On the death of a thousand cuts

For if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.

Thomas de Quincy, “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827)

One of the (many) delusions under which we collectively labour is that there are two, and only two, possible outcomes of the present circumstances. There is the techno-cornucopian future, in which we are all somehow raptured up into the bliss of the Singularity on a fleet of flying (and presumably electric) cars; and then there is the anarcho-dystopian Mad Max future in which we are all plunged into the hell that we imagine the Dark Ages must have been. I don’t think either of these things is going to happen, or at least not all at once in some version of “The Event.

The techno-cornucopian fantasy pretty much rules itself out once you start factoring in the laws of physics. You’d think the people who tend to fixate on such a future would notice this, as they are generally fans of The Science™, but I suspect that many of them are more into the general vibe of The Science™ than such pesky details as the laws of thermodynamics. To put it shortly, we don’t have the energy, the raw materials or the technology to make it happen, and there’s no reason to believe that we ever will.

As for the Mad Max world, the reality seems to be that people pretty quickly adjust themselves into some arrangement of society that is at least tolerable for most of the population. After all, why wouldn’t they? Even the current shitshow is apparently tolerable for quite a lot of people, although maybe not if those people happen to be French. One of the things human beings are reliably good at is working around the official system du jour to get to a place they can inhabit in reasonable comfort. It’s impossible to prove definitively, but I suspect this was the case even for mediaeval serfs – and a lot of people in those days were not in fact serfs, believe it or not.

Even if you are an evil overlord, it is obviously to your advantage for most people to be reasonably contented. Who needs to be dealing with popular uprisings all the time? It’s true that China, for instance, has coped with an awful lot of them over its history, but I don’t think any emperor actively wanted to handle more than he needed to. Government ultimately depends on the consent of the governed. Let them have three acres and a cow, and otherwise generally get out of their face as far as you can. That way you will die in your bed.

The reality is that industrial civilisation is dying of a number of chronic and incurable diseases. I cannot give an exact prognosis, and I doubt whether anyone can at this point, but I can be quite sure that it is going away. Perhaps multiple organ failure will carry it off swiftly; perhaps it will linger for another century yet. But its vital processes are petering out: the cheap and abundant raw materials are no longer there, the cheap and abundant fossil-fuel energy is no longer there, the technological and cultural imagination is no longer there, and all in all it is no longer a going concern.

More and more people are recognising this. They may not have a fully articulated understanding of it, but you don’t need one in order to notice that your life is no longer working, if it ever did. We are raising a generation of people for whom the old calculus no longer works; education + hard work = success. These days you can have a university degree and be working three jobs and still not be able to pay the rent. Mediaeval serfdom starts to look like a pretty good deal by comparison.

Every day another promise is broken, another brick comes out of the wall, another component fails, another service is cut, another assumption is fatally undermined. This is lingchi, the death of a thousand cuts.

The process involved tying the condemned prisoner to a wooden frame, usually in a public place. The flesh was then cut from the body in multiple slices in a process that was not specified in detail in Chinese law, and therefore most likely varied. The punishment worked on three levels: as a form of public humiliation, as a slow and lingering death, and as a punishment after death.

Wikipedia, “Lingchi”

It won’t be pretty, you can be sure of that. But it probably won’t be quick either. If you’re lucky, maybe there will still be time for you to make a killing in fairy goldBitcoin. Personally I wouldn’t be betting the farm on that, but you do you.

This is the time to focus on what endures. Whatever else is going on, we all need to eat, we all need access to drinkable water, we all need some sort of protection from the weather, and we all need one another. That is true if you are Elon Musk, it is true if you are a mediaeval serf, it is true if you are gay or straight or bi or trans or black or white or purple with aquamarine stripes. It is true if your great-great-great-grandfather owned slaves. It is true if you manage a hedge-fund. It is true if you are adrift on an open boat somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Whatever else you do, focus on these essential truths, as they pertain to you and those you love. The actions you may need to take will vary according to your circumstances, where you are and what resources you have, and I don’t pretend to have a one-size-fits-all solution. All I can do is draw your attention to what is vital.

As the Irish say, I hope it keeps fine for you.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: