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

The Creation of New Worlds Examined Through Myth

Let us speak today of how a new world is created. Let us do so by examining a creation myth: the Norse one.  Here it is, in part.

Odin, Vili, and Vé killed the giant Ymir.

When Ymir fell, there issued from his wounds such a flood of blood, that all the frost ogres were drowned, except for the giant Bergelmir who escaped with his wife by climbing onto a lur [a hollowed-out tree trunk that could serve either as a boat or a coffin]. From them spring the families of frost ogres.

Earth, trees, and mountains

The sons of Bor then carried Ymir to the middle of Ginnungagap and made the world from him. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes; from his flesh the earth; from his hair the trees; and from his bones the mountains. They made rocks and pebbles from his teeth and jaws and those bones that were broken.


Maggots appeared in Ymir’s flesh and came to life. By the decree of the gods they acquired human understanding and the appearance of men, although they lived in the earth and in rocks.

Sky, clouds, and stars

From Ymir’s skull the sons of Bor made the sky and set it over the earth with its four sides. Under each corner they put a dwarf, whose names are East, West, North, and South.

The sons of Bor flung Ymir’s brains into the air, and they became the clouds.

Then they took the sparks and burning embers that were flying about after they had been blown out of Muspell, and placed them in the midst of Ginnungagap to give light to heaven above and earth beneath. To the stars, they gave appointed places and paths.

The earth was surrounded by a deep sea. The sons of Bor gave lands near the sea to the families of giants for their settlements.

(This continues on, if you wish to read the rest, and what came before, follow the link.)

The important part here is that to create the new world, the sons of Bor destroyed the old one; they destroyed the most important form of life in the old one, their ancestor, the giant Ymir. In destroying it, they committed a genocide against the dominant form of life in the world, the giants.

Not all creation kills so many, but all creation is destructive. For the new to be created, the old must die, and the new is created out of the corpse of the old.

Democracy is born when the nobility lose their power. The industrial world is born when peasants are forced to leave the land (violently, usually) to go to cities to work in factories. This process is always one that makes them unhappy, even when it is mostly voluntary. You can see it in the Chinese happiness statistics: Chinese who left their villages for the cities are less happy than those who stayed in the villages.

And while some villages survive, they are not what they were. Many do not survive, they no longer exist. Often, they are paved over or turned into industrial agricultural land.

The vast sweep of industrialization destroyed many cultures, they were lost. It destroyed many peoples, they died or were so assimilated that they no longer exist. Hundreds of languages were lost, we no longer know how they were spoken. Species went extinct, and that process continues, many more will go extinct.

A new world was created. Many celebrate it. There is an entire genre of writing which says, “This is the best it’s ever been and it’s just getting better” (because idiots think trend lines don’t reverse), but even if you think that’s true (and there’s a lot to it, though less than its exponents think), it was born in blood and the extinction of previous realities.

The New China was created from the Old China, and according to many in China, there is a pervasive sense of loss among the Chinese, a knowledge that most of the old culture was lost, and something important was lost with it. Most indigenous American cultures were wiped out, those that remain were badly injured and much was lost. Even in Europe, vast amounts of culture and language were lost. What we call, say, French, is the old Parisien French dialect, and pretending it is more than a dialect is close to a lie–much of what was spoken elsewhere in France was not understandable to a Parisien. The same is true of every major European language; a particular language, perhaps a dialect, was elevated by government action (forceful, often violent action) to the status of “the language.”

This is true with respect to Mandarin in China, which has wiped out or reduced multiple other languages. There is currently an effort to do this with respect to Hindi in India, and the effort is abetted by government action, often enough violent.

New realities are born not just in blood, but in death.

Consider the myth of Zeus.

The first thing that Zeus does is kill his father. His father had been eating all his children.

This is what hegemonic realities, hegemonic systems, do. They kill other possibilities. Many people have tried to create alternatives to capitalism, they have all failed. They have been eaten. The most recent left-wing large attempt in the Western world was the Hippies. They failed.

Basically, the Hippies either succeeded at capitalism, and by doing so became capitalists, or they refused to play the capitalist game and were forced out. The hippie homeland was California, but they don’t live there any more. The remnants fled to Vermont and Santa Fe and some other cheap areas because they couldn’t afford to live in California any more.

Those who could afford to, who kept up with the Jones’, or who became rich, stopped actually being Hippies. They became Yuppies or multi-millionaires. They became capitalists. The Ur-rule of capitalism is to make money. If you decide what to do based on how much money it makes, you start being a member of the capitalist reality (whether or not you wind up “owning capital”), and you stop being a member of an alternate reality which challenges capitalism.

Capitalism: The father of the Hippies, ate the Hippies. If you become successful using capitalist rules you can’t defeat capitalism, you become part of that system.

So, when you want to create a new reality, a new system, you often have the kill the old one, as in the Zeus myth. It is the old system which gave birth to you, and you kill it. Feudalism was killed by people born of feudalism. Capitalism will be killed by people born of capitalism. The only other way it can work is that outsiders conquer a society, but even that is often deceptive: Rome fell to the barbarians only after Rome had completely rotted from within. Augustus would not have recognized late Romans as much resembling those he ruled.

New worlds, new realities, can only be born in the destruction of the old world.

Because that destruction often entails much suffering and death, we often put off the creation of the new until the old is completely untenable. But by doing so, we usually make the transition much worse than it would have been otherwise.

Capitalism needs to end. It needs to end because it has failed the climate change problem: It didn’t deal with a problem so catastrophic it will forseeably kill a billion or more people and which might end in human extinction. Capitalism knew this was likely to happen, capitalism didn’t just not deal with it, capitalist institutions fought (and are still fighting) to conceal that it will happen and against doing anything about it.

So capitalism needs to die or be heavily modified. It was clear by the 90s that this was so, and we did nothing.

This won’t stop it from dying.

It will, however, make its death throes and what comes immediately afterwards much worse.

As with the giants, when Odin killed the giant Ymir, we will die in a flood of blood when capitalism dies.

But that is a choice we have made.

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  1. Herman

    I might be even more pessimistic than you Ian. I think the system can last longer than many radicals think (maybe another 100 years) but that it will do so by totally subjugating humans. I don’t mean that this will be accomplished by some form of blatant fascism although that is a possibility. The greater danger comes from do-gooders who have the best intentions. For example, let’s say that pharmaceutical or genetic science advances to the point where scientists can alter a person’s brain state to the extent that they no longer feel sadness, anger or any other feelings that might predispose them to rebel against the system. These new procedures will be pushed on the public with the goal of eliminating depression, anxiety, violence and other things that no “rational” person could be opposed to curing. Anyone opposing these techniques will be shouted down as a Luddite. Ordinary people will have to use these techniques because to not do so would doom them or their children to failure as they could not compete against people who are chemically or biologically modified to be happy and productive all of the time. The result is that the impulse to rebel against undignified and dehumanizing circumstances will be eliminated. People will come to literally love their servitude.

    A less extreme example that is closer to actually happening is the further development of surveillance technology and robotic armies. We all know the dangers of the former but the latter is also very worrisome because traditionally mass armies were a major source of popular power. There is a reason that working people made many gains during the era of the mass conscript army. After World War II governments knew that they had to give concessions to returning soldiers or face the prospect of dealing with millions of angry, unemployed young men who knew how to use weapons. With the return of all-volunteer professional armies and now the use of mercenaries and robots that fear of rebellion is gone.

    Normally I don’t want to support accelerationism because a lot of people will get hurt and even die in some collapse scenario and most of them will be poor people, the very victims of the system. But maybe it is better to have the big crisis sooner than later not only in the hope of having a chance to build a better world but to head off the real possibility of technology making any major change impossible. I think the window for major change is closing rapidly. We have maybe 30 years at most. Most Millennials can probably expect to live long enough to see how things shake out.

  2. Ian Welsh

    In my model of futures that is one possibility, yeah. I think it might vary by region/country, however.

  3. jonst

    There are so many assumptions and assertions in this that respectfully disagree with that while I might know where to start, i would not know where to stop. But two points:

    “The industrial world is born when peasants are forced to leave the land (violently, usually) to go to cities to work in factories” are you so sure about this asserations? i.e. that is HOW “the industrial world is born….” and “violence” is/was the main driving force pushing people off the land. I don’t know….I’m not sure that is true. And I am sure, limited as it is, that is not my personal observation or experience living in a rural environment.

    Second point, you seem to spend a lot of time and thought on “happiness”, as if this was the primary value/goal in life. Ok, maybe. But personally, I think there are other attributes beside, and perhaps above,”happiness”.

    You are much, much, more optimistic about man, and new beginnings, than I am. Which is fine…but still, we differ.

  4. Bingo! We have to stop doing what we’re doing.

    It isn’t working.

    Good one Ian, nicely done.

  5. Hugh

    You either stay ahead of the curve, or it runs over you. Today we have a whole host of curves breathing down our necks, and the operative strategies to deal with them are to ignore them, deny they’re there, or double down on what’s not working.

    Re French, the trouvère Conon de Béthune got dissed for his Picardian accent at the marriage of the French king Philippe Auguste in 1180. However, the South French troubadour Raimbaut de Vaqueiras wrote a poem (Descort 16: Eras quan vey verdeyar) about twenty years later in which each of its stanzas was written in different dialect/language: Provençal, Italian, French, Gascon, and Galician. And these were probably mutually or mostly comprehensible to many of his contemporaries.

    I think it was the Loi Guizot of 1833 establishing public education that began the serious weakening of regional dialects, but as the epic Linguistic Atlas of Jules Gilliéron and his researcher Edmond Edmont put together at the end of the 19th century showed regionalisms were still significant. The twentieth century really did them in although it’s still pretty easy to distinguish a north French from a south French accent.

  6. Ian Welsh


    it’s just a matter of the record. You can do the historical research yourself. What things were like living in rural communities (which were not farms, they were commons), is not what it is like today. There is a ton of research around the change from rural to industrial in England, and it’s about enclosures of land. People were forced off and they were bloody unhappy and resisted it.

    Living in cities back then was shit. People worked 6 1/2 days a week, were paid lousy, lived in filth and died younger than in rural areas. They were maimed at horrific rates, and disease was rampant.

    But even today the fact is that most people don’t leave rural areas in industrializing nations because they really want to. The Chinese happiness figures I referred to are uncontroversial.

    Happiness may not be the only thing, but it’s a thing. And generally, if people are unhappy, other things are wrong too.

  7. @Ten Bears
    You obviously are not in tune with American thinking. If what you are doing is not working, then you need to do more of it. For instance, if 200,000 soldiers are not winning the war in Iraq, you need to “surge” another 140,000 soldiers into Iraq. The result is, of course, that 340,000 soldiers continue not winning the war in Iraq, but that is a trivial detail that should be tossed out as irrelevant.

  8. jonst

    No Ian, it is not simply a “matter of record”. It is rather a matter of ascertaining to what extent the so called “record” you are studying is a valid record. Then you have to study it. Different people will come to different conclusions on this stuff. But the same caveats I present to you can be presented right back to me.

    I think lots of material elements pushed, AND pulled populations off the ‘farms’. i.e. ‘how ya gonna keep down on the farm after they seen Paree….

    But this is not my main objection to your post….I do not regard the destruction of what you term to be “the old world” with as much positive anticipation as you seem to. It seems a huge abyss to jump into.

  9. Stirling Newberry

    There are 2 creation myths in Norse Mythology, it is a complete cycle.

  10. Hugh

    From a Short History of Enclosure:

    “Britain set out, more or less deliberately, to become a highly urbanized economy with a large urban proletariat dispossessed from the countryside, highly concentrated landownership, and farms far larger than any other country in Europe. Enclosure of the commons, more advanced in the UK than anywhere else in Europe, was not the only means of achieving this goal: free trade and the importing of food and fibre from the New World and the colonies played a part, and so did the English preference for primogeniture (bequeathing all your land to your eldest son). But enclosure of common land played a key role in Britain’s industrialization, and was consciously seen to do so by its protagonists at the time.”

  11. jonst

    Hugh, to the limited extent your post was direct to me…..I agree with the overall conclusions of it. Especially the primogeniture requirement.

    All those things were things I would suggested “pushed” people off the land. But people were not total victims. In fact, it may be argued, anyway, in an admittedly highly subjective manner, that they disdained victimhood. Unlike today. These were people, after all, that could up and chop a King’s head off if it came to it. These were people that could set sail to America. These were people that once in America, could rise up against the Crown. And defeat it. They sought adventure and money. This spirit propelled them to venture forth to every ocean and port. So venturing off the farm was the least of their issues. IOW….we were not just agents…people had their own will and their own dreams. And as you rightly note Ian, their own nightmares, driving them off the land. I’m simply trying to say the motives were mixed and complex.

  12. John

    The Greek myths also show these cycles of creation and destruction. Cronus devours his children to prevent them from displacing him. Predatory Capitalism is repeating the tale. It is attempting to devour the current young generation. It will be violently thwarted. Cronus in his youth had castrated and overcome his father. We forget these stories but they don’t forget us.

  13. highrpm

    @jonst, These were people, after all, that could up and chop a King’s head off if it came to it.
    a time of simpler technology back when. before the 2 great wars inflicted the world with the military industrial complex. back when “the right to bear arms” meant something. now, owning a pop gun means little against the police hordes and their proprietary access to proprietary anti-terrorist crowd control equipment. and certainly against the military micro robot swarms. and zero against the nukes.

    i preach for a george soros privateer type funding private military industrial capitalism. to put teeth back in “the right to bear arms.” to empower the young generation to burn down the white house. (good for pearl jam’s latest release art. though i suspect hollywood media moguls profited greatly from such. rather more than the younger generation.)

  14. Webstir

    The scientist in me always tries to square myth to evidence.
    Much of what you’re saying, Ian, can be interpreted through the lens of ecological resilience theory. What you’re generically calling “change” can be viewed from ERT as shifts further and further from ecological equilibrium.

    Agriculture — first major shift.
    Industrialization — second major shift.
    Globalism — third major shift. Which is now powering the unprecedented “global” ecologic state shift we call anthropogenic climate change.

  15. Ian Welsh

    I don’t see globalism as a shift. We had a very globalized economy in the late 19th and early 20th century. Industrialization is enough to explain anthropogenic climate change, when added to the need for states to compete (aka. if you aren’t industrialized, anyone who is can kick your face in.)

    Jonst, while one can always withdraw to “it’s a matter of interpretation”, I don’t do so unless I feel it necessary, and having actually studied the period, I don’t.

    (I actually don’t think enclosure was necessary: common fields increased yields by about 80% of enclosed ones and more than enclosed ones in crops that benefited most from nitrogen fixing, iirc. But as Hugh points out, Brits believed it was. It was also, deliberately, done by the Russians and the Chinese and various other nations, in varying forms which amounted to the same things: get people off the fields, whether they want to go or not.)

  16. Webstir

    I’m pacing what I see as the global shift around the time China adopted their version of neoliberalism and began seriously ramping up production. Maybe it’s a product of it occurring in my relative youth, but it seems like the world started moving faster. Maybe that’s the shift? The worldwide adoption of economic neoliberalism.

  17. Tom

    It is a long road still, but BDS is working and Israel’s overreaction is turning people off from them. With IHRA’s manufactured crisis against Corbyn to label him as Anti-Semitic falling flat and pissing people off.

    Ironically, Israel’s obsession with its Holocaust Victimhood Cult will ultimately be the cause of their nation’s destruction. I won’t shed a tear.

  18. StewartM


    These were people, after all, that could up and chop a King’s head off if it came to it.

    Really? How many times did this actually happen? In England, or elsewhere?

    Charles I was beheaded, for sure. But not because of enclosure. James II was kicked out–but again, not because of enclosure. All other UK monarchs (save maybe Mary Queen of Scots, but that wasn’t enclosure-related either) died natural deaths. All sides in these feuds were all for enclosure.

    On the Continent, what monarch at the hands of the peasants? At the very best you all you can cite is Louis XVI, and that’s a stretch, but that’s about it.

    It’s hard to fathom how many peasants died due to starvation and exposure due to enclosure; I’ve seen estimates that say “at least on par with medieval famines”. Certainly the argument that it was mostly ‘primogeniture’ seems ludicrous, or ‘adventure’ (think not ‘adventure’t but desperation, for pulling up and going overseas)…as in “well, we have to leave things to the oddest kid by habit, so I’ll just go somewhere to starve to death”. There are plenty of instances of peasants trying to push back—riots, rebellions, knocking down fences and acts of sabotage, etc–but as all the privileged class no matter what religious or political orientation they were, were all for seeing this happen, it happened.

    George Orwell summed it up nicely (1944):

    “Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.”

    The peasants weren’t confused ignorant rustics either. They *knew* that the law was actually on their side, that their rights were being violated. But hey, the ‘rule of law’ can be a fungible thing at times.

  19. Capitalism is the kid killing its father the human. Whether or not any of the latter bear witness to the ultimate resultant new world remains to be seen. I suspect we’ve seen this story before, though the record is sketchy and the evidence is buried by our baby Capitalism, who is the only thing still thriving in this scenario.

  20. Hugh

    davidly, I agree. I say American history is mostly mythology. The People and democracy are invoked as needed, but Jefferson’s pronouncements on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” patently did not extend to his slaves. And while the Preamble to the Constitution begins with “We the People”, less than 10% of the adult population at the time had the right to vote to ratify it, and its system of checks and balances was not some democratic marvel but about managing the conflicts between propertied elites and shutting everybody else out.

  21. Linda Amick

    Great Essay. We need a new mythology in the West. Something like I perceived as a Philosophy student when thought went off the rails with Descarte and his mechanical world vs Aristotle with his Living Organism of our planet and solar system where every part effects every other part.

  22. Willy

    I just toured the mansion of the founder of an American western town. Where there once was ‘nothing’, there is now a thriving micropolitan area. Or so the story goes.

    The mythology presented: Mr. Founder single-handedly discovered and founded a town right in the middle of his newly discovered natural paradise. He died relatively young, but still mighty and heroic, with many luminaries including Teddy Roosevelt as friends. Before his heiress daughter herself died, she magnanimously donated the mansion to the city for posterity as a shining beacon of the possibilities of American capitalism.

    The reality found: None of his offspring inherited his ‘golden touch’, whatever that golden touch actually was. The evidence suggests it involved much in the way of crafty politics and the destruction of native and lesser township settlements, with his mansion at the center of it all. His last surviving heir had to abandon her glorious family home due to a lack of ability to pay for upkeep and wound up living in a small trailer on the grounds. In a desperate attempt to save what she’d “preserved” (she was a pathological hoarder) she donated all of it to a preservation organization which peddles the greatness mythology to this day.

    I also had to go to a family event where a certain medical organization was well-represented with direct beneficiaries of their obviously rent-seeking profit strategies, with the haze and smell from some of the worst forest fires in history as the backdrop.

    I think it’d be easier if more people could just call a spade a spade. But since they can’t, I’d sure like to find better ways to get them to do so.

  23. Merasmus

    “But that is a choice we have made.”

    Who is your ‘we’? Because I certainly never made that choice. The problem with assigning collective responsibility like that is that it assumes we have actual democracy. And, at least in the United States, we objectively don’t.

  24. Webstir

    “We need a new mythology in the West.”

    The one hope I hold to in the face of climate change is that the impact will force humanity to complete it’s third ethical evolution — what Aldo Leopold called the development of a “Land Ethic.”

    The impacts could be so great as to create the new mythology you speak of. Indeed, it would seem the only thing that could create a new mythology capable of serving as the foundation for a land ethic.

  25. Webstir

    More on Leopold’s Land Ethic here:

    One of America’s greatest thinkers in my humble opinion.

  26. brian

    I view money as a signaling protocol (like a communication protocol in a computer network). It works better than anything before at signaling to producers what demand is – even if the producer is multiple links removed from the demand. Is it perfect? Probably not. But wouldn’t it be better to create a better protocol to replace, rather than destroy the network because of the side effects?

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