Seasonal photography, by Café Sentido editor J.E. Robertson, a visual essay about a season of historic, urgent & uneasy change
A “wave election”, with public sentiment clearly moving in a new direction, calling for principled governance, with a new focus on progressive aims… economic crisis, having built up over a decade, hidden in the esoteric workings of financial instruments reliant on advanced physics for mathematical proof of viability, worsened by unprincipled exaggerations and manipulations… the potential for a major swing in global opinions about the meaning of political systems… the climate is ripe for change, and we now face the problem of conceptualizing change, in order to see and understand its implementation.
We are emerging from a period of over-accustomed abundance, in which there was never supposed to be any doubt in the popular consciousness that generalized prosperity had reached a mythic level of sustainable undeniability; circumstance could not turn it back. That there was little real structural planning for sustainability was ignored. Economists, politicians, accounting firms, major banking institutions, and governments across the world, ignored the clear signs that flaws in the flow of matter and energy through an increasingly globalized economy were being obscured by convenient assumptions and poorly underpinned strategies.
Moments of exquisite beauty, of reverence for the mystery of the natural marketplace, became pervasive: the worship of plenty was so far-reaching, it seemed to be assumed that fashion icons could hold a philosophical stable center by waxing poetic about baroque ostentation. The bawdy glitz of Las Vegas, the all-at-once beaming-up of skyscrapers in Dubai, a quixotic-hubristic race to colonize the Moon, were hallmarks of the ’98-’08 balloon economy. Meanwhile, the land of abundance was yellowing at the edges, the rich foliage of its temperate heartland was fading: the state of Ohio reached beyond 25% of the entire population officially on food stamps.
Bankruptcies hit their highest level since laws were tightened in 2005. The fading of excess into a tired dream from an era of blind ambition meant we began to see that vast treasures could be diminished to a faint reserve of solace, scattered like guarded oases across the economic landscape. Property values dropped. Oil prices soared. Banks pushed to cover unsustainable debt by 1) adding more unsustainable debt to their portfolios, and 2) using Congress to legislate against individual consumer bankruptcies.
In August, home foreclosure filings again hit an all-time high —not the first record-setting month of 2008—, revealing a shocking level of underlying economic malaise. The dawn of an era of scaled-back expectations, of limited budgets, of belt-tightening and solemn fireside chats, had arrived.
As if every flaw and pitfall built into our way of functioning were invisible to even the most well-trained eyes, we basked in the golden distractions of a notion of manifest destiny, as if history were paying us its due for having imagined prosperity, suffered for it, and brought it into being. We thought nothing of the responsibility that comes with using with such endless hunger the resources available to us. But the signs of a new “gilded age” were visible and were seeping into the consciousness of concerned observers. The problem was, however, what to do to forestall the onset of institutional chaos, an economic quagmire, the emotional unraveling of markets which had become the backbone of our projected fortunes. The political climate was calling for good news, not for good ideas, and so we collaborated in putting off awareness of what was in store. Now, words like “depression” are on the winds of mass culture.
John Steinbeck’s dustbowl epic The Grapes of Wrath is again a popular seller, not just for high-school required-reading lists. As a nation, we now face the problem of wanting to find warmth and solace, economically and spiritually, in a time of silver-cold rushing waters and a gathering storm of painful, forced change. In times of unwanted struggle, at the root of our basic humanity, we ask how much light and warmth we can derive from a bankside campfire, around which we tell the hopeful stories of a better day to come.
A thread running through those stories was the epic struggle of the 2008 election season, which began in earnest in the fall of 2006, officially during the first months of 2007, and led to an entire year of neverending dialogue about all things political, legislative, presidential and economic. The election was like a campfire culture that sprung up in cities and towns across North America and the world, in which people at the individual level, disenchanted by years, or decades, of political disappointments, began to think something new might be in the offing… an example of community-based leadership.
Yet the singular truth of the moment, related to that adage that “all politics is local” —what we learned from the need of so many to interact on a high plane of social discourse, of civic involvement— was that the individual will, the nature of one’s ability to grasp and to face difficulty, would be the root of recovery. If left on the open sands of desolation, the individual will could be strong, could be noble and definite, and yet falter; but coming together, negotiating around a campfire mentality of solemn devotion to a shared vision of liberty and prosperity, that individual will could be something more, something both brilliant and effective, part of a vibrant declaration of intent.
Admittedly, we could ask ourselves: can we direct our best efforts by way of “tried and true” mechanisms for steering the ship of state? Are the old ideas now out of touch, out of date, aged, brittle, risky? The ancient dichotomy between central planning and laissez-faire had been rusted over and abandoned; the split between social conservatives and economic progressives had withered; the logic of political confrontation was wearing thin. Something new was bursting on the scene.
As if to illustrate that a free people freely reinvents itself, and charts a new course, at will, with special vigor in the hardest of times, political strategy became a liability and complex examination of the facts and the future course of a people at last became the fashion. Clarity of thought before prejudice; hope and determination before fear and division; a sea change coming over the political culture of a deeply divided nation, struggling to find its way.
With the logic of edges, of the far edge of aspirational capitalism, the far-edge of binary politics, the far-edge of belief in ideals, combining to threaten the capacity of individuals, communities and political entities to envision a future of possibility, a logic of horizons grew up in the midst of concern and even panic. We saw that there could be a root structure deep enough to keep us from falling over the edge, into the deep of unsettled failings. We could reach the horizon and beyond. The white of clear light, the blue of nourishing waters, the red of whole forest-scapes clamoring for a few last waves of warmth before winter: a dizzying but reassuring landscape of old growth entities, ideals and genuine concerns, informed our rudderless drift. Somehow, there might be another way, aside from sliding with the momentum of unstable ground, down into the waiting abyss; there might be the root-structure necessary for a fertile regrowth of economic and spiritual fortunes. What may come next, what policies are precisely appropriate, what the existential value of competing political philosophies might be, if inclusion or exclusion are wise or perilous, became topics for discussion. Political discourse became a kind of heating oil to warm the spaces between living, working and fretting about impending upheavals, despite the persistent injection of wisps of hysterical fear-mongering. The space of political debate expanded into vastly divergent realms of life and culture, became a warmer, more habitable space.
As a nation, the United States of America has swelled from a band of small colonial villages to a continent-wide solid-state political union. Its history of democracy and humanist values has been fraught with dangerous threads of injustice, bias, hardship, combat and hypocrisy, yet its cultural thrust has been continually to move toward more openness, more inclusiveness, more equality and shared opportunity. The fall of 2008 was a season in which it became reasonable to most people to express concern that in fundamental ways, the nation had veered from that steady course, and needed new direction.
Like a pointilist composite of brushstrokes, the concept of new direction, together with the heat and light of economic distress, the urgency of concern about the security of one’s family’s wellbeing, the genuine worry that communities could spin apart or basic economic structures be allowed to decay, we found humanity seeking stalwart examples, straight arrows, a view of the land beyond the woody time of doubting. Letting the old assumptions fall to earth, we seek a path to the other side. It could fairly be said there is a new atomization of the structure of society, a new decentralization of the tools of governance, in that politically, the vast center of American politics has summoned forth a style of campaign and a style of leadership that speaks to small entities across a vast narrative of history. Local organizers moved thousands to volunteer, and the process of a general awakening about the difference between media-fomented cognitive dissonance and fact-based examination of safe passage to the spot beyond the horizon, refit the mechanisms of political discourse, and put control together with principle, in the hearts and minds of voters, citizens, actual people out across the landscape. The “conditions on the ground” became apparent, because a composite sketch of the emotional landscape, the moral and political priorities of a people, was better able to be drawn, from a debate about quality of ideas, as ideas and as practiced.
The old-model social-spending paradigm, as a way of competing with the “supply-side” fund-the-investors paradigm, shifted, and has been replaced by a complex ecosystemic mindset, which conceives of economic processes not as simple ‘expansion’, but part of a fabric of growth processes, a cultivation of longer-term potential for sustained abundance. A generative economics coalesced out of a host of strategies competing for absolute dominance of the political center. If we could make something real and fecund out of the bewildering tangle of disappointments and excesses, if we could apply that reality like a ritual medicine to the workings of the collective mind, we could perhaps discover that amid the fallen visions and the dying embers of collapse, there is an already-existing road out of the wilderness, back to the heart of what we are as human beings. Generative economics is part of that renewed aspirational style, that desire to defy difficulty and the encroaching gloom, and seed the sustainable future, with what we have at our disposal now, in the present.
The startling array of concerns, perils, styles, ideas, crises, and best efforts, flowing together, could seem at times an unwieldy array of competing claims on our attention or our faith. But somehow, maybe because there is no other way, the future as seen from the real danger of extreme crisis comes to include illuminated approaches, that bridge gaps, heal fractures, draw from pools of shared awareness and reorient the mind to craft a more intelligent way forward.
There is a basic parallel between the growth of the individual mind, the salvage of a desolate spirit, and the process to which democracy, as a way of life and on the plane of ideals, of necessity, tends. The ability to reinvent a problem, so it can be better dealt with, to reinvent a social environment, so it can better adapt, to reinvent the meaning of government or principle or hope or failure, the ability to redefine crisis, is stitched into the process of changing a government, casting a vote for a philosophy about the future. So, asking your forgiveness for the indulgent streak running through this essay, I return to the original question: what will this turning bring? We can see a new boldness, a feeling that somehow, it is necessary to filter the foreground from the background noise, to make a sincere effort at renewal, to put faith in actual human beings to do right by their fellow citizens.
We should see, coming into being, in coming months and years, new political coalitions, new social organizations, visions that seed the cultural landscape for improvement, working to ensure that the lessons for democracy that we now have at hand can actually be remembered, examined, and practiced. This is a time in which the aspirational and the factual can actually be seen coming together, in which we have given ourselves room to breathe, because we have trusted in the possibility of working to bring the real substance of a better day into being.