Our egalitarian fantasies of the present day are so comical in the context of history. Like economist Irving Fisher declaring a “permanently high plateau” of prosperity on the very eve of the October 1929 stock market crash, our public intellectuals seem to believe we’ve attained a permanent plateau of morally triumphant social relations.
Much of this generational narcissism arises out of the life experience of the Baby Boomers now in charge of things. We were on board for the Civil Rights triumphs of the 1960s, and the multicultural reforms of the late 20th century, and the mopping up operations of that social justice campaign can now be seen in the exertions to normalize gay marriage. All the impediments to equal standing before the law have been overcome. Many a Boomer can now exit this earthly plane with a feeling of “mission accomplished.”
History will laugh at us. The compressive contraction of economic activity now underway will once again change everything. We will discover that the utopian egalitarianism of recent years was largely a function of cheap energy and the stupendous luxury that went with it. If nothing else, the availability of 300 “energy slaves” per capita in the form of fossil fuels made it unnecessary to have a broad servant class of human beings laboring for the elite classes. As energy becomes scarce and expensive in the decades ahead, we will see the hardening of hierarchical relations as it becomes necessary for the currently-idle poor to sell their allegiance and labor to those who can provide security and support. This will occur in the face of government’s failure to continue supporting the idle.
Of course, it is a high percentage play to imagine that today’s elites – the disgusting bankster class – will end up hanging from lamp-posts, perhaps deservedly so, but in the natural course of things elites circulate, so a new elite will be ready to take their places. The difference, I believe, is that the new elite will be organized around the holding of good, productive farmland. This is not such a novelty, obviously, in as much as throughout history wealth in land has been at the very center of the social equation. But it is in our future, too, since the demise of agri-business, with all its grotesque dependence on oil-and-gas-based “inputs” and massive capital debt, guarantees that whoever is left in control of productive land in the future will also sit at the apex of the social pyramid.
What I envision for the decades to come, then, is an evolution of social relations that will resemble the feudalism of a thousand years ago. Its is no so much a matter of whether we like it as a matter of what reality requires of us. There will be no more government support of idle classes. And food production will once again be at the center of economic activity. Therefore, one way or another, a lot of people will end up working on the farm.
The alternative will be failure to thrive in the most extreme sense. All this will play out in a thousand localities, probably without higher levels of governance to modulate local behavior. The questions of who will come to own the farms, and how the disposition of ownership gets worked out are particulars of a history yet to be written.