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Reality does not have an ideology: Class, Race, Hierarchy, and Social Relations in The Long Emergency

Just published on Chris Martenson’s Peak Prosperity site:
Read it there. Good layout. Nice links….

by James Howard Kunstler

After the second novel in my World Made By Hand series (The Witch of Hebron) came out in 2010, I was beset by indignant reviews and angry letters from female readers over my depiction of gender and class relations further along in the 21st century.

The fictional future economy I described was, in its broad outlines, similar to the future sketched by Chris Martenson and his stable of writers — a re-set to a far more local, much less complex, and downscaled economy, with a lot of formerly modern comforts and conveniences missing from the picture. In my fictional world of Union Grove in far upstate New York, the electricity was no longer running, the Internet was dead, giant corporations and government had withered away, motoring was history, paper money worthless, and a lot of common institutions (courts, schools, supermarkets) no longer functioned. This was an economic order very different from what we’re familiar with now, and I had to construct a plausible social order to go with it.

To step back a moment, permit me to explain that I chose to depict economic collapse in fiction because so many of us had published non-fiction books and articles on the subject that, for all their merits, left out what it would look, feel, and taste like to live in that deeply transformed future society. I wanted to get to readers through the other side of their brains, to give them a vivid emotional sense of a plausible future. I also thought that a lot of the current so-called apocalyptic fiction, movies, and TV shows were just plain stupid, that they misunderstood the forces actually in motion that would drag us kicking and screaming into the new times, and what those times would actually be like. And, of course, I was fed up with zombies, vampires, and all the other clichéd trappings of story-telling that hitched a ride on the nervous zeitgeist.

The characters in my novels lived very differently than people do in these late days of turbo-petro-industrialism. The economy of their town and the county surrounding it — the extent of normal travel in the new times — was centered on agriculture and the activities that supported it and derived from it. The division of labor had changed drastically in my fictional world, household management especially. Without microwave ovens, washing machines, heating furnaces, and other mechanical slaves that we take for granted, running a household required a lot more work. It was my heuristic judgment (i.e., guess) that such conditions would likely propel work assignments back to more traditional arrangements between men and women, especially because the care of very young children takes place in the home and, despite the wishful propaganda of our times, such care happens to fall mostly to mothers among the higher primates. (The vaunted role of “house-husband” might be improbable if it were not for the fact that so many “breadwinner” jobs today can be done by anybody, male, female, or someone in between.)

Anyway, the reaction to this fictional experiment was surprisingly pugnacious. High and low, far and wide, women denounced my book in formal reviews and casual emails. There was a unifying theme to them, though: a refusal to consider the possibility that social relations might change no matter what happened to the economy. That, and outrage that anyone might suggest a retrograde path for the recent achievements of feminism. It seemed self-evident to me that a lot of this achievement was provisional, depending on larger macro historical trends. That idea alone was greeted, in my replies to reader emails, by the sharpest opprobrium, since it was assumed that the political victories of recent decades have become permanent installations of the human condition. I recognize that, as a principle of politics, privileges and rights attained are rarely given up without a fight. But I wondered at the failure of imagination I was witnessing, especially among educated women readers.

Relations between men and women were not the only feature of the altered social landscape in the fictional future of World Made By Hand. I also created a character named Stephen Bullock whose role in the county had become, in effect, feudal lord, though he disliked thinking of himself that way. I had imagined that Bullock, a shrewd, erudite lawyer who inherited a well-managed farm, had acquired the land of his floundering neighbors and attracted a cohort of able-bodied adults, who had lost their livelihoods and property, to live and work on his establishment, which the townspeople of nearby Union Grove had taken to calling a “plantation.” Bullock’s people, the former car dealers, pharmacists, realtors, and other jetsam of a collapsed industrial-technocratic economy, had “sold” their allegiance to him in exchange for food, security, and community — he had allowed them to build a “village” for themselves at the center of his property. They now labored together in teams or work-gangs to produce a lot of value from Bullock’s land, tending crops and livestock, making value-added market products (whiskey, cheese) from the stuff they produced, running a sawmill, and so on. In exchange, they were well-housed and fed, and led an ordered existence in very uncertain and fretful times. Bullock himself is often portrayed as conflicted by his role, which includes the additional (reluctant) duty of serving as local magistrate in the absence of functioning courts. Thus, I delineated a future that was tending toward what we understand as feudalism. That proposition was greeted with only slightly less consternation by readers than my outlook for male/female vocational relations.

The reason I am explaining all of this is to emphasize that these issues of how a society orders itself are freighted with a heavy burden of emotional cargo, wishes, assumptions, bad memories, fears, resentments, and grievances, which surely accounts for our trouble buying into any vision of the future not in accordance with what’s familiar in our particular moment in history. The stickiest element in my notion of the future might be stated as the issue of social hierarchy: that human beings inevitably fall into unequal status categories, and that the future may hold new status and class arrangements that might seem strange to us today. In the best world, of course, people should be equally free to pursue happiness, or to be all that they can be, but even in an ideal society people will land in one status category or another. In that ideal socio-political system we might also expect a certain elasticity of movement, depending on the choices and actions taken by individuals in their lives, and this “upward mobility” was indeed the engine of the American Dream for much of our history — so the loss of it would be a very harsh indeed on the national psyche.

There shouldn’t be any question that social animals, which people are, universally dispose themselves in hierarchies. The argument is often made that tribal people enjoy something like absolute equality or democracy in small bands, but I’d argue that that is a sentimental fantasy of the sociologists. Rather, simple societies have simpler hierarchies or pecking orders. So, it isn’t a question of whether human societies of the future will present hierarchical qualities, but rather what scale and degree of complexity they will exhibit, how their economies will be organized, and what will be the character of their hierarchy. Clearly, these propositions make a lot of people uncomfortable — to which I’d answer that one of the imperatives of our time for serious people is to learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that’s how things are going to get for a while.

In Part II: The New Disposition of Things, we take a close look at the ways in which our current society is most likely to change, whether it wants to or not. The end of cheap, plentiful resources is almost sure to have seismic and retrograde effects on our way of life, our social relations, and our economic systems.

Those who understand the direction of these changes and invest today in positioning themselves for a resilient, graceful entry into this future will find themselves much better prepared (physically, financially, and emotionally) than those who blindly hurdle towards reality’s coming wake-up call.

Click here for: Part Two:



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 “Reality does not have an ideology: Class, Race, Hierarchy, and Social Relations in The Long Emergency”

  1. partegiano August 1, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    Hey James ::

    I want to begin by saying that I’m a big fan of your work, which I recommend to everyone that I can. Thank you.

    You may be aware of this, but Dmitry Orlov (another favorite author of mine) recently received a lot of flack for turning to relatively patriarchal or highly gendered communities that have survived at the margins of society and successfully navigated varying levels of collapse for some guidance for our own predicament. Though I don’t think he necessarily handled the situation very well, I also don’t believe he deserved much of the ire visited upon his head across the blogosphere. I believe that human cultures are often a mixed bag, and that we can learn from people whom we may not completely agree with on every single front.

    I think that a significant number of communities in the United States will emerge in a fashion similar to the one laid out in your books, whether we like it or not. That said, I think there will be communities (likely a minority of them) that will look quite different.

    I think that the perspective that you, Orlov, and a number of commentators I’ve witnessed addressing this subject are coming from, of course, a particular perspective as heterosexual people living in heterosexual communities. I want to be clear that I’m not leveling this observation as a charge or an accusation – it’s merely an observation of an objective fact. I’m also not trying to lump together and flatten people who are, of course, ultimately different from one another in ways that do matter. I’m just recognizing a pattern in the framework y’all appear to be working with.

    And the reason that I recognize it is that, when it comes to gender relations, I am in a rather different sort of community than a lot of my fellow Americans seem to be living in. I’m not speaking so much of the communities found in more mainstream gay culture, or the gay culture that most straight Americans have likely been exposed to (however superficially) or think about. I’m more in the younger generation, queer set of things, for better and for worse. I say for worse because I share your impatience with the academics of “queer theory” and a number of the cultural trends that it has spawned. Despite my love/hate relationship with it, though, if I was backed into a corner and had to name the world I inhabit in daily life, I’d use the word “queer” to describe it.

    As part of this, I don’t live in a world where it’s assumed that everyone is going to get married and have babies. Quite the opposite. Most people I know won’t be rearing children, and most of the people I know who would like to imagine raising their children along with a broader community, and wouldn’t dream of retreating into private coupledom or a nuclear family model. And many, of course, will not be heterosexually coupled to begin with.

    A lot of us are in exile from our bio-families, and have had to make family with our friends, from scratch. Even those of us who get along greatly with our blood families can’t imagine life without our chosen ones. We’re more likely to live with numerous people. We’re more likely to live with and otherwise be in community with people across differences of age, gender, race, etc. And for many of us feminism isn’t just about heterosexual middle and upper class mothers breaking into the workforce, but just as important and possibly more elemental issues like reproductive autonomy, dismantling rape culture, etc. And you’d be hard pressed to find men in our community who don’t cook, clean, and do the dishes as much as their female counterparts.

    Which isn’t to say that we’ve transcended legacies of sexism and male entitlement, and it’s not to paint a utopic picture of what we got going on either – again, I have a number of frustrations with the contemporary queer subculture. And it’s not to overlook the ways that our cultures are any less shaped than the other cultures that exist in this country by the cheap fossil fuel high that’s now coming to an end.

    It’s just to say that when I talk to my friends about how we plan on navigating collapse, and what we’d like to build for ourselves during the transition and for the longhaul, it sounds nothing like the world you describe in terms of gender relations. And I don’t think it’s coming from a delusional place, or a place of wishful thinking. I think it’s very possible for communities to be organized in ways different from the one you described. I’m by no means a utopian, or someone who believes in a distant golden age when all of humanity is one big happy family and all hierarchies are forever leveled. But I do believe in our ability to improvise, to grow, to create new kinds of community. And for all the ways that I as a member of the global industrial north, and someone living in the U.S. in particular, am bereft of true community, I still catch glimpses of what’s possible in the worlds that I inhabit now.

    My hope is to grow a small village, sooner rather than later. Of course, I am currently of very limited financial means, as are a number of people I know, and imminent financial collapse will likely crash this dream altogether, or at least ensure that whatever community I find myself building will look rather different than I’d like to think. I’m very clear that there are many things that are beyond my control and that will be regardless of what I want, and I’m very clear that when it comes to community, you don’t always get to be picky about who shows up. But I’m also clear that many of the folks I know who are aware of collapse and who are trying to attain the skillsets and resources they will need to survive it will be building communities with far more flexibility of gender roles than you and others are imagining for yourselves.

    Thank you, as always, for your terrific and crucial work. aidan

    • Benjamin January 4, 2022 at 2:36 pm #

      I think now you can find help online, this is not a problem.

  2. Karah August 7, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    “But I wondered at the failure of imagination I was witnessing, especially among educated women readers.”

    This topic has to do with YOUR imagination and YOUR proposal of a NEW OLD WORLD made by hands of both sexes. Do not blame the readers for not properly filling in the voids of YOUR imagination. You are forgiven, JHK, because you’re a man. How could you possibly imagine a future life without help from the other sex? Consider the criticism a HELP and not a hinderance. Now you can build your novels around that very REALITY. There are a lot of women who are doing a lot of things by hand today and have been doing them by hand from time in memorial. Their activities involve much more than making brooms, entertaining guests with fragrant gardens and rearing young children – you of all people should acknowledge this fact being such an astute observer of history. Your novels are more a vague dream than an vivid image concerned with the complexities of life. You leave out a lot of factors that make YOU too uncomfortable to include because they remind you of YOUR limited vision and YOUR limitations in dealing with the ever increasing complexities of a progressive and diverse people.

    Your fictional series will remain a dream sequence and never produce anything of real consequence.

  3. Neon Vincent August 8, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    I examined what Kunstler himself wrote about this controversy over his depiction of women in his fiction on my blog two years ago. I wrote that his “portrayal of women’s roles” was “the result of pondering Heinlein’s three science fiction plot premises–what if, if only, and if this goes on.” I continued by noting “his books are trying to answer ‘if this goes on’ and ‘what if?’ in that order, but his portrayal of gender roles may have more than a dash of ‘if only.'” I think it’s the suspicion of the “if only” that may be arousing the reaction that his portrayal of women in those two novels is receiving.


  4. Carol Newquist August 8, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    I think it was clever of you to propose this as a fiction because when you get right down to it that’s what speculation is: fiction. This is what separates you from Orlov and it’s the reason I read you and not him. The readers need to calm down and quit over-reacting to a fictional work. The only problem I see with this is the onerous misogynists your fiction attracts who see this not as fiction but as a world they yearn to bring about. I don’t see you that way, but they surely will use anything and everything to validate their paternalism your fiction included.

    Karah, what I don’t like about your suggestion is that it hamstrings JHK from freedom of expression. This is the problem with cultivating a fan base as a a writer; if you want to keep the checks flowing, you have to give them what they like and what they expect. If you don’t, your audience dwindles and the checks dry up unless you’re skilled and patient enough to cultivate a new fan base. Most authors are not capable of the latter, so they become captive to their audience. Once this happens, imo, it’s no longer an art.

  5. Karah August 9, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Carol, I certainly apreciate kunstlers free flow of thouggt-thats a major attraction. My point is he should do more analysis or collaboration with females and their dreams…not all of us are feminists and are interested in exploring the “simple” life. My point is that this other world is more complicated because people have to work harder for simple things at the same time not having the luxury of running away from our social problems/social intercourse. Couples handle a lot of their issues by hiding behind technology and remove themselves from the moment. I love how kunstlers characters deal with their problems honestly. His dream for a more honest society that are forced to deal with problems instead of having someone else serve them is something I look forward to reading more of. Really, I think our critique is easily fixable. The witch of hebrin is an amusing antidote. Yes, there will be masogyny however I wonder how much of that is women’s fault?

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  6. Carol Newquist August 9, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    Yes, there will be masogyny however I wonder how much of that is women’s fault?

    That’s an excellent point. It takes two to tango, so to speak. Lars von Trier tackles this in his movie Antichrist, by the way. Well, Lars grapples with many things in that movie, but this is certainly one of them. An excellent movie, but one you may have to watch several times to get all of it. Rich and dense like a decadent layer cake is an understatement. It helps to see it in natural high definition, as well, at least it helped for me. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days….or maybe even weeks. There are so many thought threads, as soon as you’ve exhausted one, another is there to take its place.

    I understand your point, but not everyone needs to be Stieg Larsson. I loved his trilogy, and I love the character Lisbeth Salander. Women need more of this. They need more stories of women who forge their own paths, and not the paths laid out for them by men or the paths of men; the former path being traditional homemakers and the latter being feminist corporatism.

    At a family reunion last year, my sister-in-law spoke about her hero, Billy Jean King. This S-I-L had been ruled over by a tyrant, her husand and my brother, for quite some time before she basically said “fuck-off” and pursued her own interests. She attended college and received a degree in education and is now a teacher. She and my brother have three grown children. The conversation continued along the lines of women and their current and historical roles in society and women’s rights in general. My brother did not care to discuss any of this so remained in the other room and scowled. My S-I-L, obviously, supports equal rights but only in the sense that females get to do everything males do, hence her worship of Billy Jean King. I told her that this outcome was disappointing for me. She became immediately defensive because she assumed I my statement was motivated by conservatism. I clarified that my wish was that women could chart their own course and create their world, not assume predefined roles in the current world crafted and ruled by men. She’s not the brightest bulb, so she lashed out at me and said “what other world are you talking about? We’re on planet Earth. It’s not like we can go to Mars.” Her response made me realize just how seemingly impossible a truly new world is. Look how far you’d have to go. You’d have to wipe the slate clean and start fresh with a new generation for there to be any chance. A collapse could do that, but the collateral damage will be immense.

  7. Karah August 9, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    I like science fiction a la star trek. Would not classify jhk as sci fi. He is comparing life now with life in a medieval setting wherein a lot is explained via “magic” and mysticism because the machines we rely on for scientific analysis will no longer be functioning or accessible. The major diff being people who practice “magic” are not ostracized bu glorified amd honored and esteemed. The kind of magic we experience in electric devices is more show and not for real world practical applications. Your cell phone can’t restart your heart but give apple time and maybe all I phines will dfibrillate!

  8. Karah August 20, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    I forgot to include in my reply that I have not paid for any of JHK’s novels because I am a member of the public library where almost all his work can be found.

  9. Winterdance67 September 28, 2013 at 4:58 am #

    I wrote a paper for ‘Environmental values’ arguing much the same thing…. But using evidence from historical sociology about the relationship between energy, individuation and social complexity. the piece is called ‘degrowth is not a liberal agenda’ and available in digest on Resilience.org

    There is also A book by mark wiener called the rule of the clan…which also uses historical evidence to the same end.

    the base doesn’t determine superstructure as Marxists might once have put it, but energy throughput sure as hell limits complexity…and gender parity, sexual freedom, youth culture, cosmopolitan multiculturalism….mass education…even a highly individualized understanding of self….these are all forms of social complexity

  10. Armstrong September 14, 2018 at 2:07 am #

    As part of this, I don’t live in a world where it’s assumed that everyone is going to get married and have babies. Quite the opposite. Most people I know won’t be rearing children, and most of the people I know who would like to imagine raising their children along with a broader community, and wouldn’t dream of retreating into private coupledom or a nuclear family model. And many, of course, will not be heterosexually coupled to begin with. 1z0-973 dumps

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  11. MARK214 October 27, 2021 at 11:48 am #

    James you are a very good writer. Love your work. thanks for sharing.



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