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Hope and Fear

     Tomorrow at noon, Barack Obama steps into the shoes of Lincoln,
FDR, Millard Fillmore and forty other predecessors — this time as the
wished-for Mr. Fix it of a nation run into a ditch. Surely over the
months of transition, someone with a clear head and a fact-laden
portfolio has clued-in the new President about the reality-based
state-of-the-Union — as opposed, say, to the Las Vegas version, where
Santa Claus presides over a whoredom of something-for-nothing
economics, and all behaviors are equally okay, and consequence has been
sliced-and-diced out of the game. . . where, in the immortal words of
Milan Kundera, anything goes and nothing matters.
      Mr. Obama
deserves credit for a lot of things, but perhaps most amazingly his
ability to see “hope” in a public so demoralized by their own bad
choices that the USA scene has devolved to a non-stop Special Olympics
of everyday life, where absolutely everybody is debilitated, deluded,
challenged, or needs a leg up, or an extra buck, or a pallet on the
floor, or a gastric bypass, or a week in detox, or a head-start, or a
fourth strike, or a $150-billion bailout. There’s a lot of raw material
from sea to shining sea, admittedly, but how do you re-shape it into a
population guided by a sense of earnest purpose, with reality-based
expectations, with habits of delayed gratification and impulse control,
and a sense of their own history? That will be quite a trick. Many of
us — myself included — will be pulling for Barack. Maybe the power of
his rhetoric and his sheer buff physical presence can whip this
republic of overfed clowns into shape.
      He inherits a government of superficially gleaming marble
edifices — all gloriously on view tomorrow — but full of broken
machinery within, infested with weevils, termites, and rats. The USA is
functionally bankrupt. We have no money. The pixel “money” being
emailed over to the insolvent banks has no basis in reality beyond the
quiver in Ben Bernanke’s voice as he announces each new injection. Yet
all reports so far indicate that President Obama is bent on continuing
the process one way or another.
       Mr. Obama’s first task taking stage in the lonely Oval Office
should be to get right with his own credo of “change,” meaning he’ll
have to persuade the broad American public that the “change” required
to salvage this society runs much deeper, colder, and thicker than
they’d imagine in their initial transports over
hallelujah-Bush-is-Gone. Many of the familiar touchstones of the recent
American experience have got to go.
      Say goodbye to the “consumer society.” We’re done with that. No
more fast money and no more credit. The next stop is “yard-sale
nation,” in which all the plastic crapola accumulated over the past
fifty years is sorted out for residual value and, if still working,
sold for a fraction of its original sticker price. This includes
everything from Humvees to Hello Kitty charm bracelets.
      It will be a very salutary thing if we stop even referring to
ourselves as “consumers.” This degrading moniker, used for decades
unthinkingly by everyone from The New York Times
Nobel Prize pundits to the Econ 101 section men of the land-grant
diploma mills has been such a drag on our collective development that
it has extinguished the last latent flickers of duty, obligation, and
responsibility for the greater good in a republic of broken communities
shattered by WalMarts.
       The government will not have to do a
thing to bring down the chain-stores. History and inertia is already on
that case, with the easy credit racket terminated and new frictions
arising over global trade, and even Peak Oil waiting to work its hoodoo
behind the scrim of deceptively temporarily low pump prices. The larger
question for President Obama is:
how can we collectively promote the reconstruction of Main Street,
including all the fine-grained layers of retail and wholesale trade.
High tech “solutions” are not likely to avail in this.
fact, techno-grandiosity and techno-triumphalism must be be sedulously
monitored and guarded-against. They jointly amount to the great mass
psychosis of our time and culture. This array of traps — from proposed
flying cars to “renewable” motor fuels — is the ultimate Faustian
“bargain.” It will be at the heart of any campaign to sustain the
unsustainable, sucking us ever more deeply into the diminishing returns
of over-investments in complexity. Hence, the last thing this nation
needs now is a stimulus plan aimed at the development of
non-gasoline-powered automobiles — married with extensive
rehabilitation of the highway system. What I incessantly refer to as
the Happy Motoring fiesta is drawing to a close as we have known it,
whether we like it or not. Cars will be around for a while, of course,
but as an increasingly elite activity. The owners of cars will be
increasingly beset by grievance and resentment on the part of those
foreclosed from the Happy Motoring life — and it could easily
degenerate to vandalism and violence, since the “right” to endless
motoring was surreptitiously made an entitlement somewhere around 1957.
      The “change” we face in agriculture dwarfs even the death throes
of Happy Motoring (and is not unrelated to it either). A lot of people
are likely to starve in America if we don’t get our act together pronto
in terms of how we produce the food we eat. Petro-agribusiness faces a
set of disturbances that are certain to induce food shortages. Again,
the Peak Oil specter looms in the background, for soil “inputs” and
diesel power to run that system. But all of a sudden even that problem
appears a lesser danger than the gross failure of capital finance now
underway — and petro-agriculture’s chief external input is credit.
Credit may be in extremely short supply this year, and hence crops may
be in short supply as we turn the corner into spring and summer. Just
as in the case of WalMart versus Main Street, the reform of farming in
America is one of those “changes” much larger than most of us imagine.
I’d go so far to say that a large proportion of young people now in
college will find themselves not working in office cubicles, but in
some way or other in farming or the “value-added” activities connected
to it.
      I don’t see how America can confront the “change” represented by
the stark fact that suburbia-is-toast. It is the sorest spot of all in
the corpus of a culture beset by disease and debility. The salient
manifestation of suburbia’s demise is the remorseless drop of housing
values in the places most representative of that development pattern.
The worst thing the Obama team could do about this would be to attempt
to prevent the fall of inflated house prices. Their real value needs to
be clearly established before a picture emerges of which places have a
plausible future, and which places are destined to be mere ruins or
salvage yards.
     Americans will have to live somewhere, of course, but the terrain
of North America faces a very comprehensive reformation. The biggest
cities will contract; the small cities and small towns will be
reactivated, the agricultural landscape will be inhabited differently,
and the suburbs will undergo an agonizing decades-long work-out of bad
debt and true asset re-valuation.  Since the loss of so much vested
“wealth” is implied by the crash of suburbia, this may be a source of
revolutionary political violence moving deeper into the Obama
     There’s been plenty of buzz in the blogosphere about the imminent
failure of the US “social safety net,” including especially the social
security program. Retirees are the biggest block of voters. They’re not
liable to foment riots — that is best left to the youthful
high-testosterone cohort — but the older folks — with Baby Boomers
now coming aboard — could be so distressed by the loss of their
presumed entitlements that they will elect any maniac promising to
bring back something that looked like the 1980s. We haven’t begun to
hear their war cries, and I hope they do not beat a path straight into
some sort of crypto corporate fascism — as, finally, every last
failing scrap of American life is nationalized.
      Some natural processes hide in the thickets ahead. A
hyper-inflation could take this country in any weird and unappetizing
direction, from scapegoating and persecution to a new kind of corporate
fascism. But I’m inclined to see our tribulations governed more by
weakness in high places than by real power. In a world of declining
capital and depleting energy resources, the key to any successful
venture will be smaller scale. I’m not convinced that any emergency
could make the US government more effective at getting anything done.
Our hopes really ought to be vested locally, since that is where the
most effective action is likely to be in the years just ahead.
      It will be stirring to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration, and all
the hoopla and balls, and the radiant children, and the exemplary First
Lady dancing with the First Partner. Euphoria is a legitimate part of
the human condition, though we know it soon passes into the heavy
lifting of real life. There are many Americans of good will who would
like to see the meaning of real “change” clearly articulated in a way
that comports with reality, not just “dreams” and wishes. We’ll hear a
lot about dreams this week, anyway, of course, but then reality will
set in and the heavy lifting will commence. Many Americans of good will
also stand ready to face reality, to roll up our sleeves, ditch the
video games and the Nascar and the microwaved cheese treats, and the
internet porn and all the other noxious, narcolepsy-inducing
distractions of our time, and put our shoulders to the wheel to haul
this nation into a plausible future. For the moment: a rousing cry of “Good Luck!” To President Obama from this little outpost of Clusterfuck Nation.

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About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

14 Responses to “Hope and Fear”

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