Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Socialism or barbarism?

Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Luxemburg's turn of phrase, while certainly apt in the tumultuous years of the First World War, take on a special significance for us in the 21st century. We are, indeed, at a crossroads.

Before its long hiatus, this blog spent a great deal of time laying out, in occasionally morbid detail, exactly why industrial society faces the end of business as usual.

To briefly recap: The explosive growth in technological advancement and productivity of the years since the Industrial Revolution were made possible by fossil fuels. It's been argued that the economic complexity of any society is directly proportional to the energy that is available to that society, all else being equal. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, all human societies were limited, ultimately, to the energy available from the sun. Less technologically sophisticated societies might be limited to human muscle power; more sophisticated to animal muscle power; and still more sophisticated might utilize mechanically amplified wind and water power. All of these societies, however, were ultimately limited by the amount of energy entering the Earth system each year from the sun, which provides the energy to grow crops to feed humans and animals, and ultimately drives the weather systems that bring wind and fill reservoirs.

The Industrial Revolution made available the Earth's fossil fuels, which represented literally millions upon millions of years of stored solar energy, in the form of fossilized plant matter from long-gone eras. Humanity, previously limited to finding more efficient ways to utilize a limited but (for our purposes) perpetual energy budget, had quite literally won the energy lottery. A gigantic, one-time sum of concentrated fuel, allowing humanity, for a time, to attain power levels far greater than the sum of available solar energy in the Earth system.

This paradigm-changing event was a qualitative change in human society. It's no coincidence that the latest great Revolution, the overthrow of Feudalism by Capitalism, was pushed over the edge by fossil fuels. The bourgeoisie, in its time a revolutionary class, sought to find more ingenious ways of harnessing this new energy, and a new, heightened level of exploitation it made possible. Fossil energy did for the exploitation of the laboring classes what the cotton gin did for slavery in the United States; it was possible to squeeze more productivity from fewer workers. This set the stage for the new class contradictions of the Industrial Age, the stage on which the drama of humanity has played ever since.

But while this bonanza of incredible energy has persisted long enough to completely alter the fabric of human society, long enough that no one now alive can remember when humanity was limited to the renewable power from the sun, and endless growth is central mantra of of our culture, it must come to an end, is coming to an end, as described in these pages and the sources we cite.

If capitalism is the result and vassal of nearly limitless fossil energy, what happens when we run out?

Socialism or barbarism.

In his analysis of the primary contradiction of capitalism, Marx pointed out that capitalism was a necessary predecessor of socialism, and ultimately communism, because it was through capitalism that the productive processes of human labor were centralized and organized, in a fashion that is necessary for a society managed for the common good. However, I don't think Marx fully realized the transitory nature of this; that the socialized production created by capitalism and necessary for communism was dependent on fossil energy, which by definition was always a limited resource.

If Marx was correct in presuming that socialism must be built on the substrate of a functioning capitalist economy, it may be too late. The classic revolutionary model of "seize state power and build socialism from the top down", already a strategy with a dubious history, is unlikely to be workable in any case as the central organization of production made possible by fossil energy flies apart in the face of climate pressure and peak oil.

Do we, then, consign ourselves to Luxemburg's barbarism, a Mad Max future of hideous wars fought over depleting resources? I'm not prepared to do that.

Which brings us to this here re-rebooted blog. I've been through a lot in the last four years, since my shared project with Kir'Shara ground to a halt amidst existential despair. Which was probably an inevitable result of a project that, let's be honest, fairly wallowed in doom-porn. Trying to convince people that society is fucked is not the most emotionally fulfilling thing to do with one's time, after all. And in that time, I've developed some ideas for what individuals and small groups of people can do to prepare themselves and their communities for the coming Dark Age.

Seldon's Gate is a name inspired by the notion that a relatively small handful of people can build something that will last into a future that, while grim, carries the promise of rebirth. It's a small project, a personal project, but it seems appropriate to chronicle it here. So this blog will be a mixture of personal log, theoretical sandbox, and practical guide to building community and hope in increasingly shitty times.

I don't know if you'll learn anything, but I hope you'll be entertained.

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