A rising tide lifts all boats… this is the collective bargain, the “social contract” so to speak, which justifies the world most of us live in today. That bargain is not only ending, but the very foundations on which it could be proposed are swiftly evaporating. A new report even questions whether humanity will survive the downfall it had sown. But still, there are some who cling to it.
A system depending on the concentration of power in the hands of few, whether it is just or fair or pretty or preferable, is seen as at least viable and at times even natural. Ideas outside of this type of system, where an elite commands the rest of the population through direct and/or I direct force, are often seen as pipe dreams, stories, delusions.
Most people recognise the injustice and the ugliness of this system, but still not only bear it, but reject alternatives decisively. There is a certain logic here that, while it doesn’t justify this systemic feature, makes it liveable. And that is a simpler version of what we started with: the tide lifts most boats. In other words: cruel as they may be, the elites and the system they preside over provide us with the possibility of social life and advancement, which otherwise we cannot have.
Now, it’s easy to rail against this and condemn the cowardice of anyone not rebelling against the system (!), but there’s more to it here. On the one hand there are the conditions and environments people live in, which not only cultivate pro-system views but harshly punish signs of rebellion. How can such a person, without support, stand against such a vast system?
But that’s not what interests me here. Even if someone was raised with enough freedom to consider alternatives, and has the social mobility and standing to risk having some unusual views or making some unusual friends, still it’s not so easy to shake off the hierarchy we live under, the power the status quo holds.
That is because the very fact of it being the status quo holds power- not because they’ve been brainwashed into thinking so, or because they’re disallowed to hold any other opinion (though both of these also happen). It’s because this is a system which, though it fails many people and actively pushes others down, works on a system-level. It doesn’t collapse into chaos, it doesn’t fizzle into anarchy, it doesn’t get sidestepped by predators (in its entirety at least). Any proposed alternative does not have the benefit of having been tested at the level it wants to be applied, and doesn’t have the track record of resiliency and self- reproduction of the current system, whatever it may be.
Though this doesn’t make a system good or fair, it means a lot. A well-intentioned system that executes justice once and then falls apart into chaos is definitely worse. All that a solid, resilient system needs is to be bearable, or show some sign that a better version of it, improvement or “progress” within it are possible.
This is why we see in many parts of the world an equal desire to “go back” in developed countries whose institutions and laws are failing them, and to “develop” in those nations that feel they have been left behind. Putting aside what could be, many people think of “the game” of politics, so to speak, as is: these are the rules of having a strong state and economy, so the question is how to get there and keep it. It is only after that that we can ask about justice and fairness and environmentalism, and only insofar as it does not threaten our position in “the game”.
Advocates of such a way of thinking like to view themselves as realists, facing the tough reality of life and putting things in order best as they can, not wasting time on distant possibilities. In some ways they are right: for much of the world, the impact any regular individual could have on the system would be far outweighed by the system’s impact on them, so what other choice is there but to play the game? For someone struggling to make ends meet, what time is there to “consider” further possibilities? To entertain abstractions?
There’s a line between abstraction and the big picture, though, and that line is now being crossed. The chief defense of any unjust system, let alone our own, is that it works– that is swiftly becoming untrue. Many people fail to realise this, regardless of the free time or education they have, because our political philosophy has grown to gave an extreme social bias.
What makes our system one that “works”? And not in the sense of “what systems does it have that work”, I’m not asking that. I’m asking: what do we see in the system, that we associate with it “working”? What is it that we fear we see the absence of in alternatives?
It’s social effectiveness. What our system visibly does is organise people in a way that allows us to get the products of nature, more or less, to those of us who view it as successful. It allows people to organise in a way to divide labour and deliver the products of this broader production to other people. It prevents people from using force to disrupt these “necessary” flows of goods.
“Flaws” are pointed out in this system, but to those who defend it, it is done in the best way possible. Other systems would devolve quickly into unforeseen failures, with corruption, organised crime and inefficiency causing the system to “fail”. As flawed as this system is, at least it stands- or so the argument goes.
But what if we look beyond the question of social issues to physical, natural ones? Even if we accept that this system allows for more efficient extraction and distribution of resources- where do they come from?
This is where our system is failing. In rushing to provide resources for social ends, nowhere near enough attention has been paid to the cycles that produce the resources we need. We extract with little consideration of the true basis of production, thinking the system works because the products we wrest from nature’s hands get to our doors on time.
But what of the sources of these products, the management of the cycles and processes that create these end products? The human side of the equation is managed thoroughly (though how well it is managed can be debated); but how much consideration is given to he natural, the non-human side of the equation, beyond the immediate contribution to humanity?
The footprint of humanity has, for much of history, been globally small- that is, there have both been significant zones untouched by thorough human impact, and human impact has been minor in its extraction. At most, we can see regional impacts that alter the ecosystem throughout history (though of course qualifications and exceptions must exist).
The scale we are at now- the scale of our demands, of our extraction, of our degradation- is far beyond those of yesteryear. With this change, the rules of the “game” must also change. Whereas before we could trust nature to fill the gaps and regenerate some level of its product, now we impact the cycles that lay at the foundation of the cycles we exploit. That is: we’re not shaking the tree we’re in any more, but instead making the very earth quake.
And so the question is not simply about distributing the goods, about whose boats get lifted by the rising tide. It’s whether there will be enough to distribute, whether we can ever recover the way things were- whether the tide will swallow the land whole.
A system with no answer to this, no matter how savvy it is in convincing people of its strengths, no matter how successful it is at competing with its counterparts, no matter how resilient it is to revolution and change; such a system is a failing system, and to support is no longer “common sense” or “realism”, but the deepest kind of blind idolatry imaginable. It is to look disaster in the eye and claim there is nothing there.
What we need isn’t a system that is more efficient or sensible- what we need is a system that recognises the inherent value of the non-human, not only dedicating itself to the nurturing of the non-human cycles on which we depend, but structuring its demands to make that kind of commitment possible. Consumption in the developed world must go down, the connection between production and power must be severed, the obsession with human exceptionalism and excellence must be done away with. We live at present in the Empire of Humanity, which oppresses both other humans and the nonhuman world by extracting without providing the due return. We must enter a new world where we are not emperors and their servants, but stewards and representatives, in a commonwealth of humanity. This is, whatever one may think, the only way forward.