There will be a fall. Yorkshire will get up again.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
- Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front – Wendell Berry
This dawn, like every other, the rooks have gathered around my cottage, filling the trees and lining the telephone wires. For corvids, this is a political place. In twenty minutes, they will scatter across the landscape in small groups; but first they hold together as a mass, chattering and jostling, communicating with swoops and jumps, beaks pointing and heads tilting.
When I say this is a political gathering, I am not being metaphorical. I mean it in a strict sense, derived from Aristotle. Rook ‘households’ of mated pairs and small groups combine into ‘villages’ like the one around my cottage. These villages, in turn, combine into a ‘complete community’: the bigger rookery where the birds spend their nights. The rookery is a social arrangement ‘originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of the good life’.
Aristotle did not believe animals other than humans to be fully capable of politics; but he thought they had far less intelligence than we now know corvids have. The existence of rook politics is important, and neglecting it harms us in two ways. If we do not appreciate that other animals have politics, then we do not understand their lives; and if we do not appreciate that politics are natural to the human animal, then we do not understand human politics. The second of these points, the animal naturalness of human politics, is critical. I will return to it below.
Sharing this spot with corvids should perhaps let me hear the ‘songs that are to come’ from Wendell Berry’s poem, but I am a poor listener. I only know the same thing that everyone does: the current order cannot go on. We express this knowledge in ten thousand ways. Some people concentrate on climate change, others on the collapse of moral language, and others on the unavailability of energy to sustain the modern regime. Historical narratives of civilisational collapse become increasingly salient. Parents do not expect the world to be as friendly to their children as it was to them. Nobody believes that the next 50 years will follow the upward arc of the last 50. We hang for a moment in the air, waiting for gravity.
Everyone knows the fall is coming, but our politics cannot say it. The language of continual progress is too entrenched. The UK government talks of ‘levelling up’ the country. Their opposition wants to ‘build a future that everyone in Britain can be proud of’. The social justice set want to build a ‘more equitable’ future. Their opposition wants to ‘return to classical liberalism’. Whether left or right, whether a political party or a political movement, all seek to guide the upwards arc of the future to ensure that we land in just the right spot. This is bullshit. We have never been able to guide the Machine, and everyone knows that we’re reaching the top of the arc. We are going to fall. The language of progress isn’t there because anyone still believes it. It is a habit, a behavioural leftover that betrays a ‘catastrophic failure of imagination’.
The politics of regionalism and localism have not yet done better. The Yorkshire Party talks about ‘building a stronger Yorkshire’ within the current order. The Northern Independence Party wants to ‘build a better, fairer and freer North’ with a ‘green industrial rebirth’. Both want to make sure that the North will rise with the rest of the world. But this world will fall. As I said in my last post, I like these regional organisations. If they are to serve the people of this place, though, they must first serve the truth. And the truth is that any civilisation that exhausts its finite energy supply will fall.
The ‘fatalism’ in the newsletter’s title is a rebuke to the idea that the purpose of politics is to argue about who gets what loot from the treasure chest of progress. That idea, along with the related idea that the job of politics is to somehow keep the loot coming, is mistaken and narrow. ‘Progress’ is not the source of the incredible wealth of the modern age. Cheap energy from fossil fuels is the treasure chest, and it will soon be empty. We will not find another. As this era ends, we should remember the wider purpose of politics. Following Aristotle again, it is to allow a community to pursue ‘the good life’ within the context of the world as it truly is. Fulfilling that purpose requires acknowledging the real limits to what is possible. We cannot avoid the fall. Communities can, however, pursue the good life even through catastrophe.
In other words, there will still be politics after the fall. Human beings cannot avoid their political nature any more than rooks can. But in this moment, post-collapse politics are hard to imagine. We face the situation that Jonathan Lear, in Radical Hope, describes the Crow Indians facing in the 19th century.
1. A way of life is coming to an end. For the Crow, this was hunting buffalo on the plains. For us, this is the modern lifestyle made possible by cheap oil.
2. A community’s idea of the good is entirely tied up in their way of life. The Crow understanding of the good life emerged from ways of living orientated around hunting buffalo. Our understanding of the good life has emerged from ways of living orientated around the availability of cheap oil.
For both the Crow and ourselves this leads to a crisis.
3. We can no longer use our existing conception of the good life to guide us into the future. That old sense of the good is orientated to possibilities – plentiful buffalo or cheap oil – that will no longer exist. Instead, we need to be open to ‘radically different’ possibilities.
4. But it is not enough to simply hope for biological survival. The good life is bigger than that. We need some ‘integrity across the transition’. In other words, there is a need to believe that although what we will see as good afterwards will not be what we see as good today, it will nevertheless be genuinely good.
This is why Lear says that there is a need for ‘radical hope’.
5. We must therefore have faith that there really is such a thing as good, beyond any particular human conception of it. For the Crow, according to Lear, this faith was supplied by a belief in God; but it could perhaps come from other sources.
6. Radical hope is therefore the belief that even though we must abandon ideas about the good life that have sustained us for centuries, we will nevertheless get the good back, although in some form we do not yet recognise.
In other words, we can acknowledge that our way of life is ending and that even the ways of understanding the world it has taught us are ending, and nevertheless hope for a good tomorrow. Fatalism is not hopelessness.
Radical hope is a response to societal collapse, so it is always difficult. For us in particular, though, it will be especially difficult. On the Aristotelian definition of politics that I have been using – communal orientation to the good life – we barely have politics. Not because our ‘politics’ is not orientated to the good life. All of those pledges and arguments about ‘building’ better futures are definitely about achieving the good. But they are not political because they are not communal enterprises in the sense that Aristotle meant. For Aristotle, individuals gathered into households, households into villages, villages into a Polis or city-state: just like the rooks. Our societies have lost the intermediate stages, ‘household’ partially and ‘village’ entirely, and our states are far too large to fit into this scheme anyway. Our ‘politics’ is not politics. It is the whirr of bureaucratic coercion accompanied by individual screams into the void. This newsletter is part of ‘politics’ in that sense too, a scream into the void. It can be nothing else.
NS Lyons, with typical verve, sums up the current moment as a conflict between ‘Physicals’ and ‘Virtuals’. The ‘Physicals’, epitomised by Canadian truckers, ‘work primarily in the real, physical world’ or perhaps directly manage those that do. The ‘Virtuals’, in contrast, ‘are handlers of knowledge’, who build and manage ‘abstract systems’ of communication. The universities and the media come to mind. Lyons believes that the global ruling class consists of Virtuals acting entirely in the interests of other Virtuals like themselves. I would go further. The very concept of ‘politics’ has been virtualised. Virtual dominance has produced the inability of ‘politics’ to address the present moment, the way that it cannot speak about the fall we all know must come. Limitless growth is entirely possible in the mind, which the only thing that those who have shaped our political language really know. It is nonsense in the physical world.
This framing, I think, hints at where radical hope and a politics that can sustain us across the transition might be found. The Virtuals, and all ‘politics’ including the ‘populist’ flavours, are a lost cause. Their very existence is opposed to the animal naturalness of human politics. ‘Local politics’, at least in the UK, is similarly hopeless: virtualised and bureaucratised. Hope must be found in the physical, in households – whatever their composition – co-ordinating together for their mutual good in daily, mundane ways. Only when these ‘villages’ exist are any higher levels of organisation meaningful. Because real politics is physical in this way, those higher levels are inevitably shaped by the particular lands that they inhabit.
Yorkshire is not a wild place, although parts of it are quite wild. It is well suited to human habitation. For Aristotle, the higher levels of social organisation must be ‘mostly self-sufficient’ to be meaningful. This land can easily support such communities, even when the oil is gone. Its people, too, know it is organically whole. It is a place, not just administrative lines on the map. Even the Yorkshire Party, despite my criticisms, has a place in this picture: their commitments to subsidiarity and to exercising powers ‘as close to the people as possible’ leaves the space for true politics to emerge.
I am fatalistic, the fall will happen; but I have radical hope. I do not know what the future good life will be, but in Yorkshire it will be genuinely good.