How do you feel about being Canadian, British, Australian, Spanish, or American? Are you proud of your country? Do you like how the politics work, the decisions are made, the economy’s run, the problems and crises are handled?
These days, it’s wise to do a gut-check on all that. Including the way you were raised to think about what a working democracy looks like. You may be looking at the light of a dead star.
The notion that We the People are somehow in control just because we go to the polls every few years, or that the political parties we vote for represent us and turn our wishes into action, or that government bureaucracies are tuned in to our needs:
If only these things were true.
What we call democracy is really just kabuki theatre: politicians, lobbyists, corporations, think tanks and intellectual pundits thrashing around, jostling each other, triggering social-media storms, running op-eds in the New York Times and Washington Post and pontificating on CNN, MSNBC and Fox. The sad truth is, none of these so-called political, cultural or intellectual leaders have a clue about how to handle the big stuff — how to fix the climate crisis, avert the next financial meltdown, stop the next steal.
You have to wonder how this current time we’re bumbling through will be remembered. Typically, we slap a label on every era of human history, and usually it’s about a monumental tool we invented or a cultural transformation that fundamentally altered our lives. The Bronze Age. The Renaissance. The Modern Age. The Space Age. The Digital Age. But now it looks like our era will be known not for a leap forward but a slide back. Future generations will remember us for the damage we did: the carbon we spewed, the plastic we dumped, the forests we clearcut, the species we exterminated. And also for the financial meltdowns we unleashed, the inequality we tolerated, the surveillance we endured, and the epidemic of mood disorders, anxiety attacks and depression we inflicted upon ourselves.
Instead of the Anthropocene, why don’t we call it what it really is: the dawn of a Dark Age, a time when we turned away from nature and each other and ran our planet into the ground.
We still have a chance to turn this story around. But it’s going to take a monumental shift in the way we think about ourselves and the way we operate on our planet.
Instead of another techno fix, a fuel conversion, a carbon tax or an alternate metaverse reality, what we need is an attitude conversion — a new way to behave as a species.
The first seed of this new perspective was actually planted half a century ago.
On Christmas Eve, 1968, the first startling images of the blue Earth rising above the moon’s horizon, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, were beamed back from space. There it was, sparkling against the void: home field, the source of all known life. The deep and sudden urgency those pictures aroused dimmed a little as the information age sent us back into our collective neocortex. But you can’t unfeel what you’ve felt. We’d glimpsed our place in the order of things. Our planet as a biological organism in the cosmos and we humans scrabbling around on its skin with many other living things. It was a mindblowing insight, and it’s still there, buried under our fears and furies.
The task now is to rekindle that original insight, and level it up.
Every one of the 200 countries on earth is itself a living organism — an autonomous component within the larger biological unit. Every citizen is a cell within the body politic. Very likely Gaia herself is one of many living planets peppered throughout the universe.
If that sounds overly touchy-feely, it’s only because our horizons have been squeezed so radically by hyperrationalism that we can no longer feel the deeper dimensions of being human. But now that we’re entering the planetary endgame, we’d damn well better find a way to feel it again.
If you understand your country as a fragile, hypersensitive, living organism, the questions become very basic:
How do you keep her fed and safe and self-sustaining? How do you keep the people happy? How do you encourage them to play fairly with each other? How do you empower them to make wise decisions?
Suddenly “politics” is no longer just a bloodless exercise that we can choose to dabble in or not. It isn’t just about reading indicators (housing starts, polling integrity, polity scores) or tweaking the mixing board (electoral boundaries, reserve requirements, cabinet size). It isn’t about crowding under the umbrella of your nation’s military might or rallying around its sloganeering. It isn’t even about being on the Left or the Right.
Instead, it’s something else entirely, something personal and universal at once, an overarching concept that captures every aspect of being, staying alive and thriving on our fragile planet.
Call it biopolitics.
Successful societies of the future will gravitate towards the Asian model: communal rituals will pull the people tight.
When emergencies arise people will come to each others’ aid almost as a reflex. Life will be less about individual rights and more about shared values, traditions and destinies. As your circle of concern widens and rigid ego structures crumble, something becomes crystal clear and you might even say it out loud: My purpose here is to stay connected. Disengaging isn’t even an option. I’m part of this thing. I need it and it needs me.
And that is quite beautiful but also very troubling. Because now pretty much all you can see is the assault on nature that’s happening all around. The wounds we’re inflicting. The poisoning and dumping and clearcutting and trawling and lopping off of mountain tops. The plastic microbeads choking vast tracts of the oceans.
It’s all feeling very personal now. You’re wondering about the role that you and your family and community and country are playing here.
And the corporations. Especially the corporations. These legal entities that we ourselves created have grown into monoliths that grind the bounty of the natural world into income for shareholders. Suddenly you see corporations for what they are: tumors in the flesh of the Earth. Pathogens that attack her immune system and will surely kill her unless We the People stop them.
And then you start thinking about the blood that flows through her circulatory system: the money.
Money plaques up dangerously all over as moneylenders accrue interest and money handlers charge fees. Convoluted
financial instruments slow the blood further. Blood pressure goes through the roof. That is the menace of runaway financialization: it clogs up the arteries. We have to get rid of the middlemen and let the blood flow freely again.
The pumping heart of the system is the Federal Reserve, which was started a century ago to stabilize the banking system after a series of panics caused wild market spikes and runs on banks. But after the financial meltdown of 2008 the Fed went into serious tachycardiac overdrive, pumping trillions of dollars of “quantitative easing” into the system. This was like junk food to a sick patient. It gummed up the works even as it fed Big Finance, allowing it to grow ever bigger and more predatory. Now, as autonomous armies of bots make flash trades and markets pitch and swoon, a massive heart-attack could happen anytime.
And now that we’re knee-deep in the metaphoric gore, you’re thinking a little differently about your role in all this. You’re positioning yourself within systems within systems. From now on, you decide, I will live my life differently. I will support local business not just because it gives me personal satisfaction, but because everyone needs secure access to the stuff of life. We need thousands upon thousands of local farmers spread across the land if we’re going to survive the financial turbulence ahead. Sure, supermarket veggies are cheaper and processed food even cheaper, but that kind of shopping is no longer part of my life philosophy.
If you tack the prefix “bio” in front of every facet of life, policy decisions and new ways of living snap into clarity.
When we draw up a “true cost” pricing scheme to restructure markets so they align with ecological sustainability, that’s bio-economics.
When we talk about replacing mass, for-profit incarceration with a restorative-justice model — a systemic solution that invests the whole community in the problem of crime — that’s bio-justice.
When we organize en masse through the flocking signal of social media, that’s bio-communication.
When we grow our own food, that’s bio-consciousness.
So it goes. Your economy is a bio-economy, in the sense that every human action pushes on something that pushes on something that puts a small dent in the natural world. Every market transaction is a bio-transaction that impacts the earth one way or another.
At root, all politics is bio-politics. Maybe this is what Aristotle was talking about when he said “man is by nature a political animal.” At some level we ache to be in the churn of the collective struggle, performing some useful function within our own niche.
The endgame is survival. Economists think “short run” and “long run,” but there is no long run if you get these decisions wrong. The fundamental questions all of us should be asking become front-and-center:
Who owns the water?
Should nature have rights?
What voice should local communities have over resource extraction?
Should future generations have a say?
Job One, then, is to start re-writing our constitutions with such questions in mind. These documents are the embodiment of our ideals and aspirations, our beliefs and values. The constitution thus becomes a living thing, flexible and nimble — not something written in stone long ago and worshipped like holy writ. It becomes a map of a future that’s constantly moving, being recalibrated, reinvented, fought over and born anew with every generation.
Something like this is happening in Chile right now.
A supercharged people’s movement is spearheading a Constitutional do-over, in light of the “climate and ecological emergency.” A democratically elected panel aims to scrap the old document and replace it with one that prioritizes the environment, sustainability and the citizens’ ongoing right to own their life-giving resources and frame their own destiny. It is a grassroots re-invention of a whole country driven by the people themselves. It’s a total re-think of the way political power works — not top down, with corporate, financial interests and lobbying shaping policy — but inside-out, with the core values of the citizens radiating out into the commons.
This is how the human-centered 20th century model of biopolitics eases into the biocentric mode.
This is how a new vision, a new playbook, comes to be.
The impact of this mindshift is felt inside the chest of every taxpayer. You wake up in the morning and think, Hallelujah! my country is alive, and I am part of it. I’m going to nourish this organism: feed it, prune it, protect it. My involvement in politics is as natural as fish schooling up. I shed a portion of my self, my rights, my me-first instincts, to serve the larger whole.
The personal payoff is that, as your politics expands and matures in this biocentric way, you feel less lonely, more involved. And a new personal mantra bubbles up.
I connect, therefore I am.
A new political mythology takes hold, shaping how successful societies will govern themselves and tackle the most vexing existential issues humans have ever faced.
Call it Democracy 2.0.
- from The Third Force: Field Guide to a New World Order adbusters.org
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