Culture Death

A few weeks ago, one of the readers of The Archdruid Report posted a comment asking whether I thought the white race would survive the decline and fall of industrial civilization. At the time I more or less brushed the question aside; since “the white race” doesn’t exist in the first place, after all, speculating on its long-term survival makes about as much sense as wondering whether unicorns will make the endangered species list. In retrospect, though, my reader’s question deserved a more thoughtful answer. It remains true that “the white race” is a cultural construction rather than a biological entity, and one that has been used to justify far too many crimes to pass unchallenged. Still, labels such as this one point toward critical issues of collective identity that need to be taken into account in any attempt to sense the shape of the future ahead of us.

The concept of race as a source of collective identity was itself the product of an earlier age of crisis, and really can’t be understood apart from the rise and fall of the nation-state, arguably the most distinctive social innovation of modern times. From the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the wave of national revolutions that swept over Europe exactly two centuries later in 1848, the great questions of European cultural politics centered on the struggle of nation-states to define themselves against local loyalties rooted in the old feudal system, on the one hand, and participation in the transnational community of Christendom on the other. People who grew up, as their grandparents’ grandparents did, thinking of themselves as Cornish or Poitevin or Westphalian, on the one hand, and members of the universal Body of Christ on the other, struggled to cope with a new social reality that demanded that they think of themselves as English or French or German.

This was anything but a fast process, and it succeeded only where certain specific circumstances fostered it. The nation-state as a source of identity depends on a deliberate blurring of categories in which a population, a culture, a language, and a system of government fuse in the imagination into a single national entity. One of the consequences of this category-blending is that very often, distinct populations, cultures, and languages become gaming pieces in the struggles of local and regional power centers to define and defend themselves against national governments. Watch debates over the Welsh language in Great Britain, for example, and you have a ringside seat for the struggle between centralizing and decentralizing forces in British political life. The notion of race had similar origins as members of multiethnic societies tried to define their nations in ways that excluded their economic or political rivals.

These issues have special relevance today, because the relative success of the nation-state in seizing control of the imagination of identity in the Western world has drawn most of its strength from the increasing economic and political integration of Western nations over the last three centuries, and this in turn has been inseparable from the rise of an industrial economy powered by fossil fuels. It’s not accidental that Britain, the first nation-state to make the breakthrough to industrialism, was also one of the first to form a coherent national identity. The transportation networks that made industrialism work in economic terms – first canals, then railroads, then highways – also made it possible for national governments to extend their reach throughout their territories in ways few previous societies ever managed.

The history of regional power in North America provides a good example of this process at work. In 1861 it was still possible for many people in the mostly agrarian South to think of themselves primarily as Virginians or Georgians or Texans, and only secondarily as citizens of the United States. Sixty years later, even the Ku Klux Klan had to define its repellent goals as “100% Americanism” in order to find an audience. In 1861, the North American railroad network was still in its infancy, mostly concentrated in portions of the Northeast and Midwest. By 1921 it blanketed the continent with one of the most successful transportation systems in history, and was already being supplemented with highways and airlanes. As transport expanded, so did the reach of the federal government, and so did the focus of most Americans’ sense of identity.

It’s been common enough for believers in the mythology of progress to argue on this basis that national governments will soon go the way of the feudal provinces and half-independent states that were swallowed up by the growth of the nation-state. They would be right, too, if we could count on an ever-increasing supply of the cheap abundant energy that makes modern transportation networks function...but we can’t. The peaking of world fossil fuel production promises exactly the opposite: a future in which energy is neither cheap nor abundant, and economic arrangements that require goods to be shipped halfway around the planet as a matter of course become too costly to survive. Those who dream of a unified world government and those who dread the prospect will both have to find new targets for their respective hopes and fears, because the sheer diseconomies of scale in a world of declining energy availability make attempts at global government an exercise in futility.

Rather, as energy becomes scarcer and more expensive, transportation networks that depend on vast amounts of inexpensive fuel will begin to unravel, starting with the most extravagant and going from there. Air travel will probably be the first to go, followed by the personal automobile, while bus and truck traffic on the deteriorating highways will likely continue long after cars have become one of the prerogatives of the very rich. Those countries that still have viable railroad systems will likely be able to maintain those long after the highways are silent, and the networks of last resort, the canal systems that made 18th century industrialism work, remain viable in some European countries and may just put a floor under the process of decline if their value is recognized in time.

The United States, by contrast, scrapped most of a world-class rail system in the third quarter of the 20th century, and only a few vestiges of its early 19th century canal system still survive today. Once the private car has become an anachronism and the energy costs of long-distance trucking make local production of most goods a better bargain, the economic glue that holds together a sprawling highway network and the many industries necessary to maintain it faces rapid dissolution. That same glue is most of what holds the United States together as a nation-state, and its breakdown will likely see the unraveling of the United States as a primary focus of our collective identity. Just as the rapid growth of transportation links turned the grandchildren of Virginians and Californians into Americans, the disintegration of those same transportation links may well turn the grandchildren of Americans into something else.

It’s unlikely to turn them back into Virginians and Californians, though, because the triumph of the nation-state in the 19th century was followed, in the United States more than anywhere else in the world, by the triumph of the market economy over culture. A faux culture designed by marketing experts, produced in factories, and sold over the newly invented mass media, elbowed aside the new and still fragile national culture of the United States and then set to work on the regional and local cultures this latter had only just begun to supplant. By the second half of the 20th century, nearly all of the functions filled by noneconomic culture in other societies were being filled by the market in America, and increasingly in other Western countries as well. The tunes people whistled, the recipes they cooked, the activities that filled their leisure hours and the self-images that shaped their thoughts and behavior no longer came out of such normal channels of cultural transmission as family and community; they came out of the market economy, with a price tag attached that was not denominated in dollars alone.

The second half of the 20th century, in fact, saw the death of anything that could reasonably be called American culture. Most examples of what anthropologists call “culture death” have seen people beaten and starved into relinquishing their traditional cultures; what the modern American experience shows is that people can also be bribed by prosperity and cajoled by advertising into doing the same thing. Granted, in a society awash in cheap abundant energy, it’s easier and cheaper to buy one’s culture ready-made from a store than to make the investments of time and energy into family and community needed to maintain a living culture in the true meaning of the word. Equally, in a society where “fashion” driven by media campaigns takes the place of any less mercenary guiding force, making traditional American cultures look as bad as possible was just another bit of marketing. Think of the movie Deliverance, with its likeably cosmopolitan heroes struggling to survive against the brutal malevolence of backwoods villains, and the banjo riff that provided the movie’s leitmotif defining traditional American culture itself as a hostile Other: that same message has flooded the American media for much of a century.

Culture death is a traumatic experience, and I suspect that a great deal of the shrill anger and maudlin self-pity that fills American society these days has its roots in our unwillingness to face up to a trauma that, in the final analysis, we have brought on ourselves. As the age of cheap energy comes to an end, though, I suspect there are worse traumas in store. A nation that has sold its own culture for a shiny plastic counterfeit risks a double loss if that counterfeit pops like a soap bubble in its collective hands. Equally, a people that has come to see its role as that of passive consumer of culture, rather than active maker and transmitter of culture, may have very few options left when the supply of manufactured culture to consume runs out.

The impact of these dilemmas on our collective imagination of identity is likely to be drastic as the manufactured culture of the present comes apart. We are already seeing people in contemporary American society turn to almost any resource you care to imagine in the search for some anchor of group identity less transient than the whims of marketers; religion has often filled its time-honored role in this regard, but so have racial fantasies, sexual habits, apocalyptic social theories, and much more. Nor is it hard to find Americans who are trying to redefine themselves as members of some other culture, past, present, or imaginary – speakers of Klingon or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish languages, for example, outnumber speakers of quite a few real languages. This is still a fringe phenomenon, though much less so than it was twenty years ago; twenty years from now, as the deindustrial age opens around us, they may impact the social mainstream in ways impossible to predict in detail today.