Round in Circles: A Review of David C. Korten's The Great Turning, part 3

Part Three: Apocalyptic Politics

It’s one of the commonplaces of social history that times of cultural crisis feed apocalyptic beliefs. Our time is no exception, and The Great Turning counts as one of many contemporary expressions of this sort of thinking. Compare Korten’s book to the Book of Revelations, say, and parallels leap out from the first page onward. Like John of Patmos’ mighty myth of violence and redemption, The Great Turning combines diatribes against the evils of the existing order with the promise of a new age in which the old world and all its woes will be done away with forever. Visions of a struggle to the death between the forces of good and evil, baroque portrayals of imminent catastrophe, exhortations to the faithful to stay the course -- all are present and accounted for. The one significant factor that distinguishes Korten’s book from the Book of Revelations is that John of Patmos proposed a religious answer to the world crisis of his time, while Korten’s proposed solution is political.

He’s far from alone in that, of course. The revolutionary tradition of the modern Western world, where last week’s post traced the roots of Korten’s rhetoric, has used political means to pursue millennarian ends ever since its beginnings. Apocalyptic language came to dominate political discourse in the Western world all through the 20th century, and shows no signs of slackening its grip as we move through the first decade of the 21st. This makes it hard for many people to notice just how bizarre this fusion actually is. Though it seems obvious that the political process should aim for the attainment of a perfect world, or at least a much better one than we’ve got, a look back along the roots of our political thinking may lead to a very different conclusion.

Our word “politics” comes from the Greek word politike, literally “that which pertains to the community;” “community affairs” might be a good translation of politike in modern English. The crucible of social and economic change that birthed ancient Greek democracy forced aristocratic familes to yield control over community affairs to assemblies whose membership came from the ordinary citizens. The politike, the arrangements for handling community affairs, born from this process were born of struggles and compromises in which the grubbiest human motives rubbed elbows with the highest ideals. Despite the flaws of ancient Greek democracy – some of which were drastic, and not only by the very different standards of modern thought – the concept of government by consent of the governed had its origins there.

Our notion of an ideal society also has roots in the Greek experience, but in a way that makes modern revolutionary thought deeply ironic. Plato’s Republic, the first major work of Utopian thought in history and still the most influential work in the genre, was deeply reactionary, looking back fondly to the days of aristocracy when, at least in rose-colored hindsight, the common people knew their place. In Plato’s ideal state, an elite of philosophers occupied the top of the pyramid. A military caste took orders from the philosophers and kept social discipline lower down, and everyone else occupied the bottom, with no role in community decisions except obedience to dictates from above. This vision gave an authoritarian tone to utopian thought that still influences the revolutionary tradition powerfully today.

Most of two millennia later, struggles between aristocracies and rising middle classes wracked Europe and the European diaspora, with similar results. In some cases this yielded pragmatic political arrangements like the English and American constitutions, full of discord and compromise but durable and capable of gradual change for the better. In others, it produced a flurry of new proposals for ideal political systems not unlike Plato’s Republic, but with a twist. From the Diggers of the English Civil War on, a very large number of these proposals borrowed the language of apocalypse from religion, and claimed that the arrival of the perfect society would also mean the fulfillment of the entire process of human history.

Plato never claimed anything of the kind, but then he did not live in a society where a religion rooted in prophecies of apocalyptic redemption was cracking under the pressure of a newborn scientific materialism, leaving many people without an anchor for hopes of a better world. The Diggers and their many later equivalents did. As Christianity lost its hold on the imagination of the West, one common solution to the crisis of faith was to transfer the hopes of the Second Coming onto a secular apocalypse. The myth of progress took on its current importance largely because of this factor, and many other themes of contemporary thought have their roots in the same process. Yet the revolutionary tradition, which fused apocalyptic imagery onto a dream of the perfect society profoundly shaped by Plato’s reactionary utopia, represents the most direct heir of this process, the nearest thing to an exact political analogue of the Book of Revelations.

Korten’s mythic struggle between Empire and Earth Community, his elitist insistence that people of “higher developmental stages” ought to govern everyone else, and his claim that partisan political action will open the door to a new and better future, all come out of this tradition. Like his revolutionary forebears, he insists that the existing order can only be changed for the better by overturning it completely. Now one might suggest that the extraordinary expansion of civil and political rights in most Western countries over the last two centuries – the spread of voting rights from white male landowners to all adult citizens regardless of race or gender, the abolition of slavery and most legal dimensions of racial and gender discrimination, and so on – make this a hard claim to support. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s grant Korten’s claim that today’s democracies are irredeemable because they’re imperfect, and ask the next question: does his revolutionary utopianism offer anything better?

The answer of history is a resounding negative. Over the last few centuries, the world has seen quite a few revolutions, some violent and others political, and many of them shared the same aspiration toward a perfect society that underlies Korten’s book. Yet a bitter irony attends this, for the more visionary the new society proposed by revolutionaries, the more disastrous the resulting revolution has generally been. The American and French Revolutions are the classic endpoints of the spectrum – one a straightforward struggle against colonial rule that set out to found a government slightly better than its predecessors, and succeeded; the other a grand project that set out to create heaven on earth, and gave rise instead to the Terror and the Napoleonic wars. Down the history of revolutions since then, right up to the latest Third World struggles, the same pattern stands out from the data.

This pattern, it seems to me, unfolds from the nature of politics itself. As the framework where community affairs are discussed and community decisions made, politics work when they reflects the actual needs and concerns of the community, as grubby and pragmatic as those inevitably are, rather than some abstract concept of what those needs and concerns ought to be. It’s been said, and quite rightly, that all politics are local, and this reflects the broader point that all politics unfold from the issues that actually matter to people, rather that the issues that ought to matter to them. Equally, in a world of inescapable natural limits and unavoidable human disagreements, no possible political arrangements can yield satisfaction to everyone. Attempting to do so guarantees failure, and attempting to do so on the basis of some theoretical scheme of what human needs and relationships ought to be, in place of a willingness to compromise with what they are, guarantees failure on the grand scale.

The emotional power of apocalyptic politics makes this insight a difficult one nowadays. Yet it may be worth looking at how much of the rage and contempt that so many people direct toward politicians come out of the conflict between the unrealistic expectations of apocalyptic politics and the much more pedestrian possibilities available in the real world. Politicians are no better equipped to bring utopia than plumbers, after all. When they’re competent and pay attention to their jobs, both politicians and plumbers spend most of their time cleaning up messes and meeting human needs by setting up systems that are as dull as they are necessary. If the sort of utopian hopes so often imposed on politics today were placed instead on plumbing, though, plumbers would likely have the same sort of bad reputation politicians have now – and the job of plumbing would likely get done as badly as much of politics is today.

This conflict between expectations and realities, finally, is likely to be made far more extreme with the arrival of peak oil and other aspects of the crisis of industrial society. As the modern world collides with hard planetary limits and begins the long, uneven process of contraction and disintegration that lies on every civilization’s downslope, the mismatch between utopian dreams of a perfect world and the difficult realities of the deindustrial age is likely to become a major obstacle in the way of a sane response to our predicament. There will doubtless be many David Kortens insisting that all the evils of the world can be solved by tearing down an imperfect but functional political system and putting in some theoretically perfect scheme in its place, just as there will be plenty of people willing to listen to them. If history is anything to go by, the results are likely to include some pretty substantial body counts; it’s one of the ironies of the revolutionary tradition that, promising heaven on earth, it so consistently produces a good imitation of the opposite.

Does this mean that politics have nothing to offer the world as it begins to stumble down the far side of Hubbert’s peak? Not at all. What it means is that the constructive resources politics might provide to the difficult future ahead are precisely those foreclosed by Korten’s apocalyptic politics, with its demonization of his opponents and its insistence on the unique rightness of his own political stance. More than at any time in modern history, the politics of the near future will demand that all of us – politicians along with everyone else – turn aside from the fantasy that we can have whatever we want, and embrace compromise, pragmatism, and the willingness to build consensus among people with radically different interests and ideals for the sake of survival. To that very modest but necessary turning, Korten’s dream of a Great Turning offers no positive contribution at all.