Lost America

paradigm coming

Frank Bruni wrote a disturbing column about a week ago, titled “Lost in America.” After reading it I think it would be better titled, “Lost America.” It was based on a survey by the WSJ that found a surprisingly (both to me and Bruni) large number of dissatisfied people.

It included the jolting finding that 76 percent of Americans ages 18 and older weren’t confident that their children’s generation would fare better than their own. That’s a blunt repudiation of the very idea of America, of what the “land of opportunity” is supposed to be about. For most voters, the national narrative is no longer plausible.

His response to these data might turn an ordinary pessimist into a paranoid. I am going to quote more of his words than usual because I want you to get the full extent of the language he uses: surrender, helplessness, useless, pessimistic, apprehensive, sour, without hope. All of these in just a few sentences.

More and more I’m convinced that America right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint and the frontier anything but endless.

There’s a feeling of helplessness that makes the political horizon, including the coming midterm elections, especially unpredictable. Conventional wisdom has seldom been so useless, because pessimism in this country isn’t usually this durable or profound.

Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.

At the end, he added these words, again full of negativity: mad, unhappy, fear, can’t, sad. The last sentence to which I has added emphasis triggered this blog post.

“People are mad at Democrats,” John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told me. “But they’re certainly not happy with Republicans. They’re mad at everything.” That’s coming from the leader of a state whose unemployment rate is down to 5.3 percent.

And it suggests that this isn’t just about the economy. It’s about fear. It’s about impotence. We can’t calm the world in the way we’d like to, can’t find common ground and peace at home, can’t pass needed laws, can’t build necessary infrastructure, can’t, can’t, can’t.

In the Journal/NBC poll, 60 percent of Americans said that we were a nation in decline. How sad. Sadder still was this: Nowhere in the survey was there any indication that they saw a method or a messenger poised to arrest it.

That so many people are aware of the problems ahead is telling. The expression that your children are going to have less possibility than you had is one of the most comprehensive negative views of the future and of the current conditions possible. No one is trusted to solve the problems that are much clearer to the general public than the thought leaders of the country. The outlook is becoming dominated by big issues like climate change and inequality. But not just the name of these issues; what makes them newsworthy is the current impact on life. Its not inequality that is the problem for those at the bottom; it’s simply the lack of capabilities to flourish. It’s not the idea of climate change (although it should be), but the severity of the weather and its effects on daily life. Global drought is raising the cost and availability of essential foodstuff for perhaps a billion people.

Others and I have lumped all of this into a single word, unsustainability. For some to roll everything into a word is merely descriptive, a shorthand way of discussing the sweep of the problems. For me, that is so, but there is also another more compelling reason to have a single concept. That is my belief that all of this comes from a single cause that must be addressed as a whole. Attempting to unpack the word and deal with each item separately is doomed to failure. Perhaps that is what the public is sensing and is creating the overall atmosphere of negativity. I believe that we are witnessing the failure of our current, modern paradigm: the constellation of basic, foundational beliefs and institutions built upon them. We are at a point where only a new paradigm will permit us living in this modern world to get back to work, that is, to pursue routine activities that are effective in satisfying our existential human needs. Even the vision of eternal progress needs to be replaced with one as powerful and compelling. Not only is the dream, itself, outmoded, so is the societal machine that is supposed to turn the dream into reality.

Thomas Kuhn studied the progress of science, moving from one great discovery to another, but in a non-linear pattern. Progress in uncovering the secrets of the physical world stopped from time to time because the current set of theories (beliefs) and associated tools would not allow scientists entry into the next big secret. New theories and tools, that is, new paradigms, came forth as some scientist broke loose of the old ideas and found new ones that permitted progress to continue. Serious scientists might have felt much like the current masses polled in the WSJ survey: frustrated, helpless, angry, and so on. All of these are moods and emotions everyone feels when routine life gets detoured or stopped. I find the parallel remarkable and highly meaningful.

I have been writing for close to ten years that our paradigm is either badly wounded or completely broken. Bruni’s column suggests that most Americans feel what amounts to the same thing, although they do not have Kuhn’s work available as a mode of expression. Scientific paradigms are neat and clean. The theories can be expressed by simple rules. The most basic formula used to explain motion, Newtons First law, is, simply, force equals mass times acceleration. Technologies for exploration may be complicated and massive, but they are basically simple, designed for a single purpose.

Not so with social paradigms. They spring from the accretion of many ideas (theories) over time. So have the institutions which operate on top of these ideas evolved over time. Our modern structures date back four to five centuries. Technologies are ubiquitous, but have all come from one idea, applying scientific knowledge to forge progress. No one person was responsible as is the case in science where forward movement began again when some individual broke through with a new idea. Karl Marx might well be the last one to have offered a new socially paradigmatic idea, but his theories failed to solve the problems they were intended to. His critique of capitalism still remains valid in many aspects, including some of the issues Bruni wrote about in his column.

I believe, unlike science where paradigmatic ideas have to be new and distinct from the old, social paradigms can be constructed from old ideas that are distinct from the current ones. Distinctiveness is critical to avoid incrementalism within the same dysfunctional paradigm. And I also believe, as I have written, that such ideas do exist. The idea of a particular human nature drives the modern political economy. There are distinct alternatives available that have the same paradigm-changing potential. I find them in existentialism in the simple, but profound, idea that humans create their essence, that is, their nature, in the process of living, or, in other words, as they exist. I find an alternate way to describe the world back as far as the Greeks. Technically that way can be stated in terms of complexity, describing a system, like the Earth, that is forever changing in such a way that scientific abstractions and rules fail to describe it fully.

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that, if you try to act, using a model of the situation in front of you that doesn’t quite fit, you are not going to happy with the results. This is the gist of the unease and dissatisfaction Bruni reports on. There is no way we can change our social institutions overnight to reflect these two paradigmatic ideas, but we can begin. This is the message in my two books, but I now believe that they do not express these thoughts clearly enough or with enough urgency. I am writing another that I hope will be more compelling.

In the meantime, I believe that individuals could begin to operate with the model of human existence I have already discussed. They can stop seeking satisfaction in the meaningless idea of material wealth. That is not to say that they not have to obtain the minimum capabilities to live free, authentic lives. Humans can and do change their internal paradigms instantly. One idea that is invoked to explain who you are and why you act the way you do can be replaced by a new one in an instant. I used “can” here because human beings, like institutions, resist embedding new ideas at the operating system level.

We still need the political, social, and economic infrastructure of modernity to live as a society. It is a reality that we cannot ignore, but within it we are free to chose what kind of human being we are to become. None of us singly is going to change the nature of the institutional structure that controls daily life. But, if enough of us, turn the mental switch from believing we are nothing much more than computers seeking to optimize our pleasure to autonomous creatures who can choose who they intend to become, these institutions will be sure to follow. Victor Hugo wrote about the power of an idea whose time has come. Never has his wisdom been so critical.