Thoughts on the Coming New Year and the Next New Age
Connected today to the largest group of all, we stand at the edge of the greatest challenge of all.
(This is an updated version of an earlier published piece.)
I often think about the difference between our life in hunter-gatherer tribes and life after humans settled in place to farm, herd flocks and build more permanent dwellings.
There were transitions, of course, between our evolutions, not clean jumps; gradual changes, not step-wise rises and falls. The Old Stone Age — a time of hunters and tribes — became the Middle Stone Age, or Mesolithic, a period of pre-agricultural, sedentary settled-down life in many regions.
This became by stages the New Stone Age, the Neolithic, marked by agriculture and husbandry, crops and herds — but notably not at first marked by the rule of kings, priests and lords; not marked by the creation of haves and have-nots, the powerful few and the crawling dependent many; not marked by the use of slaves and human fodder to steal the fertile fields of neighboring towns, to build the pyramids, to fill the laps of luxury with the fruit of their work.
Depending on the place, perhaps 5,000 years passed in this happy middle period, after agriculture and before armies and serfs. But soon enough our world was fully transformed. One can call what came next a system of kingdom and empire; or feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism; or "communism" (which in 20th Century practice is state capitalism) — but for most of humankind the names make no difference at all. As the actor Richard Dreyfus once described it, we live in a world where the powerful can rightly say, "I and my kind will have our boot on the neck of you and your kind ... forever."
"Under capitalism, you sell your body for the right to live," writes Twitterer Madegan Morrison. The innovation here is "sell." Under capitalism, the latest iteration of systemic inhumanity, one is allowed to sell oneself or die by choice in destitude, whereas before, the "sale" was not a choice. You were simply taken and used.
I'm not sure a day has passed since the late Neolithic when this was not the case, not a day when a small minority of our species was not fed and bathed in riches by all the rest, by those who are used for their labor, abused for the pleasure of others, forced into shallow, early graves so the few could live in comfort outside their deeper ones for just a few years longer.
I ponder all this in 2021, on the cusp of what may be the beginning of the end of our path, as the new year dawns, and the final age as well.
Will we begin our descent soon, with a sudden, market-like collapse that says the old stock prices will never be back, that tells us our old ways — our big-screen life, our smart-phone social connections — are coming visibly to an end?
Will Florida, for example, caught in a massive hurricane, begin, as we watch, a return to worthlessness (if worth is counted in sellable real estate), after which the nation will wake with a shock, knowing the game of hiding behind bread (what little there is of it) and circuses (sponsored by Exxon, who want you to know they love you) is suddenly, truly over?
Or will we linger a while in this comfortable dream, trapped in the illusion that the wave that rises against us, the one we're ignoring, will never crash down because it hasn't yet? Are we hoping the delay will last till only our children are left to see its fall?
That last is a horrible thought, I know, but it crosses the mind. Is this the generation that would rather save its leisure than save its offspring? It certainly looks that way.
It's pointless to ask what will end our inhumanity. Long-term, almost nothing will, save either a beneficent mutation of genes that makes us suddenly bonobos in our kindness and removes the impulse to dominate and make war; or alternately, a forced return to tribes of fifty or so, hunters again, who care for each other, feed and heal each other, tribes that lack kings and armies because they’re simply too small to support them.
But what about a short-term answer, one that can serve today’s portentous moment? Can the rich, our present oppressors, be made to stand down? Will the Kochs develop a conscience, and then apply it? Will Jeff Bezos renounce his crown and break his kingdom, his Little Amazon, into local stores that serve communities instead of his Sophoclean hubris, then walk away?
Will Nancy Pelosi discover inside herself something besides the will to sell her power to buy her place? Will someone elected to progressive office decide to disrupt the Party instead of playing along, in hopes their gains will somehow drown their losses, dancing like this till the band stops playing and leaves?
It's been 10,000 years, give or take, since agriculture handed us the ability to form large groups, gave us the surplus to feed hundreds, then thousands, then tens and hundreds of thousands in nations and states.
Connected today to the largest group of all, we stand at the edge of the greatest challenge of all. Will we free ourselves at last from the masters of these groups, or submit in a final act of lemming slavery to those who own us, those who would rather die on the mound of their great wealth than live in quiet comfort like the classes they despise?
Will we march over the cliff for them, knowing they'll quickly follow, or wake to the danger they will not let us face and break ourselves away?
Whatever happens next, whether good or ill, it needs to happen soon, or not at all. Even a short delay may be much too long.