Community Collapse

I suppose the reason why I’ve been thinking hard against the 70s lately is to try to get a grip on my cynicism. I was exposed to a lot of optimism, early on, through the Whole Earth Catalog and 60s “counterculture” and it didn’t necessarily jibe with the world I saw emerging around me. When Buckminster Fuller spoke in 1977 (drawing on his book Earth, Inc. published in 1973) It was starting to become obvious that founding communities based on these theoretical practices was not particularly likely. Thanks to Witold Rybczynski, I’ve started reading a different perspective from a contemporaneous curmudgeon, Martin Pawley. I wish I’d read him then. From The Private Future (1974):

In the private world of the West the chain mail of the old social contract has rusted away, and overlaid upon it is a new, linear pattern of supply and consumption which has erased all intermediate regimes. There is now nothing but a vacant, terrorized space between the government– which controls and maintains production–and the isolated consumer, who increases his consumption in proportion to his isolation. Public life today is the glimpse of the celebrity linked with the product. No one knows his place any more, only what he wants. (5)

It’s a dark and depressing book, really. When Pawley claims “no one knows his place” he isn’t speaking of social level, he’s actually making the claim literally. The central argument of the book is that words like community, society, and family have become meaningless because (by choice) we have designed these groupings as things to be rebelled against and avoided at all costs, in favor of a private world of self-gratification through intense consumerism. And yet those constructare preconditions for satisfying those desires. In short, it’s not late capitalism that destroyed us, we destroyed ourselves by desiring and insisting upon the current system of consumption and constant progress towards oblivion. What we want, ultimately is to be lost in ourselves rather than present in the world.

The Private Future is a fascinating polemic. The subtitle is “Causes and Consequences of Community Collapse in the West.” I find it fascinating that he’s identified “colony collapse disorder” among humans, long before it became apparent in bees.

For years, I’ve been haunted by the finale of Wim Wenders Until the End of the World (1991). In the wilds of Australia, William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin are lost inside virtual reality headsets that allow them to live inside their own dreams. It’s not necessarily as well argued as Pawley’s book, but it’s certainly entertaining.

The conclusion of the book is striking. I’m not surprised that it’s not mentioned in most reflections on the 70s. Pawley mercilessly calls out the hypocrisy of sanctioning most bourgeois pleasures while criminalizing drugs, pornography, etc.

Drug taking has confirmed a pattern of private indulgence in the face of punitive attempts at prevention. Popular photography, cheap color reproduction and the cinema have converted millions to an image-based, voyeuristic form of sexuality. All these expressions of private freedom, irrespective of their legality, are part of the widespread unremarkable social experience of the citizens of the consumer societies of the West, which is no different in any way from the legally approved forms of private pleasure associated with consumption in any society of private wealth. (210)

For Pawley, the process of privatization– not in the sense of central corporate or governmental ownership, but rather the triumph of individuation over community and retreat to the private sphere–,  is inevitable. His vision of the future is chilling:

Alone in a centrally heated, air-conditioned capsule, drugged, fed with music and erotic imagery, the parts of his consciousness separated into components that reach everywhere and nowhere, the private citizen of the future will become one with the end of effort and the triumph of sensation divorced from action. When the barbarians arrive they will find him like some ancient Greek sage, lost in contemplation, terrified and yet fearless, listening to himself. (211)

Don’t look for any suggestions from Pawley about how to avoid this; for him it was simply inevitable. I certainly hope he isn’t right.