Post Carbon Politics Part I: Sue Lowden’s Chickens
Choose any political and social issue. Without much thought you can probably determine what the contrasting liberal and conservative stance on it is likely to be. The entire world can, in a sense, be divided into liberal/conservative, whether the issue is economic, moral, religious, environmental, even scientific. This has been the case, certainly and dishearteningly, with climate change. So woefully under publicized is Peak Oil that we have too small a sample to know much at this point: whether one has even heard of it is a far more significant factor than how one has weighed the evidence or implications. But it too—or at least a Transition-type response--appears to have found greater acceptance in liberal circles.
Setting Peak Oil aside, for now, this apparent binary divisibility may lead us to assume that there is a fundamental liberal and conservative soul or spirit, a set of basic principles from which the specific liberal and conservative stances flow, a philosophical foundation which provides uniformity and coherence. One might, for instance, look to the valuation of a collective good vs. individual prosperity, or tolerance vs. adherence to a rigid set of laws or established social norms as a sort of governing meta-principle.
These principles, or ones like them, can provide fairly broad explanatory power. The liberal acceptance of larger government and more regulation would seem to have a direct link with the liberal value of public good, social justice, and the privileging of equality over freedom; in contrast, the conservative small government and lower taxes mantra is undergirded by the unswerving conservative commitment to individual rights and responsibilities. Cut a cross section through the landscape of either liberal or conservative political policies down through the underground levels of principles, values, and underlying philosophical beliefs and a fairly coherent picture emerges.
But the moment we view this sort of political archaeology along a historical axis, things take on a far more contingent aspect. The foundations and structures will appear to have been cobbled together, sometimes with the most readily available rubble or wreckage of t he previous decade’s political alignments. What, for instance, connects the 21st century Republican Party’s worship of free markets and laisse-faire economic policy to British critics of the French Revolution such as Edmund Burke, or, for that matter to employment of Jesus as inspiration and guide?
The historical, genealogical view reveals that our cross-sectional snapshot of a given political view-point or ideology is, in fact, a coalition of ideas, mainly compatible and complimentary, though with some in tension or even in contradiction, those being kept mainly from view or held a tolerably low level. The liberal commitment to freedom of speech, for instance, if not sometimes at odds, is at least a reluctant bedfellow, with the equally important commitment to the sort of government regulation that serves a broader public good. Until events pit such values against each other in a higher stakes or unavoidable contest, the coalition can hold together.
The coalitions that have defined the liberal and conservative world-views, are in a constant state of shifting, self-adjustment; but they will, on the back-side of Hubbert’s curve, be jolted apart and realigned in a sudden and disjointed manner—in a way that will be unsettling, unpredictable, and thus disorienting. We need to start our new political cartography now, for a lost people are a menace. The slow continental drift, the immeasurable lifting of mountains and erosion of valleys will be devastated by a violent quake. Structures will crumble, connecting streets will buckle. We need to begin planning how we will navigate this political rubble.
We can do some background work, some initial reconnoitering, by replacing the liberal/conservative distinction with one that will prove more useful: progressive/conservative. Though progressive is often used to designate a more intense, less moderate, liberalism, this also may be the case in our archaeological picture, frozen in time. Reality is far more dynamic and the value of these two terms is especially apparent in times of rapid change, for in these names, themselves, we can identify a sensitivity to the very fact of historical change; their inherently relational quality recognizes that the coalitions that they may unite are caused as much by events and historical conditions as by underlying values or policies, and are thus temporary and in continuous flux. Each bespeaks of an attitude or a way of responding to change: progressives thus accept change with either optimistic openness or pragmatic acceptance, believing that social norms and moral positions need to adapt to historical events. Conservatives, in contrast, are wary of this change, often seeing it in terms of narratives of decline or corruption, against which they propose a return to the traditional values in which they perceive an allegedly timeless wisdom or righteousness.
It is possible, in today’s politics to recognize some of the early rumblings of the shifts that will split the progressive mind-set from the liberal coalition as we have come to understand it. Consider, in this light the reception of Republican Senatorial candidate, Sue Lowden, and her suggestion that chickens be bartered for healthcare. Rachel Maddow, an unflinching champion of liberal causes, excoriated her for not being sufficiently up to date with this sort of crazy suggestion. Here liberalism and progressiveness are still holding together. A good progressive, at least by yesterday’s standards —and thus concerned with avoiding archaic solutions to modern problems--Maddow derided her by suggesting that this sort of bartering would only have been sensible in a 19th century context.
True enough, Lowden is probably more concerned with a sort of privatization that will maintain current gross inequalities in the distribution of health care. The part of myself that is still invested in today’s political distinctions and conflicts cannot help but agree with Maddow’s unabashed liberal view that our health care system needs to follow basic principles of equality that can be supported only by state intervention and bureaucratic control. It is hard to imagine a greater political disjunction than the one between bureaucracy and fowl. But an undivided commitment to this sort of liberal, big-government protection of equality sort of view would be possible for me only if I believed that something like our current industrial and commercial health care system