With the Swarm
Column by George Sibley
Modern Life – November 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine
OF ALL THE GREAT INDULGENCES of the 20th century, “Books on CDs” is one of my favorites — combined with that greatest of all indulgences, the automobile at its current exalted, and possibly terminal, state of development. The combination makes the Interstate 80 limboid across the Great Plains literarily disappear.
So heading for Wisconsin late in September, I “read” something across the Great Plains I’d managed to escape reading in my public-school and liberal arts education: Charles Dickens’ great saga of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, the whole unabridged enchilada. How did I manage to graduate from college as an English major without reading that? Never mind. But now I understand that it was my loss, for in not reading it, I missed one of the most humane and moving analysis of the 20th century ever written.
Which of course is pretty prescient of Dickens, considering that he wrote it in the 19th century, about an event in the late 18th century. But it’s all there, in its grand sweep — all the chaotic upwellings of vengeance against Thomas Jefferson’s “favored few … booted and spurred” who have lived in the belief that the “mass of mankind” are “born with saddles on their backs.” The mass convulsions of rage that swept over Russia, Germany, China, Cambodia, large parts of Africa and many smaller places in what was surely the bloodiest century in the history of our species — Dickens saw it all coming, and where it would all go.
I had always assumed that the “two cities” of Dickens’ tale were Paris and London. But London played such a small part in his “Tale” that I’m wondering if Dickens might have meant the two Parises of the book: the Paris of the aristocratic “Monseigneurs” and the Paris of the impoverished Saint Antoine district: the people in the carriages, and the people run over by the carriages. In that sense, every human city is two cities, a concentration of dazzling wealth on display, built on the labor of masses who live in chronic poverty.
Sometimes the inequality is less extreme than it was in 18th-century France, and its enforcement by the haves on the have-nots is more subtle. But inequality seems to be part of the basic contract underlying urbanization: the great city rises as a monument to an unspoken acknowledgment that there is not enough for everyone to have everything. Instead of working it out so everyone has enough (boring!), the city relies on a civilized struggle from which the few who latch onto a good idea soar above the rest. The few are allowed to have everything for their good idea, while the rest have nothing (despite doing all the scutwork).
Why do the many go along with this social contract? Usually, because at some point they have embraced the fiction that all humans are created equal, and all have, at some point, the same opportunity to be one of the wealthy few — rather than a fragment of the impoverished masses. If you are poor, it’s not the fault of the wealthy; it’s your own fault or your ancestors’ because you or they were too lazy or stupid or decent to wrestle personal wealth away from the commonwealth.
WE SEE THIS OVERWEENING RESPECT for wealth in our society today. It has allowed the already-wealthy — who are no longer even executing a good idea — to pillage the national economy and bankrupt us (yet again) for their own gain. There is nothing new here; our grandparents saw the same thing happen 80 years ago. Laws were passed then to protect society from this kind of untrammeled plundering. But our fawning respect for wealth, with or without good ideas, has allowed the plunderers to remove those laws, one by one, and pick up where their grandparents left off. The names weren’t even changed to protect the guilty; Morgan continues to do what Morgan has always done.
We — the mass of us — allow it because we want to believe the fiction that we too (me anyway) might put together the idea that will shoot us (me anyway) into the stratosphere of unimaginable wealth, the realm where we (me anyway) will no longer have anything to worry about, except for the apparent single-minded worry of the wealthy which is how to get even more, ever more.
That hope — that I, at least, might escape into great wealth — is what keeps us mired in inequity. Those “chains” Marx spoke of are actually the “mind-forged manacles” that Blake observed; they only become chains when the haves manipulate the law and the systems of governance in order to maintain the inequity. (“Deregulation,” anyone? Tax breaks for the wealthy?)
THIS CONCENTRATED INEQUITY makes every city two-cities-in-one, places where the disparities often mount until the exploited can no longer deny their plight or consent to the fiction of their own predestination for poverty. Then they explode in paroxysms of desperate rage. That’s what the first half of the 20th century was all about in the western world, from Russia’s pre-industrial Moscow to Idaho’s (and all the way down the Rockies). Then the rage moved into Africa and the eastern world in the second half of the century: a myriad people, with nothing but their mind-forged manacles to lose, got their heads beaten in, got shot and otherwise insulted by those with everything, but they kept coming until eventually the minority with everything was overwhelmed. Then the oppression was reversed. The wealthy few were gone, and the formerly oppressed took turns oppressing each other. Stalin, Mao, Mugabe — play it again, Sam.
Here in the USA, it has been a little different. With the earth’s last unexploited continent to highgrade we have had more wealth up for grabs, and the poverty has not been as severe and brutalizing. At the height of the highgrading of the continent — the first two-thirds of the 20th century — our self-styled aristocracy even grudgingly consented to the notion that there might be enough to let everyone have a little. But since we hit our petroleum production peak in the mid-1970s — ending the last great highgrade — the haves have had to start cracking down, buying up the government and putting the squeeze on everyone at the median and below. It’s what the Reagan Revolution was all about. And while we still haven’t sunk to the depths of inequality that Dickens described in Enlightenment France, we are far enough along so the masses are getting restless at last.
Time magazine, for example, which has spent a couple of generations celebrating and sanctifying the evolution of new generations of robber barons, can now do a cover story on how Wall Street has ripped us off. We aren’t sending the super-rich to La Guillotine yet, but we’re by gum gonna limit how much they can pillage. (Some kind of a compromise so that, when we all (me anyway) finally get rich, there’ll still be good pickings.)
So what’s going on here? Sometimes it seems like we have gone collectively crazy — as in spending a billion dollars a day trying to build infrastructure in another country while our own bridges are falling down, and borrowing another billion dollars a day from yet another country so we can keep consuming their products.
This may in fact be a kind of madness. When you stop to think about it: We are a species that evolved over three or four million years wandering around an ice-bound planet in small bands, in search of low-hanging fruit to pluck. Then we were suddenly plunged by a true “global warming” into a population explosion a mere ten or twenty thousand years ago that drove us, first, to the new socioeconomic construct of defensive farming instead of gathering, protective herding instead of hunting; and (when those measures increased the population problem rather than alleviating it) into the even more concentrated socioeconomic construct of cities, large-scale agriculture, and an increasingly hierarchical power-based culture.
That noted, mass madness can perhaps be excused. Mankind has only been trying to grapple with this unfolding population disaster for one tenth of one percent of our evolution as a species. Our big brain evolved in order to more efficiently highgrade the wide open spaces; thus it’s no surprise that our mental and emotional hardwiring encourages us to hunt more, gather more, produce more and build more.
BUT NOW WE HAVE TO DEAL with our swarming numbers and the limits of our planet, especially in America, the last resort for our hunter-gatherer, low-hanging-fruit heritage. So, is there any hope that our big versatile brain might eventually rise to the challenge?
There have been signs of hope. Gandhi and Dr. King showed that “aggressive non-violence” could actually be a constructive strategy in the oft-told “tale of two cities.” And here and there, we appear to waking up to the unsustainable stress we’re putting on the planet. I witnessed signs of intelligent life on earth in Scandinavia this summer, and we’re seeing foreshadowings of eco-intelligence in our own society, although there’s still a lot of Madame Kubler-Ross’s denial, anger and bargaining to work through before we’re going to accept our true reality as an endangered species.
Meanwhile — back to our ever-unfolding variation on the tale of two cities. Here in the United States, 2008, the economy is tanking and we’re trying to figure out if there isn’t something more constructive to do than just beat up again on the Monseigneurs — or worse, continue bowing to them.
Go, Obama: “America, we are a better country than this.” Or might be.
George Sibley usually writes from Gunnison, though this came from Wisconsin.
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