The Revolution Has Been Cancelled

In remarking on James Piereson’s book, Shattered Consensus, Michael Goodwin touches on themes I’ve sounded here from time to time. I believe the dissatisfaction in the United States now is higher than at any time I can recall including during the 1960s. Indeed, I think the dissatisfaction is as great as it’s been other than during a very few periods including the lead-up to the American Civil War.

However, unlike Mssrs. Piereson or Goodwin or my blog-friend Mike Lotus with his America 3.0 hypothesis (look it up), I don’t think that America has a revolution in store or even, in what might be better diction, a paradigm shift. Revolutions, real or figurative, aren’t started by the poor. They’re fomented and led by the middle class, the intelligentsia to use the Russian phrase, and our middle class are so thoroughly dependent on Things As They Are I suspect they’ll defend them to collapse and beyond.

What I expect is the Detroitification of the United States, an ongoing slow motion decay in which things just aren’t quite as good for this generation as they were for the last and things just aren’t quite as good for the next generation as they were for this, accompanied by a general lack of optimism. Look to Chicago and Illinois as Ground Zero.

If, within a generation, Chicago introduces either a) a major decentralization of power and a reversal of the high tax, corrupt, government-centric style that has prevailed here for the last sixty or seventy years or b) has a socialist revolution, I’ll be proven wrong. If, on the other hand, Chicago’s political leadership continues to pursue the same old policies regardless of their efficacy and the people of Chicago keep right on voting for them, it will strongly suggest I am right.

11 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    You are thinking too provincially. The same stuff is happening in Europe. Whatever explanation you come up with probably needs to be more inclusive. I think it is multifactorial, which always makes it harder to pin down. People like a single cause. Among the many factors I would suggest that our media plays a major role. It runs 24 hours a day and is partisan and very good at what it does. I think we are seeing major culture clashes as religion collides with the secular world (fundamentalism is bad). I also think that for whatever reason, we have seen a lull in major innovations. Maybe everything does get better if we suddenly solve fusion. Lots of other things to add to the list, but it is too long.

    However, my first big worry is that we might be seeing the natural end state of capitalism. On the global stage, it is a fairly new phenomenon. We don’t really know what happens with capitalism in a post-industrial world. Maybe capitalism is ideal for an industrial economy, but not so much for others. Maybe it is still the best option because the others are worse, but maybe it just doesn’t work as well, especially in a global economy.

    My other big worry is that maybe it just isn’t possible for the US to stay on top forever. As other countries have developed and continue to develop, perhaps we lose the advantages that kept us on top and there isn’t much we can do about it. Perhaps we were so good only because others were so bad.


  • I also think that for whatever reason, we have seen a lull in major innovations.

    That’s a point I’ve made frequently. Most of the “major innovations” go back to the 1930s or earlier. Much of what we’ve seen over the last 30 years or so are just elaborations on those innovations.

    However, I don’t think that the relatively slow rate of capital investment we’ve seen over the last fifteen or so years helps much.

    As to provincial thinking, I write about Illinois and Chicago because it’s what I know. I can see that the Fordist model is collapsing everywhere. I can’t tell you what the social or political implications of that in, say, Sweden or California are.

    On fundamentalism, I think that the worldwide resurgence in fundamentalism—it’s something seen in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism—is something of a trompe l’oeil. Fundamentalism persists in the sticks and among the poor. Transportation and communication have changed things. Basically, turn over a rock and fundamentalists come out.

  • Piercello Link

    Dave and Steve,

    By my admittedly strange lights _everything_ is fundamentalist, it’s just that people don’t agree on what the proper fundamentals are or should be.

    For example, while I know of lots of people who are differently radicalized with respect to religion (pro and con), race, gender, political party, economic philosophy, and so on, I can make a case that the common internal process by which they each became radicalized is entirely universal, and is therefore independent of content.

    Generally speaking, whatever you are radicalized for or against looks like a fundamental to you. It’s part of the common emotional hardwiring that undergirds our belief systems.

    When people find that things around them are no longer working, they tend to either double down (ideological radicals) or retreat to deeper, or different, fundamentals in search of something that might work (practical radicals, or radicalized with respect to practicality). But either way, things change.

    So I think what we will see is a hodge-podge of practical and ideological reshuffling, as people in different regions look for ways to keep going.

    I don’t know whether or not combined events will rise to the level of revolution, but it is likely to be “interesting” to find out.

  • Piercello Link

    Upon reflection, I ought to have added the third way, which is the deer-in-the-headlights approach. Keep doing things just as you always have, and hope that the falling-apart thing going on around you isn’t actually happening, and that you don’t actually have to change anything you are accustomed to doing.

  • michael reynolds Link

    It is of course traditional for old men (like us) to disparage the abilities and prospects of new generations.

    For one thing, when contrasting “us” vs. “them,” we tend to forget that our version of “us” did not include black, brown, gay or for that matter, female people. The “us” that is more discontent now is discontent, in part at least, because their relative privilege is diminishing as other demographic groups profit. The rage on the Right is largely a matter of rural whites upset at what they see as a loss of influence. (And they’re right, they are losing influence.)

    At the same time the relatively ascendant demographics, particularly women, have the different discontent of the impatient. Women and Latinos I would suspect are in more of a hurry to see the future than white males are.

    You have in effect two demographic segments, one Right, one Left, one stamping furiously on the brakes while the other is flooring it. Your analogies are interesting because they do reveal similarities. In the run-up to the Civil War you likewise had two broad demo groups, one defending their property (slaves) and a dying order, the other already sensing the potential of a future defined by manufacturing, train travel, modern communication (telegraph) and westward expansion.

    To extend the analogy, the equivalent of southern slave owners are people like the Wal-Mart family, the Kochs, etc…, who fear the loss of their privileges through higher taxes, through popular resentment, and through the power shift away from their sort of people to folks like Larry Page, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

    I’m optimistic, though I suspect the new version of success will look substantially different than ours did. It does not bother me that “my” tribe (white male) is losing ground, on the contrary, if I could turn the running of the world over to women tomorrow I would do it without hesitation.

    I think as Steve hints above, we will see some transformative technology and innovation over the next twenty years – medical tech and drugs that will greatly increase lifespans and reduce suffering; a more secure and less destructive energy profile; fascinating developments in robotics and transportation. And of course, something else we haven’t even thought of.

    And for all the bad things happening in the world, starvation, death by preventable disease and the lowest extremes of poverty are all much improved. In fact, if you took the MENA out of the picture, the human race is looking pretty good. Peace rules in North and South America, most of Asia, and Europe.

    As for the US of A, I think we’re basically fine, or will be in ten years when the last of the generation immediately before mine dies off and takes its obsessions with it. And better still once we Boomers get the hell out of the way.

  • I found things both to agree and disagree with in your remarks, Michael, but I want to respond to one claim:

    I think as Steve hints above, we will see some transformative technology and innovation over the next twenty years – medical tech and drugs that will greatly increase lifespans and reduce suffering;

    You may be right but, frankly, I’m skeptical. Something depends on how you define your terms. Over my lifetime the average life expectancy has increased by about ten years. Is ten years over the period of well over a half century “greatly”?

    Not all of that increase was the result of “medical tech and drugs”. Smoking cessation accounts for something like 30% of the improvement (I’m sure steve will step in and correct me if I’m wrong on this).

    Also, there are several assumptions underpinning this and I see little reason to believe either of them. The first assumption is that the increase in life expectancy continues linearly, i.e. that if the increase was 10 years over the last 50 years it will be 10 years over the next 50 years. The world is not linear.

    The second assumption is that the marginal cost of the next incremental year is growing on the order of the marginal increase in GDP. I think this is even less likely. I think we’ve probably picked the low-hanging fruit and the next 10 years of increased average life expectancy might well cost more than total GDP or, said another way, some people may live longer (even a lot longer) but the average life expectancy won’t increase that fast.

    I’m talking about U. S. life expectancy, of course. I think that world average life expectancy may actually drop a bit before rising.

  • The other observation I would make is that to believe that two things, groups, or sets of circumstances are different is not necessarily to disparage one in favor of the other. At least not for me.

  • steve Link

    Dave- Where did you ever get the impression I would want to correct you? Anyway, the best estimates i have seen place it at about 50-50 for medical innovation vs lifestyle changes. ( A group of us worked on this digging into a lot of new and old literature. Was kind of fun actually.)


  • I depend on you for keeping me on the straight and narrow medical statistic-wise. It’s a good thing.

  • michael reynolds Link


    I think we can agree that whatever comes from medical science, or from lifestyle choices, it will end up being too damned late for either of us.

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