A Failure of Mimesis

Though I disagree with him as often as not, James Howard Kunstler is one of my favorite authors in the peak oil field today. For all the intemperance of his style – and it’s hard not to admire somebody who can turn the spit-slinging vitriolic diatribe into an art form – he’s one of the few thinkers in circulation these days who has found his way to the elusive middle ground between those current incarnations of Pollyanna and Chicken Little, the believers in perpetual progress and the believers in imminent apocalypse. Reading his book The Long Emergency, more than anything else, convinced me that it was worth trying to get my own distinctly unpopular views on the future of industrial society into circulation, and his blog is one of the few I read regularly.

Thus I took it as a bit of synchronicity a few weeks back when he posted an essay titled “Thuggo and Sluggo” on his blog Clusterfuck Nation, waxing irate about the way the younger generation has embraced the urban gang esthetic. Now of course jeremiads about the younger generation have likely been in fashion since Cro-Magnon times; there’s a great passage in one of the classical Roman moralists (unfortunately I’ve misplaced the reference) about how kids these days don’t listen to their parents, stay out all night drinking, drive their chariots too fast, think about nothing but sports and sex, and so on. But there’s a subtle difference between this timeless plaint of parents everywhere and the phenomenon Kunstler discussed, and the difference ties into the theme of last week’s post – the theme of culture death.

Ironically, some of the best insights into the phenomenon Kunstler denounces can be found in the urbane academic prose of Arnold Toynbee’s ten-volume A Study of History. As a young man, Toynbee watched Europe tear itself to shreds in the fratricidal frenzy of the First World War, and the experience left him with a passionate desire to understand why civilizations rise and fall. Economic explanations of the sort central to my theory of catabolic collapse held little appeal for him, and he had even less interest in environmental issues; his focus was on the social transformations that move societies along the trajectory of growth and decline.

His argument, insofar as it’s possible to sum up hundreds of pages of subtle reasoning in a paragraph or so, is that civilizations emerge when a creative minority inspires the rest of their society with a vision of human possibility powerful and appealing enough to break through what he calls the “cake of custom,” the rigid body of tradition that shapes the behavior of traditional cultures. The key to their success is the universal human habit of mimesis – our incurable habit of trying to imitate what impresses us. When you were five years old and played at being a superhero – look, I’m Spiderman! – you were practicing mimesis; today, whenever you think about what you want to become, or what you want society to become, you still are. In traditional societies, the models for mimesis are tribal elders and tribal traditions, which accounts for the immense stability of tribal custom. Civilizations rise when a creative minority with an openness to new visions becomes the focus of mimesis instead.

The downside arrives when the creative minority loses the ability to inspire, and settles for the power to coerce. As its role as a source of inspiration dwindles, so does its role as the focus of mimesis. People stop wanting to become like the members of the dominant minority, and start aiming their hopes and dreams elsewhere. This splits their society into two unequal halves, a dominant minority clinging to power by ever more coercive means, and an internal proletariat that goes through the motions of participation but no longer shares its society’s values and goals. Finally the internal proletariat makes common cause with the external proletariat – the people of surrounding societies who are exploited by the civilization, and never had any stake in its survival to begin with – and everything comes crashing down.

It’s an intriguing analysis, and Toynbee was by no means averse to applying its lessons to his own society. In his view the formerly creative minority of Western civilization was well on its way to becoming a dominant minority, maintaining its position solely by economic and political force, and the rest of Western society was equally far along the road to becoming an internal proletariat with no stake in the civilization of its rulers. He argued that the fault for this “schism in the body politic” lay squarely with the elite classes, who were increasingly unfit to lead, unable to follow, and unwilling to get out of the way.

This criticism is all the more interesting because Toynbee was himself a member of the elite he excoriated. For most of his life he was the leading intellectual light of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), the British equivalent and ally of the much-denounced Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. It doesn’t speak well of the current crop of conspiracy theorists that so few of them have noticed Toynbee’s role as the source of the ideas that guide these two organizations, but then the fact that the CFR also publishes a quarterly journal of foreign affairs to which anyone can subscribe has escaped most of them, too.

Set Toynbee’s theory next to Kunstler’s diatribe and it’s clear at once that the two of them are talking about the same thing. Kunstler’s “Thuggo and Sluggo,” his white suburban teens borrowing their dress, speech, music, and manners from inner city nonwhite gang members, are poster children for the failure of mimesis in contemporary America. It’s easy to denouce Thuggo for his taste in clothes and his fondness for rap music, but there’s something very important and deeply troubling underlying these things.

What, after all, does our society offer this young person we’re calling Thuggo? Suppose he plays the game; what prizes can he expect to win? Downward mobility has become one of the most pervasive and least discussed facts of life in America today, and nowhere so much as in the options we offer young people from the lower middle class on down. It’s still popular to invoke the ghost of David Ricardo and insist that globalization is a rising tide that lifts all boats, but the hard reality is that the last thirty years have seen America’s once proud and prosperous working class thrown to the wolves, so corporations could keep boosting their quarterly profits and the middle class could maintain a filmy illusion of wealth through access to cheap consumer goods. Every $25 an hour factory job offshored to the Third World and replaced with an $8 an hour job flipping burgers is one less reason for the children of working class families to embrace the values that the middle class thinks they ought to have.

This situation bears on the end of the industrial age in many ways, but I’ll focus on only one of them here. One thing you’ll hear if you read any amount of peak oil literature is the complaint that so few people are willing to do anything about the approaching end of the age of cheap abundant energy. Even within the peak oil community, a surprisingly small number of people have taken the sort of simple practical steps that will make their own lives much easier as energy starts becoming scarce and expensive – growing a vegetable garden, learning to get by on less energy, and so on. Outside the peak oil community, almost nobody is listening at all.

From Toynbee’s useful perspective, this is simply another failure of mimesis. Those of us who write and speak publicly about peak oil and other aspects of the predicament of the industrial world are trying to break through a “cake of custom” every bit as firmly entrenched as the traditions of any tribal society could be, but we’ve arguably been trying to do it with the wrong tools and in the wrong way. Denunciation won’t do the job, and neither will carefully reasoned proofs backed with an infinity of footnotes; both those, entertaining as they are, fairly quickly become exercises in preaching to the choir. It might be worth suggesting that a change in approach is in order. If the peak oil movement can present a vision of the future that inspires and energizes people outside the peak oil scene – including those rap-listening, wide-wearing kids whose energy has gone unharnessed by any other movement for change for so long – the possibilities for constructive change may be greater than many people now suspect. We’ll be talking about this more in later posts.