Democracy And the Mobilization Society

Students of government often note that democracies tend to come out of societies with widespread military service and they extend, often exactly, to the military base.

In Greek city states the people who had the vote were men who had sufficient wealth to arm themselves for war.

In Republican Rome it was the same, with an additional class existing who had extra rights because they were rich enough to go to war mounted on horseback (the Equestrian class).

In Switzerland they fought in massed pike formations and they had male suffrage.

Rome, as is often the case, is a good case study. Because what happened in Rome, decades before the loss of voting rights, was that more and more non-Romans came to serve in Rome’s army, the armies became professional (rather than being called up when needed) and city men stopped serving, except for those with political ambitions.

You can be quite sure that if the legions had still been made up of citizens born in the city of Rome, and had still been mostly people who didn’t expect to make a career of military service, that Rome would not have become a dictatorship — because the military wouldn’t have backed men like Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Pompey and Augustus: their first loyalty would have been to Rome — not to their generals, their careers, and the loot from conquests.

After Rome’s collapse there came a feudal period, occasioned in part by the stirrup. Except against disciplined infantry or in very difficult terrain, cavalry was superior — but it took a lot of money to equip and train a knight. (If you didn’t start training in childhood you would never be a knight.) Once trained and equipped, however, in his heyday the knight was virtually unstoppable and the equal of many, many more infantry — as well as excellent at putting down peasant rebellions. Many peasant rebellions happened in the Middle Ages, much more than most people are aware of. The reason we’re unaware of those rebellions today is that they were always supressed, even the ones that showed some success.

Gunpowder brought the end of the age of the knight — and it also, eventually, brought with it mass warfare, where God was indeed on the side with the bigger battalions. At first these armies were made up of semi-feudal levies and large mercenary forces (the Hapsburg wars often included armies that were substantially mercenary). However, over time countries came more and more to rely on regular, non-mercenary armies, mercenary armies being even more prone to mutiny and even more unwilling to risk their lives than regular armies of the time. It is not a coincidence that during this period the franchise was extended time and time again, outwards from the original property owners (who were enfranchised not so much because they fought but because they could loan the king money to raise armies with), to more and more of the population, eventually ending with universal male suffrage in most countries.

Which leaves the question of female suffrage open. Since women didn’t fight, why did they gain the vote? In part it’s because during war in a mass conscription society women became a significant part of the labor force. In both World War I and World War II women flooded into the factory, the office and the shop to take up the labor their menfolk could no longer do. Mass conscription warfare in the 20th century was also mass production warfare — it required a lot of material and so many men were drafted that women became explicitly integral to the war effort even if they weren’t riflemen, because they were creating the material that was used to win the war.

Which leads us to the present day. The US has universal suffrage, but it no longer has a mass conscription army, nor does it have an army explicitly designed as a cadre force for mass conscription. In contrast the Canadian army was set up in such a way that it can theoretically expand in size very quickly, with every corporal becoming a sergeant; every private a corporal, and so on. Instead the US has a relatively large standing force. A large proportion are non-citizens serving in exchange for citizenship, a startling similarity with Rome. They vote disproportionately for one of the two domestic political parties, they wear uniforms and lend their favour to one of the two parties and they have been overstepping the boundaries of laws that require them to remain non-partisan and non-political. For years, as in Republican Rome, where it was illegal for a soldier to enter the city, the US e Posse Comitatus Act made it illegal for the army to operate in the United States. However that law has recently, in effect, been repealed.

More than that the army is no longer a mass production army. The US army did not have the best equipment in WWII or WWI; it had the most equipment. It now has the best equipment in the world by far, fantastically expensive equipment that is produced at great profit by an industry which is so entwined with the military that it is hard to tell where one stops and where the other starts. Yet that industry, because it is theoretically not part of the military, is able to and does lobby government directly.

The US military is also changing itself from a military designed to fight mass conventional ground wars (the Europe scenario) to a force designed to fight colonial brushfire wars and to keep open resource supply chains (most particularly, but not exclusively, for oil). In addition, it is moving as fast as it can towards remote operated drones, to remove troops from combat and reduce its personnel requirements.

None of this should make those who value democracy all that sanguine about its future in the US.

While all mass conscription societies aren’t democracies (the USSR, for example), few democracies aren’t societies where mass military manpower has been used. The US has been and continues to move away from that model, while having a military that self-identifies with one political party, is trying to reduce its reliance on manpower, uses mercenaries and foreigners extensively and shows greater and greater restiveness at laws that restrict its ability to operate in the US or engage directly in politics. The culture of civilian control over the military has been waning as well, with the deliberate cultivation of the attitude that those who haven’t served have no moral right to so much as criticize anything the military does, let alone tell it what to do

Great nations, great republics, are rarely destroyed from the outside: they almost always rot from within or are destroyed by their own defenders.

In a few hundred years will historians discuss the fall of the American Republic the way they discuss that of Rome, or of Napoleon and France?

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Ian Welsh

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  • citizenship is offered as a reward to South and Central Americans willing to fight. Also, Blackwater, et. al. have aggressively recruited peoples south of the border.

    Also, as I recall, the revolt of the Visigoths was preceded by their participation in the Roman military. This provided a powerful educational opportunity as the Visigoth leaders learned the ways of the Romans and used that knowledge to their own advantage.

  • …that the people who have inviolable rights are those upon whom the government depends.

    Indeed, the history of internal class conflict seems to be the struggle between the people those in power cannot get along without and a ruling class trying to preserve its autonomy. The ruling class wants to keep all political privileges–until they are forced into an awareness that they are trapped in a relationship of dependency and must cede something to remain in power. Sometimes it takes violence to create that awareness in the ruling class, thus we have a record of the ascendancy of the Plebians in Rome and the medieval peasant rebellions (even if all were military failures, not all were unsuccessful–many did result in more rights). Sometimes even violence and nearly losing control isn’t enough if the rulers fail to comprehend the situation, as in the 1905 revolution in Russia.

    When the rulers can break out of that relationship, however, then all bets are off. Perhaps that explains why our government operates the way it does, heeding corporations and isolating itself from voters. Our government no longer depends on its citizens. Because of outsourcing and the global economy, we are no longer essential. But corporations have incredible power and resources, and are indispensable. In Imperial Rome, the army was the instrument upon which the emperors depended and so internal stability depended on keeping the army happy. In the Middle Ages, it was the nobility and eventually the burghers–the forerunners of our middle class–who had to be placated.

    So I guess the question is what will it take to restore the dependency of our rulers on the American citizen?

  • 1. Professional force (mercenary army)

    2. Corporate state (military-industrial-governmental revolving door/lobby)

    3. Surveillance state; military in charge of intelligence service)

    4. Unitary executive (repeal of habeas corpus, justification of torture, repeal of posse comitatus, readiness to impose martial law)

    5. Election fixing, voter suppression and

    6. Politicizing of DOJ and judiciary

    7. Economic policy that favors plutocratic oligarchy and wage slavery; debasing of currency to capture assets

    8. Intimidation or coopting of opposition

    9. Suppression of underclass (prison industry)

    10. Corporate control of media; media centralization

    11. Economic neoliberalism, neoimperialism and neocolonialism.

    12. Ideology over reason and facts; suppression of scientific information

    Are we there yet?

  • So I guess the question is what will it take to restore the dependency of our rulers on the American citizen?

    Beyond the obvious levels of control such as surveillance and security forces, there is also the virtual absolute control that the economic system exerts over citizens in the developed world, most of whom live in cities, suburbs, and exurbs, and are totally dependent on supply lines outside their control for food, energy, and other vital products and services. Therefore, there won’t be any “peasant revolts” or the need to suppress them. With total surveillance and the Patriot Act, it will no longer be possible even to organize mass protests as in the Vietnam era.

    Until the supply chain itself breaks down, either by a destruction of the financial system so that the middle class cannot afford to live, or a breakdown in the supply chain itself, there will be no mass uprising.

    However, if conditions deteriorate sufficiently, there will be a political price to pay before the actual systemic breakdown, but how it is paid remains to be seen. It is interesting to watch how it is Ron Paul (a member of the ruling party) who is making populist waves rather than a progressive Democrat, while the front runner of the Democratic (opposition) party is a centrist.

  • Most people dislike what is happening in the United States. The general dissatisfaction can cause the system to fail – if enough of us either opt out, leave, or simply adopt the Australian strategy of “work to rule”.

    As money starts to flee the U.S., our economy collapses, and we can’t support our military endeavors, this system will fail. The only way out is to change our system in the ways the people of the United States want it to change. The question will still be what the people of the United States decide they want, and how hard they are willing to fight for it.

    And that may not mean what those in the government believe that it means. ;^)

    “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

    Charles Darwin

  • …our rulers feared a worker’s Jacquerie. The business owners could play off ethnicities against each other, but they couldn’t offshore their factories–they depended on the workers they had locally and the workers could exploit that. Not anymore. Now if our workers make any noise, businesses will only have a limited tolerance for it & move. Because globalization and technology have strengthened the corporation so much, my first inclination is to think that “populist” politicians are either insincere about their progressiveness (because they know how much we depend on corporations), or they are naive and will be ruthlessly marginalized.

    This is also why a revolt would accomplish nothing. Corporations hold all of the cards for our standard of living. If we drive the corporations out, then we’ll be looking at the same standard of living as in 1920 Petrograd or modern Mogadishu–and we’ll be tearing down our fences to keep warm in winter and hocking our door hinges for food. Or else the revolutionary leaders decide they are too dependent on the corporations, in which case we’re back where we started but with different faces in nominal control.

    Whether we like it or not, the current natural economic conditions mean that we’re dependent on corporations. They are our masters, and government will answer to them. Government doesn’t need us anymore.

  • In US politics, there are two parties, hence, two candidates for each office depending on who gets the party’s nomination. The nomination is itself dependent on who raises the most funds, which means that Big Money gets to anoint the candidates. There are essentially two factions within Big Money. Those on the right are willing to bet the farm for 100% of the action, no matter how high the risk, and those in the center are willing to settle for only 90% for a relatively sure thing with little risk. There is not meaningful left given a place in the political universe of discourse. For an idea of what a leftist position might look like, see The Green Party Platform. But such proposals get no media attention. Meanwhile, the GOP candidates are running rightward as fast as they can, seemingly in defiance of the wishes of the majority of voters, in the hope of becoming the one who gets the anointing of the Big Money on the right. Meanwhile, the centrist Big Money has already anointed a centrist Establishment Dem who would govern slightly to the left but still right of center on many issues. So in the end, the US will have a choice between two corporatist candidates.

  • …I was at a loss to figure out why Democrats seemed to care so little about the wishes of the voters. And why parties with platforms that were to the advantage of all Americans got treated with such contempt or ignored.

    And then I realized that most voters don’t matter. They’re trapped and will whine a bit but put up with whatever they get. But everyone needs Big Money. Which is why they matter. All that needs mobilizing are the corporations. Mass (public) mobilization went out with the stone axe and the leisure suit.

    Clarity at last. Sigh. (Thanks, Ian)

  • need people to buy their goods and they still need places to live. Living under constant seige, and being in danger of your walled compound being overrun can be rather unpleasant.

    However it’s true that they need us a lot less than they used to. the real problem, though, is this — do they want to live in China?

    If they don’t they’ve got problems, becuase Europe won’t let them pull nearly as much crap as the US does, and the other options are limiting.

    If there’s a worldwide depression, the rich will be forced to cooperate almost everywhere, there will be nowhere to flee.

    Or so one hopes.

  • 1. The High-Flyers. The High Flyers are willing to risk it all and they bet the farm. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo went for the world and almost got it. But in this high-stakes game a miss is as good as a mile and they paid with their lives. The world of, politics, high finance and big business is not much different, as some CEO’s recently found.

    2. The Play-It-Safers. These are folks with megabucks and can afford private helicopters and planes and bodyguards to whisk them away to one of the many “preserves” in the safety of the hinterlands, fortress-like isolation, and bought-off governmental officials. The plan is to survive through the worst and be alive to pick up the pieces when things settle down. Generally, they shun the limelight and aren’t generally well-known enough to stand out when the bill comes due.

    3. The Hangers-On. These folks attach themselves to the upper rung and hang on for dear life when things go bad.

    4. The Dead-Enders. These folks can’t get away so they have to fight to the death when the end comes.

    5. The Finger-Pointers. These folks blame everyone but themselves for their mistakes and transgressions, as Alan Greenspan is in the midst of doing as we speak.

    But in the end, some will probably get away (as if one can escape one’s karma), but some of these will inevitably run into angry peasants with pitchforks, and I would not be surprised to see some members of the current administration in a box in the Hague.

  • …while the regular force component of the Canadian Forces for many years was conceptualized as a cadre army, it has increasingly moved away from that root assumption. Indeed, the fit never was terribly good, at least during my lifetime. The biggest single contribution that Gen. Hillier has made, in my view, is the cogent transition to a force focussed on expeditionary warfare, with the reserve component viewed as an integrated resource for force augmentation, rather than as a potential large scale army in time of need.

    We now return you to less geeky programming…

    “A survey data set containing imputed values should not be analyzed uncritically as if all the data were real values.” ~ Graham Kalton

  • but is the situation that bad? Can the game be rigged? Or does the game have a song of its own we all have to dance to?

    It sounds like revolution, or possible economic collapse, is our only way out.

  • although I wonder if that’s a very smart plan. But then I’m not big on exeditionary warfare, perhaps because I come from a family that served in the British foreign service for generations.

    Still, if we accept our place as a NATO auxliary force that occasionally does peace-keeping and if we’ve decided that defending against invasion would be completely hopeless and pointless, then I suppose an expeditionary force so can be involved in various brushfire wars as a way of either “meeting our obligations” or “currying favor” (depending on your level of cynicism) makes sense.

  • be a point where political pressure for change is ovewhelming, as it was in 1932, and during the 30’s worldwide. The question then is where the change goes. The job of those who are concerned now is to do what they can so that the right choice is made when push comes to shove.

  • …but that comes very much from my bias as to the role of the Canadian Forces as an implement of Canadian foreign policy. If one is willing to use the CF in an expeditionary role, then Canada is able to have significantly more influence on international alliance structures than our weight in other areas would support.

    One thing that folks need understand about the modern asymmetric conflict environment is that our ideas of peacekeeping are pretty massively at odds with the likely future. I’m pretty dubious that peacekeeping as a term has much utility in most cases that we’re liable to encounter – what we’re likely to end up involved in in the future is not peacekeeping, but overwhelmingly counter-insurgency motivated by conscience.

    “A survey data set containing imputed values should not be analyzed uncritically as if all the data were real values.” ~ Graham Kalton

  • I am not sanguine about this for the simple reason that the developed world changed in the last couple of decades from one in which small business like mom and pop stores and family farms made up a significant part of the economy. Over the past several decades we have entered a period in which large corporations are increasingly dominant, and there does not seem great likelihood of returning to a more economically “primitive” state in that the present economy has not only vastly increased productivity but also made possible innovations that would not otherwise be possible owing to the expense of R&D, capital requirements, etc.

    This is providing comparative advantages that most people not only wouldn’t want to give up but also couldn’t since the economic environment has adapted itself to them so thoroughly. The unfortunate outcome is that we are now in a period resembling feudalism, where landed class owned the means of production and the majority of workers were serfs. Similarly, the means of production are now owned by the asset class and the majority of workers are wage-serfs. It is going to be very difficult to disentangle this mess.

    My view is that unless or until comprehensive reform of money in politics — campaign finance, lobbying and other forms of bribery and corruption — is achieved, the US is condemned to increasingly becoming a corporatist state, which is a plutocratic oligarchy masquerading as a liberal democracy. The fact is that now Big Money anoints the candidates in each party by funding their prohibitively expensive campaigns and underwrites the expenses of the winners. As long as this is allowed to persist under the guise of “freedom of speech,” reform is not possible.

    If or after money is banished from politics, then other reforms might be possible. But otherwise, forget it. Even if there were a revolution, it would not be possible to continue the present standard of living based on the corporate economy without resorting to some sort of command economy that would be highly inefficient and eventually break down.

  • were quite dominant in the non-agricultural economy (and in certain respects even there) in the 20’s. It was one of the greatest concerns of the New Deal crew in how to deal with them. The original theory was to work with them but their non-cooperation combined with some constitutional issues led to an adoption of the Brandeisian program of dividing and breaking them up as much as possible, taxing them and the rich heavily and in general making life difficult for them so they could not exert inordinate political power.

    I’m not actually sure that the concentration of power now is greater than then, though it may effectively be just because the number of people in small farms has plummeted to, effectively, zero.

  • American farms was socially engineered by Earl Butz.

    His mantra to farmers was “get big or get out,” and he urged farmers to plant commodity crops like corn “from fencerow to fencerow.” These policy shifts coincided with the rise of major agribusiness corporations, and the declining financial stability of the small family farm.

  • The problem is that now contemporary civilization is much more dependent on technology than it was in the period leading up to the Great Depression. Now virtually all of America’s vital needs and artificially created wants are dependent on a level of technology and an accelerating rate of innovation that require huge concentrations of capital. As a result an increasing proportion of workers are wage-serfs in this new system, comparable to the land serfs of the pre-industrial period. The difference is that so far the dominant middle class has not yet had to work for subsistence wages, but that is changing with the onset of real inflation in relation to vital needs, which is very different in the pocketbook from the officially reported core inflation rate. In short, discretionary spending is beginning to dry up unless one is willing to go increasingly into debt. And debt has its limits in terms of meeting the monthly.

    First, the knowledge and skill to produce enough to meet vital needs no longer exists, nor are the means in place any longer to permit an easy return to decentralization. Secondly, there is the problem of comparative advantage, standard of living and expectations. The opportunity cost of returning to a more decentralized economy is too great for most people to consider, given their expectations regarding the rising standard of living to which they have become accustomed though technological innovation. Moreover, the prospect of a declining standard is considered unacceptable. Returning to more decentralized model would involve cut backs in productivity reducing everyone’s comparative advantage in the marketplace, with a corresponding cut back in the living standard.

    Of course, this may be forced on the US anyway as the dollar declines in purchasing power, global warming further limits available resources and technological processes, and conflict increases. However, I doubt that may people will choose decentralization. Rather, they may be forced by circumstances to adopt it. And, of course, those with vested interests will resist it strongly. Any transition from the contemporary model will be painful and difficult.

    Seems that this is a discussion we should be having in a dedicated thread.

  • “Any transition from the contemporary model will be painful and difficult.”

    I’d like to think not. There are many positive aspects to a lowered standard of living: less obesity; less resource consumption and pollution generated by the production, distribution, use and disposal of worthless consumer goods; more interaction among community members after people are no longer able to spend their lives being entertained electronically; more interaction among community members when people walk, bike or take mass transit instead of being isolated in their cars; more interaction among community members when there aren’t jobs that require people to be absent from their homes for 14 hours/day.

    The transition certainly could be painful and difficult but, as Ian pointed out above, it’s up to us to make the choices that would make this not the case. Working for job sharing and reduced work hours would help, as would working for clean, efficient mass transit.

    “Seems that this is a discussion we should be having in a dedicated thread.”


  • …to experience a huge change in lifestyle. We can (right now) listen to music (loud, hi quality) using 5W of power, or watch TV and surf the internet using maybe 40W, or travel at 60mpg or more, or live in homes that cost close to nothing to heat and cool. No new technology involved.

    It’s the economy (and the big corps) that experience the jarring change. Our economy is huge because it’s wasteful, it’s an economy of churn. If bigness is your goal, efficiency is an enemy (and quality of life a fellow traveler).

  • Beto wrote: The transition certainly could be painful and difficult but, as Ian pointed out above, it’s up to us to make the choices that would make this not the case. Working for job sharing and reduced work hours would help, as would working for clean, efficient mass transit.

    GordonMcMillan wrote: Actually, we (as consumers) don’t need to experience a huge change in lifestyle. We can (right now) listen to music (loud, hi quality) using 5W of power, or watch TV and surf the internet using maybe 40W, or travel at 60mpg or more, or live in homes that cost close to nothing to heat and cool. No new technology involved.

    It MAY be the case that a transition could or even will not be painful and difficult; however, that hypothesis is not yet tested and the probability of its taking place seems low in comparison to the alternatives. The US socioeconomic system has a lot lot of momentum and the inertia will make it very difficult to shift course easily. It likely will not happen until the pain and suffering have already ratcheted up to the degree that it becomes a necessity. At that point, not only will the system be in economic meltdown but there won’t be time educate the populace regarding alternatives nor will there be the means available to make the shift without great difficulty, involving a lot of dislocations.

    The problem is that so far not only is the country in denial about what’s happening with accelerating rapidity but there are also powerful vested interests standing in the way of progressive reform that would limit their power to control the trajectory of change. Yes, some poeple on the margins will be able to make the shift, but the vast majority of the population will be caught between the rock of declining living standards and the hard place of being beholden to the large corporations for both funds and vital needs. This is a lock that is now not going to be simple to break. The temptation will be to accept increasing authoritarian solutions to maintain order and the promise of returning to former prosperity by accepting wage-serfdom as the best way to enjoy the fruits of the American Dream in the emerging era of the corporate state.

  • …we already have the technology to make a huge difference (which is exactly the thing the naysayers so loudly deny). Another (imaginary) obstacle is how we measure “living standards”.

    The US socioeconomic system has a lot lot of momentum and the inertia will make it very difficult to shift course easily.“. And how much momentum will be left after it hits the wall?

    A large number of Americans who feel completely reliant on large coporations had a grandmother who learned to drive rivets in a hurry, or a grandfather who could fix anything. Some of them will decide feeling helpless sucks and try something.

    Look in your local phonebook. How many solar power entries? Bet there’s at least one mechanic within 20 miles who can convert a diesel to run on used cooking oil. Lots of regular folk are way out ahead on this, and unlike the 70s, they’re not wearing tie-dyes.

  • I was living in Northern California for several years recently, only a couple of miles from the Solar Living Institute/Real Goods in Hopland, and was amazed at how few people are involved in alternatives in the region and how even fewer have any technological capability in dealing with it. The vast majority of Californians are dominated by the living the good life or else struggling to make ends meet in pretty ordinary jobs. Then I moved to Boston and was tangibly uncomfortable in the realization that if anything went wrong, the whole city would freak, since everyone was totally dependent on the system to provide food, energy, etc. I am now in rural Iowa and there is a lot of interest in some pockets in alternatives but mostly it’s agribusiness and huge hog lots here. Doesn’t make me think that the US is capable of turning around too quickly, but you may be right.

  • tjfxh,
    You may be right. I certainly can’t provide evidence to prove that you’re not.

    But if enough people make the right decisions now maybe the worst can be avoided. What is there to loose? We do what we can and hope for the best.

    I wish I could share Gordon’s techno-optimism. But it wouldn’t take a huge fraction of the people trying to live anything like today’s lifestyle with solar power to completely overwhelm existing semiconductor production capacity. And semiconductor manufacture is very resource intensive and generates very toxic waste.

    Even if we all started eating fries 3 times a day I don’t think we’d come close to generating enough used cooking oil to power 200 million cars. Of course we’d start dying earlier from clogged arteries which would ease things a bit.

    Using more efficient technologies has an important role to play in dealing with what’s coming. But I don’t like to emphasize it too much since it gives people the impression that the status quo is sustainable with a few technical fixes. That’s simply not the case. The real fix is behavioral.

  • A large number of Americans who feel completely reliant on large coporations had a grandmother who learned to drive rivets in a hurry, or a grandfather who could fix anything

    Grandmother was hired by a defense contractor desperate for workers, and grandfather was working on mechanical, not electronic, devices. Both ended up with high-level skills, but the capital equipment and ongoing licensing fees required to do something similar today are generally prohibitive. The “shade tree mechanic” has gone out of business.

    We have far more productive capacity than we need — the national security state began as a deliberate attempt to use government to keep demand high, by mopping up obscene amounts of money with weapons systems. What’s needed is not more Rosie the Riveteers but concerted political action to make people the beneficiaries rather than the slaves of the interdependence of a high-technology world.

  • The opportunity cost of returning to a more decentralized economy is too great for most people to consider, given their expectations regarding the rising standard of living to which they have become accustomed though technological innovation.

    People will do what they have to when the choice is to starve or not starve.

    I’m also not sure that decentralization in a spacial sense is the way to go. Orgnaizationally, yeah in many areas I would enforce very strong decentralization, but in spatial terms I’d want very high density. It’s far more efficient, it’s more productive for real growth in most post-modern industries and so on.

  • I’m also not sure that decentralization in a spacial sense is the way to go. Organizationally, yeah in many areas I would enforce very strong decentralization, but in spatial terms I’d want very high density. It’s far more efficient, it’s more productive for real growth in most post-modern industries and so on.

    I was speaking more in the organizational sense above, but I do think that we have to give more consideration to spatial decentralization. I’ve lived in cities, suburbs, exurbs and rurally, and there are advantages and disadvantage to all of them. Overall quality of life I found to be better semi-rurally, i.e., on dirt instead of pavement. Given that it is now possible to have a broadband connection almost anywhere via satellite and shop online, one doesn’t need to forego anything much other than the crowds, and one can travel to town or city on occasion if one has the hankering. But living a hour or two from San Francisco, I found myself going to the city for fun rather seldom, and I arranged things so I didn’t need to go very much on business either, even though it’s one of the great cities of the world. Been there, done that enough, I guess.

    Similarly, some years ago many people started to telecommute from rural places, e.g. the Rockies. As we get deeper into the digital age, there will be greater opportunity to choose where one is based. I have a friend who works for Bank of America as a project manager. None of his team is based in the same city, so eventually he decided to buy a place in the country and telecommute, with full support from the bank. And the bank probably gets even more work out of him, since he doesn’t have to waste a good deal of time commuting to work anymore.

    I would prefer to see models like this be put in place, where people could be relatively energy self-sufficient through alternative solutions and grow at least some of their own food themselves or locally in cooperation with others, as well as burn less gas and generally use less carbon. Nor would this necessarily involve living in isolation if one didn’t choose that lifestyle; the ecovillage concept is already up and running:

  • enough wilderness. Burbs are already pushing into places where occuption should never, ever have been allowed. That was a huge part of why New Orleans went under (the swamps that used to act as a sponge are mostly gone) and why the California wildfires are so bad. Meanwhile in the Southwest the water is going, going and will soon be gone – they’re completely destroying the aquifers, not just draining them but taking so much water they will literally never recover.

    Lots of places aren’t suited to having burbs in them, and the burbs themselves aren’t suited to $7/gallon gas. I fully expect to see most of them turn into hovels and many of them disappear during my lifetime. Some will make the jump to being actual productive cities.

    But density is just cheaper and more energy efficient, and that’s going to matter a lot.

    I don’t see that telecommuting is at the stage, or close to it, where it changes very much. The amount of that will increase, I agree, but we’re a ways out from anything like a majority being able to do it (note, in effect, I’m a telecommuter). There’s also pretty strong evidence that face-to-face is better for a lot of things (including fast production/research/creative teams).

    But bottom line, dispersed living won’t work for a population the size of the US’s and also be efficient and ecologically sound.

    Of course, I couild be wrong, and can even see some models where I would be wrong. But I think there just is too much population now and not enough lands where semi-rural makes sense.

    Personally, I prefer either to live far out (rural/semi-rural) or right downtown. Burbs/exurbs do nothing for me.

  • Grandma did wash, tended a garden or maybe waitressed or clerked. Suddenly she was welding. I don’t care who employed her. I care that in a very short period of time, she changed who she thought she was and what she thought she could do.

    The “shade tree mechanic” has been put out of business. That doesn’t mean he’s not still tinkering on weekends. And the hi-tech world has legions of “shade tree mechanics”. On the software side it’s called Open Source (there are plenty of hardware hackers, too).

    As has been pointed out, there are 2 economies. One of them is completely reliant on hi-tech. The other one (where most people live), not so much.

  • We currently overproduce semicondutors. Most of them end up sitting in closets, in landfill, or wasting energy by being on all the time.

    No, there’s not enough waste oil to power everyone. But there are dozens of ways of powering vehicles, and we use only 2 closely related ones. The Model T got 25 mpg, and that’s not because Henry Ford was a fuel efficiency expert. We get lousy mileage by design.

    A generation ago, the farsighted saw that the status quo was not sustainable. They were mocked for it. Glenn Beck, James Inhofe and Fox Noise are still mocking, but polls show most Americans know that Jimmy Carter was right. The Decade of Stupid is over. If Americans feel there is a job to do and a way out, the behavioral changes will come far more easily than if you tell them that they might as well party hard ’cause there ain’t nothing but shit from now on.

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