When Plato wrote “The Republic,” his lament for a lost Athenian democracy, he did not believe democracy could be recovered. The classical world, unlike our own, did not see time as linear. Time was cyclical. It inevitably brought decay and eventually death, true for both individuals and societies. And in his “Republic,” Plato proposed that those who attempted in the future to create the ideal state carry out a series of draconian measures, including banning drama and music, which diverted the citizen from performing civic duties and instilled corruption, and removing children from their parents to provide a proper indoctrination. Plato wanted to slow the process of dissolution. He wanted to stymie change. But that decay and death would come was certain, even in Plato’s ideal state.
History has proved the ancient Greeks correct: All cultures decay and die. Dying cultures, even when they cannot fully articulate their reality, begin to deeply fear change. Change, they find, brings with it increasing dysfunction, misery and suffering. This fear of change soon becomes irrational. It compounds decay and accelerates morbidity. To see modern-day victims of this process, we need only look to white American workers who once had good manufacturing jobs and benefited from the structures of white supremacy.
Those who promise to miraculously roll back time rise up in decaying cultures to hypnotize a bewildered and confused population. Plastic surgeons who provide the illusion of eternal youth, religious leaders who promise a return to a simplified biblical morality, political demagogues who hold out the promise of a renewed greatness, and charlatans offering techniques for self-advancement and success all peddle magical thinking. A desperate population, fearing change, clamors for greater and greater illusion. The forces that ensure collective death—including corporate capitalism, the fossil fuel industry and the animal agriculture industry—are blotted out of consciousness.
When a society laments the past and dreads the future, when it senses the looming presence of death, it falls down a rabbit hole. And as in the case of Alice—who “went on saying to herself, in a dreamy sort of way, ‘Do cats eat bats? Do cats eat bats?’ and sometimes, ‘Do bats eat cats?’ for, you see, as she couldn’t answer either question, it didn’t much matter which way she put it”—language becomes unmoored from experience. Daily discourse, especially public discourse, is, as our presidential campaign illustrates, reduced to childish gibberish.
Jobs are gone. Schools are closed. Neighborhoods and cities are in ruin. Despair and poverty dominate lives. Civil liberties are abolished. War is endless. The society self-medicates. Democracy is a fiction. “Austerity” decisions by government such as the latest slashing of the federal food stamp program, a move that could remove a million people from the rolls, bring more jolts. Shocks like these, as Alvin Toffler wrote, eventually trigger emotional overload; they are “the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” And, finally, reality is too much to bear and is banished.
Climate change and the looming financial crisis will transform these emotional short-circuits into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” Crisis cults serve up illusions of recovered grandeur and empowerment during times of collapse, anxiety and disempowerment. A mythologized past will magically return. The old social hierarchies and rules will again apply. Prescribed rituals and behaviors, including acts of violence to cleanse the society of evil, will vanquish malevolent forces. These crisis cults—they have arisen in most societies that faced destruction, from Easter Island to Native Americans at the time of the 1890 Ghost Dance—create hermetically sealed tribes. We are already far down this road.
I spent a recent weekend in the Second Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, N.J., helping to clear out piles of old books, church records, plastic flowers, worn choir robes and other detritus that were dusty remnants of the white working-class congregation that filled these pews a few decades ago.
Elizabeth was devastated by the 1982 closure of its Singer plant, which had been built in 1873 and at one time had 10,000 workers. The 1,000 or so African-Americans at the plant worked mostly in a foundry that made cast-iron parts for the sewing machines. The work was poorly paid and dangerous. White workers, many of them German, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish or Lithuanian immigrants, dominated the safer and better-paid factory floor. The city was built around the sprawling plant. Generations of residents organized their lives and their families on the basis of Singer jobs or income that the facility indirectly produced. And then, after a long decline, the factory was gone.
The year Singer closed its flagship factory in Elizabeth there were 2,696 plant shutdowns across the United States, resulting in 1,287,000 job losses. Singer workers in Elizabeth under the age of 55 lost all retirement benefits, even if they had worked for the company for decades. Small businesses in the city that depended on the plant went bankrupt.
In postindustrial cities across America it is now clear, after the passage of years, that the good jobs and stability once provided by factories such as the Singer plant have been lost forever. The pent-up anger and frustration among the white working class have given birth to dark pathologies of hate. The hate is directed against those of different skin color or ethnicity who somehow seem to have heralded the changes that destroyed families and communities.
This sentiment, on display at Donald Trump rallies, will outlive the Trump campaign even should the candidate be, as I expect, deposed by the party elites. It is a very dangerous force. It presages violence against all who appear to have been empowered at the expense of the white working class—African-Americans, Muslims, undocumented workers, homosexuals, feminists, artists and intellectuals—and will feed the rise of a Christianized fascism.
“Generations from the same family worked for Singer,” the Rev. Michael Granzen, the senior minister at the Elizabeth church, said of the white workers who lost their jobs. “They suffered, when the plant was closed, not only economic loss but a loss of identity. They were stripped of their daily work routines. They lost social bonds. They no longer had generational goals. They lost hope in the future. They could no longer count on a steady income, health coverage and a secure retirement. Marriages and neighborhoods were torn apart. There was an increase in domestic violence, drug use, alcoholism and crime.
“Many white blue-collar workers blamed and scapegoated the newer black and Latino workers for the plant closure,” he said. “White racism is largely about this loss of self-worth. It is about the fear of nihilism. It creates a false grandiosity to compensate for a deep insecurity. We see this dynamic being played out in postindustrial cities across the country.”
Most of these former manufacturing hubs have seen whites flee. Hispanics and blacks, living in terrible poverty, now populate decaying neighborhoods there. Sixty percent of Elizabeth’s population today is made up of Latinos, many from Central America.
Elizabeth, like many other cities, has become an internal colony of the poor. It helps provide the bodies that feed the system of mass incarceration. And it, along with other suffering urban centers, has been turned into a toxic dumping ground.
“The environmental hazards multiplied in the years after Singer closed,” Granzen said. “As with other cities experiencing industrial decline in New Jersey—such as Camden, Newark, Trenton and Patterson—white-controlled political structures in the state turned to dumping hazardous and toxic wastes in cities like Elizabeth, which already had their own toxic legacies. The ethos of racial profiling that undermined the worth of nonwhite bodies was reflected in this environmental racism. The lives of nonwhites were seen as of lesser value.”
The insidious forms of institutional racism that define America explode as societal death approaches. They express themselves in displays of racial violence. White vigilante groups, desperate to prevent further change, engage in the same use of indiscriminate lethal force practiced by police against unarmed people of color. The continued failure by government to reintegrate the working class into the economy, to give people hope, dooms us all.
Plato begins “The Republic” by having Socrates go to the port at Piraeus, the most decadent spot in ancient Athens. It was filled with taverns and brothels. It was home to thieves, prostitutes, soldiers and armed gangs. Egyptian, Median, Germanic, Phoenician and Carthaginian sailors and other foreigners—Athenians lumped them together as barbarians—congregated along the seafront.
The port was also where the Athenian war fleet, made up of black trireme ships with bronze-sheathed rams on the prow, was stationed in rows of military boathouses. These warships helped turn Athens from a democratic city-state into an empire in the fifth century BC. And, as Plato and his pupil Aristotle understood, the building of empire, any empire, extinguishes democracy.
The Greek polis, or city-state, soon to be swallowed up by the Macedonian empire, was the nucleus that—like early New England town halls in the United States—made it possible for an individual to be a political being, to have agency and a voice. Empire requires a centralized, authoritarian government that has no use for the demos. Greek democracy, always a patriarchy, was with the rise of empire extinguished. Corruption and a lust for power defined the new ruling elites. The citizen, as in our system of “inverted totalitarianism,” became irrelevant. As the Athenian general Thucydides noted, the tyranny that Athens imposed on the outer reaches of empire, it eventually imposed on itself. Athens, like the United States centuries later, was hollowed out from the inside by the corrosive force of empire. The brutal tools of control used initially in distant parts of the empire—in our case militarized police, drones, suspension of civil liberties, wholesale surveillance and mass incarceration—migrated back to the homeland. This is how most empires die. They commit suicide.
The loss of civic virtue, Plato wrote, left a population hypnotized by the illusions flickering on the wall of a cave. Such distorted images of reality—our electronic hallucinations are beyond Plato’s imagination—fuel irrational beliefs and desires. They foster a visionless existence. Our images are skillfully manipulated by the elites to keep the population entertained and passive. Those who seek to question the illusions are, Socrates warned, usually attacked and killed by the mob, which does not want its comforting myths punctured. When reality is too painful to bear, a population does not seek freedom or truth; it becomes an accomplice to its own enslavement. Epicureanism, the reduction of life to the pursuit of fleeting individual pleasure, seduces the public. Cynicism rules. Distrust is everywhere. The community breaks down, and, as Plato writes, “all goes wrong when, starved for lack of anything good in their own lives, men turn to public affairs hoping to snatch from thence the happiness they hunger for. They set about fighting for power, and their internecine conflict ruins them and their country.” This collapse creates a dream world “where men live fighting one another about elaborate shadows and quarreling for power, is if that were a great prize. …”
At the end, death arrives as a relief.
We are no more immune to the forces of decay and death than were ancient Athens, ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, the Mayans, the Aztecs, Easter Island, Europe’s feudal society of lords and serfs, and the monarchal empires in early 20th-century Europe. Human nature has not changed. We will react as those before us reacted when they faced collapse. We will be increasingly consumed by illusion. We will seek to stop time, to prevent change, to embrace magical thinking in a desperate effort to return to an idealized past. Many will suffer.
This time, collapse will be planetwide. There will be no new lands to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate, no new natural resources to plunder and exploit. Climate change will teach us a brutal lesson about hubris.
The wages of sin, as Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, is death—first moral and intellectual death and then physical death. The first, we already are experiencing. It would be reassuring to believe we could as a species avoid the second. But if human history is any guide, we are in for it. And the worse it gets, the more we seek to thwart change through magical thinking, the more our eventual extinction as a species is assured.