There are times when the winds that shape the future blow strong enough to be heard over the jabber of everyday life, and this is one of those times. For a while now I’ve been mulling over a handful of often-repeated comments on this blog, and I find that if I look through them, into the landscape of ideas that structure them, it’s possible to glimpse some of the driving forces behind the history of our era.
The comment that set off this most recent period of reflection came a couple of weeks ago. The person who wrote it complained that he’d tried to follow the advice I’ve offered for some time now—“collapse now and avoid the rush”—by trying to organize an intentional community up in the Italian mountains. His project fell flat when unobody else wanted to join. Having related this story, he proposed that other readers of this blog join with him to create “a meaningful, synergistic community.”
I’m embarrassed to say that I lost my temper and yelled at him. In my defense, I’d note that all through my blogging career I’ve been pointing out that the notion of heading off to the countryside to found an intentional community is not a viable response to the crisis of our age. I proposed “collapse now and avoid the rush” as an alternative to that fantasy, not an excuse for it. Thus it was annoying to see my suggestion plopped onto the Procrustean bed of collective chatter and turned into yet another excuse to chase the same overfamiliar mirage. It was particularly annoying because that sort of reflexive flight from unfamiliar ideas happens astonishingly often these days.
One of the weirdest features of public life in the industrial world today, in fact, is the way that so many people edit the ideas they encounter to make those ideas conform to preconceived narratives. I first ran into that habit early in my blogging career, when I discovered just how many people literally weren’t able to process the idea that the future might be something other than perpetual progress or overnight apocalypse. I’d say, “Progress is ending,” and they’d respond, “Oh, you mean we’re all going to die sometime soon.” I’d say, “No, we’re not facing sudden mass dieoff,” and they’d respond “Oh, you mean we’re going to have business as usual forever.” It was frankly creepy to watch.
Another theme I’ve discussed many times, the economic dimension of decline, ran up against the same weird automatism. I’d point out that the survival of a technology depended on whether it was economically viable, not on whether it was technically feasible, and people would look blank and talk about technical feasibility as if that was the only thing that mattered. I lost my temper and yelled a few times then, too, and when that happened I’d get blank looks and mumbling in response. Their reaction wasn’t a reasoned response. The idea that if a technology wasn’t affordable, it didn’t matter whether it was possible, was a thought they were quite literally unable to think.
The fantasy of founding an intentional community is one of these strange attractors of the modern mind. I’ve discussed elsewhere why intentional communities aren’t a workable response to the crisis of our age, and I won’t rehash that here. The point that matters is that there’s a long history of intentional communities at this point, and it’s a history of nearly unrelieved failure. The average lifespan of an intentional community is around two years. Yes, that means that half of them don’t last even that long.
It occurs to me, in fact, that intentional communities are the precise countercultural equivalent of another strange attractor of the modern mind, the flying car. Both go back much further than most people realize: the first great wave of communes in the Western world started two hundred years ago in the 1820s, in response to the crackpot inspirations of Charles Fourier, just as the first flying car to lurch temporarily into the sky was built back in 1917. Both can be made to work after a fashion, for a little while—there have been plenty of communes down through the years, of course, just as there have been plenty of flying cars built and (occasionally) flown.
Both, in turn, suffer from predictable and inescapable dysfunctions that make them balky, ineffective fringe projects with a sky-high failure rate, rather than the wave of the future their proponents so often expect them to become. And of course that sky-high failure rate never seems to have an impact on the dream, as generation after generation, starry-eyed visionaries convince themselves that these tired old fantasies are the latest cutting-edge hopes for a brighter future, and go charging ahead to make all the same mistakes as their predecessors and fail yet again in the same way.
Our civilization—Faustian civilization, as Oswald Spengler called it, the great culture born around the year 1000 in the valleys of the Thames, the Seine, and the Rhine, which overran most of the planet in the centuries that followed 1492 and is now more than a century down the well-greased slope of its decline and fall—is unusually prone to such vagaries. No other civilization in recorded history has so overwhelming an obsession with infinite expansion. To the Faustian imagination there can be no lasting limits; every barrier is made to be broken, every record must be surpassed. It’s only in Faustian culture that the transhumanist Alan Harrington could publicly proclaim that death is “an unacceptable imposition on the human race” without being taken away to a nice padded cell.
The dream of the perfect intentional community is a product of the same giddy logic. Your community isn’t to your taste? Invent a better one, and show everyone how wrong they are! That communities are organic growths rather than manufactured products, that human beings can’t be made to behave according to a prearranged script no matter how allegedly perfect that script might be—these unwelcome but necessary realizations are anathema to the Faustian mind. They contradict the will to power that is the rarely acknowledged mainspring behind the entire Western project.
You can see that will to power clearly in the Faustian monomyth, a story we might as well call “The One who Finds the Truth.” You’ve heard that story so many times, dear reader, you could repeat it in your sleep. Once upon a time, the story goes, people trudged through lives of misery, burdened by ignorance and error. Then somebody discovered the truth. Of course most people rejected the truth at first, because they were stuck in ignorance and error, but in due time the discoverer is hailed as a hero, all but a few benighted souls embrace his discovery, and the truth triumphed, or is triumphing, or will triumph—the time factor is one of the few variations that the monomyth permits.
Read any popular history of science and you’ll get this story with the manic repetitiveness of a broken record, but it’s not unique to science. Until Christianity imploded as a social force in the Western world after the First World War, histories of religion were written in the same terms. Political extremists of all stripes, from the bomb-throwing Left to the goosestepping Right, use the same rhetoric to proclaim the imminent or eventual triumph of their ideologies, and the list goes on. Until relatively recently, in turn, founders of intentional communities very often claimed to be the One who Finds the Truth—the truth in question being, of course, the right way to live with others.
As it happens, that’s one of the central reasons why intentional communities fail so reliably. The great problem with The One who Finds the Truth is that, compared to most other mythic narratives, it has very few roles available to those who try to act it out. There’s one starring role, the visionary who finds the truth. The rest of the cast consists of loyal followers who recognize the truth and follow the visionary without ever having a single original thought of their own, and opponents of the visionary who mutter dolefully about the horrible things that will happen if ignorance and error are overthrown.
That being the case, anybody with the least trace of ambition wants to be the One who Finds the Truth. How do you fulfill that role? By insisting that the ways your community does things are ignorance and error, and proclaiming your own unique truth as the path for everyone else to follow. So in any situation where people are trying to act out the story of the One who Finds the Truth, you very quickly end up with a bunch of would-be visionary leaders, each setting themselves in opposition to the community and finding fault with everything everyone else is doing. It doesn’t take much of this before people start walking away and your “meaningful, synergistic community” crashes down in ruin.
That’s become tiresome enough that certain changes are being rung on the overfamiliar melodrama of the One who Finds the Truth. The one I find most interesting these days moves the visionary into the other camp; we can call it the Dances With Wolves gimmick after its most famous media manifestation. Here the One who Finds the Truth doesn’t find it by being original and cutting-edge, he finds it among the people who are usually assigned the role of doleful mutterers, the defenders of tradition and the past. Of course this means that the visionary ends up on the losing side; even among those who can’t believe in the immaculate goodness of progress, it’s rare for anyone to go so far as to question its omnipotence, so the cast strikes a pose of tragic heroism at the finale while the audience sniffles.
This has been a standard pose of religious conservatives for some time now. Many seem to relish their role as defenders of a beleaguered truth, doomed to fail—but oh, how nobly! There’s a wry amusement to be had by mentioning to them Oswald Spengler’s concept of the Second Religiosity. Spengler argued that each great culture’s age of reason ends in intellectual and moral bankruptcy, as ours is doing now, and what follows is a revival of traditional religious forms—the Second Religiosity—as a bulwark against inner and outer chaos. You’d think that religious conservatives would be delighted by this, wouldn’t you? Some do. Others get sulky and insist it can’t happen.
One of the occultists I find most thought-provoking, the French Decadent magus Josephin Péladan, was very fond of that pose, though he didn’t sulk. His 1891 essay Manifesto de la Rose+Croix is typical: “We do not believe in progress or in salvation. For the Latin race, which goes to its death, we prepare a final splendor, to dazzle and mellow the barbarians who are to come.” The Traditionalist movement which blossomed not long after Péladan’s death in 1918, and has become a favorite bogeyperson of today’s Left, strikes the same pose with equal verve. The story of the One who Finds the Truth is central to Traditionalism; the Truth in question is the One True Tradition handed down since time immemorial, at least in theory, but one of the things that renders the whole movement so delightful is that no two Traditionalists seem to be able to agree on just what that truth is.
Of late, though, it’s been interesting to watch a different current begin to stir in Traditionalist circles and elsewhere. Steve Bannon—an American Traditionalist who played an influential role in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign—made waves in Traditionalist circles by suggesting that ordinary working class Americans in the flyover states counted as bearers of Tradition. To some extent that’s the standard inversion of the Faustian monomyth, and the movie version would doubtless be titled Dances With Rednecks, but Bannon isn’t striking a pose of heroic failure, and he isn’t presenting himself (or Trump) as the One who Finds the Truth. He’s tapping into a different theme.
I’ve talked about that theme in posts here and in my book The King in Orange. Its theme is summed up neatly in the Russian word sobornost, a term that has no good equivalent in English. Sobornost is the sense that the summit of individual identity is an expression of the shared consciousness of the community, not (as in the Faustian monomyth) the rejection of the community and its consciousness. From the point of view of sobornost, the Faustian individual kicking his way out of traditional forms and lifeways is as foolish as he is self-defeating, because human fulfillment can only be found by returning to the community and integrating oneself with its enduring consciousness and ways of life.
It’s a theme that has deep echoes all through eastern European and Russian cultures, and it expresses itself in key cultural figures. Leo Tolstoy is an example. A child of the Russian aristocracy with a Western education, Tolstoy ended up rejecting Western culture and his own social class, and in his later years embraced the simple faith and rural lifestyle of the Russian peasantry. His writings and example had an outsized impact on twentieth century history—Gandhi was among the many figures he influenced—but he rejected the logic of the Faustian monomyth and never claimed to be the One who Found the Truth. Rather, in the true style of sobornost, the truth found him.
For quite some years now occultists and others—Oswald Spengler among them—have sensed the rise of a new great culture in Russia, and it’s been suggested on solid grounds that sobornost will be its keynote, in the same way that the One who Finds the Truth is the keynote of the Faustian culture. I find this increasingly easy to believe, since the same theme surfaces in comments on my blog, mostly by European commenters. The praise of community that’s been a standard element of social criticism from the Right since the rise of Traditionalism has taken on a new note: the communities in question are shaking off their Faustian role of doleful muttering, and they’re not taking on the neo-Faustian role of wolves for the One who Finds the Truth to dance with. They’re sources of meaning and value from which some individuals have unwisely strayed and to which they must return.
I respect that vision, but it’s not one that I can follow. As I see it, Spengler was right to point out that each great culture is based firmly in a particular region of the Earth; its influence can spread from that region, but it never puts down deep roots outside it. Faustian culture is ultimately rooted in western Europe, and its global reach has simply laid down a temporary Faustian veneer over regions where very different visions of destiny hold sway. In the same sense, the future great culture of Russia—due to begin its emergence, according to predictions, later in this century—has its roots in the great sweep of the eastern European plain from the Carpathians to the Urals. When it reaches its height a millennium from now it will doubtless have spread far from that base, but its roots elsewhere will never go deep.
Here in North America, the land has different energies and calls up different responses from the people who live on it. Five centuries after the culture of sobornost has emerged, if the prophecies of occultists and visionaries are anything to go by, the heartland of North America—the Great Lakes region and the Ohio River basin—will become the seedbed of a different great culture, one that differs from the Faustian and Russian cultures as much as they differ from each other. I’ve suggested that its theme might be called tamanous, borrowing a word from the Chinook trade jargon of the old Northwest.
Tamanous is the Chinook term for the guardian spirit of the individual. Where the Faustian vision sees truth as the exclusive possession of a unique visionary who uses it as a club to beat up the past, and sobornost sees truth as an enduring reality rooted in communal tradition, the way of tamanous sees truth as a discovery unique to each person. It can’t be turned into a banner around which adoring followers flock in the Faustian style; it can’t even be shared. The most you can do is explain to other people how you found your truth, and encourage them to make the same journey themselves. Like the nascent culture of sobornost, the embryonic culture of tamanous also has its historical exemplars; John Chapman, the “Johnny Appleseed” of American folk legend, is one I’ve discussed here, and his utterly individual life is as typical of the tamanous vision as Leo Tolstoy’s life is typical of sobornost.
The image of community called into being by the vision of tamanous differs just as sharply from those of the other two patterns we’ve discussed. If you’ve spent time “on the res” with Native Americans you’ll have noticed what, to the Faustian mind, is a weird formlessness in social events. People drift in and out, there’s no schedule and no agenda, things happen when they happen, but somehow everything gets done. It’s endlessly frustrating to the Faustian mentality, and I suspect it’s just as baffling from within the world of sobornost, because there’s no collective structure of consciousness guiding things. Everybody’s following their own inspiration, and community is born organically out of the dance of individuals, rather than being the deep source from which individuals emerge.
Making sense of the ideas of one great culture from within another great culture is notoriously hard. (It’s an interesting detail of history, for example, that the first two European scholars to study the I Ching both went incurably insane.) Thus I don’t claim to be able to sound the depths of either of the two future cultures I’ve sketched out here; I was raised in a culture weighed down by the Faustian veneer, and I live in a region that mediates between western Europe and the North American heartland. (The ground under my feet is part of the same long-vanished continent as the western half of Britain.) Being who, when, and where I am, I’m poised unsteadily between two great cultures, the fading Faustian culture and the future American culture. That’s part of the hand I was dealt when I was born.
That awkward position, between the dissolving forms of the Faustian vision and the first stirrings of tamanous culture, seems to be becoming common among my American and Canadian readers, for what it’s worth. (I haven’t yet seen it among my European readers, which comes as no surprise—again, each great culture is rooted in its own land.) Here in North America, the Faustian veneer seems to be cracking very rapidly just now, outside those classes that have adopted Faustian thoughtways as the basis for their identity and their power. The widening gap between the Faustian managerial caste and the post-Faustian masses is among the major facts in American public life today, and it accounts for a great deal of the total incomprehension with which each side regards the other.
One of the chief questions in my mind right now is how that gap will evolve in the years ahead. Most great cultures, once they leave their ages of reason, wind up their creative eras, and settle into stasis, can expect a long slow decline—in cases such as ancient Egypt and traditional China, this lasted for many centuries. The surge toward infinity is so central to the Faustian ethos, however, that the total failure of the will to power that drives it may send the nations of the West down another, harsher route. We’ll talk about that in two weeks.
Two notes before we proceed.
First, I’m delighted to report that my roleplaying game Weird of Hali: Roleplaying the Other Side of the Cthulhu Mythos is finally in print and available for sale. It’s been a long strange journey since I first started work on turning my tentacle fiction into RPG fodder almost three years ago, with a pandemic followed by supply chain shortages among them entertainments along the way, but it’s finally here, and can be purchased from Aeon Games at this link. (The PDF is available right now; the print edition will be in warehouse shortly.) The publisher is offering a 20% discount to anyone who knows the secret discount-code password, which in this case is WOH20. If you like RPGs, definitely check it out.
Second, one of my best books from the peak oil era is finally back in print. The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered is now available in an updated print edition from Founders House Publishing. (If you’ve preordered, copies are being shipped right now.) Check it out here.