James Howard Kunstler: Ponzi’s End
Way up here in the heartland, far from the craft beer parlors, Facebook stock bucket shops, and gender obsessions of the mythical Urban Edge People, the detritus of your country is up for sale.
The lawns are strewn with the plastic effluvia of lives lived through humankind’s weirdest moment: Pee Wee Herman action figures, creeping tot tables, failed kitchen appliances that created more labor than they were designed to save, extruded plastic this-and-that, unidentifiable knick-knacks of forgotten sitcoms, Jimmy Carter Halloween masks, trikes brittle and faded from ultraviolet exposure, artworks conceived in a Zoloft fog, pre-owned cat litter boxes, someone’s deceased mother’s lawn fanny, the complete works of Jacqueline Susann, a savings bank in the shape of an outhouse….
The puzzling part is that every lawn sale contains exactly the same array of useless and pathetic objects. Is this how a Ponzi culture meets its end: the terminal swap-meet beyond which no horrifying object meets any mystifying desire for acquisition? If this is where consumer culture crawled off to die, then what possible zeitgeist awaits a people left so hopelessly de-cultured on aspiration’s lowest ladder-rung?
I dropped by a religious cult commune in the next town over on Saturday. Some of the guys who dwell there have been helping me out on hire with the physical labor of the rather ambitious garden construction here at Clusterfuck Farm, so I was informed about their weekend festival. The group occupies a former “gentleman’s estate” built in the 1920s when the economic growth machine operated at full Ponzi steam.
The buildings are quite beautiful; the main house is a Greco-Roman beaux arts mansion; a massive horse barn has large and graceful arched windows; and there are other houses and barns on the large property, which occupies a sweetly enfolding dell of land in this county of hills and valleys.
The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful and the property was maximally groomed for the festival. There were several tents up, nice ones, decorated with colorful medieval-looking swags. One was a big circular tent set up for the folk-dances that are part of their subculture. You got a very clear picture of the demographic shape of the outfit: at the core of it were vital and healthy-looking young adults, median age around 30, I figured, who were running things, doing most of the work, organizing the daily routines. Then there were the old Boomers turned white-haired grandparents (many times), seekers from the 1970s who had signed on with the outfit long ago, reproduced mightily, and now played a background role in the scheme of things.
There was a costuming motif that was not too intense but allowed for visual self-identification among the members: long skirts for women; beards and pony-tails on the men, who all otherwise dressed in ordinary catalog casuals of the day. It set them apart without making them look too kooky. It also reinforced gender differences (the horror!) in a micro-society not dedicated to erasing and transgressing them.
I didn’t know much about the group’s internal workings, but it seemed to me that the men were in charge, and I got the impression that far from representing some clichéd notion of “patriarchal oppression,” it produced a reassuring tone of confidence in clear lines of responsibility – a quality now completely absent in outer America’s culture of incessant lying, systematic fraud, and consensual evasion of reality.
I was especially interested to observe the behavior of the children, of which there were very many. For one thing, they appeared fully integrated into their society, not ring-fenced into some special ghetto of juvenile disempowerment palliated with manufactured video power fantasies and endless snacks. They were unperturbed and self-possessed. None were screaming, quarreling or carrying on. They were not hopped up on Big Gulps and Twinkies. They did not require constant monitoring. They danced along with the adults, or circulated confidently on their own, and with their friends, in the crowd.
I was a keen student of religious cults in the 1970s when I was a young newspaper reporter. The blowback from the Age of Aquarius had propelled a lot of lost souls into quests for meaning and especially communion beyond the sordid precincts of the idiotic common culture of the day. They were also seeking structure in chaotic young lives unable to get traction in a bad economy. I was interested in what the cult scene had to say about America generally and, I confess, attracted to the melodrama of fringe lunacy I found there, including a lot of colorful unbalanced personalities among the various founders and poobahs. I poked around a number of religious cults, including some accused of maliciously coercive practices, and I eventually even wrote a novel based on my experience (“Blood Solstice,” Doubleday, 1988).
All this is to say that I retain a broad skepticism about organized religion in general and about American Utopian endeavor in particular. But the country and its baleful culture are now in an even more advanced state of entropic degeneration than was the case in the last days of Vietnam and Watergate. Those two awful conditions were at least settled and the nation moved on. The troubles that now afflict us guarantee a much broader systemic collapse that will surely require great changes in everything that we do and everything that we are. The demoralization of the larger American public is so stark and pronounced that you can smell it in the rising heat.
What I saw on Saturday on this farm was a wholly different group demeanor: purposeful, earnest, confident, energetic, and cheerful. It mattered too, I think, that this small community’s economy was centered on agriculture and value-added production of common household products (they make soaps and cosmetics for the natural foods market). This was a snapshot of the much smaller-scale and local economy of America’s future, techno-narcissistic fantasies aside. I don’t know whether these people represent a lifeboat, or if these qualities of character can be enacted in a wider consensual culture, and one not necessarily based on religious doctrine, which I am not so avid about.
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(Originally appeared at Clusterfuck Nation.)