however, are long on hype but woefully short on truly transformational action that balances the needs of people, planet and profit. Most of these communities take public pride in slowing down their unsustainable practices. While those efforts are perhaps the beginning, we often use the analogy that if you need to get somewhere and you’re driving 100 mph in the opposite direction, you’re still never going to get there by continuing in the same direction but slowing down to 50 mph. We need to stop the car and turn it around, which continues to prove to be a daunting challenge for most everyone.

    Grassroots education, not hype – Stakeholders in the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area (POCSA) are beginning to take transformative action. Perhaps the most important part of their efforts lie with successfully engaging and educating not just the “industry pros,” but the public on the real meaning of the triple-bottom-line principles of “people, planet and profit”….

  12. Andy Lewis

    Return to FDR policies and change is possible from there…but some unseen greater good requires a leap of faith that most will not consider. Selling FDR policies should be easy…we did rit before and it worked….we can do it again.

    Yes. We need the Old Deal back.

  13. Return to FDR policies and change is possible from there…but some unseen greater good requires a leap of faith that most will not consider. Selling FDR policies should be easy…we did rit before and it worked….we can do it again.

    Agreed. The problem is neither party gives a shit about a new New Deal. And their citizen enablers — establishment liberals — prefer to stick their heads in the sand.

  14. Blissex

    While I like many arguments like this and Bruce Wilder’s reply, I think these arguments are typical of jimini crickets who don’t realize that it is is not the elites who are compromised, it is the majority of voters who are compromised by greed and rent extraction, to the point that statements like this seem to be pure delusional optimism:

    It is part of the logic of parasitism, the logic of rent extraction. An economy of parasitism requires shoving more and more people out of a share in the shrinking bounty.

    Any policy the U.S. pursued, which reduced the parasitism of its economy, would immediately and radically deflate the wealth and power of its elite. But, that might actually be experienced as something of a relief to the larger mass, which is being fed upon.

    Because there is mass parisitism and most american voters not just the elites want massive tax-free capital gains and free health care for themselves and lower wages and social insurance for everybody else. The best definition of the American Dream is “F*CK YOU! I GOT MINE”, and it has been that for the past few centuries. Most American voters are fully invested in the dream of a plantation economy, with themselves of course as lords of the manor of the plantation.

    What jimini crickets like yourselves don’t want to acknowledge is that being a rent seeking exploiter is popular and that incredibly the wealthier 60-70% of USA voters want to be rent seeking extractors of the less wealthy 30-40%.

    You don’t want to admit that it is meaningful that PATRIOT, TARP, enormous bonuses to failed bankers and CEOs, trillions for bailouts and the military-industrial complex, Guantanamo, multiple gigantic debt driven asset price bubbles, drone assassination of random brown skinned nobodies, have been very popular and those congresspeople who voted for them have been resoundingly re-elected by their grateful voters.

    American democracy despite everything is alive and well, and policy is driven by voting patterns, and Congress and the President deliver what the voters want, which happens to be what the elites want too and have spent so much money advertising. But voters are responsible adults and they have chosen to be persuaded by that advertising ; I think that they have been conned, but it is the responsibility of voters to be skeptical of cons.

    So instead of dreaming aloud with fantasies about extractive rentier elites, you should confront the reality that the majority of voters want to be extractive rentiers, and see as their political enemies not the extractive rentier masses, but the what they consider as the parasitic and lazy working classes and underclasses.

    It is a cultural issue even much more so than a political issue.

    My usual Norquist quote that explains the situation so well:

    «And that is, in 2002, on the investor class stuff … you could have said, just drop $7 trillion in stock market value with the collapse of the bubble … $7 trillion, trillions with a T … Americans had $7 trillion less than they used to have, you can expect them to be very irritated and in trouble.
    [ … ]
    They were mad at having lower stock prices and 401(k)s, but they didn’t say Bush did this and that caused this. Secondly, the Democratic solution was to sic the trial lawyers on Enron and finish it off. No no no no no.

    We want our market caps to go back up, not low. The 1930s rhetoric was bash business — only a handful of bankers thought that meant them.

    Now if you say we’re going to smash the big corporations, 60-plus percent of voters say “That’s my retirement you’re messing with. I don’t appreciate that”. And the Democrats have spent 50 years explaining that Republicans will pollute the earth and kill baby seals to get market caps higher.

    And in 2002, voters said, “We’re sorry about the seals and everything but we really got to get the stock market up.»

    and among many two quotes from Galbraith’s “The Great Crash 1929”:

    «One thing in the twenties should have been visible even to Coolidge. It concerned the American people of whose character he had spoken so well.

    Along with the sterling qualities he praised, there also displaying an inordinate desire to get rich quickly with a minimum of physical effort.»

    «Just as Republican orators for a generation after Appomattox made use of the bloody shirt, so for a generation Democrats have been warning that to elect Republicans is to invite another disaster like that of 1929. The defeat of the Democratic candidate in 1952 was widely attributed to the unfortunate appearance at the polls of too many youths who knew only by hearsay of the horrors of those days. It would be good to know whether, indeed, we shall some day have another 1929.»

    So talking about Rawlsian veils or catastrophes is not going to get you jimini crickets anywhere. Try to explain to the majority of voters how they have been conned and that the massive tax free capital gains will go only upward to the top 1%, and that worker unions and good wages and good jobs are a lot better and more realistic than the dream of becoming lords of the manor in a plantation economy.

    But the real and few lords of the manor use the latest research in experimental psychology to motivate the aspiring extractive rentiers who make up the majority of voters to continue endorsing resoundingly the politics of “F*CK YOU! I GOT MINE”.

    And even without that technology remember how hundreds of thousand of poor confederates enthusiastically volunteered to be shredded by union cannons to defend the massive extractive rents of their betters from the abuse and violation of people even poorer than them.

  15. jrs

    Well the thing is FDR policies are not enough, they’re not enough to deal with environmental collapse basically, of the type only foreshadowed then. They are what they are, and do what they do. Might purely old style new deal programs eventually lead to a solution to such problems, yes, and might be more likely to than not implementing them, but pretending it’s any kind of certaininty is on as shakey grounds as the utopians. A green New Deal is closer to what we need to get at. How close are we on that? Or we can hope the environmental problems are not as bad as we fear and focus on other things. Or we can just accept the inevitable, but of course that might be catastrophic. But time does march on, we can’t just wish for the past.

    Also, if it’s meant to be a refutation of radicalism (if that’s what is meant by utopianism), there is a decent argument that FDR policies were only adopted because of the threat of more radical policies. Just because you can get joe schmoe to buy a certain policy (and even that’s not easy given the level of propaganda) doesn’t mean you can get the ruling class to go along. It depends on how much you believe the government does the bidding of the people compared to thier donors, at this point, and well I’d bet on their donors. What existed back then? Class consciousness, unions, the threat of revolution (in the minds of the ruling class regardless of how unlikely it really was in the U.S.). Radical stuff.

  16. S Brennan

    “Well the thing is FDR policies are not enough, they’re not enough to deal..”

    I never said FDR policies are enough, I said that’s where to go first.

    People who have economic security are far more reasonable than folks who holding on by their finger tips…or those who fallen and just want to get back up. Save your laundry list for when people have escaped the hobsian choices now before them..until then you your voice is lost in the cacophony of victims drowning in the sea of 19th century economics [aka “neo..heh..heh..liberal…tee..hee..ism”].

    One.simple.message; FDR policies: they worked before [in far worse circumstances], they will work now.

    What we face a walk in the park compared to what our antecedents faced, it may be a long march, but if we don’t turn around and step in the right right direction, being sure of our footfalls today, it will be that much longer a journey tomorrow.

  17. “The coming catastrophes and the Rawlsian veil of ignorance Ian Welsh”

    I would like to suggest that the state that the Rawlesian veil puts us into is one that could eventually become a normal state for most people. We would be aware of ourselves as individuals with our own unique desires and aversions and at the same time we would be aware of ourselves as part of a species that has its general needs.
    I have seen glimpses of this among practitioners of meditation and inner growth work, but it is not developing further because those circles are mostly averse to politics and even more so to any challenge to the roots of the existing power structure. In this blindness, these circles accurately reflect the current state of the knowledge worker (“creative”) class that these circles mostly belong to or aspire to.
    The knowlege worker class is, as a class, with many individual exceptions, unwilling to even look at the social structure. Some segments may dislike some of the outcomes, but the system itself can not be examined. For many, this is a deep-seated taboo. I believe that this taboo arises because the position of the knowledge worker class within the current system is a contradictory mix of the thirst for knowledge and truth on the one hand and their assigned role as executors and mind-spinners for the elite on the other hand.
    There is a word that I need here but I don’t think it exists yet. It is something like propaganda, but much broader and more subtle and it penetrates deeper into people. “Soul colonization” would be close to accurate, but is just too provocative and sci-fi-ish to do the job. “Legitimation” is also close, but far too dry.
    Whatever this thing is it includes propaganda in the classic sense, advertising, public relations, its more developed forms, for example astroturfing and veal penning, and all the maintenance of boundaries for correct thought in the media, academia, think tanks, and among “experts”. The effect of this mechanism as a whole is to legitimize the rule by our current elite and to at least delegitimize any alternative. From the perspective of this mechanism, making alternatives impossible to conceive of is double-plus good. But unlike Orwell’s image, this mechanism is more about confusion than constriction, more about narcissistic flooding than about limitation.
    This current system, in which we would still need some catastrophe to create a Rawlesian veil that would bring out our broader sense of We-ness, is a set of mutually reinforcing loops that include our bansai-ed knowledge economy, the resulting dearth of good jobs, intensified competition within knowledge class, lack of species awareness (which would help the knowledge class) and pliability at the hands of the elite, willingness to encourage mental and psychological states that reinforce the elite’s rule.
    The alternative set of mutually reinforcing loops would include educating everyone to the maximum they want to take on, jobs organized around what people are interested in enough to go through the rigors of mastering, sharing that knowledge freely and openly, an explosion of productivity and prosperity, recognition of our shared achievement in creating that prosperity, support of inner development and sense of living in a society with inner vision and society in harmony.
    What I do not know is how we get from the current system to the better one we are capable of. Waiting for some catastrophe to open up our eyes and hearts does not seem like a good plan. I am not even convinced that we respond that way to catastrophes. Scapegoating and mutual betrayal (do it to Julia) are just as likely.
    There are probably different points within the current system that different people can apply leverage to try to shift things. I am trying to work on helping people see that we do have the capacity to mature into the better, more broad-hearted people, who we need to be in order to create the better societies we all need.

  18. Everythings Jake

    @Andy and Lisa

    I thought it was particularly sneaky of Obama to keep repeating the phrase “fair shot” in his last campaign – a purposeful invocation of the Johnson and Roosevelt legacy meant to confuse the unwitting. I’ve come to believe the man is quite literally Eddie Bernays’ Frankenstein, the terrifyingly perfect blend of careful legalese and mass propaganda.

    I used to think that one key problem for the Democrats was that they had no counterpart for Frank Luntz. Now I think a key problem for the non-elite is that Obama is that counterpart.

    I’m fairly certain the veil of ignorance will be lifted when the greater number of people come to understand that they have more to gain for themselves and their loved ones by sacrifice and acting collectively. Studies show overwhelmingly that the poor already understand the latter, so that will be when the greater number of us are poor.

    Deference and much respect to Leo Panitch and others who don’t seem to factor the environmental issue in (and what did Cockburn and Counterpunch see that no one else seems to), but the question really seems to be one of time – is there enough of it for the pendulum to swing any way?

    I also think the weapons the state has at its disposal may render some older analyses about the power of collective action moot, though I hope the notion that the collective non-violent action is really a play on the willingness of the state’s footsoldiers will prove true.

    Tangentially, today’s news on theJustice Department white paper regarding the justification for the President to commit murder seems to render tomorrow’s hearing for Hedges v. Obama moot. Even if Hedges, et al. win, what’s really won if you can just be knocked off at will.


  19. Bruce Wilder

    I think I floundered about in my first two comments, and I was going to just let it go, but Jessica inspired me a bit, with her fine and thoughtful comment.

    It seems to me that the Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance, as a state of mind, can distract us from the necessity of conflict in society, and of institutions, in a healthy society, which maintain and legitimate conflict. It is in institutionalized conflict that deliberation takes place, deliberation, which guides the making of new arrangements.

    Neoliberal reforms have eliminated conflict and deliberation. It has resulted in an homogenized corporate elite, almost monolithic in its social consciousness, and put it in charge of a society utterly stripped of social affiliation and mass-membership organization, and an economy of public-private partnerships and networks and chains and franchises and conglomerates, nearly devoid of locality.

    Voice or exit? Neither one is operative, as a practical matter.

    One can see the unwillingness to give up what you have as a selfishness, or as an unwillingness, or inability, to rebel. Selfishness and docility seem to be two facets of the same crystal, in these circumstances.

  20. “It seems to me that the Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance, as a state of mind, can distract us from the necessity of conflict in society, and of institutions, in a healthy society, which maintain and legitimate conflict.”

    Thank you for this. It made me see that another reason why meditation and other inner growth practices do not manifest the species-consciousness that they make possible is that those communities tend to be addicted to harmony. Partly because, in the short term, it simply feels better, and partly because many meditators and inner growth practitioners are professional conflict delegitimizers. With so much conflict keep under wraps, waiting to pop out (and often to pop up more painfully precisely because it has been denied and has festered in the shadows), “let’s not go there” is a perfectly understandable and rational response. Even if it can be so profoundly unhelpful in the longer run.

    Thus the value of dissensus (the healthy presence of multiple differing viewpoints not moving toward consensus).

  21. Ian Welsh

    Jessica: not sure of the word, but the creation of world views is how I put it. Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent speaks to part of this process. Medieval clerics, making the social order of the day part of God’s mandated order were engaged in the same process, and had the same contradictions: thus, the constant outbreaks of radical communitarian heresies.

  22. Formerly T-Bear

    Would the word – acculturation – be what you’re looking for?

  23. Great post. Pretty much all of it is stuff I have thought for quite a long time, and I already saw much of the relationship among the parts. But this really shows how it all fits together.

    The next 4 years fill me with dread, and I have no confidence we’ll even start to see a change in direction come the 2016 elections. I agree we are headed for another downturn in the economy like in 2008, but I’m not really afraid of some calamitous collapse like the great depression. I think the “technocratic” monsters have proven they can prop up this house of cards, no matter how soggy it looks. It will be a slow motion, piecemeal, fratricidal collapse, leaving the hierarchy in place. Which in the short run is a lot less scary, but in the long run will probably be a lot more destructive and disheartening.

  24. Celsius 233

    Ever the contrarian; I’ve felt we’ve been in catastrophe mode since at least the mid 80’s (probably before).
    I think it went mega in 91 when April Gillespie gave Saddam the “impression” we wouldn’t react if he invaded Kuwait. The slaughter that ensued was unprecedented since WWII. It all fell from there.
    And then there was 2000, followed by 9/11/01; that opened the flood gates of what we see today.
    To the point: When, through effective propaganda, a society is convinced that extreme measures are required for extreme actions the rest is easy.
    With the establishment of the new normal, a society, little by little, can and has been led to increasingly repressive measures without serious opposition; all by design.
    A very simple mind exercise is to simply look back at where we were and where we are now; mystery solved; in fact no mystery at all. IMO, it’s pretty simple and very telling.
    The rolling catastrophe has been slow, steady, and unrelenting.
    I see no reason to think it will end well for the planet, much less America…

  25. @Ian That is an interesting parallel.
    @T-bear That comes close to what [missing word] results in. I am starting to think that the concept needs to be fleshed out and shared more before the correct term can be created.

    Thank you for engaging me on this question. It comes up over and over again and really bugs me.
    Thanks to the responses, what is coming clear to me is that no one right word exists yet and that finding it is a social process. This process is halting (and therefore frustrating) because what we are looking at is precisely that one thing that [missing word] serves to obscure: the taboo against seeing that there are taboos at work, the taboo that [missing word] exists at all. After all, maintaining and creating unconsciousness and unawareness rather than consciousness and awareness is a prime feature of [missing word].

    Part of me actually likes Frank Zappa’s “brain police”, but I am seeing now that it is important to have a term that allows for the subtly of this system, its multi-layeredness, and that is gentler for those who need to come to terms with the roles they have been playing, rarely fully consciously, in that system. A term that captures the fact that the strength of [missing word] is that is does not set up a simple us vs. them with lots of nice solidarity, but coopts us and splinters us so that it is more them vs. unreality or at least massive doubt.

    This also means that subcultures can be an important source of an “us” that enables us to see the “them” as a “them”. And also that coopting subcultures into roles within [missing word] is vital for [missing word]. Even if those roles may look oppositional (and within certain safe bounds, actually be so).

    The part of this that I think “manufacturing consent” does not capture is that it at least tends to suggest that there are selves whose consent is then manufactured. But I think [missing word] now runs so deep that most people’s sense of self is at least partially built on top of the consent. In other words, our consenting is one of the component elements of which our sense of self is constructed. This is also part of the power of [missing word]. For many of us, ceasing to consent (allowing ourselves to see what is really going) will feel not only like insight, but also like death, ego death. Because our sense of self will be so rattled, even partially broken down.
    The reason why I look for something from the broad community of meditators and other inner growth practitioners is that when those practices are engaged intensely (and there are more people doing that than ever before in human history, and probably by multiple orders of magnitude), one goes through so many ego deaths and rebirths as someone more alive that there should be a greater willingness to venture beyond the unspoken limits of the consensus model of social reality. But by and large, that willingness is not actually there. I consider this to be a very important “dog that did not bark”, as in Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes the absence of something is the most significant data.

  26. Ian Welsh

    There have been boddhivistas and great teachers who were also great social critics. The problem with most meditators (I was discussing this with a zen friend last night, actually) is that the tools destroy illusions, but don’t replace it with anything. That’s why the Buddha put such emphasis on universal compassion.

  27. I don’t claim to have the elusive word y’all are looking for, but I think I understand the concept. In hostage situations it’s called Stockholm Syndrome. I think it applies to society at large as well.

    And as I always say, one of the most pernicious effects of authoritarianism is that it enlists its victims as complicit in their own abuse.

    Other than that, agree with guest and Celsius 233 that we are on a very dark path. And the only light I see at the end of the tunnel is conflagration.

  28. @Lisa
    I used to think that an oppositional stance that stayed within the farthest bounds of the existing system was the subtlest form that [missing term] can take. But now I think that despair is.

    Yes, it is very easy to picture dire ends. I have had to work hard to picture anything else with integrity. (Doing it out of integrity is easier of course). But consider the possibility that this dark picture is what the truth looks like when we first reach it and it is still admixed with large amounts of the consensus pseudo-truth produced by [missing term]. The most significant of these pseudo-truths is the illusion that who we seem to be is all we are, that who we have acted like up till now is the best that we can do.

    It is precisely for this that meditation communities could (but do not yet) provide something crucial: a sense of hope that arises not from looking away but from looking deep. If enough practitioners got that, it could spread also among the rest of us.

  29. @Ian
    “the tools destroy illusions, but don’t replace it with anything.”
    This is people’s genuine experience in the current social situation (and most of the previous ones too, to be honest). But that does not mean it always has to be.
    The past millennia have been an age of transcendent awakening. In waking up (or in being saved too), one sooner or later left this world behind, this vale of tears or veil of Maya. We are on the cusp of maturing into age of transcendent+imminent awakening. That means waking up deeper into this world and changing it. Making the world into a manifestation and celebration of consciousness, not its enemy.
    Buddhism and other meditation teachings that have spread from the East into the West in the past half century or so bear the marks of the societies they came from. This goes little examined. There are some very interesting illusions that the tools are not aimed at.
    Second, in their spreading in the West, they have been strongly affected by the social context in which they have spread. This is even less examined. Meditation and inner growth practices are mostly followed within the knowledge producer (“creative”) class and bear the hallmarks of its intensely contradictory existence. To a considerable degree, they are practiced in order to relieve the life-stresses of that intensely contradictory existence. Not to temporarily intensify the stresses in the search for the truth of our social existence.
    Yes, there have been boddhivistas and great teachers who were also great social critics. But they were not common (except perhaps at the time of the emergence of Tantric Buddhism in Pala India) and many were more intent on getting society to live up to its rules than on rewriting the rules themselves (which is what we need now).
    Nowadays, most of the broad community is politically inactive and socially not particularly aware. A vague but uncritical humanitarianism is pervasive.
    Also, the genuinely powerful and effective techniques of the guru/lama/zen master – student relationship contain strong authoritarian elements and in the West, elements of contemporary celebrity culture have also been added on, largely uncritically.
    Despite all this, meditation and other inner growth practitioners and the practices themselves are maturing to a new level. Because what we are maturing to and the drive to do so are inherent in human nature. And because, for all its flaws, society has created the necessary conditions to reach this threshold. It is just that now society too must mature in order for us to cross over that threshold.

    Maybe insider baseball but some koans (mind-twisters) for the contemporary practitioner: Do even sheeple have Buddhanature?
    If a copyrighted tree falls in the forest and there is no one present who has paid to hear it, does it make a sound?
    What is the sound of one drone clapping?

  30. S Brennan

    While pretend “liberals*[?]”such as Ezra, Marshall, Drum et al can’t discuss the destruction of FDR policies for fear of offending the 1 percent’s desire to return to the 19th century economics, it’s good to see some mainstream guys have more intestinal fortitude than the aforementioned cowards.

    * [who advocated for the invasion of Iraq in their public writings]

  31. Nothing to add at the moment – just wanted to add one of my patronizing observations about what a great exploration is happening on this thread. As if my opinion matters, I know. 🙂

  32. @ S Brennan
    I think you may like this link. Serious intestinal fortitude

    @Petro Well, Obama and Ben Bernanke probably won’t listen to you, but we do. It helps to know that a discussion has been useful. Thank you

  33. Celsius 233

    @ Jessica
    February 6, 2013
    Also, the genuinely powerful and effective techniques of the guru/lama/zen master – student relationship contain strong authoritarian elements and in the West, elements of contemporary celebrity culture have also been added on, largely uncritically.
    Then said students have missed the point and mis-understood the original teaching.

  34. dk

    if one becomes convinced that the only way to effect regime change is by catastrophe, what could be better than bankrupting the empire through war and inflation?
    didn’t you ever wonder how the Bush administration could be so incompetent? did you think Wolfowitz and Greenspan stupid or just hubristic?

  35. S Brennan


    Thanks. 98 years old and still will’n…pathetic we have to rely on folks that made it happen in the first place.

  36. @Celsius233
    The students by definition must miss the point of the teachings. At least at the beginning. If they were capable of getting the point right off the bat, they wouldn’t need the teachings. So it is up to the senior students and the teachers.
    I do not think that the teachings were pure and perfect and somehow we managed to screw them up. The teachings themselves are an evolving process. As the species has matured a bit, more is demanded of the teachings and they have not yet risen to that challenge. We have not yet raised them, to be more precise.
    I think that the guru/lama/zenmaster-student relationship is inherently anti-democratic. Always was. But in pre-modern societies that had minimal human rights, it hardly mattered. For us now, it is a major challenge to develop an alternative. However, it is also important to recognize just how powerful that relationship has been and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    Looping back to the origin post, this is necessary for meditation and inner growth practice to be able to provide society consciously with that the Rawlesian veil would provide unconsciously.

  37. lew

    I design and implement computer software systems. In my business, the rule is that, if you haven’t designed your system to be fault-tolerant and fail-safe, it will fail.

    The government, increasingly, is defining the economic system, and thereby becoming part of it.

    So far as I can see, it is not designed to be fault-tolerant or fail-safe, in fact, it gives every signal of being exactly the opposite : many failure-prone very-important and un-replicated elements, too-strong links between elements, positive feedbacks between elements, especially in a negative direction, …

    If I proposed a computer system with even one of these inherently failure-producing ‘features’, my boss would fire me.

    When the economic failure happens, it will very strongly involve our government, and thereby increase the gain in our political polarization. Civilization will be under the same threat as the Great Depression produced, except this time we have all of the technology required for a very large-scale national surveillance state, Orwell come to life.

    Good going guys. You Progressives have a lot to answer for, both the Left and the Right.

  38. Lots of good discussion. I want to second Alcuin in reading “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth” by Lilley, McNally, Yuen, and Davis with a foreword by Doug Henwood (always the visionary). I’m halfway through and know I will have to reread as it is meaty. More often than not, when the middle class has some prosperity and near full employment, they have more leisure to think, more confidence, and then they want more say; more democracy or more power over their lives. When the prosperity starts to decline as it inevitably does in capitalism’s boom and busts, the middle class hunkers down again. The 1930s was somewhat of an exception to this with its strong communist and labor movements.

    So we have to go against the flow instead of with the flow. John Michael Greer in his book “The Long Descent: The User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age” recommends living “as if” in your ideal world while acknowledging how screwed up the actual real world is. So don’t live in la la land. But live knowing we are probably on some sort of small plateau on our way down the long and bumpy road to the end of life as we know it. Don’t stick your fingers in your ears and don’t party hardy either. Figure out how to live better with your neighbors. Rediscover the old ways before cheap energy. Being fairly useless myself, I think I’ll learn to brew beer. Beer can be traded for other things. My husband is a rancher so he can fix things and birth things and grow things, so he’s very useful.

    A book that Alcuin recommended, I just finished and another one I might have to reread. “The Pirate Organization” by Durand and Vergne. They seem to be pirates themselves as they teach at a business school but they don’t sound like Harvard MBAs (Masters of Bullcrap). They dare to discuss capitalism.

    I have always been somewhat of a pirate in that I like to break the norms. Pirates are always looking to find that unclaimed territory or the unknown…the beyond on which to start something new. They have at times “taken a stance against the state to defend what we term ‘the public cause’. Pirates don’t necessarily want a safe or peaceful haven. The pirate organization “promises a utopia-free world, constantly changing, never isolated, never centric, forever contingent, confrontational, and temporary.”

    So capitalism may not disappear because of crisis. It may just may shrivel up like the sovereign state does. Then some new organization will come to the fore. So we should be ready with alternatives.

  39. Being fairly useless myself, I think I’ll learn to brew beer.

    Bless you, @MontanaMaven – in spite of this contradictory sentence. 🙂

  40. S Brennan

    When real people do real things it kinda looks like this

    For the record, California’s economy is growing faster than any other state with a mixed economy.

  41. Lex

    I cannot agree completely that catastrophe brings out the best in people, and this may be because i’m currently reading Anna Reid’s “Leningrad” (the first focused book on the Seige since 1969, and while Salisbury was good, the opened archives make this better in some ways). It’s a book worth reading, partially because Reid does an excellent job of building narrative through interspersing diary entries from blokadniks.

    I’m not sure that there is a much better example of catastrophe than the Siege of Leningrad, with so much of the city’s civilian population trapped without food, medicine, water, electricity, heat, and 1941 was one of the harshest winters in a century. What the diaries say – both implicitly and explicitly – is that catastrophe brings out the true nature of people. Some are heroic, and in catastrophe, even simple acts can be heroic. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who loosed from the bounds of societal norms are terrible. There are also the people in between, many of whom simply cannot cope with catastrophe and lose their minds in some fashion or another. It is gut wrenching to read a diary entry describing the slowly starving family in the apartment next door, and the dull thump on the wall that signaled a mother killing her baby. I’ve known Siege survivors. The experience of catastrophe never left them and one needed to be careful to not unnecessarily trigger those memories.

    On the diagnosis, i’m in complete agreement, Ian. It is this mental state of self-preservation at all costs prior to real catastrophe that disturbs me. I do not think that Homo americanus is, on the whole, able to deal with catastrophe in a way that might be termed creative destruction. I seriously fear rampant violence and fascism as that American reaction to catastrophe at the societal level. Or, a Randian utopia.

  42. @Lex:

    It is this mental state of self-preservation at all costs prior to real catastrophe that disturbs me. I do not think that Homo americanus is, on the whole, able to deal with catastrophe in a way that might be termed creative destruction.

    You make a good, albeit disturbing, point. I have at least one friend who thinks that this “son-of-Unabomber” Dorner character “has a point” and is “cool” (whether or not he has a point is beside the point, and he certainly is not “cool.”) (This friend has also cleaved towards the the paranoid “don’t take my guns” crowd that has despicably closed ranks since the recent slaughter of children.) And, I hear on the Intertubes that some are calling this glorified disgruntled-employee-gone-postal “Dark Knight” (I could have had some sympathy for his grievance, but he has forfeited it with his greater evil.) I also received a thinly-veiled threat from another individual when I criticized his opinion that killing a man’s daughter was “acceptable” in a “war situation” (Dorner has apparently shot and killed a retired police captain’s daughter.)

    There will always be people like this, but their lack of shame in articulating their disease indicates, to me, some disturbing cracks in the zeitgeist, no doubt abetted by ambient societal stress.

    I hope that this is just a vocal and dismissible minority, that I’m just having a “bad day” brought on by the temporal proximity of events, because things are going to continue to get much worse – more stressful – before (if) they get better.

  43. S Brennan

    I strongly recommend; National Geographic: Stress: Portrait of a Killer

    The title is a misnomer, it talks about social hierarchy and it’s predictable results…FYI, it not social dominance itself, but rather how well…or poorly it is done.

    FDR/LBJ vs Bush2/Obama

    Oh yeah…it’s got a catastrophe in it, so it should ring all the bells.

  44. Lex


    The other half of my comment would have been how (mostly) competently Homo sovieticus did deal with societal catastrophe. Yes, post collapse Russia – and all the way through the early aughts – was a grim, violent place with a great deal of organized crime. Of course, organized crime almost always fills the void of collapsed states so that’s no surprise. I was there for some of it; i was also born in Detroit and attended university in downtown Detroit in the early/middle 90’s. Russia’s big cities weren’t any more frightening post collapse than Detroit with a roaring economy in the US.

    The Russians did all right, and in many respects fulfilled Ian’s thoughts about catastrophe. They also came from a much different starting point which included most of them having zero faith in the system that collapsed and plenty of practice at getting around the dysfunction of the state to survive. (Other factors must be included, like how very few lost their homes or access to utilities because of political and economic catastrophe.)

    We can say that they didn’t come out of it better than before, but that’s actually debatable and would require a multi-thousand word comment to fully discuss the economic policies pushed by other nations, the rise of Putin, etc. etc.

  45. @Lex Dimitry Orlov’s “Reinventing Collapse” has a comparison of the fall of the Soviet empire with our own coming end. Although we are similar in having no real democracy in the form of rigged elections and corrupt officials and jailing millions of our citizens, the Russians were better prepared for some things like having basic living situations as dismal as the government housing could be. No bankruptcies since the government had owned the housing. His commentary on money in the Soviet Union and after was an eye opener for me. Since so many things were free like public transportation, friends were more important than money in the old Soviet Union and that was useful in the collapse. His new book is available on line now and in bookstores soon. “The Five Stages of Collapse”.

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